Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“You Belong to God” (Romans 14:7-8)
September 14, 2014
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Last week a parishioner informed me of an article about Billy Graham. Several years ago he was invited by leaders in Charlotte, North Carolina to a luncheon in his honor. At the luncheon Graham told the following story:
“(Albert Einstein) was once traveling from Princeton on a train when the conductor came down the aisle, punching the tickets of every passenger. When he came to Einstein, Einstein reached in his vest pocket. He couldn’t find his ticket, so he reached in his trouser pockets. It wasn’t there. He looked in his briefcase but couldn’t find it. Then he looked in the seat beside him. He still couldn’t find it.
The conductor said, ‘Dr. Einstein, I know who you are. I’m sure you bought a ticket. Don’t worry about it.’ Einstein nodded appreciatively. The conductor continued down the aisle punching tickets. As he was ready to move to the next car, he turned around and saw the great physicist down on his hands and knees looking under his seat for his ticket.
The conductor rushed back and said, ‘Dr. Einstein, Dr. Einstein, don’t worry, I know who you are; no problem. You don’t need a ticket. I’m sure you bought one.’ Einstein looked at him and said, ‘Young man, I too, know who I am. What I don’t know is where I’m going.’” (http://www.examiner.com/article/billy-graham-s-new-suit).
Perhaps you can relate to Einstein in that metaphorically you cannot find your ticket and you have no idea where you are going. Or perhaps you could take this story one step further— unlike Einstein, perhaps you are not even sure who you are.
Knowing who we are and where we are going are directly connected to one of our deepest needs: the need to belong.
It is no secret that one of our deepest needs is the need to belong. We need to know where we belong, we need a place where we feel accepted, included, wanted—a place where we fit in, a place where we know we are not alone. The need to belong is more than just a part of Abraham Maslow’s well known “hierarchy of needs,” it lies at the core of who we are.
People will often go to great lengths in order to belong.
My all-time favorite comic strip is The Far Side, Gary Larson’s classic series which ran from 1980 to 1995. Every time I went to a bookstore during those years I would check to see if there was a new Far Side book, and when there was, I would find a place in the mall and read through it then and there.
One cartoon features a dog named Rusty who wants to belong to a certain dog club. The cartoon shows Rusty—wide-eyed, tongue hanging out of his mouth, radiating intense fear—as he emerges from crossing a busy highway, somehow having managed to dodge all the traffic. One of the dogs waiting for Rusty exclaims, “All right! Rusty’s in the club!” Way to go, Rusty!
As famous as the late comedienne Joan Rivers was for her sense of humor, sarcastic as it often was, she was equally famous for her numerous plastic surgeries. In a 2010 documentary about her life (Joan Rivers: Piece of Work) she revealed this: “No man has ever ever told me I was beautiful.”
Later in the documentary on a radio talk show the host began to interrogate Joan about all her plastic surgeries, culminating with this question: “Who is the real you?”
“Who is the real me?” Joan replies—and the host continues, “Yes, we want to be loved for our sense of humor, our soul, our sweetness, our vulnerability, our intelligence…” Listen to how Joan responded: “I just want to be loved.”
Like Rusty, each of us wants to belong to the club. Like Joan Rivers, each of us wants to be loved. And although we may not dodge highway traffic or undergo plastic surgery, we may do other things in order to belong. We may endure hardship or humiliation, pay high priced membership dues, dress a certain way, buy a house in the “right” neighborhood, make friends with the “right” people.
This happens throughout our lives—making friends on the playground in nursery school, trying out for the band or sports teams in high school, pledging a sorority or fraternity in college, looking for a spouse to whom we will always belong—all the way to end of our lives when we hope we will not die alone, but in the presence of those to whom we belong and who belong to us. We even want to be buried in a place we belong.
And this need to belong was not our idea, it was God’s idea. God did not hardwire us to be isolated automatons, but relational people with the need to belong.
And when that need to belong is met, it can change our lives.
As many of you know last week the rock band U2 released their thirteenth studio album Songs of Innocence for free on iTunes—which has over half a billion subscribers (Yours Truly included)—making it the largest album release in music history. On the first song of the album Bono sings about how as a teenager the music of the 70’s band The Ramones helped him find a place he belonged:
I woke up at the moment when the miracle occurred
Heard a song that made some sense out of the world
Everything I ever lost, now has been returned
In the most beautiful sound I’d ever heard
(from the song “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)”).
And of course Bono and the rest of U2 indeed found their place of belonging as rock musicians themselves, one of the most iconic bands in rock history.
In today’s lesson from Paul’s Letter to the Romans we read these comforting words that speak directly to our need to belong: “If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s” (14:7-8).
In other words, you belong to God.
And if as a Christian you still have moments when you are not sure who you are or where you are going, be encouraged, because you are in good company. Just a few weeks before he was executed by the Nazis on April 9, 1945 the brilliant Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote the following poem:
Who am I? They often tell me
I stepped from my cell’s confinement
Calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
Like a squire from his country-house.
Who am I? They often tell me
I used to speak to my warders
Freely and friendly and clearly,
As though it were mine to command.
Who am I? They also tell me
I bore the days of misfortune
Equably, smilingly, proudly
Like one accustomed to win.
Am I then really all that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I myself know of myself?
Restless, and longing, and sick, like a bird in a cage.
Struggling for breath as though hands were compressing my throat
Yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
Thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,
Tossing in expectation of great events,
Powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance
Weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
Faint, and ready to say farewell to it all?
Who am I? This or the Other?
Am I one person today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
And before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army,
Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am Thine!
(from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Prison Poems, p. 41ff).
And Bonhoeffer is exactly right. At the end of the day there is something that matters much more than who you are: Whose you are.
You belong to God.
Back to Billy Graham for a moment…after telling the story about Einstein losing his railway ticket, he continued:
“See the suit I’m wearing? It’s a brand new suit. My children and my grandchildren are telling me I’ve gotten a little slovenly in my old age. I used to be a bit more fastidious. So I went out and bought a new suit for this luncheon and one more occasion. You know what that occasion is? This is the suit in which I’ll be buried. But when you hear I’m dead, I don’t want you to remember the suit I’m wearing. I want you to remember this: I not only know who I am, I also know where I’m going.”
And that is because Billy Graham experienced the reality of belonging to God.
Throughout his earthly ministry Jesus ministered to people who never felt like they belonged—lepers, tax collectors, outcasts, notorious sinners—and he assured them that they belonged to God. On one occasion Jesus put it this way, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:27-28).
It was the most beautiful sound they had ever heard.
And this is true for you too, as the priest assured you at your baptism, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever” (The Book of Common Prayer, 308).
On the cross Jesus died to demonstrate once and for all that you are loved. And Jesus’ resurrection was “the moment when the miracle occurred” and the guarantee that whether you live or die, you are the Lord’s.
And that is the good news of the gospel—you belong to God.