Building the Movement: Draw the Circle Wide
May 19, 2019
Emmanuel Baptist Church, Rev. Heather Kirk-Davidoff
So as many of you know, I’m new here. This is just my second Sunday serving as your temporary pastor while Kathy Donley is on sabbatical. Since I’m still figuring a few things out around here, let me ask: who in this room belongs to Emmanuel Baptist Church? Would you raise your hand? Okay, so how did you know how to answer that question? Remember, I didn’t ask who is a member of this congregation. I didn’t ask who serves on the Executive Committee. I asked who belongs here. How do you know? Does it matter to you?
Now, as I understand it, there is an official answer to this question. Emmanuel Baptist Church is a membership organization. Some of you have officially joined this church and others of you have not. As I understand it, the process for joining has changed over the years. Back in the day, members were required to affirm a congregational covenant. Judy and Kathy explained to me when we were planning this service that over time, the congregation began to feel that the covenant was divisive. Membership in general is not emphasized here as it once was. You no longer have to join the church to serve on a committee, including the Executive Committee that sets the church’s direction. This move away from membership has been part of the church’s efforts to be more welcoming, to include new people in decision-making, and to be less “clubby.”
All of this begs the question: Does membership even matter? Behind the question of membership is another, deeper one. Does belonging matter? Is it part of what you have come here looking for? Is it part of what you have to offer others?
I think the story we read this morning offers some important insights for this discussion. The story in its entirety extends over two chapters, and because it includes a vision of a bed sheet filled with animals of all kinds ascending and descending from the sky it can be a little hard to connect with. On first read, the story seems to be a dietary lesson. While Jewish law forbade eating certain kinds of animals (such as pigs or lobsters), Peter understands after this vision that he doesn’t have to be bound by those rules anymore.
But if you read a bit more carefully, you’ll notice that this story isn’t really about WHAT to eat—it doesn’t conclude with an image of Peter enjoying a juicy pulled pork sandwich. The story is actually about WHO to eat with—and we know this because after Peter has the vision, he goes to the home of some non-Jewish people who have sent for him. He enters the home and stays with these people and even shares a table with them. The vision of the bedsheet full of animals is not just a vision of what can be on Peter’s plate—it is a vision of who will be in his community. (It is a fun imagine of a church, isn’t it? A bedsheet filled with beasts, reptiles and birds. Funny that no one has tried to incorporate that imagine into their logo!)
When we make this story all about food, it seems like Peter has to get over something kind of silly, like a child who doesn’t like mayonnaise. But when we make this story about community, it becomes much more challenging. And we’re not even talking about community in some kind of loose, civic sense of the term. This is a lesson about the intimate community that happens around your table, in your home. This isn’t about smiling, waving and being civil—it is about rubbing elbows, passing the salt, hearing someone else chew, telling someone they have spinach stuck between their teeth.
This is a story about letting people into your house and making room for them at your table. Which is to say, this is a story about belonging.
When we talk about the early Christian church as a movement, we imagine an outreach campaign. We imagine travel to new places, reaching new people, extending the Gospel from the small group of Jews with whom it started until it reached out to the whole world. But this story pushes back and suggests that belonging, intimacy, table fellowship is at the very heart of what followers of Jesus are called to offer to each other and to the world. The Christian movement wasn’t just about going out—it was about welcoming in. It wasn’t just about reaching wide—it was about intimate embrace.
Is that what it’s still about? I know this--the world is hungrier than ever for this kind of community. We can have hundreds of friends on social media but feel lonelier than ever. This past week I hosted a dinner at Union College where I’m a chaplain that brought together gay and lesbian students with local clergy who serve welcoming churches. I had no idea if any students would even come, but the room was packed, and each clergy person had a little cluster of students wanting to talk. There was a young man in my group who explained the reason why he came this way: “I wasn’t raised with any kind of religious background, but I’ve found a great sense of community with the Pride Student group here on campus. Now that I’m about to graduate, I’ve been thinking about where else I can find real community like this—and I’ve been thinking I should give church a try.”
His words reminded me of another conversation I had a few weeks ago with a member of a church in Troy where I was doing some consulting. I asked this person about what lay behind all the time and energy she poured into her previous congregation that had eventually closed. After some time, she told me about growing up in a family broken apart by her father’s alcoholism. “I guess I’ve always been yearning to be a part of a real community,” she told me. “And are you?” I asked, ready to hear great things about the church she had joined a year ago. “I’ve seen glimpses,” she told me, “but I’m still yearning.” When she said this, tears sprang to my eyes because I recognized her yearning as my own.
Friends, the scriptures we read when we gather in this room on Sunday morning are filled with amazing stories of mind-blowing miracles. God raised Jesus from the dead! The disciples performed miracles of their own, raising Tabitha from death, speaking in languages they didn’t know, breaking the chains of prisoners. But what did it lead them to do? They talked with people, went to their houses and sat at their table and ate dinner.
Is that an anticlimax? Or is that the greatest miracle of all? Perhaps the most mind-blowing part of the whole Christian story is the idea that we belong to each other, that we are here for each other. In Christ, “all things hold together” it says in Colossians. There is so much in this world that divides us, such strong forces that pull us apart. How amazing, how powerful it is to have this “ministry of reconciliation” as it says in Second Corinthians. We proclaim that in truth, we’re not strangers. We’re not enemies. We belong to each other.
Of course, it isn’t enough to just say that—we have to live that promise out in our actions, in our lives. How do we know that we belong? How do we communicate to others that they belong?
When the church acts like an institution, it will create a procedure to resolve that question. Institutions have membership protocols. They have cards and pins and pledges and ceremonies. But movements don’t really have time for that. Movements catch you up and pull you along before you ever had a chance to even decide if you wanted to officially sign on. So in a movement, we have to certify each other. We have to make an effort to connect with each other—to look each other in the eye, to touch each other, to go to each other’s houses and to each each other’s food. Every time we do those things, we tell each other—we belong to each other.
When we were musing about what a “ritual of belonging” might look like at Emmanuel, Kathy and Judy told me that you used to have a tradition of standing together in a circle after communion singing, “Blessed Be the Tie That Binds”. At some point, you all stopped doing that because you realized that not everyone knows the words to that song by heart—and not everyone finds it physically comfortable to stand up and sing. This ritual of belonging had begun to feel like a ritual of exclusion. But I wonder if we could adapt that practice a bit to make it more inclusive this morning. Let’s see if we can create a circle that includes a row of chairs that allow some of us to remain seated. And let’s sing a song the song, “Send Me Jesus” which is call and response—you don’t have to memorize any words! Let’s make this circle as a way of showing ourselves that this morning, all of us belong here, and that together, we are more than a collection of individuals. We are an expression of the resurrection promise, the promise that God can make us into more than we ever asked for or imagined.