Belonging vs. fitting in
January 21, Third Sunday after Epiphany:
Draft text of the homily, it may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please pardon any typos, and do not cite without permission.
Last week, we started talking about belonging.
What does it mean to belong?
Belonging is something we all want. Something we all desire.
But it’s more than just a desire. Belonging is a deep, and profound need that humans have.
It is “an irreducible need,”  says author and scholar Brené Brown.
If you don’t know who Brené Brown is, I’d encourage you to google her, and watch her Ted talks, read her books. She’s a popular author, and a researcher in the Graduate School of Social Work at the University of Houston. She’s spent years studying courage, shame, vulnerability, and belonging.
She says that what those years of research have revealed to her is that humans are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong.
But belonging is not as easy as it sounds…it’s actually incredibly hard work. Belonging is not the same as simply showing up…or signing up…its not just a matter of transferring membership, or renewing a subscription, or crossing the aisle.
“Belonging,” says Brene Brown, “is the innate human desire to be part of something larger than us.”
But…she goes on, “Because this yearning is so primal, we often try to acquire it by fitting in and by seeking approval.” Which are not the same thing.
We desperately want to belong…to something bigger than ourselves…and we want this so badly that we will do whatever it takes to achieve this…by trying to fit in.
But fitting in, says Brown, is just a hollow substitute for belonging, and actually erodes true belonging.
Here’s the very pithy way she puts it, ““If I get to be me, I belong. If I have to be like you, I fit in.”
“Belonging,” she says, “is being somewhere where you want to be, and they want you. Fitting in is being somewhere where you want to be, but they don’t care one way or the other. Belonging is being accepted for you. Fitting in is being accepted for being like everyone else.” 
We do this all the time. We want to belong, and we settle for fitting in. Which causes problems. And the church is not immune to this…in fact, it might be especially susceptible to it.
Sometime around the year 50 CE a convert to the new Jesus Movement…a former Pharisee known as Paul…established a community of believers in the Greek city of Corinth. Paul felt strongly that his call was to ministry among the Gentiles. Most likely, these were non-Jews who were very interested in Jewish ethics and may have even tried to patten their lives in similar ways—who were trying to fit in to a Jewish way of life. Paul also felt strongly that in raising Jesus from the dead, God was signaling that the end of time, when all would be gathered under God’s reign had begun. We hear that in today’s reading…”the appointed time has grown short…and the present form of this world is passing away.”
Corinth was, at the time, the most important city in Greece, it was a bustling, multi-ethnic seaport, the capital of its Roman province. Over a year and a half Paul lived there and founded a community, and then left for Ephesus (which is probably where he was when he wrote 1 Corinthians). He stayed in touch with the churches he founded through letters, seven of which we have, and scholars mostly concur that these 7 were actually, and authentically written by Paul—1 Corinthians is one of those. It’s important to note that while we have Paul’s responses to churches in Corinth, Galatia, Thessolonica, Phillipi and Rome we don’t have any of their letters to Paul. We’re always getting only one side of the conversation.
The content of Paul’s letters focus on conflicts that these communities are experiencing. So we can infer that their letters were something like: “Since you left, here’s what’s been happening…what do you think?…Any helpful advice?” And Paul is never short on what he thinks they should do.
And what is the central issue for the church in Corinth? It’s a conflict over belonging.
At the opening of the letter Paul says, “It has been reported to me…that there are quarrels among you…each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul’, or ‘I belong to Apollos’, or ‘I belong to Cephas’ [Peter], or ‘I belong to Christ.’ (1 Cor 1:11-12). Paul wasn’t the only itinerant preacher going around spreading the gospel, there was Apollos and Peter, and probably others as well. And the good folks at Corinth had started taking sides…desperate for belonging and connection they gravitated to leaders whom they liked, or who said the things they agreed with, or who their neighbors sided with…they started fitting in and insisting others fit in as well and factions were born.
Technology has changed…we have texts and snapchat and tweets instead of letters, but that desire to belong is still strong.…it’s so strong in fact that like our ancestors in the faith we’re wiling to trample all over other people’s desire and right to belong so that we can feel like we belong…We confuse belonging with fitting in. We want to belong, but we settle for fitting in…and we force others to fit in too. Come join us! Be part of the team! We have the answers! We know what’s right! We’re team Apollo! (or insert a contemporary reference). No, we know what’s right, we’re team Paul! You’d better do it the way we do it!”
Paul is clearly flabbergasted by this, responding, “Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul?” What is going on? But once he moves past this, his response centers on true belonging rather than fitting in.
The world couldn’t figure out God through wisdom, he says (and I’m paraphrasing his response), so God decided to reach us through something that sounds totally crazy…the death and resurrection of Jesus. For some demand a sign and others desire wisdom, “but we proclaim Christ crucified.” That’s it. Our belonging to God, and to one another, is based on this and nothing else. It’s based on our recognition of what God has done for us. Period. Full Stop. Because we find our true identity in Christ, we are free to grow into our whole selves—our true selves—and to bring that whole self into all of our relationships.
But again, it’s not a easy as it sounds. The rest of Paul’s letter is trying to help the Corinthians work out what this really means in their context. Which is also what we have to do.
It’s not easy for us either. We need to be vigilant about making sure that when we invite people into this community, that we are intentionally welcoming and inviting their whole selves—and not simply asking them to fit in…”you’re welcome to come be just like us” is not the message we want to send. We want people to belong.
We live in a time when true belonging is becoming rarer and more desperately needed. It has always taken a special courage to experience true belonging, and it’s hard work.
In her most recent book, Brené Brown writes, the special courage to truly belong today is about, “breaking down the walls, [it’s about] abandoning our ideological bunkers and living from our wild heart rather than our weary hurt. We’re going to need,” she says, “to intentionally be with people who are different from us….We’re going to have to learn how to listen, [how to] have hard conversations, [how to] look for joy, share pain and be more curious than defensive, all while seeking moments of togetherness.” 
If the church has a call and a mission, it seems to me that this is a big part of it…because we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to some, and foolishness to others…but because our truest identity is found reflected in God’s loving care for us, we are free—and called—to live as examples of true belonging. May God give us the strength and the courage to live into that freedom.
 Brown, Brené (2010-09-20). The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Suppose to Be and Embrace Who You Are (p. 26). BookMobile. Kindle Edition.
 Brené Brown, Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone, p. 160
 IBID p. 36.