Sometime during my first year in my first parish I realized I was in way over my head. The Bishop had appointed me to be the Vicar of a one hundred and twenty year old mission congregation. There were precisely 42 communicants in good standing. For most of its life it was the chapel of a small, rural community, but for thirty years the new Washington suburbs had grown up around it. The farms had all been sold for office parks, shopping areas and new housing, thousands of units of new housing.
While all that growth was happening around it, that little congregation had remained nearly exactly the same size. The Diocese had more or less given up on it. I was sent there to take care of it with no expectations. “If you aren’t able to make anything happen there, no one is going to blame you,” my new bishop said to me.
After I had been there a few months, though, I knew that something more than that was possible. The problem was that about half the congregation would not under any circumstances let that happen. The other problem was that I would not leave well enough alone.
Because I had no idea what I was doing, my first instinct was flight. I made an appointment to see the Deployment Officer, a woman whose name was Ruth Libby, and I asked for my name to be put in other places. “No,” she said. “No?” I asked. “No,” she said. I was nearly in tears. “Look,” she said after a bit, “some people who are very important to me, not to mention your bishop, put themselves on the line for you to be there. No you are going to go back out there and learn how to do your job.”
She was talking about the fact that I had been “outed” right after my appointment and there had been quite a stir. Some of the members had demanded the bishop to rescind his appointment and he had said no. Finally, the matriarch and patriarch of the congregation, a couple named Adie and Ben, who were old friends of Ruth’s, had settled it by saying, “We think he’s a nice boy and he deserves a chance.”
Lesson number one: when people go to the mat for you, you need to stay on the mat and wrestle.
Ruth did have one piece of advice for me. “Call Jane Dixon and ask for her help.” Jane Dixon was the rector of a parish north of mine, St. Philip’s in Laurel, Maryland.
Lesson number two: the most important thing they do not teach you in seminary is that it is OK to ask for help.
So I went to see Jane Dixon, which began a great deal of history. I could summarize it by saying that Jane mentored me into being a decent priest and St. George’s did eventually grow. Jane became bishop suffragan of the diocese with authority over my work as a mission priest and she was instrumental in St. George’s becoming a parish and building a new building that would attract an almost entirely new and vibrant congregation.
All of that was true, but it would leave out all the parts that were a struggle. Jane and I became deeply devoted to each other but it seemed like once a year at least we would have a fight of epic proportions. We were both strong-willed and not very good at the art of compromise. She was hyper-sensitive to any challenge to her authority and I have this hyper-need to challenge it.
And you know what it was really about for both of us? Belonging. We were both trying to make our way in an institution that had still not decided it really wanted us—she as a woman in the episcopate and me as a gay man in the priesthood. And we did what we human beings have a tendency to do, we took it out on people we loved, which happened to be each other.
What does this have to do with Christmas and this morning’s readings?
Why did the Word become flesh and live among us? The Gospel writer John says that it was to give us all the power to become children of God, and, that living in that reality, we would experience the light which the darkness cannot overcome.
This was and is still stunning news. It is difficult truth to receive, to use words John loves. Why is it difficult? Because it lies within the heart of most, if not all, of us to desire to be special. Why? Because we live in the darkness of a belief in scarcity, and primary among the things of this world that are scarce is love and the ability to belong. It seems as though we have an innate belief that God only has room in God’s heart for so many people, for instance, and so we must create ways of not belonging and categories of people who do not belong.
Jesus came to show us just how wrong we are.
One of the first people who got how wrong he was—and we are—was a man named Saul, who the world came to know as St. Paul. It is one of the great tragedies of human history that his writing has been used to prove that some people do not belong, when that was and is about as far from his intentions as is possible. Yet he was a human being, and so he struggled with this reality all his life and that struggle shows up in his writings, how could it not?
But this morning we heard the very heart of how Paul was trying on behalf of his Lord to set things right. God does not mean—never has meant—for any creature or people he has ever made to be special. He simply created—and creates—all of them to be loved just the same.
The Law, meant for Israel’s good, as well as that of the world, was intended to make Israel a light to the nations, to draw them into the same relationship with God that they enjoyed. Instead it worked to further separate people—the “righteous” who lived under the law, and the “unrighteous” who did not. And in such a way of viewing the world there could be no reconciliation.
Jesus was born under this Law. Born of a woman, Paul says, which is to say it was his inheritance. But Jesus was treated by some of his own people as outside the law and he was killed outside the law. Being one of the righteous, he identified with the unrighteous, and, in doing so, set things right. All are one, united in Jesus’ relationship with God—righteous and unrighteous alike, in or out, Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or free or, frankly, any other categories you can come up with.
Jane Dixon and I shared a love for this passage from Paul and we both believed it told us just about everything we needed to know about how the church should be constituted and ordered. And we both set out in our ministries to set things right along these lines. But we set out as flawed human beings and so we struggled through and nearly shipwrecked on more than one occasion on the rocks of our own anxieties and insecurities and fears about belonging.
Both of us still got confused from time to time. We wanted to be special, but only got loved. Jane has now entered that larger life where she will never fear about her belonging again. And I moved on to this place, where you have taught me a great deal about belonging so that I fear much less than I used to, but am still less than perfect.
Let us commit ourselves anew this Christmas, and as a new secular year comes into being, to proclaim the Gospel of belonging, that in the eyes of God none are special, but all are loved, children of God who have received the one true promise, that the darkness will never overcome the light.