September 11, 2022
Psalm 51: 1, 6, and 12
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy, blot out my transgressions.
You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.
“Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’
So he told them this parable: ‘Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.
‘Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.” Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’”
Today’s sermon is titled On Belonging.
You may have heard the news story on New Hampshire Public Radio about the list of “woke churches” that was distributed on-line. There were three criteria used to categorize over 900 churches in our state: written or visual support of the LGBTQ+ community, written or visual support of social or racial justice (including Ukrainian flags) and, lastly, if any church had any covid prevention measures in place, they were added to the list.
I heard about the list from a fellow minister and I immediately went on-line to see if I could find it. I figured our church must be on the list because we are guilty on all three counts; I was not disappointed. In all honesty, if we were not included on the list, I would fear we were not obvious enough in our living true to the gospel message, proclaimed by our teacher, Jesus of Nazareth.
Jesus would have surely been accused of being “woke” in his day. In our scripture reading for today, from the 15th chapter of Luke, the religious leaders accuse Jesus of “welcoming sinners and eating with them.” Jesus is living into the teachings of the Hebrew scriptures that say, time and again and in various ways, to treat others as you would want to be treated, to love your neighbor, and to live generously. Jesus is aiming to live fully into what he has learned in study of the Hebrew scriptures and his conviction is perceived as a threat to the other religious leaders. What is their reaction? They respond in the same way many of us do when we find ourselves standing on shaky ground. They respond in the same way many of us do when we realize that our position, our beliefs, our practices may not be so righteous after all. They start pointing fingers, accusations fly, lists are made and the differentiation between “us” and “them” grow wider and deeper until there is very little means of bridging the divide.
The fascinating thing, Friends, is that what drives this behavior of differentiating and dividing ourselves from others is the desperate need for belonging. It is an ancient and innate need to be part of something larger than ourselves, to be safely ensconced in a secure and predictable and defined social structure. This is a primal instinct because for millions of years, our very survival has depended on it. Our brains are wired to favor being part of a larger whole.
In an article published in Scientific American, neuroscientists reveal results of a study comparing how humans value social status compared to how humans value money. It turns out that social standing and monetary gain are processed in the same area of the brain, the striatum. I was most surprised to learn in this article that, if given the choice, our brains tell us that social standing is more important than monetary gain. Test subjects revealed that, overwhelmingly, they would turn down a gift of cash in favor of being admitted to a social group.
For hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution, our social group was our tribe and our modern brains still expect to have the reinforcement of a strong social network. Perhaps this is why social media has grown so quickly. Our brains are still very much concerned with where we stand within the larger social picture. Understanding this can help us to understand why Jesus of Nazareth was such a threat to the established religious order of his day, and it can also help us to understand why our commitment to the teachings of Jesus can be a threat to others, so much so that we would be included on a circulated list.
Fear is a powerful thing, Friends. It is the second most powerful emotion we humans experience. There is good reason that the message, “Fear not” appears 365 times in the bible. Unchecked fear will grow into hate and hate is a most formidable foe in realizing Jesus’s highest hopes for humanity. Jesus spoke most often of the Kingdom of Heaven or the Kingdom of God. 162 times it is mentioned in the Second (New) Testament. Translated more accurately as the reign of heaven or the reign of God, this was, I think, Jesus’s highest hope for us: to live in a society where all are recognized as part of the family of God, where no one is lost, where societal concern extends to everyone, with no exceptions.
In such a society, no one is cast aside, no one is deemed unworthy. In such a society, there is more concern for the good of the whole than the good of one individual or one class of individuals. In such a society, workers are valued and compensated fairly with a living wage that is at least comparable to the wages of corporate executives. In such a society, a person is not judged by the color of their skin. In such a society, diversity is honored, freedom is tempered with responsibility and accountability, and honesty and integrity are the norm. In such a society, there is no need for violent and radical extremism because needs are met within a strong and thriving social system.
Twenty-one years ago today, on September 11th, 2001, we witnessed the single most shocking act of violent extremism imaginable. 2,996 people died and more than 25,000 people were physically injured; countless numbers were traumatized. We witnessed the single most violent act of domestic extremism last year on January 6th when thousands of people stormed the Capitol building. Five Americans died and hundreds were injured, including 141 officers. I saw banners bearing the name of Jesus. Nothing could be more antithetical to Jesus’s hope for humanity.
It is our responsibility, as followers of Christ, to confront the fear and the hate and the violence in our world. It is key, then, to understand that much of the organized hate and violence preys on an individual’s innate need to experience a sense of belonging. It is key to understand that our brains are wired to seek belonging where we can find it. Jesus reminds us that we are to value each person as part of the family of God and we are not to pass judgment.
In closing, I think congratulations are in order. We have been recognized…recognized as welcoming unconditionally. We have been recognized as standing in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Ukraine, and we have been recognized as caring enough about one another that we are willing to try and protect one another from what could be a debilitating or deadly disease. Put us on whatever list you like; we are living true to the many messages we find in the teachings of Jesus. We are studying his teachings, we are thinking critically, and we are listening for guidance from God, much like the psalmist whose words we heard this morning, who prayed, “Teach me wisdom in my secret heart, and sustain in me a willing spirit.” So be it. Amen.
Infinite Love we call God, I pray your guidance within us through the challenges of our lives. We have been told that nothing can separate us from your everlasting love; help us to be open and trusting enough to experience that as truth, and as grace. When we struggle and when we soar, remind us to look beyond ourselves and expand our awareness that we may begin to fathom the workings of the Divine, even in the most mundane aspects of our lives. Guide us in ways to care for ourselves, and as we extend ourselves in service to others, help us to maintain a healthy balance within. Grant us peace, that we may then listen and be ready to act in a way that allows for healing, hope and possibility. This I ask in Jesus’s name, who taught us this prayer…Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not to temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever and ever. Amen.
I leave you with these words from Paul’s letter to the Colossians, chapter 2: “May your hearts be comforted, and well-equipped in charity and in all the riches of complete understanding, so you may know the mystery of God, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”