Belonging and Relationship in Community

Emily Owsley

September 3, 2017

Good morning friends and thank you for the opportunity to speak today.  This teaching is a part of a sermon series about the identity of Eighth Day.  Different members of the Servant Leaders Mission Group—Maria, Kate, Marcia, Kent, David, and I—are giving these teachings.  Two weeks ago Maria started us off with Eighth Day’s theology, and today I’ll be speaking about belonging and relationship in community. 

I’ll start with an overview of the main points of this teaching.  The first is that our initial place of belonging is to God.  This is true for all people, animals, beings, and all of the earth: it all belongs to God and God belongs to all of it, all of us.  I am defining God with openness here—I call it God, others, Allah, The Great Spirit, the Cosmos, Yahweh….  This belonging to God is deep and inseparable.  Second, Jesus came to offer all people a way to claim and act on this belonging through commitment and relationship with God and others.  And third, God’s work in the world becomes real in these relationships of shared belonging.

God is our first place of belonging, before our parents, before our ancestors, close friends, faith community, co-workers, neighborhood, home-town, wherever we experience belonging.  Psalm 26 from this week’s lectionary speaks of “living with God” in The Message paraphrase: “God, I love living with you; your house glows with glory.” (Psalm 26:8, The Message) This brings the idea of God as home or maybe as our origin. 

I think many people sense this connection to something greater than themselves through the ability to connect with each other as humans across cultural, age, and language barriers, and through connection with the natural world, when we feel some sort of union with others. 

However, we don’t always work towards making those connections.  We’ve created structures and limits that get in the way of experiencing the deep connections all around us.  And frankly, sometimes, we don’t want to connect with certain people or things out of fear, pride, self-consciousness, busyness, or past experiences.  We also often fail to connect with the natural world and instead exercise dominance over and destruction of the earth.  Fred Taylor talked about this in his teaching several months ago when he discussed God as being in solidarity with us and desiring for us to be in solidarity with Him, and each other. 

A main part of Jesus’ life work was to offer all in society the opportunity to claim belonging to God.  One way he does this is by questioning the lines that religion used to define who belonged and who did not belong in the Jewish community; who was included and who was excluded.  He was trying to open up the circle of belonging to include those whom the religious leaders saw as “not fit”—dirty, impure, criminals, “sinners and tax collectors,” those judged to be too extravagant, and even those who practiced other religions, like the good Samaritan.  He even questioned whether some of the religious leaders actually were practicing God’s way.  As Maria summarized in her teaching two weeks ago, Jesus challenged the religious establishment,

Jesus emphasizes the importance of internal commitment and external action, that moral cleanliness is more important than physical.  We are reminded that Jesus has come to challenge the religious belief systems of his day, to provide moral guidance for relating to the world.  He is bringing us into a living relationship with the Creator, one that is dynamic enough to apply beyond a set of rules that might be used to divide us. (Maria Barker, "Eighth Day’s Theological Underpinnings" teaching from August 17, 2017)

Jesus is also challenging what people hold more highly than their belonging to God.  It could be money, personal associations that compromise integrity, desire to be in control, a comfortable lifestyle, etc.  We all have something that is particularly hard to let go of, that can get in the way of something bigger in store for us. 

Jesus is calling us to do God’s work instead of Man’s work.  In the Matthew 16 passage from the lectionary today, Jesus is sharing with the disciples (his closest friends and community) that he has some different work to do that they don’t know about yet—that he will have to go to Jerusalem and experience intense suffering, and death by the political and religious leaders.  And then he will be raised to life after three days.  Peter protests and says, “No” this will not happen to you.”  Jesus’ response here is strong and clear, “Get behind me, Satan!  You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.” (Matthew 16:23) Jesus is saying this is not debatable, this is his serious call from God, and Peter must be in solidarity with him.  Jesus wants community around his call and is sharing this intimately and secretly with the disciples so they can support him and be his community.

He then lays out the continuous opportunity they have to claim their belonging to God and follow his way, and what that will bring.  “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.  For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.  What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?” (Matthew 16:24-26) He’s explaining that God’s work is different from Man’s work and that we must work to change the way we think in order to be open to God’s call on each of our lives. 

The Jeremiah 15 passage is similar in that Jeremiah is essentially complaining about his situation and his hardships to God, and doubts God.  “You’re nothing, God, but a mirage, a lovely oasis in the distance—and then nothing!” God responds,

Take back those words, and I’ll take you back.  Then you’ll stand tall before me.  Use words truly and well.  Don’t stoop to cheap whining.  Then, but only then, you’ll speak for me.  I’ll turn you into a steel wall, a thick steel wall, impregnable.  They’ll attack you but won’t put a dent in you because I’m at your side, defending and delivering. (Jeremiah 15:18-20, The Message translation)

Obviously, it is not easy to change the way that we think, speak and act—as God is asking us to do.  This is our life work.  However, community offers hope, support, and the real possibility for new life.  This is something that Eighth Day holds close as part of our main values, as Maria also noted.  Our journey as a faith community comprises of three parts:

  • a journey inward of spiritual disciplines and growth,
  • a journey outward of service to and with others, especially those at the margins of society,
  • and a journey together in community which supports our spiritual growth and holds us accountable for becoming mature, informed Christians and for using our gifts. 

(Eighth Day’s website, "Integrity of Membership" section, http://Eighth-day.org/basic-info/membership)

It is through our relationships in community that God’s work is made real in our lives.  When we recognize our deep belonging to God and commit to the way of life that is asked of us in relationship with others, we are transformed, and God is in it.  Human biology provides some good evidence for this process.  Renowned scientist E.O.  Wilson spent most of his career studying the biology and patterns of ants and the similarities they have to humans.  He discovered that there are a handful of species on earth that have evolved to be highly social and cooperative—eusocial.  There are a total of nineteen eusocial species on earth.  Most of them are different types of ants, some bees.  And he claimed that humans are also eusocial (although we do not perform as highly as the other animal species).  One characteristic of this is a deep desire for group belonging.  Other psychologists have found this to be true.  We now know that attachment in children to a caregiver is a real and essential part of development for a child, and this need extends into adulthood in our need and search for close and safe relationships. 

Within our community we enter into relationship with each other in many ways—community and covenant membership, mission groups, spiritual director or mentor and mentee, retreating together, worshipping together, serving together, having fun together, celebrating together, grieving together, praying for one another, protesting together, creating together, simply enjoying one another/spending time together, potlucks, inviting one another into our homes.  In Romans 12, Paul is describing a similar way for people to be in community.  He encourages them to be devoted to each other, honoring others above themselves, being hospitable, sharing with those in need, being joyful, inviting others in, supporting each other, not letting each other get burnt out, accompanying each other in all things, not being proud, blessing those who persecute you, loving their enemies, and overcoming evil with good.  He is encouraging them to bring everything to their relationships with each other.  There is the idea that the community is the place to revel in, work with, and hold whatever comes in life in a healthy way. 

When we share in this way with each other, we experience community as vibrant, full of life, and we get to experience God in our relationships.  You could even say (and this may be too much for some people and that’s ok) that God is the relationships between us.  As we claim our belonging to God, we claim our belonging to one another, and provide accountability, support, and the ability to experience true life in each other.  This is God’s way, not man’s way.  Although this is difficult work I think that many folks have experienced this at Eighth Day and it may be why so many people have stuck around for so long! 

In Romans Paul is even calling us to love our enemies and be reconciled to them.  This is a particularly hard one now as there is so much division in our country currently.  However, it is not outside of the possibility of God. 

Community is also the place where we bring our gifts.  I was delighted to find this passage from Community & Growth by Jean Vanier, in which he references Elizabeth O’Connor’s The Eighth Day of Creation and a story about someone finding their gifts in their community (maybe it is specifically about Eighth Day, I’m not sure):

Using our gifts is building community.  If we are not faithful to our gifts, we are harming the community and each of its members as well.  So it is important that all members know what their gifts are, use them and take responsibility for developing them; it is important that the gift of each member is recognized and that each is accountable to the others for the use to which this gift is put.  We all need each other’s gifts, and so we have the right to know how they are used.  We also have the duty to encourage their growth and fidelity to them.  We will all find our place in community according to our gift.  We will become not only useful but unique and necessary to the others.  And so rivalry and jealousy will evaporate. 

Elizabeth O’Connor’s book, The Eighth Day of Creation, gives some striking examples of St Paul’s teaching.  She tells the story of an old woman who joined the community.  A group of people were discerning her gift with her.  She believed she had none at all.  The others were trying to comfort her: “Your gift is your presence.”  But that wasn’t enough for her.  Several months later she discovered what her gift was: it was to carry each member of the community by name before God in a prayer of intercession.  When she shared her discovery with the others, she found her essential place in the community.  The others knew that they somehow needed her and her prayer, if they were to exercise better their own gifts.” (Jean Vanier Community & Growth, pg. 20-21)

I think many in our community have experienced this communing of gifts as an essential part of our life together.  And others of us are still learning what our gifts are and how we find our unique place with others. 

This also makes me curious about the life of our community and how we could enter into deeper belonging and relationship together.  I’d encourage us to work with some of these questions as we continue to work on our communal call as co-creators with God to continue his dream for the world. 

  • How can we open ourselves up even more to the stranger? 
  • Who could we invite and welcome who may feel excluded from church as Jesus did? 
  • Who among us may be longing for deeper belonging and relationship? 
  • How do we embrace God’s solidarity with us and work towards greater solidarity with each other and our enemies? 
  • How do we claim our collective belonging in respect to cultural and religious differences? 
  • What gifts need to be recognized and how do we encourage one another in exercising our gifts? 
  • How do we respect the Earth in our mutual belonging with nature? 
  • What are new ways that we can walk together and support one another in our individual calls and spiritual growth?

These are hard questions and I don’t expect us to come up with quick answers.  However, I think they’re worth our contemplation.  I will close with another passage from Community & Growth that I find comforting in this work of unity in community:

The longer we journey on the road to unity, the more the sense of belonging grows and deepens.  The sense is not just one of belonging to a community.  It is a sense of belonging to the universe, to the earth, to the air, to the water, to everything that lives, to all humanity.  If the community gives a sense of belonging, it also helps us to accept our aloneness in a personal meeting with God.  Through this, the community is open to the universe and to mankind. (Jean Vanier, Community & Growth, pg. 4)