Being and Belonging

Romans 14:1-9, 13

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Please Pray with me: God, you are the great homesickness we can never shake off, the one who urges us to be and tells us that we belong, may the words of my mouth and the meditation of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight-amen.

Thank you to Dean Hill and the Marsh Chapel staff and community for inviting me to preach this lovely September Sunday. As the chaplain for International students here at Boston University, my heart is overjoyed by the fall chill in the air and the mass of Students walking up and down Commonwealth Avenue in the autumn sunlight-I find it a particular privilege to share my sermonic thoughts with you for the beginning of the school year.

As a Chaplain for International students I am privileged to work with students from all over the world who speak a variety of different languages. This is a particular treat for me-as I love to collect interesting, funny, and intriguing words from other languages. I made friends with a German graduate student last year who taught me three of my new favorite German words that I think are perfectly hilarious and worth sharing with you now: The word in German for ambulance is Krankenwagen-which I think might possibly be the most fun word to shout out loud, and is quite appropriate in a description of the ambulance-as a cranking wagon. Another great German word is Kummerspeck, which in English would translate to stress eating-that instance when you might be sad, anxious, depressed, overwhelmed and then eat too much to compensate-but in German this word literally translates to ‘Grief Bacon’, which provides even deeper meaning to my own life. But the German word that I think is particularly helpful in understanding our letter from the apostle Paul today is fremdscham-we don’t really have an English equivalent of this expression, but it is the notion of being embarrassed for somebody else, and then consequently silently judging them. Perhaps, you hear someone talking loudly on their cell phone on the train about personal matters, or you see someone slopping food down their front unknowingly at a restaurant-you might feel fremdscham towards them. In your mind forms a quiet critique, a passing of concise judgment and a twinge of embarrassment at the things your neighbors are doing.

In our passage today in Romans, we see the apostle Paul addressing a community in conflict. The church in Rome is newly budding and as all new communities form-so do regulations and standards-those regulations and standards are also typically followed by conflict. In the Roman church’s case-Paul has heard hearsay of gossip and judgment towards one another about what they are eating and what days they find it most appropriate to worship. More specifically-some people are eating meat, while others are refusing to eat meat on religious ground, and some choose to keep Saturday as Sabbath while others keep no Sabbath at all. Due to Paul’s more gentle language used in this section of the letter, historical scholars conclude that no harsh physical confrontation has broken out over these disagreements-but there has been a good deal of whispering on these topics:  sly judgment from one group to the other, that critical sense of embarrassment about one’s neighbor-each group in Rome was feeling very fremdschaum towards one another-embarrassed by the other’s unorthodox eating practices and judgmental towards their choices in worship.

Now, I would love to say that this is an ancient ridiculous argument that we have far surpassed today-why bother or fight about what your neighbor Christian is eating? –but unfortunately, similar debates continue today, 2,000 years later. There are still little church scoffs and scuffles about whether to drink grape juice or wine at communion, to eat wafers or pita bread, and in our society there is a robust debate about health style superiority: being vegetarian or eating meat, vegan, paleo etc etc.  Paul identifies that the issue at hand is not solely about food and drink, worship and Sabbath, but it is about judging each other, deeming one’s own group as ‘true’ and the other group as an ‘imposter’.  Each group fears that they are in the wrong, that they are the community at fault, and thus jumps to persuade Paul and other church leaders of their self-righteousness, and correctness. Afraid of being discovered as the ‘imposter group’ in this early development of the church, gossip slowly becomes a battle of wits and slander to create regulations and rules for the community.

This fear of being an imposter, and thus judging others or feeling judged, is rampant in our society, and especially (I would say) on our college campuses at the start of the new school year. Young adults are particularly prone to what is commonly called “imposter syndrome”. I know that I have felt this way numerous times in the past few years, as my life has transitioned. When I was first accepted to Princeton Theological Seminary, I found myself on the first day of orientation standing among the gothic buildings and the ivy and thinking to myself “Everyone is going to find out I am not smart enough to be here.” I fervently scribbled notes about fire drills, codes of conduct, and scholarships during our orientation sessions just to look like I was keeping up and fitting in, in my fear others would discover my true identity-as a Midwestern girl from a tiny school in Iowa who read more fiction and poetry than theology in her undergraduate. And then, in our first chapel service of the year, the campus chaplain, Rev. Jan Ammon, sat down the entire freshmen class and told us all to get over our ‘imposter syndrome’. I had never heard this term before, but she went on to explain. Imposter syndrome is when you live in a constant state of fear that the people around you will find out that you aren’t as great as they think that you are. That you aren’t really smart enough to be at Princeton-or perhaps in your case, BU. That you are the Admissions Office’s big mistake. That you don’t really make enough money to live the lifestyle that your colleagues think you do. That you aren’t as nice as everyone thinks you are, or as thoughtful. That someone might find out that you aren’t as talented an athlete as your reputation leads them to believe. That you aren’t as faithful or disciplined in your spiritual life as you lead others to believe. Or that you don’t work as hard or as fast as others in your office. Most of us deal with this fear each and every day of our lives. We are so afraid of being ‘found out’ for all of our faults and failures, that we occasionally begin to judge others. Like the churches in Rome, we feel tempted to call out the faults of others to mask our own faults, worries, imperfections -to hide the imposter syndrome that we feel in ourselves.  Occasionally, our anxiety of letting our faults be known creates distance between ourselves and our communities, as we feel we are being judged and respond by judging others. This is a vicious cycle that upholds perfectionism and rejects humility, imperfection, and disregards the notion that fault actually creates growth.

I once heard a story about a Catholic Priest named Father Joseph. A new member of Father Joseph’s monastic order once committed a fault. A council was called to determine the punishment, but when the monks assembled it was noticed that Father Joseph was not among them. The superior sent someone to say to him, “Come, for everyone is waiting for you.” So Father Joseph got up and went. He took a leaking jug, filled it with water, and carried it with him. When the others saw this they asked, “What is this, father?” Father Joseph said to them, “My faults and imperfections run out behind me, and I do not see them, and today I am coming to judge the error of another?” When we judge each other in order to cover up for our own imperfections, we are at jeopardy of truly becoming an imposter-instead we are called to acknowledge the worth of all people, accepting others for exactly who they are and encouraging our most authentic selves to be expressed. When we accept and encourage others to be-just who they are-we develop a truly beautiful sense of hospitality and build compassionate communities.

In my first few weeks of Chaplaincy for International students here at B.U. I started an International Student Fellowship Dinner. This was a group for International students to come to feel more connected with each other, to process through all of the adjustments of living to a foreign city, and to create deep and lasting friendships across cultures. Every week, we gather in the lower level of Marsh Chapel and we cook cultural foods together-things that the students miss from home. We’ve had Italian students teach us how to make lasagna, and Taiwanese students teach us how to make miso soup, Indian students teach us how to make a spicy apple curry-and as we eat our comfort foods we talk about what its like to be living in Boston, what our lives are like, the things from home we long for, and the things in Boston we wish we could share with friends and family back home. Attending this group in the middle of the fall semester last year was a young graduate student who was from Nepal and living in the United States for the first time in her life. After her second week in a row of attending International Student Fellowship, she asked if she could speak at the end of our discussion, she said, “I just wanted to thank this group. I was so afraid of saying something wrong or messing up my words, but you made it ok. In the last two hours I have spoken more than I have in my last two weeks of being in Boston.”  That imposter syndrome that our this student had of being ‘found out’ debilitated her from speaking for nearly two weeks- for students in the start of the school year the pressure to be perfect is immense, and it seems that imposter syndrome goes hand in hand with fear of being judged. Luckily, our Nepalese friend was able to shake off that imposter syndrome and find her own voice. She then went on to be the president of her International student Organization in her graduate program and spends her days creating safe spaces for others to talk, try out their voice, discover who they are and feel that they truly belong.

The good news we find in this letter from Paul to Rome is that there is no such thing as an imposter when it comes to God. In Romans 14:3, Paul writes don’t judge each other, who are you to pass judgment? What you should know is that God has already welcomed everyone and God has welcomed us for being exactly who we are. Every single one of us-from the early church in Rome to the people sitting in these pews today-Jew and Greek, meat eaters and vegetarians, people who worship on Saturdays, people who worship on Sundays,–you are welcomed: whether you are southern, northern, western, new Englander, Chinese, Indian, Turkish, Taiwanese, Nepalese, African, Columbian, Mexican, European-you are welcome here, you are not an imposter, you are fully known and accepted for being just who you are. Paul writes that you should simply BE YOU. In everything you are, be authentic, hold true to your values and the goodness and compassion seated within your heart-hold on to that. He writes that we all live and we all die, but as long as we live and die with holiness, with God with truth, with goodness, and with beauty in our hearts then we have the Genuine welling up with in us urging us to be. Just be. My favorite poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, wrote a poem about God calling us to be-Rilke wrote, “Live you said out loud, and die you said softly, and over and over and over again you said be.” Just be you, let go of your imposter syndrome and your fear, let go of the temptation to judge yourself against others, let go of your embarrassment-for you have been called over and over again to be.

And in your being-discover that you belong. Paul writes three times in this passage that all are welcome. I want to add to my collection of intriguing words the Greek word that Paul uses for ‘welcome’ here-which comes from the root word Lambano-we only see this word used 11 times in the New Testament and it is so multi-dimensional that the interpretations tend to vary-but they always have the essence of hospitality. Lambano, literally translates to receive or to take in. In the ancient world, there was a formalized system of hospitality for taking people into your home, offering them food, water, but also protection-and thus to welcome somebody was to take them in as one of you, as one of you own clan, as one of your own family. This is the Greek word Paul chooses to describe God’s nature. Amidst the judging, and the fremdscham feelings among these two groups people in Rome, Paul silences the scrapple about food and Sabbath and instead he beautifully makes statements about the character of God. Paul says that whoever you are, be you, be your truest self, and God will lambano-will welcome you-God will take you into gods own family, gods own self and offer you comfort, hospitality, protection-you belong with God and God belongs with you. This is an ultimate gift of belonging and welcome. If there is ever a moment when you feel that you are a stray, a wanderer, an unconnected human being-take comfort! Take rest! God has already welcomed you and made you a part of the holy household of spirit and presence and compassion. You have been taken in, you are not an imposter, you are not alone. God calls you over and over again simply to be and to know that you belong.

Paul challenges the Church in Rome one step further-saying it is now our responsibility to offer that same welcome to others, whether we disagree, eat different foods, speak different languages, etc.-we all belong in the eyes of God, and thus our hospitality should reach out to each person we meet. WE are now destined to share this lambano of god in our churches, in our lives, in our university, in our actions every single day. As God has created a home for us, we too must create a home for others. As the spirit of God lives within and among us-so we belong to one another.  Let us welcome with open arms those who differ from us in culture and lifestyles, let us extend our own hospitality, comfort, and protection in love. Ask a fellow student who is far from home to have coffee with you, invite your neighbor to go to a hockey game, take a long walk on the esplanade with someone you just met, reach out your hand and ask the person next to you what their name is and where they are from, show signs of welcome everywhere you go.  I challenge you, all of you, but especially our Boston University students- As the school year starts, find courage to be You, exactly as you are, and know that you are taken in, you have been received and warmly welcomed by God. Know that you are welcome in Marsh Chapel, feel that you have been welcomed into this house of god by god and let your heart fill up with a sense of belonging.  Know that you are welcome here in Boston University, this is a place for you to thrive, grow, belong, and in turn reach out with open arms of hospitality towards others. Discover who it is that you are, be a part of this compassionate community and then extend your own sense of welcome to everyone you meet. This school year, and every year henceforth may you find the courage to be you and know that you belong.

Amen

-Rev. Brittany Longsdorf, University Chaplain

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