Preacher: The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.
I want to pick up this morning where I left off last Sunday by continuing to unpack an interview I saw on CBS with Brene Brown. She is a research professor at the University of Houston in the Department of Social Work. Her interview sets the foundation for the theme of this sermon: belonging versus “fitting in”; “fitting in” is an impulse of insecurity motivated by fear; while belonging is about being at the center of God’s love. “Fitting in” verses belonging, one is about fear; the other is about love.
Brown said: We are connected in a profound way, and what moves us away from each other is FEAR. She continues: To believe that we are inextricably tied to one another is a critical component to understanding that we belong. The biggest barrier to belonging is trying to fit in. (repeat) In trying to fit in we assess the situation and then assimilate. Belonging, on the other hand, is about bringing your whole, true, authentic self to the situation. Real belonging requires we be ourselves, and this is very difficult in a polarized climate. We are being forced to fit in and, she concludes: this is causing higher and higher rates of isolation and suicide. End of quote.
“Fitting in” is driven by fear and has become so common that an acronym has developed for it…FOMO. Fear Of Missing Out. In fact, FOMO has become a verb used to shame people for not complying to “fitting in” norms. People will actually “FOMO someone hard;” (yeah, that’s a thing) in which a group video is sent to the non-compliant, showing off the great fun and deep connection the delinquent is missing.
Fear and “fitting in” are best friends, because they construct a common identity around division, suspicion, insecurity, and anxiety.
I know of what I speak. When I was a kid, Levi jeans were a big thing. They were sort of a rite of passage back in the day. Up through sixth grade I wore Tuff-skins. We bought them at Sears, and they came in a variety of colors: brown, red, tan green, blue. They were tough, with reinforced knees. Parents liked them. My mom liked them; she said that as long as I had recess, it was Tuff-skins for me. Seems all of the parents thought the same thing.
But when I went to seventh grade, no more recess, and no more Tuff-skins Baby. I was movin-on-up to Dayton’s Department Store, and Levi jeans. And you can bet I was going to be wearing Levi’s if I was going to fit in at Central Junior High. So, we bought the Levi’s and off to school I went, feeling good in my new jeans and my Nike’s with the red swoosh.
The very first day, with my seventh-grade swagger on, and yet still sticking close to my buddies from Bamber Valley Elementary School; I was hanging by the lockers at lunch when Stephanie Irons stopped by to talk to us. She was in eighth grade. She knew Andy Bianco (seemed everyone knew Andy Bianco. He was the youngest of eight kids). I was hanging out with him because we were friends from elementary school, and he was a nice guy. And then it happened, she commented on Andy’s jeans. “Cool,” she cooed, “you have the one’s with the red tag.”
Uggh. I had orange tag Levis. Who knew? Andy, clearly; and certainly Stephanie… what a loser. For you young people that don’t know what I’m talking about, imagine wearing a Nike t-shirt with Adidas sweat pants and Converse sneakers all at the same time. Umhumm, orange tags were like brand clashing clothes today. (This is a thing too.)
I had to walk with my butt to the locker for the rest of the day so no one would see the orange tag. And there was no way I was going to be able to explain this to my mom in a way that would get us back to Dayton’s and me into a pair of red tag Levi’s. So, I just prayed I’d grow out of them, fast…that was the extent of my prayer life in 7th grade.
But that is not all I did. I started to spot Levi tags. He has orange, he has orange, he has orange, he has red, and so does he, and they are friends. They are clearly the guys to be with. It wasn’t that orange tags were social suicide; wearing Tuff Skins would have been social suicide. No, it was just that they didn’t reach up as high on the social status hierarchy as red tag Levi’s.
This wasn’t just about “fitting in;” it was about power and hierarchy and ambition and envy. The stuff James’ talks about in his letter today. Envy. Ambition. These are symptoms of the fear of not “fitting in;” they are human constructs, and they drive the market value of Levi Strauss & Co.
I was stricken with envy, but here is the curse that made envy so habitual and intractable, as well as, self-perpetuating in my heart; the curse was that I was going to get those red tagged Levi’s, because I could. It was possible. I might have had to wait a bit, but, if needed to, in a pitch, if someone called me out, I could say with good confidence…“Yeah, my dumb mom bought these, but I’m going to get some red tags pretty soon.” Already, in the pursuit of hierarchy and power, fueled by envy and ambition, I had learned the art of blame shifting needed to sustain my place in the “fitting in” hierarchy of 7th grade.
Who said you learn everything you need to know in kindergarten? I think it was actually 7th grade. The curse is having just enough power to stay on the inside of the “fitting in” corral, but never enough power to get to the middle of the ring. This curse puts you and me on a perpetual tread mill of insecurity and anxiety, that Brene Brown notes as so isolating, and possibility debilitating.
Because once you figure out how to get the red tagged Levi’s, you’ll quickly learn that you need the jean jacket as well; the one with the red tag, that they don’t make in your size, so you convince your mom to buy it anyway, because you’ll grow into it (back to praying for growth)…only to find out that a “new” red tagged jeans jacket isn’t as cool as the worn-in ones that you get from your older brother, like Andy Bianco did… and I don’t have an older brother, and I was never going to… ugh.
Ambition and envy breed insecurity, which is exactly what Brene Brown proves in her research. And this isn’t just a 7th grade problem, is it? I still succumb to the curse of being just powerful enough to believe I can get inside the corral. I see the envy and ambition surface when I go to conferences or clergy retreats. I scan the room trying to figure out who the people are who know how things work around here…and assess how I can follow them into the ring.
James, in the Epistle today, calls life in the “fitting in” ring wisdom from below, which he claims to be earthly, unspiritual, and devilish. He contrasts this with wisdom from above which he calls pure and peaceable, and gentle and willing to yield, and full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.
Partiality and hypocrisy; you could add blame shifting, FOMO and Levi’s jeans. Those are the words that have no functional purpose in the Kingdom of God. How could they when everyone belongs in the Kingdom of God, whoever they are; wherever they live; no matter what kind of jeans they wear? If you were born you belong.
The disciples haven’t figured this out yet. We find them arguing with each other in today’s Gospel, over who is going to sit at the center of the ring with Jesus. They are in pursuit of hierarchy and power, fueled by envy and ambition. Theirs is a conversation trapped in the muck of the wisdom from below.
Jesus knows what they are talking about, and he intervenes saying: “If you want to be at the center of the ring act like a little child.” Here is the thing: in the Kingdom of God everyone is at the center of the circle; everyone is on the inside, because everyone belongs. If you are breathing, you belong.
The irony of the “fitting in” life of fear is that it is impossible to get to the center of the ring. When you belong to God, on the other hand, you are always right in the middle, right at the center, right at the bulls-eye of God’s love. Children know this.
“Fitting in” or belonging…which would you prefer? Belonging, of course. But how do you make the course correction, if you are like me and already have so many habits of envy and ambition, and just enough success on the inside of the fence to want to stay on the treadmill?
Here is my advice: don’t worry about the treadmill. Instead set up patterns for remembering God. The point of the spiritual exercises is remembering God. That is what fasting does, as does tithing, as does following the liturgical calendar, and pilgrimage, and practicing Sabbath, and praying daily – even Sunday worship is an act of remembering. In fact, you hear later in the service…“Do this in remembrance of me.”
We practice to remember, and the more we practice the more we remember that we belong to God, and the less we find ourselves yearning to “hang out” with people just because of the color of the tag on their jeans. Nobody says that is why they want to hang out with somebody, but check yourself.
I want to finish the sermon with a story about “fitting in” verses belonging. A friend of mine just returned from a fishing trip he takes annually with a bunch of guys. He is a different man today than when he started these trips. He has reoriented his life a little more toward belonging and a little less toward “fitting in.” But he still goes on the trips because he enjoys them.
In the evening the guys play cards. He doesn’t join them. They mock him. He shares in the laughs. When your identity belongs to God and you own it, life is funnier even when you’re the one being teased. So instead of cards he goes out onto the porch for some silence and solitude and study.
One evening as he sat there another guy came out and plopped down. After a moment he says to my friend: “I would really like to believe in God, but I just can’t bring myself to do so.”
In Seattle believing in God doesn’t fit inside the fence. “Fitting in” verses belonging: one is about fear, the other is about love.