Every once in a while, I get a song stuck in my head. Sometimes, it’s a good song, like “What’s the Buzz?” from the production of Jesus Christ Superstar that I saw Sunday night. Or a meaningful song like the Taizé song “Stay With Me” that we sang at the prayer vigil on Monday night. But most of the time it’s an “earworm”—one of those songs that just gets stuck in your head for no good reason.
|About This Sermon|
Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center, American University
April 4, 2018
Leviticus 19:2; Guru Granth Sahib Ji; Qur’an 3:104, 110
One such song likely got lodged in my head after I’d seen something incongruous online or on television. You probably know this song. It’s from Sesame Street:
One of these things is not like the others
One of these things doesn’t belong…
I am reminded of that song—and am risking re-inflicting upon myself that same earworm—because of what it says about belonging. Because it seems to me that we think about belonging most when something doesn’t belong.
We don’t walk into our work or living spaces and comment on the table that’s always been there and say, “Wow, that table really belongs here.” Or we don’t turn to our colleagues and without prompting say, “You really belong at this organization, Dave.”
No, instead we are more likely to notice the standout, the odd duck, the anomaly and say, “What’s that doing here? It doesn’t belong here!” Or we’re more likely to turn to another colleague and whisper, “What’s with Dave? Why does he still work here? He doesn’t belong here with us.”
The word belong itself comes from an Old English word that means “to be suitable” or “to fit.” But it seems that we’re better at pointing out when things aren’t suitable than when they are.
II. NOT FITTING IN
We know this about belonging. We know that belonging seems to be observed more in the breach than in the exercise. And that creates in us anxiety. Because deep down we fear that we don’t belong. We’re not suitable. We don’t fit in.
It’s the experience of the freshman sitting in her new dorm listening to her new roommate talk about the non-profit organization she started over the summer that has already garnered hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations to clean up the riverbed in her home town. I don’t belong here, she thinks.
It’s the feeling of the new professor who stumbles through the first day of class, tripping over himself and forgetting important details about the course material he’s been studying for years. I don’t belong in this job, he says to himself.
It’s the new pastor making her first visit to the hospital and seeing a patient with a life-threatening illness and coming up with nothing to say. I don’t belong in the ministry, she says.
Or it’s the LGBTQ youth, listening to words from the pulpit making him feel alienated or alone, judged by human beings and by God. I don’t belong in the church, he laments to himself. I don’t belong to God.
Or it’s the African American young woman getting the dream job and walking into one meeting after another and not seeing another face that looks like hers and wondering, Do they think I belong here?
We are social creatures, after all. No one wants to be the stand out. No one wants to be the anomaly. The odd duck. We want to belong. We want to fit in. We live in dread of hearing those soul-piercing words: Get out of here. You don’t belong here.
III. RITUALS OF BELONGING
It’s one of the reasons why religious communities can be so attractive. We offer people a chance to belong. And we do so with style.
We have rituals of seeking belonging, seasons of preparation, rites of initiation, and celebrations of welcome and inclusion into the community. Whether it’s a bat mitzvah, or a baptism, or a public confession of faith, or a khanḍe-kī-pahul, or an award presentation, we all want our rites of belonging to be substantial. After all, we want there to be some acknowledgement that our belonging is legitimate. After all our anxiety about not belonging, we want to know that this belonging is for real. It’s almost as if we desire to know that we proved ourselves worthy of belonging. After all, who would join a religion that you could join just by writing your email address down? That’s how you subscribe to a recipes listserv, not how you enter into covenant relationship with an intentional community.
We want our affirmations of belonging to be vested with seriousness, because lurking in the back of our minds is the fear that an easily granted belonging could just as easily be lost—and for good reason. It puts me in mind of that old Groucho Marx line: “I would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me as a member.”
And so, our religious traditions are good at meeting us where our insecurity leaves us and welcome us into communities of belonging with solemn ceremony and celebration.
Indeed, our religious traditions are in many ways all about belonging. The importance of community is central to many, whether it’s the people of Israel, the Church, the Umma, or the Sikh nation. Community is lifted up because it is understood that holy and righteous living is done in relationship and not alone. That we are formed and guided by one another, in short, we need one another in order to truly live out our faith. The communities of faith offer belonging because without a community to belong to, practicing faith becomes impossible.
All of our traditions delight in helping people to find a sense of belonging, and that sense of community. Several years ago, when I was serving as the United Methodist chaplain, one of my students joined the United Methodist Church during one of our Sunday night services. It required her only to stand in front of the congregation and answer a few questions—very much the same questions that Peter and Jenn answered on Baby Grant’s behalf earlier—and she was in. Her friends threw a celebration for her and that night she posted a simple message on her Facebook page: “I’m home.”
That sense of belonging in community is a powerful one and it’s one we celebrate. There are many here who have come to witness Baby Grant’s baptism, not because folks have been overly concerned about the state of his eternal soul, but because they celebrate this rite of belonging. Belonging is powerful and joining a community is a meaningful and joyful event.
But there is a deeper belonging we are called to, a deeper community we are meant to share in.
Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King devoted his ministry and gave his life to work for the day when all would feel that sense of belonging that too few have known. When Dr. King began his public ministry in the early years of the Civil Rights movement, he championed the belonging of African Americans in American society. He sought the redress of a centuries-long wrong in our national life by the inclusion in that national life of people of color. That work is ongoing and, to our shame, not yet finished.
But when King was gunned down on April 4, 1968, it wasn’t racial equality that was dominating his attention, it was the needs of the poor. The Poor People’s Campaign was a movement for economic justice—a movement to ensure that ensure that the poor were not exploited for the enrichment of a few but were included. Made to belong.
King had also been stepping up his criticism of the Vietnam War, a move that was fraught with political consequences, as many of his allies feared it would alienate Lyndon Johnson, whose support the Civil Rights movement needed. In a recent article in the New York Times, one commentator noted:
“But [King’s speech against the war] also highlighted how for Dr. King, civil rights was never a discrete problem in American society, and that racism went hand in hand with the fellow evils of poverty and militarism that kept the country from living up to its ideals.”
The tragic fact of King’s murder shows that those who profit from exclusion will react violently to those who seek inclusion and justice. Those who benefit from telling others they don’t belong, will fight those who dare to work for any group’s belonging, for they understand, as King did, that to truly champion one group’s belonging, you must champion all. And therein lies the threat to the established order.
King understood that Black Americans would never truly belong unless poor Americans, the oppressed, the victims of violence and war, and a host of others also belonged. The language that we remember MLK for the most had to do with racial inclusion, but the vision he had was of an all-inclusive reality.
This is a lesson straight out of our religious traditions and a testament to the depth of King’s spiritual and prophetic genius.
For it was the prophets who always had a habit of reminding the people that they belonged to a much greater tribe—to humanity. It was Amos who reminded the people that there were many other peoples who belonged to God. It was Jesus who healed the servant of a Roman soldier and made a despised Samaritan the hero of one of his greatest parables. It was Muhammad who championed the common humanity of all and lifted up deeds of piety as the sole valid differentiation among people. The Sikh Guru Amar Das taught “All are created from the seed of God. There is the same clay in the whole world, the potter (God) makes many kinds of pots.”
All of our traditions keep calling us to this deeper level of belonging: humanity.
It is wonderful to celebrate our belonging in community and to recognize the gifts that community can bring to our sense of belonging. Today we have celebrated rituals of belonging in particular faith traditions, we have celebrated those working for belonging on our campus, and in a few moments we will celebrate our new president and lift up her belonging in our university community.
But in addition to the celebration of our belonging in our smaller communities, it is the deeper task before us to extend belonging to others. To ensure that all have a sense of belonging. That everyone born has a place at the table.
Belonging shouldn’t be a concept most frequently observed in the breach. It shouldn’t be something we notice only when it doesn’t work. Nor should the belonging or lack thereof be blamed on that which doesn’t “belong.” Perhaps when a piece of furniture doesn’t belong, it’s the room that’s wrong. When someone doesn’t quite fit in, perhaps it’s the community that’s wrong. When it comes to people, belonging shouldn’t be a simple descriptor of whether someone does or does not fit in. It should be a challenge, a task, a calling for us to extend belonging to those who do not have it.
For it is in extending welcome to others, it is in working for justice so that no one is denied access to the resources that make life livable, it is in working to create spaces of inclusion, spaces of belonging, that we ourselves find our truest, most meaningful belonging.