Featured Video Play Icon

April 29, 2018


“Belonging Not Believing”

Rev. Dr. David A. Kaden

>>Put your hand on our shoulder and point us in the right direction.  Put our hand on someone’s shoulder and let it matter.  Amen.<<

In his book The Orthodox Heretic, Philosopher Peter Rollins tells a story about a preacher who turned people into unbelievers.[1]  “There was once a fiery preacher who possessed a powerful but unusual gift,” writes Rollins.  “He found that … when he prayed for individuals, they would supernaturally lose all of their religious convictions. … So he learned not to pray for people, but instead limited himself to preaching inspiring sermons and doing good works.  However, one day while traveling across the country, the preacher found himself in conversation with a businessman who happened to be going in the same direction.  The businessman was a very powerful and ruthless merchant banker, one who was honored by his colleagues and respected by his adversaries.  Their conversation began because the businessman, possessing a deep, abiding faith, had noticed the preacher reading from the Bible.  He introduced himself to the preacher and they began to talk.  As they chatted together this powerful man told the preacher all about his faith in God and his love of Christ.  He spoke of how his work did not really define who he was but was simply what he had to do.  ‘The world of business is a cold one,’ he confided in the preacher, ‘and in my line of work I find myself in situations that challenge my Christian convictions.  But I try, as much as possible, to remain true to my faith.  Indeed, I attend a local church every Sunday, participate in a prayer circle, engage in some youth work, and contribute to a weekly Bible study.  These activities help to remind me of who I really am.’  After listening carefully to the businessman’s story, the preacher began to realize the purpose of his unseemly gift.  So he turned to the businessman and said, ‘Would you allow me to pray a blessing into your life?’  The businessman readily agreed, unaware of what would happen.  Sure enough, after the preacher had muttered a simple prayer, the man opened his eyes in astonishment.  ‘What a fool I have been for all these years!’ he proclaimed.  ‘It is clear to me now that there is no God … , and that there are no sacred texts to guide me, and there is no Spirit to inspire and protect me.’  As they parted company the businessman, still confused by what had taken place, returned home.  But now that he no longer had any religious beliefs, he began to find it increasingly difficult to continue in his line of work.  Faced with the fact that he was now just a hard-nosed businessman working in a corrupt system, rather than a man of God, he began to despise his activity.  Within months he had a breakdown, and soon afterward gave up his line of work completely.  Feeling better about himself, he then went on to give [his money] to the poor … , and began to use his considerable managerial expertise to challenge the very system he once participated in, and to help those who had been oppressed by it.  One day, many years later,” concludes Rollins, “[the man] happened upon the preacher again while walking through town.  He ran over, fell at the preacher’s feet, and began to weep with joy.  Eventually he looked up at the preacher and smiled, ‘Thank you, my dear friend, for helping me discover my faith.’”

In his commentary on the story, Peter Rollins makes this remark:  sometimes “religious belief can itself be a barrier to living the life of faith.”  This year’s Confirmation Class has been structured around this core distinction:  that saying “I believe X, Y, and Z” is not the same as actually living one’s faith, which is a journey that lasts a lifetime.  Over the course of this journey our life experiences – the ups, the downs, the personal challenges and achievements – can shape and sharpen our beliefs.  The sufferings of St. Paul gave him a deeper understanding of God’s mercy and comfort, so he could be a comfort to others.  Suffering taught poet Christian Wiman to “cry” out in “faith, even if,” he writes, “it is a cry against God … as in the cries of [the biblical character] Job.”[2]  The grinding reality of injustice taught theologian Gustavo Gutierrez of God’s liberating power, and taught activist Dorothy Day that Christ is found in the faces of the working poor.  The experience of racism and oppression taught theologian James Cone, who passed away just yesterday, that “humanity’s salvation is found in our solidarity with the crucified people in our midst.”[3]  And the rise of the Third Reich taught pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer that God’s spirit moves in the forces of resistance; and that swearing allegiance to a maniacal leader is idolatry; and that “silence in the face of evil is evil itself.”  In response to the “Night of the Broken Glass” (Kristallnacht) on September 11, 1938 when the Gestapo destroyed Jewish homes, businesses, and synagogues throughout Germany, Bonhoeffer turned to scripture, and found in Psalm 74 the words “they have burned all of God’s houses in the land.”  In the margin of his Bible, Bonhoeffer wrote:  “9/11/38.”[4]  That terrible night triggered within him, what biographer Eric Metaxas calls a “holy anger” at how a group of people were being singled out for persecution, and led Bonhoeffer to say things like:  “We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself”; and “The Church is the Church only when it exists [to help] others … .”  Lessons we progressive Christians see as particularly relevant today.  Yes, beliefs can be shaped by experiences; and they take shape over time, like when Harry Potter and his friends at the end of the Sorcerer’s Stone – our Confirmation Class textbook this year – learn lessons that are at the core of our Christian tradition:  that community and friendship make us stronger; that speaking out and acting take courage; and that love is the most powerful force in the world.

Yes, the journey of faith is dynamic.  Experiences shape our beliefs.  Which is why the older model of Confirmation Class seems misguided to me.  It was the model of my Confirmation Class at 14 years old.  I had to memorize the Apostles’ Creed.  And, raised in the Dutch Reformed tradition, I had to memorize questions and answers from the sixteenth century Heidelberg Catechism.  At the end of the year, I had to sit before the Elders of the church, recite what I had committed to memory, and then state with certainty my personal beliefs.  I had to believe before I could belong.  The church Elders functioned like bouncers outside a club:  admitting some and barring entry to others.  But our Confirmation Class this year flips this model around.  Instead of believe in order to belong; it’s you already belong – you are embarking on a lifelong journey of faith that will shape your beliefs:  you belong; the church community will support you as you wrestle with what you believe.  We will welcome you – no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey – we will welcome you with an open door, so you can explore this great tradition – this great mansion we call “Christianity” – and find the furniture inside that is right for you.

At one of the memorial services for Matthew Shepard – the gay man who was murdered on October 6, 1998 – Tom Troeger, then professor of preaching at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, told a story about a game he would play as a child.[5]  Half the children would form a circle, lock hands, and face outward.  The other half of the children were outside the circle.  The ones in the circle would chant, “You’re out!  You’re out!  You can’t come in.  You’re out!  You’re out!  You can’t come in,” and then the children outside would rush as hard as they could and try to break through.  Troeger admits that he always seemed to be on the outside, unable to break through, until one day a girl named Louise winked at him as the children chanted, “You’re out!  You’re out!  You can’t come in.”  When Troeger rushed toward the circle to break through, Louise dropped the hand of the boy next to her, and Troeger got in.  The boy next to Louise was outraged, saying, “You can’t do that!  If you do that, everyone will get in!”  Troeger ended his sermon by saying, “God is like Louise.”

Yes, I’ve come to realize over the years that the most important step on the journey of faith is not the “I believe” step, but the “I belong here” step – the “this is my community” step, the step the writer of First John in today’s scripture reading from the New Testament describes when he talks about loving one another.  This is community-language, belonging-language.  “Love one another,” says the writer, “because love is of God” – to love is to be part of God, because God is love.  And God revealed this love through Christ who died and was raised for us.  And living in love, loving one another – living in loving community, a church community, belonging to a church community – is, says the writer, how we perfect and complete God’s love, how we experience God’s love personally.  A love that welcomes us into the mansion of Christianity so we can lay claim to the furniture inside.  A love that tells us we belong, so we can eventually say with conviction, I believe.

It’s a love that I think we also see in today’s reading from the Book of Acts.  Acts is filled with stories about the earliest followers of Jesus.  One New Testament scholar calls it the foundational “epic” of the church – like Virgil’s Aeneid was the foundational epic of the Roman Empire.  And in this epic – in this foundational book of early Christian adventures – there’s today’s story about the disciple Philip who encounters an “other,” a “foreigner,” an “Ethiopian,” who is reading from the biblical book of Isaiah.  Reading in antiquity was not usually done in the head, but aloud; so Philip hears this Ethiopian reading the text, and he asks, “Do you understand what you are reading?”  “How can I,” responds the Ethiopian, “unless someone guides me?”  Philip’s response is an extraordinary example of belonging before believing.  He sits down next to the Ethiopian – he shows loves to the Ethiopian by talking with him about matters of faith.  In the version of the story we heard a moment ago, the Ethiopian asks, “How can I, unless someone guides me?”  But in the vast reservoir of manuscripts of the New Testament, there is another version of the Ethiopian’s question.  A seventh century copy of this story written on papyrus, has the Ethiopian asking a slightly different question:  “how can I,” he asks in that manuscript, “unless someone sits with me?”  This is a belonging before believing question.  This is a come-along-beside-me question; a help me question; a love-me-through-my-uncertainties-and-doubts question.  The language of community, of belonging in order to believe.  It’s the first example in the Book of Acts of what our tradition calls “catechesis”:  sitting with someone and training them in the ways of faith.  It’s scripture’s first Confirmation Class; and Philip is Christian history’s first Confirmation sponsor.

…Let me close this morning with a story about the time Dietrich Bonhoeffer taught a Confirmation Class of 14 and 15-year-old-boys in Germany.  It’s told by biographer Eric Metaxas.  Metaxas writes:  “Quite unlike the cherubs Bonhoeffer had taught [in Confirmation Classes when he lived in America], he now faced [in the working class community of North Berlin] a veritable gang of sawed-off hoodlums. … [N]othing could have prepared him for what lay ahead.  The fourteen and fifteen-year-old miscreants were so famously misbehaved – and had so expertly harassed the minister Bonhoeffer was replacing – that no sooner had Bonhoeffer taken over the class than the exasperated old fellow died – skipped off,” says Metaxas, “to the great confirmation class in the sky.  Bonhoeffer was seriously convinced that the frail man’s health failed chiefly as a result of this ungovernable [confirmation] class.”  On the first day, before the elderly minister died, he introduced Bonhoeffer to the class.  Metaxas continues:  “The elderly minister and Bonhoeffer slowly walked up the stairs of the school building, which was several stories high.  The [young teenagers] looked down on them from over the banisters, making an indescribable din and dropping refuse on the two men ascending the stairs.  When they reached the top, the minister tried to force the throng back into the classroom by shouting and using physical force.  He tried to announce that he had brought a new minister who was going to teach them in the future and that his name was Bonhoeffer, and when they heard the name they started shouting, “Bon!  Bon!  Bon!” louder and louder.  The old man left the scene in despair, leaving Bonhoeffer standing silently against the wall with his hands in his pockets.  Minutes passed.  His failure to react made the noise gradually less enjoyable, and he began speaking quietly, so that only the boys in the front row could catch a few words of what he said.  Suddenly all were silent.  Bonhoeffer merely remarked that they had put up a remarkable initial performance, and went on to tell them a story [about his time in America] … .  If they listened, he told them, he would tell them more next time.  Then he told them they could go.’”  Bonhoeffer eventually rented a farm north of Berlin and took the boys there on trips so they could play soccer in the fields.  He mentored the boys.  When one of them fell ill, he would visit them in the hospital.  In a letter to one of his friends Bonhoeffer wrote about the boys in the class:  “‘[We eat] supper together and then we play something – I have taught them chess, which they now play with the greatest enthusiasm. … At the end of each evening I read something [to them] out of the Bible … .  The experience of teaching them has been such that I can hardly tear myself away from it.’”  As the day of their Confirmation approached, Bonhoeffer bought woolen cloth and made suit pants and coats for each [boy].”

…That story is a lesson, I think, in the power of belonging in order to believe, in sitting beside another – like Philip does in that story from Acts; it’s a lesson in the power of community, the power of love, of loving one another – as the writer of First John says.  Loving one another, welcoming one another, so that the person being loved can enter the house called Christianity, find a place to sit – find a room to call home.  And maybe if we treated every person this way, we could make a lasting change in the life of another, and start a chain reaction – a series of ripples – that make is possible for us to ask with the hymn writer:  could the world be about to turn?  Amen.



[1] Peter Rollins, The Orthodox Heretic and Other Impossible Tales (Brewster, MA:  Paraclete, 2015 [2009]), 57-60.

[2] Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss:  Meditation of a Modern Believer (New York:  Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013), 53.

[3] James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Maryknoll, NY:  Orbis, 2011), 160.

[4] See discussion in Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer:  Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, a Righteous Gentile vs. the Third Reich (Nashville:  Thomas Nelson, 2010), 314ff.

[5] John A. Stroman, Out of the Whirlwind:  First Lesson Sermons for Sundays after Pentecost (Last Third), Cycle B (Lima, Ohio:  CSS Publishing, 1999), 41.