The beautiful stepping stones in the new park behind the church have prompted us to think together about the steps we take along the journey of faith. So far we’ve talked about everything from Baptism, which is for many people the initial encounter with God’s grace and love to encountering the Bible, to communion. This week we are going to look at confirmation – or BELONGING - the step we take in faith when become an active member of the church.
The parable Jesus tells in Matthew 22:1-14 speaks to what it means to accept God’s invitation to participate in his kingdom.
Confirmation is a stepping stone that many of us have taken or will take around the age of 12 or so. In some churches, professing one’s faith comes much earlier. In some churches, it is usual to wait until 16-18 to choose one’s faith and step into the privileges and responsibilities of discipleship. Whenever the step is taken, we say that we “belong” to a church. Belonging – a sense of connection to a larger group and participation in a larger purpose – is one of the deep human needs that is met by God through the church. In most churches, including ours, people who are confirmed, or who join through other means, have a different sense of “Belonging”.
What does belonging – being active members - mean? Matthew, writing to the early church, was quite concerned about helping people understand what it meant to belong to the church . And Matthew connected belonging to the church with what he’d heard Jesus say about belonging to and participating in the Kingdom of God. According to Matthew, belonging to church is like attending a great big festive party, thrown by a King in honor of a significant occasion. Active, engaged membership is participatin in a party. What’s the last great party you went to? Wasn’t there a joy, a deep sense of satisfaction in enjoying your relationship to the host and to the other guests?
Matthew’s story –
1) the King makes every effort to include the “A” list. When Jesus first told this story, it was clearly a big old spit wad aimed at the religious establishment of his day. He likened them to rude and mean subjects in a Kingdom. Their refusal to participate in the King’s Son’s wedding party is a slap in the face of the King. This is an active statement of non-support. It is a rebellion against his Rule.
2) the King changes the plan and opens the banquet hall to all sorts of folks who wouldn’t expect to be invited? God’s grace is abundant. He spreads a great table. He welcomes even the likes of us. The unlikeliest one is included. Maybe you think you don’t belong. But you’d be wrong. God thinks you do. And God thinks that unlikely person you know but wouldn’t mention church to belongs, as well.
3) God sends his servants out to beat the bushes. Do we beat the bushes? This is the part in the story that I think Matthew was aiming right at the church. If we are God’s servants, shouldn’t we be out in the highways and byways, extending the invitation to the big event God hosts? Shouldn’t we be urging, inviting, encouraging, giving incentives? God wants everyone to belong!
Belonging is, in large part, just a matter of accepting the gracious invitation to the party. Woody Allen famously said, “80% of success is just showing up.” A large part of it is just doing the right thing by showing up. People who specialize in studying such things actually have a list of seven things people who belong to churches have in common. And three of them are pretty much just showing up:
2) Worship participation.
3) Financial support –
5) Show some care for the less fortunate outside the congregation.
The Gallup Organization – polled members and found that as many as 82% of people who belonged to a church recognized these expectations and fulfilled them. But. And this is a big but. . . more than half of that group said they did these three things and still did not feel that they belonged to the church in a way that brought them closer to God or closer to one another. They didn’t experience the rewards of membership, even though they considered themselves to be paying the cost. Clearly, belonging means something quite different than just showing up and getting in the buffet line. They were at the party. But they weren’t feeling the PAHR-TAH.
That’s because belonging goes deeper than anything that we may think of as “doing church”. Belonging is about “Being church” in heart and soul. I think that is what Matthew’s story about the wedding guest without the wedding garment is meant to convey -
The Host spies someone at the table who hasn’t bothered to change his clothes. Now, I know this part of the story is rather jarring. Dress codes are not a big issue with us. The last time I remember clothes being this big an issue was when I couldn’t stand with Sarah Fink and Elaine Dunagin at 6th grade recess because I wasn’t wearing a Ban-Lon polo shirt. That caring about clothing is sooooo superficial. Getting kicked out of a group for not having the right clothing is so . . . junior high. (And, in this case, I don’t mean in a good way.)
OK. So here is a picture that, on the surface, makes God look superficial, mean and snobby. That can’t be right. And sure enough, it isn’t. Here’s where faithful reading requires us to do some further study, and find out what the wedding garment was and how it functioned in Jesus’ day.
When people came to a wedding, they always changed out of their dirty workclothes and into something clean and . . . if they had enough money – white. They might borrow or rent a longer, cleaner robe. Or, it is also possible that a very affluent host – like the King, you know – might provide a robe for his guests who might not have one on hand. Like at some really nice restaurants, they have sport coats for men who didn’t wear them. At Catholic churches, they used to have little lace-y hats for women who didn’t cover their heads. Well – it’s quite likely that the Host in this case, since he had invited so many people who were not wealthy or prominent, would have provided a wedding garment for those who didn’t have one.
Wearing the wedding garment was an outward sign of one’s happiness to participate in the occasion. It was an acknowledgement that belonging is a joyous state. It was saying “A party! Yes! Count me in!”
Remember that Gallup poll of aspects of belonging? The ones that members do just by showing up are important. But they turn out to be insufficient to a real sense of belonging. The joy and satisfaction and growth and connection that we hope for when we JOIN the church comes from deeper, more heart – centered participation. Think “Less Doing. More Being.”
1) Being on a journey of spiritual growth –participating in a prayer or study group that promotes reflection and growth, and where we encourage one another to mature in faith.
4) Being committed to the congregation’s mission and vision. This begins with an emotional investment in the church’s future. Evident in our words, attitudes and actions.
6) Being hospitable: making friends, offering forgiveness, expressing encouragement, sharing a meal, inviting someone out for coffee, or doing a simple kind deed. This makes a huge difference to our sense of belonging.
7) Being in prayer for the church and the people in it.
(Source – The Parish Paper, October 2008, Cynthia Woolever)
These deeper, less quantifiable yet very real characteristics are what make belonging rich and full and fun.
The guest without the wedding garment didn’t belong. And the Host asks him, “Friend (there’s nothing ironic or sarcastic here – this is as nice an opening as one could hope for when being greeted by the KING) - “How did you come without any regard for the occasion?” And the person looks at the king and says not a word. No apology. No excuse. No sheepish story about hoping no one would notice. Stony silence. The guest gives God the silent treatment. This person thinks so little of the host that he doesn’t even bother to answer when addressed directly.
This is an unacceptable breach of the invitation. And he throws the bum out.
Please note that the other guests aren’t involved in this conversation. This is between the guest and the host. The King is the only one who has any right to question the worthiness of one of the guests. Only God can judge. And God does not want the judgment to go badly. “Friend?” he says. “What’s going on with you? Why aren’t you celebrating? Why aren’t you happy to be here?”
This part in the story is . . . a challenge. But it is not a call to do more. Not a call to attend some function, or mend some bad habit, or perform more good deeds. This is a call to examine our attitudes and our hearts.
“Am I gorging myself at the banquet table, but unwilling to speak with the Host?”
“Am I taking my invitation to belong for granted?
“Have I clothed myself, have I put on the grace and love and joy that God has provided for me? “
“Is my heart wearing the wedding garment?”
And, to be honest, I’ve preached this passage a couple of times in this pulpit, and I’ve always just lopped off this last part. Because this is the party! You are the people who have answered the invitation! You are trying to be good guests, right? And the last thing I want to do is make you think there’s some detail you’ve neglected that’s going to send you to the outer darkness, weeping and gnashing your teeth. My fourth grade class had some rowdy kids in it, and my teacher ended up yelling a lot. And when she yelled, it was the geeky, quiet kid in the back row – me - who felt bad and cried. Because the weird thing about texts like this is that the people who ought to squirm don’t. And those who are trying really hard to be good guests think that they ought to try harder.
So - if you are worried about behaving in a way worthy of your invitation, then you just concentrate on the first part of the story. Don’t worry! Be happy! God’s event planners have been working overtime, decorating and cooking and hiring the band. The hall is ready. The feast is on the table. Come on in! God’s grace wants the banquet hall filled with those who are willing to celebrate with His Son.
Belonging to a church as an active member is about showing up – but so much more. It is about being a joyful guest. It is about not just putting our butts in the pew and our backs in the work. It is about putting our heart-y in the party! It’s about putting our dancing feet on the path that leads to God’s throne. That’s what belonging is about!
Belonging is one of the stepping stones of faith. Shall we take that step, together?