|Today’s scripture readings:
When was the last time you felt like you didn’t belong?
A few weeks ago my husband and I received a letter in the mail from his alma mater, an annual fund appeal asking us to make a financial gift to the college. My husband’s name is Oby Ballinger; the letter was addressed to Mr. and Mrs. Ballinger. It was strange because this was not the first letter we had received from the college, and we’ve never been “Mr. and Mrs. Ballinger” in the past. But somehow that’s what ended up on the envelope this time. It reminded me of when I used to travel a lot for work in a previous job. Often as I’d settle into my airplane seat and start getting to know the person next to me, at some point they would notice the ring on my finger and ask about my wife. It was always well-intentioned and I’m sure it was usually more uncomfortable for them than for me when I’d correct them—“Husband, actually”—and move on with the conversation. Taken alone, each of these experiences produces little more than some momentary awkwardness. But the cumulative impact of many of these experiences over time has taken a toll. Oby and I are constantly second-guessing whether it’s safe to talk about our family or if that’s just going to make everyone feel uncomfortable. It makes us nervous to be honest about who we are or to tell stories about one another around people we don’t know well. I’ll confess I was even afraid to tell this story in my sermon today. In the end, all of this is about belonging. Do we belong or not?
The story of Mary and Martha is familiar to many of us. Jesus is traveling, and in a certain village he stops and is welcomed into Martha’s home. Martha busies herself with preparing a meal, while her sister Mary sits at Jesus’ feet, listening to his teachings. Martha gets frustrated that Mary isn’t helping with the cooking and tries to get Jesus to take her side and send Mary into the kitchen. But Jesus scolds Martha and tells her to leave Mary alone.
Most of us can relate to Martha’s frustration. We’ve all had that experience of feeling like we’ve been stuck with all the work while everyone else is just hanging around doing nothing. We’ve all been there. But I don’t think it’s just that Martha is upset she’s doing all the work. I think there’s more to it than that.
Even more so than in our own time, in Jesus’ day the work of preparing a meal was women’s work. A woman’s place really was in the kitchen. A place where a woman definitely did not belong? Out in the other room, learning from Jesus. The social codes and boundaries were clear and inflexible; a woman was not to sit with men around the feet of a teacher. I wonder if part of what’s going on in this story is that Martha is trying to enforce the rules, accusing Mary of crossing a boundary and insisting that she get back in her place. Martha knows Mary is acting inappropriately and she wants her to get back in line. Martha’s message to Mary is clear: You don’t belong there.
How does Jesus respond? He sides with Mary, the one who has broken the rules and has the audacity to sit at his feet—the one who insists that’s where she belongs. “She has chosen the better part,” Jesus says. He doesn’t play by the rules of social convention and he refuses to be constrained by the boundaries humans put in place. Instead, he makes sure Mary knows she does belong. It doesn’t matter what society says about people like her; she’s in the right place. He uses this situation to express his own contempt for a system that lifts some up and puts others down, creates insiders and outsiders, and tells whole groups of people, “You don’t belong.”
When was the last time you felt like you didn’t belong?
Many of you know that this summer we’ve invited everyone in the congregation to read Waking Up White by Debby Irving, a book that describes one woman’s journey to understand the realities of racism and the unintended impacts of white privilege. If you haven’t already gotten a copy of the book and started reading, it’s not too late! One chapter explores the concept of belonging. In general, Irving says, white people in America grow up with a sense of belonging, while people of color do not. She gives many examples of ways people of color learn they don’t belong: “White people who cross the street when they see a black man walking toward them send a message: ‘I don’t like seeing you here.’ People who ask, ‘Where are you from?’ of an Asian American whose family immigrated here two hundred years ago send a message: ‘You’ll never look like you belong.’ A government that isolates Native Americans on remote reservations sends a message: ‘You are not wanted.’” Black parents who teach their children not to play hide-and-seek outside lest it appear they are up to no good have heard the message loud and clear: “You don’t belong.” “Saturating our culture is the ultimate message: ‘Belonging to Club America is primarily for white folks.’”
I was thinking of this chapter on belonging this week as journalists began reporting that Philando Castile had been pulled over at least 46 times, averaging about once every three months. Was he just a phenomenally reckless driver, or was something else going on here? We probably can’t say. But I do wonder what it does to a person’s sense of belonging to be pulled over so many times, for such minor offenses as turning into a parking lot without signaling, failing to repair a broken seatbelt, and driving at night with an unlit license plate, when so many white folks do these kinds of things all the time without consequence. Is it really possible to feel like a valued member of the community when this is your daily experience?
I was also thinking about the concept of belonging this past week after the attack in Nice, France. What makes it possible for someone to drive a truck into a crowd of people with the intention to arbitrarily steal dozens of lives? For a suicide bomber to walk into the middle of a crowded public space and detonate their explosives, or a sniper to execute five police officers keeping the peace, or a gunman to enter a nightclub and commit mass murder? Certainly their motivations are complicated. But I suspect that only a stolen sense of belonging could leave someone feeling so estranged from their humanity that taking others’ lives seems inconsequential.
If this is all true, if belonging really is so important, then our congregation’s efforts to expand our welcome and open our doors to all is more than just a nice gesture toward folks who often feel left out. When we welcome others into our midst and work to build relationships across difference, we may actually be healing souls that have been wounded by alienation. We may be sowing seeds of belonging that will bear the fruit of reconciliation.
During Black History Month earlier this year, I read an article by blogger Michael Houston titled, “What Do Black People Want?” In order to answer that question, he says, we have to consider the taught history of black people: “We were all born into slavery. It’s as simple as that. According to the history textbooks, that’s all we know about black history… They give minimal information about black history prior to slavery and only focus on the important leaders during the civil rights movement.” He goes on: “The history textbooks don’t dare mention the major contributions to the world that blacks have made…. The world may not like to admit it but we are an impactful people. It is in us to help the world… with love and compassion. We must use that influence for the betterment of ourselves and for the rest of the world.” What do black people want? “What we want is our rightful place in the world. To be given credit for all the accomplishments we have made and to be respected as a people. That’s what we want.” It’s about belonging. Everyone wants to belong.
Cheryl Corley, “The Driving Life and Death of Philando Castile,” on National Public Radio, July 15, 2016, http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/07/15/485835272/the-driving-life-and-death-of-philando-castile.
R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 9, eds. Leander E. Keck et al. (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995).
Michael Houston, “What Do Black People Want?”, on The Odyssey Online, February 17, 2016, https://www.theodysseyonline.com/the-question-that-has-been-on-everyones-mind
Debby Irving, Waking Up White, and Finding Myself in the Story of Race (Cambridge, MA: Elephant Room, 2014).
Karoline Lewis, “No Comparison,” on WorkingPreacher.org, July 10, 2016, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4686.
The featured image for this post, “belonging,” is copyright (c) 2006 evil nick and made available under an Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic Creative Commons license.