given on the fourth Sunday of Lent, March 30, 2014
references the book The Gospel According to Dr. Seuss by Rev. James Kemp
Star or No Star?
Belong or Not Belong?
How many groups do you connect with? Do you go to school reunions? Have you paid any dues for various organizations that share interests with you? Do you get publications you subscribe to because it applies to your profession?
If you can identify even one group to which you belong, then you know the comfort you feel because of that relationship. The importance you place on the relationship typically determines how much time and money you invest in belonging to that group.
Consider this question: Was what you believed more important than belonging or was belonging more important in learning about the group/interest?
Another thought to consider: Would you have joined that organization or even subscribe to that publication if you had no knowledge or even little knowledge of the subject?
Rev. James Kemp read The Sneetches, a Dr. Seuss book written during the civil rights movement, and he connected the overriding theme to Paul telling the earliest Christians that there was no difference between the Jews and the Gentiles: “For all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” As a Christian, all were completely equal.
These are the words from The Sneetches that capture the message:
Now, the Star-Bell Sneetches had bellies with stars.
The Plain-Belly Sneetches had none upon thars.
Those stars weren’t so big. They were really so small.
You might think such a thing wouldn’t matter at all.
The story continues showing how the stars excluded the non-stars from playing together. Simply put, the stars discriminated the non-stars. For those born prior to the 1970s, the story is a political satire concerning the civil rights movement of the 1950’s and the 1960’s. We might even tune out the story since we lived through it ourselves.
Would Paul have asked us to ignore the issue of discrimination or not? Hardly. In his own life experience, he first would have been a Sneetch with a star on his belly, but along the road to Emmaus, God removed his Jewish star. God wanted Paul to get the message of Jesus Christ; and since Paul was persecuting the first Christian believers, God needed him to get the message in a very direct and concrete manner.
The no-star Sneetches knew they were being excluded even though they were exactly the same as the starred Sneetches. The problem of belonging to a group or not is found throughout history. Due to Paul’s personal conversion, he learned there were no differences between Jews and Gentiles as he writes to the Galatians:
28 There is no Jew or Greek. There is no slave or free person. There is no male or female. Because you belong to Christ Jesus, you are all one.
In today’s society, belonging is everything. Everybody seems to find some way to connect with people through genealogy, social media, alumni organizations, sports teams, common experiences. The list continues to grow and sometimes it seems a game to see just how many ways you can “belong” to as many groups as you can. (Sorry to John Wesley for the parallel phrasing.)
Fortunately, characters like Sylvester McMonkey McBean are not always around trying to find a quick fix to connect one to some particular group through false methods. The Sneetches paid the $10.00 charge to add a star to a belly. The fix worked until the Sneetches with the stars naturally discovered they were no longer special and Sylvester McMonkey McBean devised the machine to take the star off, too.
The New Covenant delivered by Jesus eliminates such risky investments. Rev. Kemp places the emphasis on the inclusiveness of God’s love. No longer is there any reason to look for ways to belong, believe in Jesus Christ and you do belong.
Rev. Kemp focuses on the similarities rather than the differences:
- Creation. We all are created by God. We are both alike and different from one another, but God called the whole of creation good.
- Calling. There is purpose in life for each and everyone of us. Just as the prophets in the Old Testament were called, we too are called for a purpose.
- Sin. All of us have fallen short of what God requires. We deceive ourselves if we think we have not sinned. But to acknowledge this does not mean accepting it as the last word.
- Christ.We share in the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. God loves us despite our failings. This is by far the most important basis for our unity. [p.70-71]
People want to belong. There is a very basic human need to feel connected with others and belonging to special groups helps fulfill that need. It is the very reason that gangs continue to grow in today’s culture.
A mobile, global society has significantly altered the sense of belonging to a community. In small towns, the economic need for a community has shifted. Transportation has eliminated the 10-mile radius that once determined where business was transacted. Communication is instant and no longer needs a central location to connect people to people.
Belonging to a family, a community, or a church is no longer dependent on genetics or even beliefs. Belonging comes first. Once individuals develop that sense of belonging, the practices in that setting lead to belief. After one becomes accustomed to the practices, the belief becomes part of the foundation.
This faith process is just opposite of what it has been for thousands of years. What you believed determined where you belonged. Beliefs led to practices that identified to what group you belonged. Belonging was the result of the belief system.
Paul’s message to the Galatians came at a time the belief system was changing. The belief in Christ eliminated the difference between the Jews and the Gentiles. As the centuries passed, the Christian faith grew. People belonged and it created the Judeo-Christian foundation for governments, human relations, and more. The Western Cultures were defined by the Christian beliefs.
Today, the Sylvester McMonkey McBeans character might be considered an excellent marketing executive, but marketing today—even in our churches—is to show others how they belong, and in our churches the unchurched first need to know they already belong in God’s world. There can be no discriminating factors in our churches because Jesus erased them. The doors are open, but our arms must be open, too.
Rev. Kemp wraps up his sermon focusing on how we all belong to God. We can do it, he says,
“Proclaiming and celebrating unity in the church . . encouraging others and not boasting about our own accomplishments. It means courting a spirit of gratitude instead of pride. It means that we cannot separate love for God from love for one another.” [p. 71]
Any church that can demonstrate unconditional love and acceptance creates a sense of belonging. In this 21st century, those outside of the church are watching closely to see who belongs or who does not belong. They are watching to see if the arms are as open as the doors.
Rev. Kemp closes with these thoughts:
No kind of Christian is the best Christian in the church. There are no Star-Belly Christians. We are family. We are one in Jesus Christ. [Ibid.]
Churches who can demonstrate this depth of Christian love for one and for all, then others will come. Others will discover they do belong to this family, a Christian family. They will be able to work together in acts of mercy and to develop their acts of worship. John Wesley lived when the belief, supported by the practices, created a strong bond of belonging within the church.
What works is what James wrote in his letter, too:
. . . treat everyone the same.
2 Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes. And suppose a poor man in worn-out clothes also comes in. 3 Would you show special attention to the one who is wearing fine clothes? Would you say, “Here’s a good seat for you”? Would you say to the poor person, “You stand there”? Or “Sit on the floor by my feet”? 4 If you would, aren’t you treating some people better than others? Aren’t you like judges who have evil thoughts?
Today’s churches are working to make sure all feel as they belong. First they invite, they host, they teach, and they love one another. As one feels a sense of belonging, they join in the practices, and they live what they now believe. Sounds backward and upside down, but the churches who grow know loving one another breaks down all the differences. We are truly “one in Christ Jesus,” as Paul wrote the Galatians.
Dear Heavenly Father,
Thank you for granting complete equality for all who believe.
Thank you for loving us before we know we are worth loving.
Thank you for sending your Son to teach how to live your love.
What barriers you have removed between people,
help us to keep them torn down,
help us to reach out to include them,
and help us to share the joy of Christian family.
Guide us in our decisions, in our efforts, and in our plans.
May we welcome others into the glory of God’s grace. –Amen