Wholeheartedly – Identity & Belonging
09 JUL 2023
We continue our series on Wholeheartedly and we are going to build on what we learnt in the previous sermons and speak about the topic of Belonging today.
Let me begin with this quote from Brene Brown from her book Atlas of the Heart, in which we have been basing this sermon series on – “We have to belong to ourselves as much as we need to belong to others. Love and belonging are irreducible needs for all people. In the absence of these experiences, there is always suffering.”
Today I want to speak about how belonging is actually on heart of God and how belonging is actually the mission of God. And Brene Brown calls out that there are 2 aspects to this belonging: the first aspect of belonging is how we belong to ourselves, and the other aspect is how we belong to others.
Let’s look at the first aspect of belonging to ourselves. As we get into this topic, what do you think it means to “belong to yourself”?
“True belonging is the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share you most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something, and standing alone in the wilderness. True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.” – Brene Brown
And the way we believe in and belong to ourselves first comes down to how we understand our worth, or our worthiness.
We are told by the world we live in what we are worth – how people react to the way we look, or the way we behave; the size of our bank accounts, who we know, the family we are born into, the jobs we have, the titles we carry, our educational qualification, our accolades. This is how the world measure how much we are worth, and imprints on us that we can too can judge the worth of others based on these same yardsticks. While we don’t think about this consciously, how many of us admit that we treat people differently based on what we think they are worth to us, and to others.
For some of us here in this service, who are a part of this church, we have been told that we are not worthy to be a child of God because of our sexual orientation. Or our gender identity. Or our HIV status. Or how we believe. Or because of something we have done.
And let me put it out there that the Christian witness is that all these ways of understanding worthiness isn’t God’s plan for us.
At the start of Genesis we read of the creation story where the writer narrates the God’s intention – that out of chaos comes order, beauty, goodness, wholeness, shalom – the way God intended things to be.
And if you have been in church for a while, you may have been taught that because of the sin of the first Adam, we are now fallen beings and separated from God; we are no longer worthy to be with God. That is unless we believe that Jesus’ died for us as the scapegoat or sacrifice for all our sin so that we can be made righteous again with God and worthy of God’s love.
But is that really what happened?
Turn with me to Gen 3. It’s a familiar passage of scripture for many of us. But today, maybe we will see this scripture with new eyes –
Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”
2 The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, 3 but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”
4 “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. 5 “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
6 When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. 7 Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.
8 Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. 9 But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?”
10 He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.”
11 And he said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”
12 The man said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”
13 Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?”
The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”
Today when I read this, I do get annoyed with myself that I at one time I was actually reading this as a factual historical account, rather than a story. Firstly, we need to deal with an issue of a talking serpent. Which even children can clearly differentiate a story versus a historical account.
Taking the bible seriously does not mean that we take it literally.
This story is a very important one for us to explore, because right here in the interaction with the serpent the woman had to deal with 3 important questions that we all deal with –
1/ How we understand God
2/ How we understand God see us
3/ How we understand the relationship between God and ourselves
In the story, the serpent looked at a woman who thought God was love and said God was not love. The serpent looked at a woman who thought she was whole and beloved and said no you’re not, you do not have the relationship with God that you thought you had. The serpent looked at a woman who was made in the image of God and said that you were not made in the likeness of God.
The Bible says it was only then that she saw that the fruit was good.
She never saw the fruit that way until she saw herself and God differently. When she saw God differently, she saw everything around her differently. So the serpent tells her she had a sickness she did not have, gave her a cure that she did not need, and entered her into the sickness of unbelovedness, leading to shame. And as a result of what they had done, they felt ashamed and they created a covering for themselves and went to hide.
Think about it – the first covering they created was not a covering for the sin they committed – the woman saw the fruit with her eyes, picked it with her hands, ate it with their mouths, digested it with their stomach and yet the covering that they made had nothing to do with eating or the fruit.
The covering they made was in response to shame; and they covered their sexuality even though they had not sinned sexually.
Now I want us to see something very important that happens next. Our traditional Christian understanding of the human condition is that our union from God is separated a result of the Fall right?
When Adam and Eve hears God coming, they hide behind the trees. Now who went to hide? Was it God or was it Adam and Eve?
Even though they had sinned and they didn’t feel worthy, God still comes to find them. God still takes care of them in their place of need by sewing garments for them.
And just like Adam and Eve, while we can’t be separated from God, because of our unworthiness and our shame, we can certainly feel estranged from God, distant from God or be uncomfortable with God .
But what I had been taught in church growing up is that when people sin God separates and hides because the holiness of God is defined by God’s incapacity of sin. So then you need to have to have sacrifices to allow God the capacity to be back with sinful people and that’s what sometimes understand as the process of salvation, or being saved.
That’s not the story in the garden. Eve sinned, Adam sinned and God still came. They hid so there was distance now, but it was an emotional distance caused by their sense of diminished worth and the shame they carried around it.
We sang a song earlier for our time of worship called “Rejoice” that was written by Zihao, Kenny and John that I think is our most powerful testaments and declarations of the truth of your worth and my worth. That our worth is not based on the circumstances that we are going through. And neither is it based on any of our actions, or even any of those things that we think that are important.
“Rejoice” is based on a teaching by Jesus across the entire of Luk 15 where Jesus was specifically addressing the issue of worth and belonging to ourselves.
Now all the tax collectors and sinners [including non-observant Jews] were coming near Jesus to listen to Him. 2 Both the Pharisees and the scribes began muttering and complaining, saying, “This man accepts and welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
So let’s look at the scene. Jesus is going about his ministry and he receives a criticism from the religious leaders – the Pharisee and the scribes.
And what is this criticism? That Jesus accepts, welcomes, and spends time with tax collectors and sinners – the people who the religious leaders deem that Jesus should be separate from, because they themselves have made it a point to live their lives separate from these people.
Jesus, if you say that you are the son of God, why would you receive these unclean, sinful people who are unworthy to approach a holy God? You should be ashamed of yourself. You are holy and should be setting yourself apart from these people.
The Pharisees and the teachers of the law, they are not the bad guys we sometimes make them out to be. They were the then pastors, and priests – the good guys.
Like the rest of society they saw life the same way – worth is earned – you have to live a consecrated life, you have to study the Torah, you have make sacrifices to atone for your sins, you have to pray for hours, you have to cleanse yourself and keep away from anything that was unclean or sinful. You have to earn your worth. And based on that logical, reasonable, sane perspective, they criticize Jesus for this.
They earned the right to value the worth of others based on the level of commitment that they were living their lives at. And for them, since that is true, then worth must be earned, and the correct response is to live lives separated from others. By claiming to be God, you must be flawless, perfect, why would you associate with these people who are less than, who are unclean, who are unworthy?
But we know that Jesus didn’t just befriend the lowly, humble and been beaten down. He spent time with loan sharks, pimps, prostitutes – people who have beat themselves down, or were beating others down. Jesus did just know these people by name, He went to them, and spent time cultivating a relationship with them.
The same issue that Jesus was dealing with then, is the same issue we deal with within ourselves and in the world today around worthiness and identity.
So Jesus is gets ready to respond to the complaints. And in all His wisdom he sets up his sharing by telling 3 parables or 3 stories. Jesus loved to teach using parables to bring people into the story, to use their imagination. They were familiar scenes that people could picture, but usually included an unexpected twist. These parables had different layers of meanings, depending on who you were in the audience listening to it.
These three stories are familiar to many of us, and they follow a similar pattern to each other.
The first story is Luk 15:3-7. And here we see a shepherd with 100 sheep, who loses one, goes out to look for it, finds it, is joyful, and has a party.
3 Then Jesus told them this parable: 4 “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them.
Very relatable right? Many people knew about shepherds tending sheep. But here’s the twist in the story.
Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?
And here’s the twist in the story. Doesn’t he leave the 99 to look for the one? No any logical person does that! 99 is greater sum value than 1. This is illogical. This shepherd is leaving 99 behind? Who’s going to protect them?
The logical way to think is that you should protect the 99 you have since there is no guarantee that you will find the one that went missing because while you are doing that, you are risking the entire flock.
What is Jesus telling us about the nature of God and the way God looks at value and worth differently from the world?
Then we have the second story in Luk 15:8-10. Same pattern. A woman who has 10 coins, loses 1, goes to look for it, finds it, is joyful, and parties.
8 “Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins[a] and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it?
In the original language, “sweep the house” is better understood as turn the place upside down. Who does that? It’s not logical! It’s the middle of the night. It’s one coin. Do a better job at keeping your other coins safe! And while you are thrashing the place, you might lose the other coins the process!
9 And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ 10 In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
And what’s also not logical in this story is that when she finds this coin, this woman then goes and throws a party that costs more than the coin.
What is Jesus telling us about how God values people? Especially those who do not yet know how much they are worth?
While all this is going on in the mind of those listening – both the tax collectors and “sinners” and religious leaders, Jesus launches into the third story.
This is the one that we are all familiar with – the story of the prodigal son. It follows the same pattern but there are differences about this story.
What do you think is one thing that is different about the third story? In comparison to the first two?
For me, the difference is that with the sheep, that’s a beast; with the coin, that’s an inanimate object, but here, with the two sons, they had the ability to decide.
In this third act when Jesus was telling the story, he knew that the religious leaders hearing it were not on the side of the decisions of the younger son. These people were taught the law for hundreds of years. The older son was the logical one, the younger son, the wasteful one.
I love the story of the parable and I see the heart of all this playing out in the story. This is a story that is not new to any of us – Pauline went in depth into this in her sermon “Worthy of Love” two weeks ago.
And in her sermon, she reminded us that the younger son did not take a straight path from child of the devil to child of the Father. The beautiful reality of the younger son’s journey was a circular journey – his salvation was to come home to belong to who he always was.
The son had union with the father, and then he loses sight of his identity in his mind because of the decisions he made and in his shame, plans to return to the father to ask him to just take him back as a farm hand, as an employee, because he is no longer worthy to be called his child.
And he rehearses that all the way home and then down the road comes an old man comes half hobbling, half running. And as the old man throws himself on the boy, the boy covers himself because he thinks he’s about to get beaten but instead, it is nothing but love that covers the boy, not blood. Love covers the boy.
But instead of receiving the father’s love that covers his shame, what did the younger son say? “I am not worthy of this. I do not deserve this. You are doing this wrong, father, just make me a servant.”
The father’s first word out of his mouth was “quickly”! He shouted it. “Quickly!” and rewards him with reminder of his worth and sonship and celebrates him by throwing a lavish party.
The story of the lost son is also the story of the elder brother. The elder brother wouldn’t come to the younger son’s party because he tells his father, “you’ve never thrown one of these for me and I’ve been here slaving my whole life.” So while the younger brother was estranged from the father in a faraway country, the elder brother was estranged from the father on the front row of the church. And both of them were lost – not lost because of a Fall, not because the father was so holy, but because they had both lost their identities of who they were and their relationship to the Father.
These are three stories that let us know the heart of God and the way God values people, whether it is the image of Jesus as the shepherd who loses a sheep, the Holy Spirit as the woman who loses a coin – the Holy Spirit is rendered in the feminine in the Greek, or the Father as God the Father who loses his two sons.
And it is not about sheep, coins, or sons getting lost, it’s about people losing their true identity.
Why does God draw near with those who are seen as unworthy, who have lost their identity and no longer believe in or belong to themselves?
Whether it is in the creation story, or in these parables that Jesus taught, when it comes to people, God operates differently from the way the world sees worth. What a person does, does not determine their worthiness to God. And if you ever lose sight of that identity, God will leave everything behind and do everything to pursue you and restore your identity and belonging.
This is what I think Brene Brown means when she says “true belonging requires you to be who you are” and that is that YOU are a beautiful, beloved, worthy child of God that is made wonderfully in the image of the one who created you.
The way the world determines worth doesn’t work with God. God doesn’t compare who is better because we come to church, or make good, wise decisions, or have a seminary degree or a title in church. God says – that may be your math, that may be your logic, but that is not mine.
And that’s why I think the Christian witness of “grace” – the unmerited favour of God so reflects the heart of God. That’s the gospel. And the gospel reflects this heart of God that we are called to believe in and belong to.
All these stories – whether it is the parables in Luke 15, or the creation story and the fall, they don’t actually reveal a sin-separation-salvation model, they reveal a shame-estrangement-restoration model. The mission of God since creation is to restore that relationship with ourselves, our relationship with God and our relationship with one another.
Now we have so far been talking about our lost identity with God, and last week Pauline shared beautifully about how we restore an authentic relationship with ourselves – that means cultivating the courage to live out from a place of being authentic, being aligned to our thoughts, emotions, and values; to have compassion to be imperfect and set boundaries, and live from a place of vulnerability so that it builds connection with others.
Which brings us to the second aspect of belonging – how we belong and relate to each other in community.
We are all created for relationship – not just with God, but with each other as well. In the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, this need of belonging is ranked right there right about our physiological needs and safety. A sense of belonging in close social relationships and with community is essential to well-being. We are a social species and we are not created to survive without one another.
When we belong to each other there is an energy in that connection – the relationship becomes life-giving – we get strength and sustenance. This is the outcome when people feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can both freely contribute and receive.
However, Brene Brown’s research also found that although everyone wants to be a part of something, people are becoming increasingly dissatisfied, and it seems the thing that binds people today is not true belonging, but shared fear and disdain, or an increased pressure to “fit in”.
You know Luk 15 wasn’t just addressing those who identified with the younger son. Jesus was also responding to the religious leaders as well. Not only because like the older brother did they not realize that “all the Father had was theirs” already, instead of slaving away trying to earn it, they also believed that being separated apart from others – having fear and disdain of others – was on the heart of God – which is again completely the opposite of the heart of God.
They believed that their worthiness because of their pursuit of God had elevated their identity – that there was supposed to be an in group and an out group, those who were chosen and those were not.
This elevation of identity excluded those that were deemed unclean or unworthy. This elevation of identity created a separation and fear of others unlike them in the name of being holy and pure. This elevation of identity deepened that estrangement from others, and completely jeopardises building community and belonging.
But as Pauline reminded us last week, that the goal of holiness is being made whole, of restoration, and being set apart in our actions towards holiness must not be mistaken for separating ourselves from others.
That’s why FREE in FCC is a foundational value to our community. FREE stands for “first realise everyone’s equal”. That there is no elevation of identity based on worthiness.
And as a church our mission and the mission of all churches on God’s heart is to represent the heart of God and fulfil the mission of God –
At the center of all this, Christ rules the church. The church, you see, is not peripheral to the world; the world is peripheral to the church. The church is Christ’s body, in which he speaks and acts, by which he fills everything with his presence.
So if restoration of wholeness is the mission of God, and the church is the heart of God, then the priority of FCC and all churches is to create a place where people know that they belong to God, belong to themselves, and belong to one another.
When we create the right environment, we collectively feel belonging – accepted, included, respected, and engaged. And when we don’t, we collectively people feel estrangement, insecure, invisible, lonely and disconnected.
Brene Brown again says, “our yearning for belonging is so hard wired that we often try to acquire it by any means possible, including trying to fit in and hustling for approval and acceptance. Not only are these efforts hollow substitutes for belonging, but they are the greatest barriers to belonging.”
So if separateness is the far enemy of belonging, the near enemy of belonging is fitting in.
How many of you ever felt like you have tried to fit in somewhere? What is the difference between belonging and fitting in?
I think when we were kids we all have had the experience of trying to fit in. In her research, Brene Brown asked this of a panel of kids and these were some of the statements made: “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.” “Belonging 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.”
And likewise in Luke 15 Jesus was speaking directly to the Pharisees that not only are these people of the same worth to me, you elevating yourself and separating yourself and only include others if they fit in and think like you, look like you and behave like you is actually going against everything God is about, and you are actually going against God’s mission if you say you are God’s representatives.
Just as we realize we belong to God, we are called to create an environment as community where people can belong to each other and not just fit in.
This is the church redeeming its purpose to be a place that is “free from shame” and “free to be who God created you to be”. That is when all of us at the Free Community Church are reflecting and living out the heart of God.