April 17, 2016   |   Psalm 23; John 10: 22-30   |   Rev. Nancy Talbot –

People often tell us how much they appreciate the welcome that is written in our bulletin and spoken most Sunday mornings as we gather for worship.  It’s important for us to be clear that this is a low barrier space, that the colour of your skin, your sexual orientation, your gender identity, your age and even what you believe will never be a reason for us to keep you from entering these doors.  And the reason for that is because for far too long in far too many places those things have been and still are a reason for keeping people out of the church or at least making people feel like they are not welcome. It’s also because in this place we believe in a non-discriminatory God, a source of unconditional love.

So creating a sense of belonging is important to us in part because some of us know what it is like to feel like we don’t belong.

Research has shown in recent years that we’re in a time and culture where people who come to church for the first time or after a long absence connect first through a sense of belonging. Then if they feel like they belong, they will begin to adopt the behaviour and practice of a faith community.  The last thing they will adopt are beliefs.  Which is the complete opposite of how it’s been at least in the recent past in the church when we would say in order to belong here, you have to believe these things.  If you don’t believe them, you don’t belong.

Which is kind of  curious because in this morning’s reading from John’s Gospel which was written nearly 2,000 years ago, we have a scene in which the writer of John’s Gospel has Jesus saying to a group of people who are questioning him in the temple, asking him to declare whether or not he is the Messiah, that the reason they don’t believe what he tells them and has shown them, is because they don’t belong.  Here we have Jesus himself is saying that belonging is more important than believing.  Or perhaps what he’s saying is that belonging is what leads us into greater belief.

But what is it we belong to when we participate in a community of faith?  When we say here at Mount Seymour United Church we want to create a sense of belonging or deepen our belonging.  What exactly do we mean?

The first time I walked into Bellefair United Church in Toronto which was the first church I ever attended by myself as an adult, I remember seeing a fair amount of grey hair.  But at the very front of the sanctuary there was a young couple sitting together, a man and a woman with a small child on their lap.  The woman was wearing a pair of funky batik pants and long dangly earrings and she had a kind of edgy haircut.  Because I myself was in my bohemian phase of life I looked at this woman and said to myself “if she can belong here so can I.”  I based my sense of belonging, at least initially, on looks.

But here’s the thing.  I would never have stayed in that community if I hadn’t found what I was really looking which wasn’t a community where everybody else looked like me, because they didn’t, what I was really looking for was a community that would accept me for who I was without needing to change me, although I did change, a lot, when I was there; a community that was rooted in the values of seeking justice and making a difference in the world; and a community that my soul recognized as an avenue to the Divine a community rooted and grounded in the teachings and the life of Jesus, in the love of Christ and the sacred writings of the Christian faith.

If I had been raised a Buddhist I might have needed a Buddhist community to feel a sense of belonging at that time in my life but I might not have, Jesus teachings on compassion and love might have been enough for me to feel like I belonged.  If I had been raised outside of a faith tradition, my soul might still have recognized what it was yearning for in the music that we sang and the messages that were preached, in the social action people engaged in that community and in the presence of the holy mysteriously dwelling in that place.

Because it takes more than just fitting in to belong to a community of faith.  To really belong we have to participate in and respond to what drew us in the first place.  So even though I felt like I belonged the first time I walked into Bellefair United Church, I didn’t really belong until I started taking part in the life of that community, sitting on the social action committee, joining a meditation group and eventually helping to lead in worship.  That’s when I really began to be formed in my faith, as opposed to blindly believing in what I had once been told to believe as a child.

In this morning’s scripture reading Jesus talks about the sheep that belong to him.  Earlier in this 10th chapter of John’s Gospel the writer has had Jesus refer to himself as the Good Shepherd, the one who knows his sheep by name, protects them bandits and wolves and lays down his life for them. The first reading we had is also about a Shepherd, told from the perspective of the sheep, a shepherd who leads his sheep beside still water and walks with them through the valley of the shadow of death, prepares a place for them in the midst of enemies and evil: ancient words that still resonate with contemporary people.

Every year on the 4th Sunday in the season of Easter, the church in its wisdom gives us the 23rd Psalm and a section of this 10th chapter from John’s Gospel.  We call it Good Shepherd Sunday.  And many of you well know it is not my favourite Sunday of the year.  I do not like the thought of being a sheep.  Sheep are dumb and smelly and they blindly follow the shepherd as if they couldn’t make a single decision in their life without him.  It’s not a very empowering metaphor for ministry.  I’ve often wondered why the creators of the lectionary, that series of readings that follow the cycle of the church year, are so drawn to this image.

But this year it finally occurred to me that we actually need to be reminded year in and year out that in order to be shaped and formed by love, in order to have abundant life, the kind of life and courage and trust and strength that can never be snatched away from us, not just to know about it but to have it and live out of it, we actually have to practise listening to the voice of the shepherd, the voice of love.  And we have to practise following the way of justice and peace of death and resurrection.  It’s not something we come to once and for all.

There are so many voices and so many experiences that evoke fear and make demands on us and give us advice that it’s not always easy to decipher the voice of love in our lives.  We have to tune the ears of our hearts towards it.  Sometimes the voices of self-doubt and self-loathing are so strong they drown out the voice of love.  But it’s always there whispering our names, calling us and our world towards life.

So whatever belief we arrive at in our lives it won’t come from saying a creed or listening to a clever sermon, it will come from the day in and day out and year in and year out listening and hearing, following and finding.  It will come from those times we lose our way and by the grace of God are found again and those times we shut our ears and close our eyes only to have them opened again when we least expect it.  It will come more likely than not in the company and the companionship of others who will remind us who we are and whom we belong with and to.

Who helps you to listen to and for the voice of love?  What is it that helps you decipher that voice amongst all the other voices calling out for your attention?  What’s the voice your soul recognizes?

When I was on my sabbatical last year I read a book by Emily White called “Count Me In.”*  It’s a chronicle of her year- long search for belonging after her relationship ends and her dog dies.  Her journey takes her from political activism to pilates classes, to volunteering with a bird rescuing program to a variety of churches and a few good great places that feel like a spiritual home.  In the Pig Save group (a group devoted to stopping the unethical slaughtering of pigs) she discovers she’s not really a political activist.  In the pilates class she joins she realizes that the consumer culture its founded on might give her improved physical balance but not only did she feel no connection to the other people in the class there it actually gave her an increased sense of isolation.  In the bird rescuing group the leader was so focussed on the birds he missed out on the need for human interaction.  And in several of the churches she attended she either felt excluded for the differing beliefs she held or she just didn’t feel like she fit in.  In the end, however, she did find a place where she felt welcomed.  It was a church.  It was a small group of gay Catholics who shared in common their resistance to the popular teachings of their tradition and because they didn’t feel they belonged in the mainstream of their church, found a sense of belonging with one another.

Along the way Emily White learned a few things about belonging.  She learned that in order to connect together, you have to do something together, you can’t just sit around.  She learned that we only belong to those places and things about which we deeply care and to which we are willing to make a commitment.  And she learned that although belonging can change us, it doesn’t make us someone else.  It makes us more fully into who we really are.

You don’t believe because you don’t belong says Jesus to those who are questioning who he is.  My sheep belong.  They hear my voice.  I know them, they know me and they follow.  I give them life that can never be taken away.  They are mine and I am theirs and we belong to one another. And we belong to that which is greater than the sum of all of our belonging.

*Count Me In by Emily White, Penguin Random House, 2015.