“To Be is To Belong”

To Be is To Belong by Aaron Lauer

Audio File

She held her books close to her chest, as she rounded the corner from her classroom to the hall. It was a new year in a new school, and she recognized no one in the sea of faces floating past her in the hallway. Bumping shoulders with a few older students she made her way across the hall, flowing with the traffic toward her next class. Up ahead, she saw the face of a boy from one of her earlier classes, a boy with stark white hair and a constant scowl on his face. They moved closer together, and she saw the scowl re-appear as his eyes met hers. Quickly, she looked away and kept walking, but as the boy passed beside her, she could hear him mutter under his breath, “Mudblood.”

For those of you not familiar with the wizarding world of Harry Potter, Mudblood is a slur used to describe a witch or wizard born to non-magical parents. You and I, as non-witches and non-wizards, are called Muggles, and sometimes, when two Muggles have a child, that child turns out to possess the power of magic.

Throughout the Harry Potter series, there is an intense controversy over who truly deserves the title of witch or wizard. Is it just the pure-bloods, like Draco Malfoy, the blonde-haired, scowl-faced boy in our story whose mother and father are both magical. Or would we include Hermione Granger as well, the young girl new to Hogwart’s School, whose parents are both Muggles?

Hermione eventually finds her place at Hogwarts, with the help of Ron Weasley and Harry Potter, and she emerges as the smartest student in her class. In fact, she is often getting Ron and Harry, both pure bloods, out of precarious situations with her quick mind and her knack for knowing the right spell at the right time.

As our trio of protagonists navigates their way through school, year after year, the Muggle-born controversy remains a constant theme. Who is in and who is out? Who is truly magical, and who is just faking it? Are you born into the gift of wizardry by your parents? Or can anyone be gifted?

These questions are not reserved for the world of Harry Potter, are they? If we compiled a top ten list of the biggest sociological questions that humans have faced throughout time, “Who belongs and who doesn’t” would definitely be near the top.

Nationalism that denies citizenship to anyone who isn’t naturally born, religions that deny salvation to those who don’t adhere to strict dogma, families who shun a child who is gay or transgender. JK Rowling seemed to be writing from observation when she chose her storyline about Muggles and magic.

The stories and themes of the Epiphany season illuminate this age-old question of belonging. We’re getting a jump-start on Epiphany this year, we’re still technically in Christmas, the 11th day, to be exact, with Epiphany beginning on January 6th. During Epiphany, we make a significant shift in the story of Jesus’ life and the purpose of his ministry, as well as a shift in our own part in God’s unfolding story of salvation.

On Christmas, God comes in silent, holy night, with a few shepherds and barn animals bowing at the manger in Bethlehem. A child is born, which is great, but we’re not really sure what to do with it yet. We celebrate God incarnate in the baby Jesus, but we have to wait patiently for instructions about what to do next.

Now Epiphany, that’s when it starts to get interesting. Epiphany means “manifestation” or “appearance,” specifically the revelation to the Gentiles (us non-Jews) that Jesus is the Son of God. But there’s a twist. Jesus isn’t the Son of God just for the Jews, he didn’t come to bring salvation to Israel only. Epiphany is the revelation that Christ is born for everyone, that God’s promise of redemption, justice, and love is for the whole world.

In most churches, this revelation is understood through the story of the Magi, three non-Jews who come from the East, and recognize that Jesus is the Christ, who brings redemption and salvation to the world.

But what you may find surprising is, epiphany, this revelation to the Gentiles, is actually a central theme throughout the New Testament. Our epistle reading for today, most likely written by one of Paul’s followers in his name, lays out beautifully what I believe is the most significant theological message of the New Testament: “that the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”

This was Paul’s mission and the mission of his followers, to spread the Epiphany Gospel, that God’s redeeming work through Christ Jesus is not just for Israel but for all people. That salvation is not for the Jews alone but for the Gentiles as well. When the reign of heaven comes down, in all of its justice and peace, we will all stand, side by side, as fellow heirs to the kingdom.

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“I’ve got five Somalis, a Cuban, an African-American, and some white boys,” said Jasha Johnston, the coach of the Bryant Square Park Little League team in South Minneapolis. Back in the 60’s and 70’s Bryant Square was a hotspot for the baby boom generation to learn the game of baseball. Little League teams were numerous and full of kids from the neighborhood excited to participate in America’s pastime.

Today, with smaller families, fewer people living in the city’s core, and neighborhood immigrant populations more interested games like soccer, baseball barely has a place in Bryant Square. But as the Star-Tribune’s Mike Kaszuba chronicles, the Boys of Bryant Square Park have come together to create something special. A team of different cultures, languages, histories, and interests, but a close-knit team nonetheless.

Coach Johnston picks up many of the boys at their homes in the Whittier neighborhood and drives them to Bryant Square for practices and games. Out of the diversity of a South Minneapolis neighborhood, the boys have found camaraderie; a place to play and to belong.

A sense of belonging is primal to our happiness and well-being as humans. In four different studies performed in 2013 at BYU, researchers found that people who possessed a sense of belonging to a group had greater perceived meaningfulness in life, social support, and social value.

As psychologist Gregory Walton writes, “Belonging is a psychological lever that has broad consequences. Our interests, motivations, health and happiness are inextricably tied to the feeling that we belong to a greater community that may share common interests and aspirations.”

This may sound strange to our 21st Century ears, that we find meaning and happiness by belonging to groups, when our culture is often sending us the message of independence and individuality. From selfies, to Facebook profiles, to freethinking religious views, to postponing marriage and children, American culture is increasingly independent from our traditional norms of social identity and community. Gallup polling from 2013 and 14, shows a steep decline over the past decade in political party affiliation, religious community involvement, and membership in neighborhood and professional organizations.

I believe that some of this streak of independence in our culture is driven by consumerism, no doubt. But even more so, I see America’s turn toward individuality and free-thinking coming from a need to trust our own experiences. When those in power in our churches, our political parties, our economic institutions, and our education systems tell us things that we know from our own lives are not true, we often refuse to believe them. We challenge them. We speak our own truth to the messages coming from these institutions, and increasingly, we as Americans are leaving those institutions behind and creating our own lives of truth and communities we trust.

We find a place to belong, people to call our own, not from arbitrary institutions, but from our own intentional search for a community, our own work to find a place to call home.

I see this in profound ways here at First Church. If I can be frank with you all, I find it rather astonishing that any of you are here this morning. Between sleeping in, the New York Times, brunch with friends, and Netflix, there are a million different ways you could be spending this Sunday morning. And in a church where we don’t shame or guilt you into attendance, and where the social expectation of being in worship hasn’t held sway in the UCC since the Reagan administration, I find life and hope in the fact that you all are intentional enough to get out of bed on Sunday morning, put on something nice, and be a part of this community. To sing together, pray together, share our thoughts and opinions, laugh and eat, cry and drink coffee. I think our First Church slogan of Gather, Listen, Speak, Act is right on the money.

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When I was in first grade, my grandpa died. He was a third generation Nebraska rancher, and after his death, he left land, buildings, and a bunch of cows to his wife, my grandmother, and his son, my dad. From the outside, this inheritance may have looked like a blessing amidst the death of my grandpa. My family inherited land and animals that could provide for us in the years to come! We had struck it rich with expensive farmland and beef cattle! But from the inside, I can assure you, this inheritance was a lot of work. My dad spent (and still spends) hours each day feeding cows, fixing equipment, haying fields, and shoveling corn, all the while keeping his job in town. Multiple evenings a week I would join him in chores on the farm or out at the pasture, with most every weekend occupied by a big project that our whole family would participate in.

Inheritance isn’t easy. It can be hard work. Whether it is land, or money, or a business that gets passed onto to you, there is almost always some responsibility that comes along with this blessing. There is work to be done, decisions to be made, where will the money go, who will take over the management, will we continue to farm the land or rent it out? Will we use our inheritance in the same way as those who gave it to us? Or go down our own path and make the inheritance our own?

In the letter to the Ephesians, the author writes of this same responsibility that we have as inheritors of the promise of Christ. “The Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” The Greek word for “heirs” used in this verse is sygklēronomos, which means “one who obtains something assigned to them, a fellow participant.”

As inheritors of Christ’s promise, we Gentiles don’t get to sit idly by as the blessing of Christ’s redemption is showered upon us. No, as inheritors we must participate, we must work as members of this body, share with the rest of this family the responsibility that comes along with the blessings of grace and redemption that God has promised us through Jesus.

The author goes on, “This grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; (and this is my favorite part) so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.”

As the church, we belong to a family, stretching back thousands of years, and across continents and cultures today, that has been given an inheritance. This is our epiphany, the daily encounter with God’s spirit of steadfast love that tells us, “You are fellow heirs, members of the same body, sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus.”

And as fellow heirs, as those who belong to this body that is bigger than ourselves, we have work to do. We are called to take this inheritance, this blessing of Christ’s promise, and share it with the world. We have the responsibility of crafting and molding God’s message of justice and love, in all its rich variety, and bring it to all the places that might need it.

The promise of Jesus is yours. You own it. You are a fellow heir. Take this inheritance. Take this epiphany that God’s grace and love are for you and everyone else, and share it with the world in all the diverse ways that you see fit.

You belong to this family. You are a fellow heir. The promise of Jesus is yours. Do something wonderful with it.