October 9 2022 “Belonging”
Let me ask you two questions. When in your life have you had communities or groups or family in which you really felt you belonged? Conversely, when have you felt you didn’t belong? Each of us has stories about both experiences, of belonging and of being disconnected from the people around us. In my own life, one of the first times I experienced a feeling of not belonging was when I was fourteen years old and my family moved to Belgium, where I attended all of high school. After that first year, we went back home to California for the summer, and I remember telling someone Belgium didn’t feel like home. But I had changed enough that California didn’t feel like home anymore either, even though I had lived in one city, gone to one church and school, my whole life before Belgium. I felt displaced. I didn’t belong anymore in my own hometown.
Knowing you don’t belong is a terrible feeling. It makes it hard to go about your usual life, not just emotionally, but practically. Who do you call when need someone to watch your kids while you go to the doctor or get a haircut? Who takes you to work when your car breaks down? Who do you call just to chat, and how do you feel when there is no such person you can call? Who needs you in their life, who calls you when they are having a hard time?
Belonging and connection are the “why” of human existence. Someone once asked Margaret Mead, the renowned anthropologist, what was the first sign of human civilization. Her response was not tools or bricks or cave paintings. It was a healed human femur. When animals break their legs, they do not survive long enough for the bone to heal. For someone to have a healed leg bone means that someone took care of them until they could walk again.
Belonging is also a core theme in our scriptures today. In the book of Jeremiah, the background story is that the people of Jerusalem had been taken to Babylon as captives, where they lived in exile in a culture not their own. The lepers in today’s gospel reading were also severely quarantined and considered unclean. They were forbidden to live with the rest of society because contagion from leprosy and similar diseases could not be contained.
And what is the God of Israel’s answer to this question of belonging? There are actions that God takes, and actions that we take. First is what God does. In our tradition Jesus is the one who shows us what God’s love in action looks like in real life. The ten lepers approach Jesus and he immediately responds to them and gets close to them. These were not “lepers” in the abstract but ten real people who asked Jesus for help. God’s action is to encounter us in our particularity, in the unique stories that make us who we are. And if we have courage, like the lepers in today’s scripture, we could choose to risk being vulnerable and dare to ask God for help. And then? What does the God of Israel ask us to do?
The prophet Jeremiah tells the exiles in Babylon to build houses and live in them, right there in exile. Plant gardens and eat the produce. Get married and have children. Be rooted, he is saying. If you cannot change your circumstances, then be committed to where you are. Stop hoarding yourself and holding yourself back. Risk being vulnerable, and authentic, and honest. Image that you belong, and then dive in head first and engage with those around you.
But that isn’t all. God also says, seek the welfare of the community where you are living, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. The word welfare is “shalom” in Hebrew, and it means peace, well-being, prosperity, and thriving. God is saying, it will never work to focus on our own needs alone. Look around you diligently and inquire about the wellbeing of your neighbors, because without their wellbeing you will not have it either. The late Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone said something similar: We all do better when we all do better.
As it happens, belonging is one of the five values that your vestry recently identified as core to St. John’s, along with sacredness, spiritual nourishment, creativity, and transformation. Belonging is about valuing relationships over tasks or even ideals. As much as your vestry loves the St. John’s mission statement about “welcoming all without distinction”, belonging goes way past welcoming. It’s about knowing you have a place here where you can give from your authentic self and receive the authentic gifts of others, all for the good of the whole.
If you observe the natural world closely, the oak trees and squirrels and fungi and wolves will teach you something. Whether we feel like it or not, we all do in fact belong together, because our destinies are bound up together. We are all part of a greater whole, and as such, our work is twofold: to put down roots where we are, and then, to seek the welfare of those around us. This begins with our own families, and your boss and colleagues at work, and this St. John’s community. It also means Linden Hills, including the neighbors across 42nd street who have told us their kids are sometimes at risk when we use their driveways to turn around. We are to care the neighborhoods we live in, and the people of North Minneapolis, and the Dakota whose land this is. After all, we are followers of Jesus’ Way of Love, which is an inherently relational word. What Christ teaches us is that we will never find our own meaning apart from the welfare of those around us.
Several of us from St. John’s recently went on a tour of local sites sacred to the Native American community. One of these was Pilot Knob Hill in Mendota Heights on the banks of the Mississippi. At Pilot Knob Hill, the Dakota people used to bury their dead. Only they didn’t bury them at first. They put the bodies of their dead on platforms for a year, to feed the natural world, to give back to the natural world from whom they had been taking their whole lives. Only after a year would the relatives of the deceased come to bury what was by then only skeletons. It was a last generous offering made with love and respect for the rest of the natural world that had given them so much. Belonging is actually about living and dying in such a way that we are a gift to those around us, from the moment we are born to the moment our bodies return to the earth. Jesus shows us what this belonging looks like in his living and his dying.
Where might God be calling you to ask for help? How might you put down roots in your place of exile? How might you earnestly seek the welfare of those around you? It may be completely overwhelming to seek the welfare of the whole world. But it is completely manageable to offer loving kindness to the person right next to you. In the name of Christ, let us practice building and nourishing the Beloved Community, where all belong. Amen.