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The House of Belonging

Rev. Daniel A Smith
Sun, Sep 08

1 Corinthian 12: 12-26

I’d like to begin today with a favorite poem called The House of Belonging by David Whyte:

I awoke

this morning

in the gold light

turning this way

and that 

thinking for 

a moment 

it was one 


like any other. 


the veil had gone 

from my 

darkened heart 


I thought 

it must have been the quiet


that filled my room,

it must have been

the first

easy rhythm

with which I breathed

myself to sleep,

it must have been

the prayer I said

speaking to the otherness

of the night.


I thought

this is the good day

you could

meet your love,

this is the black day

someone close

to you could die.

This is the day

you realize

how easily the thread

is broken

between this world

and the next

and I found myself

sitting up

in the quiet pathway

of light,

the tawny

close-grained cedar

burning round

me like fire

and all the angels of this housely

heaven ascending

through the first

roof of light

the sun has made.

This is the bright home

in which I live,

this is where

I ask

my friends

to come,

this is where I want

to love all the things

it has taken me so long

to learn to love.

This is the temple

of my adult aloneness

and I belong

to that aloneness

as I belong to my life.

There is no house

like the house of belonging.


Whyte’s title and last line are what grabbed me most.  “There is no house like the house of belonging!”  Its a beautiful image, one I’d love for us all to hold in mind and aspire to on this Regathering Sunday.  Indeed, we are called to be a house of belonging. But before we come here to be together Whyte helpfully reminds us that we wake up alone.   Today, I’d like for us to ponder this theme of belonging, and not merely belonging to community, but that deeper sense of belonging too, one that invites us not to fear but to cherish our aloneness.  After all, what does it mean to truly belong? How do we practice and embody belonging -- to ourselves, to one another and to God?


I imagine Paul was asking similar questions when he was writing to that First Church in Corinth a few decades after Jesus died. He offers a remarkable metaphor here not merely for the church, but for the wider human community of which the church is a microcosm.  The church is not only a household of belonging, mind you, but a body of belonging.  By virtue of our baptism, each member, each of us, belongs to the body, and in Paul’s language, “the body of Christ.”  “14 Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15If the foot were to say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16And if the ear were to say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body.:” 


And right here, Paul is pointing to an obstacle to truly belonging.  Its that age-old pressure to fit in, to compare and contort ourselves into being something we are not! We get it from our churches. We get it from our parents and they get it from their parents. We get it from our peer circles and the wider culture. You see, in antiquity the body was an image used by elite classes to justify inequality and to underscore the misguided assumption that inferior groups just needed to play their inferior parts for the good of all.  This measuring of inferiority and superiority draws us away from whom God calls us to be. So Paul upends this common usage by introducing the metaphor in ways that dignify diversity, celebrate interdependence, all with a strong egalitarian thrust!  Can you see it?  Paul is saying, in essence, all parts need to be who they are, ll parts are equally necessary, all parts have need for each other. What’s more,  those that receive less respect should be accorded greater respect. We are all in this together, in the hard times and good. We suffer and rejoice together because, because we belong to each other, and because we belong to God.  For God made us and God, as Paul writes, “so arranged the body.” I love that last part. And this sounds like a body, and to return to our opening metaphor, like a house of belonging that to which we should collectively aspire to be and be part of!  


Let’s make sure we’re getting the finer points though of how we can practice this kind of belonging.  Paul writes, “When the foot says ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’Paul says, in essence, no!  Be the foot, as in, be who you are and belong! If you are a hand, be the hand and belong!  Paul is essentially prompting all the hands in the house to acknowledge their handiness.  Because I am a hand, I belong! And all the ears, their eariness, Because I am an ear, I belong!  By extension, he’s prompting all the men in the house in to acknowledge and insist on their manliness and say, as black men did in the 60’s, because I am a man, I belong! Remember those sanitation workers in Memphis, the “I am a man” signs they carried in the streets?  You can pick your identity marker!  Because I’m a woman, beacuse I’m queer or trans,  because I’m an artist, because I’m a scientist,  because, because I’m a human being, beacuse I’m a child of God, I am worthy and I belong!   In other words, true belonging begins in us, when we wake up and accept who we are, flaws and all, and stop trying to contort ourselves into being something we are not. And here’s where that temple of our adult aloneness comes in!  We don’t need to wait for someone else to tell us we belong. We don’t need to wait until we get here. We need instead, first, to receive our belonging as a gift, because God has so arranged the body! God has arranged the body so that we all belong! The more we can own this knowledge and live out of it, the better we will be at sharing this practice of belonging and reminding others that they belong too!  And still, and yet, years of people, churches especially, telling us to be someone else, to fit in to someone else’s code, to conform to our parent’s expectations, has trained us to forget that we already belong!  


In her 2018 book, Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone, Brene Brown invites us to consider a basic confusion that can arise when we show up in different places. She learned it from talking to middle school students who said simple but profound things to her like:  “Fitting in is when you want to be a part of something. Belonging is when others want you.” She learned from them that the most painful thing is when we feel like we don’t belong at home.  “Belonging,” Brown learned from these children, “Belonging is being accepted for you. Fitting in is being accepted for being like everyone else. If I get to be me, I belong. If I have to be like you, I fit in.” As our scripture reminds us,  the body of Christ, the household of God, in an ideal sense, invites us all to grow into the understanding of who we truly are, of who God made us to be, to be a community into which we can step deeper into those true selves.


I wonder how many of you, however unwittingly, came to church this basic question’ Do I belong here? Can I belong here?  Some of you may still be asking it, right now! These are natural question because belonging is one of our most natural human yearnings.  These are great questions!  Besides, after all, maybe its your first time and you are just checking us out. Or maybe you’ve been coming for a while you’ve noticed that something inside of you, or inside of us, has shifted, however subtly and you are wondering... do I belong?  For some of you, it may go straight to the heart of theological matters -  is this place Christian enough for me?  Is this place too Christian for me? Others of you may be asking is this place too churchy, too preachy, too liberal, too conservative, too diverse, not diverse enough, too justice oriented, not justice oriented enough, too spiritual, not spiritual enough?   In other words, will this place make me to try to contort myself to be someone I am not? I sincerely pray not!  


But it depends! It depends on how we are all doing with this spiritual practice of belonging, individually and collectively!  Brene Brown again has some helpful guidance on how we can embody this practice of belonging.  She says true belonging requires both courage and vulnerability!  It takes courage to stand up and be yourself especially when really, actually being yourself, your whole self, your true self, means acknowledging our hurts and  the not always pretty stuff we do with those hurts!  So, she says true belonging will require that we have a strong back, soft front, wild heart!  Strong back - as in have the courage to stand alone when that’s required, to not contort yourself, or get sucked in to bickering with BS, to remember that you already belong and that you don’t have to be someone else. Soft front - as in have the vulnerability to express your true feelings, to acknowledge need, to reveal your human weakness, to participate in community considering the possibility you might be wrong, to empathize! And she writes, “the mark of a wild heart is living out the paradox of love in our lives. It’s the ability to be tough and tender, excited and scared, brave and afraid—all in the same moment. It’s showing up in our vulnerability and our courage, being both fierce and kind.” 


Again, will this place make me contort myself and be someone I am not?  It also depends on how you and I woke up this morning.  Did you, like David Whyte, take a strong back moment of courage to sit in that temple of your adult aloneness, to be still and know that you already belong, to yourself, to God and to a wider community? Did you take a soft front moment to be vulnerable to the fact that today may be a day that could bring changes over which you have no control?

Today I woke up in the aftermath of watching that thrilling US Open Women’s Final yesterday. Any tennis fans in the house?  20 year, US Open veteran, Serena Williams, who at age 37 has 23 grand slam victories competing against newcomer Canadian, 19 year old Bianca Andreescu who didn’t even qualify for the tournament last year but who has been crushing it in her recent matches?  What struck me most about yesterday’s utterly fierce final match-up was not who won or lost, but the sense that both of these women, one a regular at Forest Hills, the other in her first US Open, completely and utterly belonged in that space, on that court. Serena especially, the crowd giving her a standing ovation as she came in. I imagined Arthur Ashe stadium, a home court in an international sport, as a house of belonging for her!  A place where she could bring her every gift, where she could be her utterly bad-ass self and where she could bring her every missed first serve and yesterday there plent of those. And then I remembered a piece that Claudia Rankine wrote about her in 2015. She asked: “What does a victorious or defeated black woman’s body in a historically white space look like? Serena and her big sister Venus Williams brought to mind Zora Neale Hurston’s “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” Serena has offered a profound model of a strong back and soft front, having shared her experiences of great victory, heartbreaking loss, of a harrowing childbirth and returning to a place where she has faced pressure beyond our imagining, unwarranted jeers and bad calls of every stripe from referees and crowds alike.  And yet she showed up yesterday, wonderfully fierce and kind, utterly human and completely herself. A commentator asked before the match would we see ‘vintage Serena’ or ‘vulnerable Serena?’  Amazingly, we saw both!  And in so doing, she taught us all how to belong, no matter how contrasting are the backgrounds and contexts of our supposedly home courts.  


Most of us sitting here in the pews do not have as dramatic a story as Serena Williams. But we have our own challenges and triumphs when it comes to the spiritual practice of belonging, the spiritual practice of being our true selves and honoring the true selves of others in community.  This place too has a record of major wins and major losses, times when we have been the house of belonging as tall and wide as Arthur Ashe stadium, times when we haven’t brought nearly our best game to one another and however unwittingly hurting ourselves and others in efforts to fit in.  But here’s what I believe.  I believe in my heart and hearts that no matter what our record is,  you belong!  I know this because you and I and everyone of us already belongs to God, and as members of the human community, and of this spiritual community, we belong to each other.  Here at First Church, I pray that we continue to aspire to be a house of belonging and to bring our very best game, that is, our most courageous and our most vulnerable selves and our wildest hearts!   On this regathering Sunday, can we recommit to making this a year in which we look for ways to deepen our relationship with God, who we can always count on to reflect back to us who we were created us to be.  Can we commit to bringing our true selves into this space, strong back, soft front, wild heart, so that we grow together into a community of belonging? Can we to recommit to finding ways to work together, support one another and find our unique roles in bringing about God’s vision for our world.   By God’s gracious arrangement, may it be so.  Friends, there is no house like the house of belonging. You belong! I belong! We belong. We belong to God. Let’s sing it now. Amen.



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