This is a sermon for the thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost. The Scripture it references is Romans 12:9-21.
You will have noticed that Daniel, while he’s here today and helping out on the organ, isn’t here every week; in fact he belongs to another church and contributes his gifts and talents to a great degree there. This is, however, not something everyone has found it easy to get their heads around. The Sunday after Daniel and I got back from our honeymoon, we each went to our different churches. And as I was leaving after the service, the vicar of my church bailed me up at the door and said, “I know we might lose you, but now that you’re married, you need to worship under your husband’s headship.”
They did indeed lose me; to a parish which was more interested in nurturing me as a human person in my own right, and less interested in my submission.
But I tell that story today because, following on from last week’s reflection on the church community as one body, our reading from Romans today spells out some of the detail of what that looks like. Loving one another with mutual affection, outdoing one another in showing honour, contributing to the needs of the saints, extending hospitality to strangers, and so on. And the story of my church’s inability to respect the way I did things (or the fact that there might be good reasons for it) is a neat way of illustrating how we – as the church – so often struggle with this.
Paul calls us to contribute to the needs of the saints, and to extend hospitality to strangers; but so often we subconsciously build a culture of barriers rather than belonging.
So today I want to think a bit about belonging, and how we create a culture of belonging.
Some of the literature on belonging in churches suggests that it might usefully be considered in five aspects: personal friendship, community life, Christian nurture, pastoral care, and Christian service. So let’s begin to consider each of these dimensions.
One of the things which I see time and again in all sorts of parishes is that people think their community is very friendly, and it is… once you’re “one of them.” People who’ve been going there for years or decades and know others there very well forget what it’s like to be new, to be nervous, unsure and isolated; and it can be hard for new people to make friends, even though the long-standing members are very busy being friendly with one another! I’m not saying that’s a particular problem in this parish, but I’d be surprised if it never happened, because to some extent it’s human nature. Helping people to belong by making friends means that we need to build a parish culture in which every one of us thinks we have a responsibility to relate to those new people.
Now – as an introvert myself – please don’t hear that as a call for all of us to be extroverted, in-your-face and pushy! But it’s about cultivating the awareness of when there’s an unfamiliar face sitting by herself, or standing alone with his cup of tea, and being willing to strike up conversation; to ask that person’s name, to introduce them to someone else. It’s not rocket science, but it can make a world of difference to helping people feel that they can belong.
Then there’s our community life, outside our worship services. We have some good things in place here; the monthly barbecue is an easy way for people to belong. The games afternoon and book club also. But there’s always more scope to be creative and do different things, which will draw in different people.
And it’s essential to actually invite people to those events; extending hospitality starts with an invitation. It’s important that these things be in the pew sheet, advertised in the hall, and communicated as well as we can, of course; but nothing will help people belong like somebody saying, “I’m going, why don’t you come with me?”
Being nurtured in your own faith journey is also a key part of belonging; feeling that I am actually growing through being here. This is where opportunities for prayer, for teaching and study, quiet days and so forth all take their place. Our services are the primary location for that, but most of us can benefit from more than something a bit less than an hour a week given to it; and that’s why I’m so glad to be starting some Bible study groups. Other people have asked me about meditation groups and quiet days and they’re definitely on my radar for Advent or next year (I can’t do everything at once!)
From the various options being planned, I really encourage you to find something that can work for you; but more than that, I encourage you to think about who you might invite to come with you; and what we might do that might interest people who aren’t here yet. How could we offer people opportunities to nurture their spirituality which they might not easily get anywhere else?
Another key part of belonging is knowing that you’ll be cared for when you need it. I might have criticised my first parish for their attitudes about my marriage, but when I had a casual job and glandular fever meant I couldn’t work for months, grocery vouchers paid for from their offertory plate meant I could eat. I never begrudged my money being put into that plate, even when I didn’t have much, because I knew that people in our congregation who needed help with electricity bills or school uniforms or whatever else, got what they needed from the care of the congregation.
It’s my impression that our congregations are less likely to need that kind of financial support routinely, but the support should be there when the need is. And there are other needs; for support in times of illness or frailty (and practical things like transport for some of our members, because we miss them when they can’t drive!); for genuine human relationships and friendships.
The reality about this is that people often look to clergy to make that happen, but I simply can’t do it all by myself. Especially not when I’m still very new and often don’t know people, or what’s happening in their lives, yet. I rely on all of you to notice what’s happening with one another, to support one another as you can and to communicate needs so that care can be shared; and when all of that happens, we can be a community where everyone knows they truly belong.
There’s one other key aspect of belonging; and that’s having something to do. All of us – as I said last week – have skills and gifts and talents to bring into the life of the church, and each of us truly belongs when we’re given permission and scope to use that for the good of all. And in doing so, we develop a sense of belonging and ownership which really brings a community alive.
And this is not just about what happens in church on Sunday morning; in fact I’d say it’s less about that, and more about the things we do outside that time, engaging the wider community, building relationships and connections which expand our network of belonging beyond people who turn up for church services. And working out how we do that together is definitely one of the important parts of working out how to live out our mission over the coming years.
There’s one thing I haven’t said yet, that’s very basic but possibly not obvious.
All of these things which build a culture of belonging – friendship, community life, nurturing faith, pastoral care, and being equipped to serve – they all take time.
Over the next few weeks letters to do with stewardship will go out to all of you and you’ll be encouraged to consider your giving and how you can support the life of this parish.
But honestly, far more important that how much money you give (although running a parish does take money) is the time you give. And not necessarily in formal ways, but in informal ways too; the time to ask how someone’s going. The time to pray for someone. The time to invite someone to something. The time to make a salad for the barbecue. Small things that make a big difference.
It’s the gift of our time, given to one another generously and unbegrudgingly, which is the glue of belonging; which allows us to contribute to the needs of the saints, and to extend hospitality to strangers. And in our busy lives, where we rush from one activity or commitment to the next, it’s the time it takes to really do community well which is often our greatest lack.
So after all the things I’ve talked about today, I’d challenge you to think about whether you can find half an hour, somewhere in your week, to do something which supports someone else in the parish in some way. Imagine, if fifty of us did that, we would find 25 hours a week of belonging support; and what a difference that would make!
We all know the human longing to belong, to be accepted and cared for, to be involved and appreciated. Being a community which provides that for one another is what it means to be the body of Christ, and for our love to be truly genuine. Let’s make sure that we are.