Visiting a shut-in at the dementia care unit the other day one of the residents took a liking to me. I gather that happens to every visitor. She likes to tell jokes. She has them on scraps of paper in her pocket and pulls them out to share with new people she meets, which is most everyone since this is a memory care unit. Even people she knows are new to her.
Although these jokes aren't new. She tell jokes like the one about the two strings that go into the restaurant and they are turned away. “We don’t serve strings here,” says the hostess. As they walk out the door rejected, one gets an idea. He twists himself around and ruffles himself up a bit and goes back in. The hosted said, “Aren’t you that string that just came in here asking for a table.” The string said, “I’m a frayed knot.”
That’s a joke about belonging. I think that’s why this woman tells jokes too. When you can no longer remember people or events, how can you connect and find belonging. Most everything is unfamiliar all the time. She doesn’t wait for people to welcome her, she walks right up to you. If you don’t like one joke, she’s got another. For a few minutes, while she has your ear, she belongs.
It reminds me of those in the Bible who wanted to turn people away from God. “God doesn’t serve your kind,” is effectively what they said. For example, a man named Simon noticed a woman who had snuck in to his home at a dinner party and started anointing Jesus feet during a meal, and he said to himself, “she is a sinner.” Which is why she wasn’t invited, apparently everyone in town knew she was a sinner. We’re not told how they knew or what she did. Perhaps she was known for her promiscuity or that may even have been how she made her living. Simon as the host was appalled that Jesus didn’t recognize it and send her away. You can check out the whole story in Luke 7. Simon was a Pharisee, so we come to expect that from people like him, but the disciples did this as well. Once children were coming to Jesus and they said, “We don’t serve your kind here.” Really, Jesus doesn’t serve children? Yep, that’s what they said. You’ll find that story in Luke 18.
That’s often the way it is with us. Once we find our belonging, we want to start putting limits on who else can belong. Everyone has different ideas about what those limits are, is it age, is it propriety, or is it socio-economic class?
In the church we often confuse “belonging” with “membership.” I’d like to suggest that these are different things. We invite people to be members when they know and accept what we believe and teach and when they express a desire to partner with us in support of our common mission for Christ. Yet belonging takes place long before that. Belonging is what Jesus offers to every person he encounters, regardless of where they are in life. The most messed up people in first century society found belonging with Jesus well before they understood who he was.
That’s why our new mission statement is explicitly “Belonging, Believing, and Bearing Fruit in Jesus.” Belonging comes first. Believing and bearing fruit will follow, but Jesus invites us to welcome others to belong to him, and to dispense with any of our artificial limits on who can be welcomed into his presence. The Lord says, “I have called you by name you are mine” (Isaiah 43:1 and “You are not your own, you’ve been bought with a price.” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20)
Once people realize they belong to Jesus, and that belonging is realized through their welcome among his people, they are now in a community where they can learn to believe in him, where their life can be changed by the work of God’s Spirit through his word. It all starts with belonging. Let’s knot be a-frayed to invite others to belong.