The Rev Cynthia K R Banks; Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany—Year B; Isaiah 40:21-31; Psalm 147:1-12, 21c; I Corinthians 9:16-23; Mark 1:29-39
Picture your toughest year socially in school. That year where you were struggling the most to figure it all out. Got that picture in your head? What grade was it? And as you tried to navigate that social minefield, what did you long for the most? To fit in. And so what did you do?
Okay, in my day, all the girls had those purses with the tortoise shell handles and the covers that you buttoned on, 4 buttons on each side—circa 1980. Anybody remember those? And you just had to have one of those purses if you wanted to fit in. The only problems was, I never had the right cover at the right time. When they had plaid, I had denim. When I got plaid, they were on to pastels. Oh, it was work to figure it all out, but I wanted to be “with it”, I wanted to be “cool”. Okay, and don’t think this goes away just because you become an adult.
So, this afternoon, I leave to go for a week-long training with Brene Brown. This past week, I went shopping for some jeans, because all mine had holes in them, and then I got a few casual shirts, because I want to look light and fun, and Julia, who has read The Gifts of Imperfection looks at me over dinner one night and says, “Mom, why are you trying to look perfect because this is all about imperfection—the gifts of imperfection, Mom?” Busted. Oh, it’s so much fun to get busted by your 11-year old. So, why am I expending all this energy on my clothes when I never spend energy on my clothes? Because I want to fit in. Okay, anybody else with me on this???
So, let’s jump over to our lesson today from I Corinthians. Listen to what Paul says, “For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people.”
What does this sound like to you? It sounds like total people-pleasing. It sounds like a lot of changing yourself to fit in to me. If you’re a Jew, I’ll be a Jew, in order to win you over. If you are under those 613 laws from the Old Testatment, I’ll observe 613 laws, to win you over. If you are outside the law completely, heathen though you are, I’ll be a heathen, to win you over. If you are weak, even if I’m strong, I’ll be weak, to win you over. Whatever you are, I’ll become that, to win you over. So, what are we to make of Paul the greater fitter-in-er? There has to be more going on here.
Let’s dig a little deeper.
Remember that moment in school, or last week, when you really wanted to fit in? What is the need beneath that need? Brene Brown has rightly identified it—it’s the need to belong. The need that we all have to feel that we are loved and accepted, even more, it’s the need to feel that we are loveable and acceptable. Now, here’s the weird thing, and again, it’s Brown that first helped me see this. Our deepest need is to belong, and that’s a need that every human being has, and we think that the way to belong is to fit in. If we just fit in, we tell ourselves, then we belong. But belonging is that deep acceptance, by another, of who you are as you are, and if you change yourself to fit in, then the you that gets accepted by the group isn’t the you that is really you because you changed that you to fit in. Brown notes that the number one barrier to belonging is, what? You guessed it, fitting in.
So, there are two ways to look at what Paul is doing. One, he’s just trying to fit in all over the place, kind of like me and my tortoise shell purse. Two, he knows who he is in the depth of his being; he knows he belongs in the deepest most profound way possible; he knows who he is as one who is absolutely, totally, completely loved and accepted by God. He, in the words of Paul Tillich, has “accepted that he is accepted” without qualification. And, from that deepest place of belonging, he knows that he is absolutely connected to every other human being on this planet.
He belongs to them,
and they belong to him,
because they all belong to God.
And from that place, he can try on any identity in the world. All those other identities—Jew, under the law, outside of the law, weak—they are just like clothes that you put on and take off. They aren’t who you really are. And it’s fine to put those identities on, as long as you know who your True Self is. Paul is secure enough in his belonging that he can move fluidly among all these different kinds of people. All these differences are no threat to him because he knows to what and to Whom he belongs.
Paul says, “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.” “That I might by all means save some.”
“Save”, “sozo”, to heal, to make well, to restore, to make whole.
Paul is reaching out to whomever by whatever means he can to help them know, “You belong, you’re connected, you are restored to the whole. All those things that you think divide you, they are nothing, just the trappings of identity, but your true identity, it is deep, it is unshakeable, it is secure, it is indissoluble, you belong to God, you belong to Christ, you belong, period.” That is good news. That is gospel. And when you help people to know that, you are swimming in blessing.
And once you know that you belong at that deepest most fundamental level, you are indeed under an obligation to proclaim and share that good news with others. Once you know that you belong at that deepest level, you are free in ways that defy imagination. Just imagine what it would be like not to be haunted by all the things we think we need to do to fit in, to meet other people’s expectations of who or what we should be. I don’t know that I can wrap my mind around that. Obviously, based on what I shared earlier, I still have a ways to go, but I have an inkling of what that freedom might be like, and every time I taste it, it is good. But with that freedom comes an obligation, a responsibility, to help others see and claim and taste and know that freedom for themselves—the freedom that comes when you know that your belonging is not in question.
Maybe so much of our conflict comes from trying to fit in and make others fit in before we extend our love and care and concern. What would be possible if we left fitting in behind and worked instead from that secure place of belonging that understands that we are already connected to the Source of Life and that our job is to help others see this and live from this deepest place of truth. What if we understood that our job is to help others get reconnected to the whole? Isn’t this what Jesus is doing when he reaches out and touches Simon’s mother-in-law and lifts her up and her fever leaves? Isn’t this what Jesus is doing when he reaches across some great cultural divide and touches the untouchable? Isn’t that touch the very thing that reconnects that person to the whole? Isn’t that what salvation is all about?
Simon and his companions found Jesus, “Everyone is searching for you.” Isn’t that just another way to say, “Everyone wants to belong.” And his reply? “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do. They have to know, you have to know, you belong. You are in me, and I am in you, and we are in God.”
For all of us fitter-in-er’s, could there possibly be any better news than that?
Truly, this is the gospel that our hearts and souls long to hear.
Embrace this good news, and then be heralds of it,
by all means possible with everyone you meet.
Be a part of this great knitting back together
of the fabric of the whole. Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC; February 8, 2015