The Gift of Belonging

The Rev. Cathlin Baker

November 18, 2018

Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17; 1 Corinthians 12:12-31

When we gather in small groups to map our spiritual paths, and the twists and turns that landed us in the church, we inevitably ask: why turn to church when so many are in decline? why this church? why now? There are a handful of common answers – music, preaching, prayer, opportunities to serve the Island community, and inspiration for social change. But community – an intergenerational, diverse, caring and spiritually seeking community – tops the list. Here we can sit side by side sharing our joys and concerns and our longing for a better, more just world. Here we gather to make meaning and find belonging.

I know that in writing about my own faith formation and path to first, the church, and then, the pulpit, my journey was driven by three distinct, but intertwined longings – the longing for God, the longing for justice, and the longing for belonging.

Despite being raised in a loving home, loneliness and isolation were dominant feelings throughout my childhood. Today, in our fast-paced, competitive, and divided nation, loneliness and isolation have become epidemic. These feelings bear a significant cost. While living with air pollution increases your odds of dying early by 5 percent. Living with obesity, 20 percent. Excessive drinking, 30 percent. Living with loneliness increases our risk of dying by nearly 45 percent.[1] The cure to loneliness is a coming alongside each other, overcoming fear, division and isolation. So, this morning I want to explore the contours of seeking and finding belonging, and I want to suggest that belonging is so precious that it is to be treasured like a gift, one we both receive and offer.

Brené Brown, the social scientist made famous by her TED talk on vulnerability and subsequent research and books on how we make meaning in our lives, defines belonging like this:

Belonging is the innate human desire to be part of something larger than us. Because this yearning is so primal, we often try to acquire it by fitting in and by seeking approval, which are not only hollow substitutes for belonging, but often barriers to it. Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.

Belonging. It may seem like an unusual stewardship theme. The heavily churched among us are likely to equate stewardship with church budgets and financial pledges. But I hope that when you hear the word stewardship, you will equate it with being good guardians of all aspects of our life and creation.

Because it’s all God’s: our bodies, our vocations, our passions, our children, our resources, our minds. Good stewards believe that God cares about how we spend our time, our gifts, our money, and God cares about how we treat our bodies and other people’s bodies, and our natural world. God cares because all of it is God’s. Can you hear the words of the poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins? “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” That includes you – charged with the grandeur of God.

The search for belonging and the invitation to belong is possibly the most precious, vulnerable and open-hearted gift we can lay at God’s feet. This laying ourselves bare to God and each other is what can make church an authentic experience. The absence of authenticity can feel like a lack of integrity. While the absence of authenticity can be a problem at the pulpit, it can also be felt in the pews. Being good stewards of our church, requires that we bring our whole selves -- our gifts, passions, and talents as well as our longings, needs and brokenness. Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world.

And at this particular moment in the life of our church, when we are growing and thriving, being a good steward of our church requires a commitment of self and substance. Right now, there are so many people to welcome, so many people to serve, so many people to nourish spiritually – a solo pastor cannot do it alone. And so, my stewardship “ask” of you is to offer your full and authentic selves to one another. We are each to be host and guest, each bearers of our core values – extravagant welcome, heartfelt services and spiritual nourishment. We can all be priests when we are awake to a world charged with the grandeur of God. We can each find a way to serve our precious church. We can each be stewards of the precious lives sitting next to us in the pew. Kindness, respect, care and curiosity become the fertile ground for belonging.

Our sacred texts offer important guidance in our quest for belonging. The longing to belong is about finding a place for ourselves in the world – in our biological families but also in the family of God, in human community and the community of spirit. Belonging and spirituality go hand in hand. Hear now, Brené Brown’s definition of spirituality:

Spirituality is recognizing and celebrating that we are all inextricably connected to each other by a power great than all of us, and that our connection to that power and to one another is grounded in love and compassion.

The Apostle Paul wrote of our connection to each other by a power greater than all of us. He called this power the Body of Christ. Those first congregations who gathered around the way of Jesus were incredibly diverse. Something was holding together Jews and Greeks, slaves and free, men and women – that certain something was an experience of God made known through the life of Jesus. A life-claiming and compelling connection to the incarnation, the resurrection, and the power of the Holy Spirit had the power to hold together diverse people. And because Jesus’ ministry undeniably valued the least among us, Paul taught the early church to value all parts of the body equally. The head was no more important than the feet or the hands. Each person was endowed with unique gifts to be celebrated and seen in community.

In the story of Ruth and Naomi, we observe how love and compassion draw people together across the lines of difference. First, Ruth’s family, Moabites, welcome refugees from Bethlehem in Judah. Ruth and her sister, Orpah, marry Naomi’s two sons. When the sons die and Ruth and Orpah are childless and widowed, Ruth chooses to remain as family to Naomi, also a widow. Ruth shows us the beauty, power and possibility of forming family, choosing love and compassion over bloodlines, reminding us we are first and foremost members of the family of God.

And when Ruth and Naomi return to Bethlehem destitute, Ruth’s love and compassion become an example, inspiring Boaz, a landowner and distant relative of Naomi’s, to also extend love and compassion. In the end, Ruth and Boaz marry and bear a child. Naomi, Ruth and Boaz redeem one another, forming family and belonging, overcoming poverty, loneliness and xenophobia. And their acts of love and compassion redeem all of Israel, even us, as the child, Obed will be the grandfather of King David, part of a legacy of holiness. 

Brené Brown’s work on belonging points us to the spiritual power and healing made possible by community. Brown, as a social scientist, offers practical suggestions for pursuing belonging in a lonely and divided world. In particular, she speaks to the power of collective experiences, from experiencing live music, theater or dance with an audience, to seeking moments of collective joy and collective pain, to holding hands with strangers. No surprise here, church offers multiple opportunities to experience belonging. All in one place. No wonder we all recognize community as the most important gift offered by church.

When we feel torn up by political and ideological divisiveness, church is the perfect place to experience unity in diversity. As Brown says, “People are hard to hate close up. Move in.” She recommends real conversations and real encounters, as opposed to the insular, echo chamber of social media. By leaving our screens behind and coming to church, we find ourselves holding hands with, and laughing and crying alongside, people with whom we may profoundly disagree. We discover a deeper humanity and find our place in the family of God. 

And so, as we ready our church for the coming year, I invite you to remember the most precious gift that church offers you – community and belonging – and I invite you to extend that gift to others. We offer belonging by truly showing up, by sharing our whole selves with the church, especially our authentic, imperfect selves. May we offer a safe space for this most sacred gift, holding one another with love and compassion, kindness and respect. And, in doing so, may we find ourselves dwelling in the presence of God, breaking open a presence and holiness that is always present yet often masked by fear and defensiveness. May you find a powerful and quiet strength in remembering that you first belong to God, a belonging from which we all come and to which we all return. Amen.

[1] Brené Brown, Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Along. New York, NY: Random House, p. 55.