On Belonging

On Belonging

On Belonging
April 28, 2024
Traceymay Kalvaitis

John 15: 1-8
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.

Acts 8:26-39
Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, the queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him.

Today’s sermon is titled On Belonging.
I have not been blessed with a great memory, but I think I will always remember the name of my first grade teacher, Mrs. Smith. I would bet that you remember the name of your first grade teacher, too. I can not remember my first day of school, but I know I was five years old and I clearly remember being the smallest member of my class for most of my elementary school life. I was teased relentlessly about being so small and I most dreaded the daily ritual of picking teams in PE class. Team captains would take turn choosing their teams and of course they would pick the biggest, most agile children first. I was picked either next to last or last for years. If swinging would have been a sport, I would have been a champion. I was too short to have my feet touch the ground on the “big swings” but I could pump like nobody’s business. Those were the days of proper swings with really long chains. I could touch the lower tree branches of the pin oaks with my toes; those were some of the best moments of my childhood. I was fortunate to attend that small private school out in the country. My first grade teacher, Mrs. Smith, did all she could to make me feel welcomed and protected that first year of school, but it would be years before I really felt like I belonged. There is a big difference between feeling welcomed and having a sense of belonging.

Both of our scriptures today speak to cultivating a sense of belonging. The first, from the Gospel of John, is my absolute favorite theological metaphor. Jesus says, “I am vine, you are the branches. Abide in me, as I abide in you.” This metaphor takes us far beyond simply being welcomed. Jesus makes it perfectly clear that we belong to him and to one another. Honestly, it would be enough for me if Jesus had instead said, “Come close and grow here beside me. I will give you shade and protection and accompaniment.” But what Jesus speaks of is a dynamic where we are parts of the same whole. A vine needs the branches as much as branches need the vine. The vine provides stability and water; the branches provide nourishment and, eventually, flowers that turn into fruit. “I am the vine and you are the branches,” he says, “abide in me as I abide in you.” I can not even imagine a deeper sense of belonging.

Let’s turn our attention now to the story from Acts. Central to this story is one of the most unusual figures in the biblical narrative. Scholars do not know what to make of him. What we are told is that he is a eunuch who is in charge of the Queen’s “entire treasury” in Ethiopia, and he is returning from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. By my calculations, his journey would have been, at minimum, over one thousand miles. At that time, Ethiopia included what we now call Sudan, just south of Egypt. The fact that the man was a eunuch suggests that he was either a slave in boyhood or castrated as an adult because he worked so closely in the royal household; this was a practice to ensure that the royal bloodline stayed “pure.” Either way, he was mutilated in the most outrageous fashion and with the vilest of intentions. He must have dipayed an impeccable character to be promoted to his position in charge of the Queen’s treasury. To undertake a thousand mile journey by chariot to visit Jerusalem must have taken nearly three months, one way. I imagine this was a trip of a lifetime for this man.

The scriptures say that he was reading from a scroll of the writings of Isaiah; perhaps he purchased the scroll in Jerusalem and if so, it would not have been easy to find, nor would it have been an inexpensive purchase. We have an idea of why he might have wanted his own copy of the scroll though, because in Isaiah 56, a particular passage would have caught his attention. “Maintain justice and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come…Do not let the foreigner come to the Lord and say, ‘The Lord will surely separate me from his people;’ and do not let the eunuch say, ‘I am just a dry tree.’ For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters, an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.” What could have been more meaningful words than these? What could have been more healing words than these for someone who had been mutilated, for someone who had endured great pain and suffering, for someone who was not welcomed by either males or females, for someone who would not be afforded a place in a culture so strictly defined by lineage. To one such as this, a promise comes through the prophet Isaiah that they are acknowledged, honored with a “monument” and an “everlasting name.” To one such as this, there is a place of belonging in the kindom of God.

Friends, this is the message of liberation, this is the good news, that there is a place for us all. Those maimed in body, those broken in spirit, those questioning, those filled with doubt and resistance, those weighed down by trauma, those battling the plethora of addictions, those suffering from the separation that sin causes, and those living in fear because to hope is too great a risk to take…we are all not only welcomed in the kindom of God but we have the sweet possibility of belonging, thanks be to God.

In closing, I challenge us as the church in this modern age, to lean heavily into this notion of creating a space where all people are not just welcomed, but where all people can experience (perhaps for the very first time) the possibility of belonging. Let’s separate the word belong into two so we have the words be long. How might we make it more possible for all to “be long” in this family we call the church? What might we learn from making it possible for all to “be long” together on this journey of faith? Just as the early apostles widened the tent to include all people, I pray we, too, will live into the truth that God’s kindom is boundless, and so is God’s love. So be it. Amen.

Pastoral Prayer God who is the Giver, the Forgiver and the Kind, I thank you for the gift of our lives and the richness we experience through our connection with one another. Help us, Holy One, to be mirrors of your all-inclusive love and acceptance. Encourage us to make space for true belonging to be experienced. Help us to be the ones that edify, encourage, and appreciate; help us to focus less on problems and more on finding, and being part of, solutions. Guard us against apathy and callousness, Lord; may we retain our sensitivities to the plight of others . Remind us to lift all things to You in prayer and attune our senses to the mysterious workings of the Holy Spirit so that we may think, speak and act as people devoted to God. This I pray in Christ’s name. Amen.

I leave you with these words from Paul’s letter to the Colossians: “May the peace of Christ reign in your hearts; unto that peace, indeed, you were called in one body.”