May 28, 2017
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
If you have ever taken a creative writing course, led a youth group experience, joined a “Journaling” class, or been part of a life improvement seminar, you have probably participated in the classic exercise called, “Write your own obituary.” In this exercise, participants are encouraged to think about the direction of their lives by describing in a fictional obituary how they would like to be remembered when they are gone. When youth do this exercise, their fictional obituaries usually sound something like this: “Jane Doe died in her sleep last week at the age of 115 after a day of scuba diving in the Great Barrier Reef. Doe had recently returned from Sweden where she had received the Nobel prize for developing the means to halt global warming. Doe was also known for her award winning piano compositions, held a black belt in karate, and could speak 17 languages.” The fictional obituaries that young people create are usually lists of accomplishments and are grounded in their belief that the value of their lives will be weighed by the importance of what they do over their lifespan.
Real obituaries, however, at least those of ordinary people, are of a different kind. Here, for example, is a real obituary for a man who died this past week that I found online: “Funeral Services with Military Honors for 85 year old Gordon E. McDonald. Gordon is survived by his wife of 60 years, Janice, his son and three daughters …” The paragraph continues for some time listing his many siblings, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. It then goes on to give these details: “Born to the late Melford and Catherine Halter McDonald, Gordon graduated from school and served in the National Guard. He become a Union Plumber, worked for Niagara Mohawk, was a communicant of St. Andrew’s Church, a member of the Knights of Columbus, the American Legion, and the Gate House Hunting Club.”
What is different about this real obituary from the fictional ones we create when we are young, besides the fact that they are more realistic in scope? Unlike our fictional obituaries which were lists of accomplishments, real obituaries are descriptions of belonging. Your real obituary may list some of the things you managed to accomplish in your life but for the most part, it will be a description of your journey of belonging. Our journey of belonging begins with our birth and the family into which we are born, and continues in the schools we attend as we grow. If we go to college, we choose the college based on whether we feel like that school is a “match,” a place we can find people who might become friends, where we can flourish because of the mentors we will find there and the alliances we will make. For some, that alma mater sometimes will continue to define their identity into old age. Our obituaries will list the places where we worked as adults, and the clubs and the organizations of which we were a part, and of course, if they say nothing else about us, they will include the people that we left behind — the people who will continue to carry us in their hearts after we are gone. Our obituaries reflect the truth that for most of us the value of our life is found not just in what we do with our days, but in the attachments we make that form our sense of identity.
Much of our life is spent looking for those people who will make us feel valued and less alone. In the Anne of Green Gables books, the young girl Anne refers to those special people as “kindred spirits,” — people who laugh at the same jokes as you do, share similar values, and help you believe that maybe you are not such an odd duck after all. Historians point to the power of the need to belong as a motivating factor in recruitment during times of war: young men join the military driven to protect their communities and country because those places have given them a sense of belonging, and even when war turns out to be less glorious than they imagined, they are sustained by the intensity of comradery they experience with the other troops. Each of us spends our lives forging friendships, creating families, and joining groups in an effort to fill our need to belong, to find the people who will accept us, stand by us, forgive us when necessary, and give us a secure place in the world to be ourselves, perhaps even who can help us to become our best selves.
The urge to belong is a powerful one. There’s a story about three young children who were bragging about how many times their families had moved. The first little boy said, “My family has moved three times since I was born.”
The second boy says, “My family has moved three times in the past three years!”
The third boy scoffs and says, “That’s nothing. My parents have moved five times just this year but I found them again every time!” (The Gift of Honor, Gary Smalley & John Trent, Ph.D., p. 89 )
The urge to belong to someone — anyone — is a powerful one that drives us throughout our lifetimes and shapes who we become in tremendous ways. Because of the depth of that need, however, the drive to belong can be a double edged sword. The people and groups to whom we pledge our souls can help us to become deeper, better people or they can cause us to wither and warp as they demand of us behaviors that harm ourselves or others or as they isolate us from new experiences, thoughts, and people outside of our circle of belonging. Sometimes the need to belong is so powerful that we don’t give enough thought to who we will become as a result of the ties we make; it is simply enough that someone wants us. It is enough that someone gives us a sense of validity in the world. We don’t go any further to ask, “Is the person I have become because of this association really enough?”
In the movie, “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe,” Lily Tomlin’s character said, “I’ve always wanted to be somebody but I see now that I should have been more specific.”
How do the people to whom you have pledged your life shape who you have become? How do the groups to which you have chosen to belong shape your sense of identity? And is the person you have become because of those associations the person you were meant to be, the person God hoped you would become?
In his letter to the Galatians, Paul steps into the middle of an argument among the members of the churches of Galatia about what it means to belong. As I mentioned in last week’s sermon, there was a debate in the early church as to how the message of Christ related to the Jewish tradition from which it came. Those who believed that Christ was the fulfillment of Jewish messianic hope — the final chapter in God’s message to Israel — saw Gentile converts as converting to a form of Judaism, and thus, they said, even Gentiles needed to practice Jewish dietary laws and be circumcised upon their entry into the church. Paul, however, argued that faith in Christ was sufficient and he did not require Gentile converts to adopt Jewish practices. When Paul consulted the other apostles, they agreed with his views and so Paul founded churches open to people of all backgrounds. When Peter visited Paul at the church in Galatia, he initially ate with Paul and the Gentiles putting aside Jewish kosher laws but as soon as some other Jewish Christians showed up, Peter’s sense of belonging — his identity based on a lifetime of religious traditions — caused him to abandon the Gentiles, separate from them, and associate only with the other Jewish Christians. Paul was steamed. It was not that Paul was rejecting Peter’s Judaism — he himself was a Jew and Paul spent a lot of ink in several of his letters arguing that God will never abandon the Jewish people because God’s covenants are everlasting. This is an important point for us to grasp in our times which have seen the horrible results of anti-semitism based on a mistaken reading of Paul. Paul celebrated his Judaism and did not condemn it, but he also believed that the outward practices of the law should not become the identifying principle of God’s favor. The koshers laws and Jewish practices could create a path for Jews to lead them greater spiritual awareness but when those practices became a litmus test for belonging, identifying who belonged to God and who did not, then those outward signs, Paul said, corrupted the spirit instead of enhancing it.
The history of anti-semitism in Christianity is a result of misreading Paul to assume that he was criticizing Jewish law when really he was criticizing the act of fortifying our own sense of belonging by denying others the right to belong. In order to bolster his sense of belonging with his fellow Jewish Christians, Peter separated himself from the Gentile Christians and it was that act of isolation that Paul condemns. The need to belong is so powerful that it can lead us to form associations based not on values or interests but on who is in and who is out. There is no faster way to satisfy your need to belong than by defining who doesn’t belong. When Christians read this passage in Galatians and use it to condemn Jews — when they read any of Paul’s letters and use his words to define who will be saved and who will not, who will be accepted into God’s company and who will be rejected, when they turn the Christian faith into a group of exclusively saved people who on the “inside” while the rest of the world is left on the “outside,” they flip Paul’s words on their heads and get his message backwards. Belonging to Christ, Paul said, is not about us. It is not about the way we behave or the clothes we wear or the food we eat; belonging to Christ is not about which hymns we sing or the way we pray or the rules we construct; belonging to Christ doesn’t happen because you say the right words of confession or live the most upright life or give to the right charities; and belonging to Christ most certainly is not based on making judgments about who does not belong to Christ. Belonging to Christ happens because Christ chooses to love us. Period. Full stop. We can move away as many times as we like — five times in a year if we want — but Christ will find us every time and continue to insist on loving us and inviting us into fellowship with him.
We belong to Christ simply because Christ has chosen to love the world; all of it, you included, and no one is left out. That’s the meaning of grace.
Timothy Paul Jones, a professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, tells about an incident in his own family that illustrated to him the power of Christ’s grace.
He writes, “Our middle daughter had been previously adopted by another family…. After a couple of rough years, they dissolved the adoption, and we ended up welcoming an eight-year-old girl into our home.
For one reason or another, whenever our daughter’s previous family vacationed at Disney World, they took their biological children with them, but they left their adopted daughter with a family friend. Usually — at least in [our daughter’s] mind — this happened because she did something wrong that precluded her presence on the trip. And so, by the time we adopted our daughter, she had seen many pictures of Disney World and she had heard about the rides and the characters and the parades. But when it came to passing through the gates of the Magic Kingdom, she had always been the one left on the outside. Once I found out about this history, I made plans to take her to Disney World… What I didn’t expect was that the prospect of visiting this dreamworld would produce a stream of downright devilish behavior in our newest daughter. In the month leading up to our trip to the Magic Kingdom, she stole food when a simple request would have gained her a snack. She lied when it would have been easier to tell the truth. She whispered insults that were carefully crafted to hurt her older sister as deeply as possible — and, as the days on the calendar moved closer to the trip, her mutinies multiplied.
A couple of days before our family headed to Florida, I pulled our daughter into my lap to talk through her latest escapade.
“I know what you’re going to do,” she stated flatly. “You’re not going to take me to Disney World, are you?” The thought hadn’t actually crossed my mind, but her downward spiral suddenly started to make some sense. She knew she couldn’t earn her way into the Magic Kingdom — she had tried and failed that test several times before — so she was living in a way that placed her as far as possible from the most magical place on earth…
I asked her, “Is this trip something we’re doing as a family?”
She nodded, brown eyes wide and tear-rimmed.
“Are you part of this family?”
She nodded again.
“Then you’re going with us. Sure, there may be some consequences to help you remember what’s right and what’s wrong — but you’re part of our family, and we’re not leaving you behind.”
I’d like to say that her behaviors grew better after that moment. They didn’t. Her choices pretty much spiraled out of control at every hotel and rest stop all the way to Lake Buena Vista. Still, we headed to Disney World on the day we had promised, and it was a typical Disney day. Overpriced tickets, overpriced meals, and lots of lines, mingled with just enough manufactured magic to consider maybe going again someday.
In our hotel room that evening, a very different child emerged. She was exhausted, pensive, and a little weepy at times, but her month-long facade of rebellion had faded. When bedtime rolled around, I prayed with her, held her, and asked, “So how was your first day at Disney World?”
She closed her eyes and snuggled down into her stuffed unicorn. After a few moments, she opened her eyes ever so slightly.
“Daddy,” she said, “I finally got to go to Disney World. But it wasn’t because I was good; it’s because I’m yours.” (Proof: Finding Freedom through the Intoxicating Joy of Irresistible Grace By Daniel Montgomery and Timothy Paul Jones)
The urge to belong is powerful but Christ says that we can take a breath and relax from our drive to find someone who will accept us, stand by us, forgive us when necessary, and give us a secure place in the world to be ourselves, who will help us even to become our best selves, because Christ has already found us, and it is through his grace that we belong.