6/26/16: What It Means to Belong, 1 Corinthians 1:10-17
What It Means to Belong
First Lesson: Colossians 3:12-17
Second Lesson: 1 Corinthians 1:10-17
Scott Dickison, preaching
Over the last month we’ve been taking a look at what in the Baptist tradition we call our two ordinances of the Lord’s Supper and baptism. And for this final week I wanted to focus on something that perhaps should have been among the first things we said, which is that these two ordinances, and baptism in particular, on the most basic level are about belonging. And belonging is at the heart of Christian faith.
As far as we know, Jesus never once outlined the correct method or interpretation of baptism, he just said to do it and then get on with following after him. And yet almost since the beginning the church has argued about which way is the right way and what meaning is the right meaning. And so baptism—this mark intended to bind us closer to God and each other—has at times become yet another tool we use to keep us apart. The church has always created and then become preoccupied with different lines and boundaries to decide who’s in and who’s out, who belongs, who doesn’t and how come.
This has been true since the early days of the church. We heard from Paul earlier lamenting how the church in Corinth was divided into different factions based on who had baptized whom—some by Paul, others by Peter or Apollos. Paul tells them this is ridiculous! It doesn’t matter who does the baptizing, we’re all baptized into the same Christ.
The church has always had this impulse to close off what God has left open and reign in what God has let run free, and it’s a lesson we’re still trying to learn in so many different ways and in many corners of the church. Our own Baptist tradition is no exception, maybe especially when it comes to baptism.
In our 400+ year history, Baptists have had different approaches to baptism, at times more ecumenical or open, and other times more closed. Unfortunately, the last 100 years or so in America have tended to be more closed. Bryan Whitfield did a tremendous job teasing some of this history out for us a few weeks back in the combined Sunday school hour. The history is fascinating, but most of us probably have at least known some of it from our own personal experience—either being raised in a Baptist church, or coming to the Baptist tradition from someplace else. Most Baptist churches over the last few generations have tended not to accept baptisms from other traditions, particular those who don’t practice believer’s baptism by immersion, which is how we describe our practice of baptizing only those who have made a decision to follow Christ and to fully submerge them in the water.
But in recent years many Baptist churches have rethought this practice. We’ve grown less attached to our denominational identity, not just in the Baptist tradition, but all across the Christian landscape. And I think this is by and large a good thing. In fact, I think it shows that we’re coming to understand a very important truth, which is that God is bigger than us. God is bigger than the church. Bigger than any denomination or tradition, or interpretation of the Bible. And if God is bigger than the church then so is baptism.
So some time ago, 2007 to be exact, our church entered into a discussion about changing our baptismal and church membership policies to reflect this new understanding and really this new identity that had already taken shape. For many years our church has been ecumenical in Spirit, welcoming folks from many different traditions and seeing ourselves as but one small part of what God is doing in the world through the church. This change in policy was really meant to name and claim who we already were. And after much spirited debate, a vote was held to open up the baptismal policies to those who had been baptized in another tradition and it carried. We chose to honor the baptismal practices and experiences from the wider church, while keeping our own. (1)
So for the last 9 years or so, it’s been possible to be a full and complete member of this church without having to be re-baptized. This was truly a historic decision, and one I believe we should be proud of, because it reflects who we are and what we believe.
And yet there are many within our church—some who have been here for years and were even here when the vote happened—who still don’t know this is our policy!
I learned this a couple of years ago during a church conference down in the Fellowship Hall when I introduced a new family who joined our church and told how they had come from some other tradition, but reminded folks that this had been our policy for some years. Some people looked at me like I as crazy! They had no idea. I explained to them when the vote had taken place and they kind of said, Oh, okay.
We also saw this a couple of weeks ago during the combined adult Sunday school class when LeAnn Gunter Johns was leading the group in a discussion about their baptism, and several people from all different generations had questions about our policies. Some who had come to our church from other traditions knew about it and felt completely welcomed. Others were led to believe that it was certainly their choice not to be re-baptized, but it really would have been better if they had. I’ve also learned there are some folks who have been among us for years and have been very active, but never officially joined the church because they thought they would need to be re-baptized and felt this was offensive to the tradition that raised them and formed them—and I happen to agree with them.
The bottom line is that we changed our policies of who belongs and how, but we obviously didn’t do a very good job of communicating it. We didn’t of a good job of internalizing this as a congregation and talking about what it means. After all, this is important. It’s about more than water; it’s about the nature of belonging.
So I wanted to take a moment to clear the air—or the water, I suppose—and say that in this church, we value and affirm your baptism no matter where it happened, by whom, or how. As long as you were baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, you belong here. And if you’re one of those folks who never joined because you didn’t know if that was true or not, I want you to know it now that you belong, fully and completely, and we’re glad you’re here. And by the way I’d love to officially welcome you at the front at the end of the service!
This is important. Belonging is important.
But over these last few weeks as I was thinking about these things: about baptism and church membership and these greater questions of what it means to belong in a church and how we communicate that, it got me thinking about others who may be out there—or who may even be in here among us—who wonder to what degree they belong here at our church.
I think about those who are disabled or who may otherwise have a difficult time navigating our facilities which in many places are completely inaccessible—our children and youth areas, for example. Do they know they belong here?
But more than anyone, over the last year since the Supreme Court decision to allow same-sex marriage, and the many so-called “religious liberty” bills that have been passed around, and especially in these last two weeks since the terrible shooting in Orlando, and the conversation that’s happened since, I wonder this especially about our LBGT brothers and sisters.
I wonder if they know they belong here, and to what extent.
Over these last few weeks in the wake of the shooting I’ve been heart-broken over reactions and responses I’ve heard from LBGT people, both outside, but especially within the church, about how they have felt and continue to feel on the margins of society and of the church, and how this shooting in particular struck a very sensitive nerve. I’ve heard testimonies describing how bars such as Pulse in Orlando have become places of sanctuary for many when they were cast out from their families and churches. It’s why many of them have long had a practice of staying open around holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas, to be a sanctuary for those who have been cast out. And as I heard it put recently, if you can’t wrap your head around the idea of a bar being a sanctuary, it’s because you’ve never been afraid to hold hands in public.
For many of these voices I’ve heard and the friends I know, church and their faith have been some of the sharpest and most painful parts of their testimony. Many have chosen to leave the church, and given the pain they’ve endured, I don’t blame them. But others have stayed, and these testimonies in particular move me. These stories of those who have been wounded in the name of God, and yet know deep in their hearts that God’s love is much bigger and wider than the lines we try to draw around it, and the corrupted version of it they’ve so often been told.
And all this has led me to ask myself what role I have to play in all this. What role our church has to play in this. Where we are in this conversation, and what more work we have yet to do.
This was a point of great conversation and dialogue at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly in Greensboro this past week. CBF as an organization is asking many of these same questions and this past week announced a task force to address a variety of these very contentious but important conversations. I’ll do my best to keep you updated on their progress.
But fortunately, we as a church have already laid good groundwork to do the same.
This was a key point of discussion that we addressed in our recent visioning process. The first recommendation that our leadership team put forth had to do with “Hospitality.” We heard story after story of the ways folks had been welcomed in and included. They were powerful. We heard about divorced women with children who had found a sanctuary in our church after being cast out of other churches—this was not that long ago, folks.
When we named our values, the language of hospitality was spoken often: openness, welcoming, acceptance, affirmation, inclusiveness. Hospitality and a desire to accept and include and value all people was the thread that connected the entire process. It both defined our past and was said to be vital for our future.
We reflected this in our Core Values when we listed that we “accept, include, and value all people” as our top value, and in the Vision Statement when we said we “nurture authentic faith and belonging, love and serve courageously, and affirm the image of God in all people.”
Accept, affirm, include, love all people—our aim and hope and desire is all right there. And yet it was also clear in our process that we haven’t taken all the necessary steps to define exactly what this means.
We’d like to think that “all” means “all” and always has, but of course that’s not true. When the founding fathers said, “All men are created equal,” it’s become painfully clear they had a relatively narrow understanding of what “all” meant.
The truth, I think, is that each generation has to decide again these questions of belonging and inclusion, both as a nation and a church. Our church has done this, and at least over the last 70 years or so we’ve done it from a stance of openness and humility and love. We’ve done it over the last 30 years in affirming the role of women in church leadership. Imagine what our church would look like now had we not, an all the many, many ways women lead and enrich our church.
We did it 50 years ago in the hight of the Civil Rights Movement when we created what’s become known as our “open-door policy,” where we made it clear that “our service of worship and education should be open to any person who seeks to enter into our fellowship and membership.” (2) That was 1965. When you think about all that was happening in that time, this is an important and powerful statement.
And it is still our policy. And for the record, I’m not convinced it needs changing. We’ve said all the right words. We have the right policy. We have a history and culture and identity rooted in openness and love, which is expressed over and over again in the language we’ve adopted to describe ourselves. But we still need to do the work of talking about what it means. We need conversation that’s been had in whispers in the hallways and in Sunday school classrooms and in our homes to be said face to face around tables. More and more I’m compelled that we need to do this. We need to know where we are and who we are, and we need others know, too. The stakes are simply too high not to.
Ronnie Adams is a CBF field personnel serving in New York City. (3) He works with a few CBF affiliated churches up there, reaching out to different homeless communities, low-income families, and immigrants, as well several housing communities that serve the HIV/AIDS community in New York.
Some time ago he decided to go and set up a “spirituality” table at a health fair in one of these housing communities. Maybe not surprisingly, he wasn’t seeing much action until a man walked up and saw his sign and said, Spirituality? I haven’t had that since I was 15 years old. Ronnie asked him to say more, and the man told him how he grew up in church and he and his family were very active—there every time the door opened. But once he started to hit his teenage years that changed. He discovered he was gay. He kept it to himself, knowing that this would not have been received well. Finally, after some prayer, he decided to seek comfort in his mother and it did not go well, to say the least. She handed him a Bible and a flashlight and shut the door to his room and said, Don’t come out until the demon is gone!
He went in the room and did what she asked, but at some point he stopped reading and just decided he’d tell her what she wanted to hear. He told Ronnie, I walked out of that room and haven’t had much use for God since.
After listening to the man’s story—which is painfully not at all unique—Ronnie said to him, I’m not sure what she wanted you to find, but I’d love to tell you some of what I find here, and he pulled out his Bible. He began to flip through the pages, telling him about the grand story of Scripture, starting with Genesis and the story of creation—God creating humankind in God’s image to share in the blessing of creation and humanity then turning away from God. Then moving on through the rest of the story of God, overcome with love, stopping at nothing to pull creation back together, culminating in Jesus, who threw open the doors to the Kingdom exactly to those on the outside, embodying the depths of God’s love, the lengths God will go to tell us, You are my beloved, and have us believe it—he went through all of this, with the man locked in on every word. And when he had finished he paused to wait for the man’s response.
The man looked down at the Bible in front of him. After a moment he took it in his hands, and began to flip through it’s pages. His eyes began to well up and Ronnie saw as he lowered his head and began to whisper something to himself. Ronnie leaned in and heard him say, I knew it, I knew it, I knew it.
I want us to be a church where people know it.
I want us to be a church where people hear the whole story of Scripture and know that they fit into it, that they are included in what God is doing in the world and what God has been doing since the beginning.
I want people to know they belong here. That they’re included here—fully and completely. That they have a seat at the table here. That they are invited into the waters of baptism here, into service in Christ’s church here, to answer the call to ministry here. To find love and blessing and covenant relationship here.
I want this for all people. But since there is some question in the church today, I want especially for our LGBT members and friends to know it.
For LGBT people outside our church to know it.
For every child of this church who has moved away and wonders if this is a safe place for them to come back and bring their whole selves an even their partners--I want them to know it.
Every current child or youth of this church who may be discovering things about themselves and wondering the same thing.
I want every parent or grandparent who may only speak of these things in whispers not knowing what the reaction will be, even among the people they have walked with for so long in this journey of faith.
And all of us with friends and family members who feel their pain and sorrow and awkwardness and disappointment with other churches.
I want this for those among us who may not know exactly what they think about these things but are open to a new movement of the Spirit. I want them to know that they belong here, too.
For all of us, I want this to be a place where people know they are loved and included and valued.
This is what I want. I want us to be a place where people know it.
And I know there will be much to discuss and talk about and share—many stories and testimonies to hear, and I know that others feel differently and I want to honor that. I want you to know that you belong here, too. The Visioning Process has left us with a team of folks to talk about these very questions and we will meet soon.
There will be much more to say and hear and learn, but before we go any further, I just want you to know where I am, and where I hope we will be together as we continue to ask and answer this important question of what it means to belong. Amen.
(1) The "method" by which candidates from other Christian traditions may now join the church is through an expansion of the idea of "watch care," which used to be a class of membership for college students, military personnel and other itinerant people who wanted to join in fellowship with the local congregation while not giving up membership at their home church. "Watch care" members are full members.
(2) The entire text of this statement and some of the story around it can be found in our history book, History of the First Baptist Church of Christ at Macon, 1826-1990, p. 264. It reads: "The time has come when our faith challenges us to take a difficult step in the life of our Church. We must not hesitate to take such a step if we are convinced that it is God's will. Believing strongly that it is His will, I now propose that our service of worship and education should be open to any person who seeks to enter into our fellowship and membership." This portion of the book was written by Rollin S. Armour
(3) Special thanks to my friend Alan Sherouse, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Greensboro, NC, for passing this story along.