God With Us – Belong
All my life, I have wanted to belong. And I have tried all sorts of tactics to gain a sense of belonging.
In preschool, according to my mother I was the boss. I marched around as though I was the admiral of a fleet of 3 and 4 year olds ready to conquer the world. I belonged because I was in charge.
In elementary school, a move from Garner to Southern Pines meant I had to start over. I was court marshaled and no longer the admiral, but trying to work my way back to the top. Then another move came and I was back home to southern Wake county. Working my way to the top just wasn’t in the cards by this time. So, I gave up being in charge and instead found a small group of friends. I belonged because I was one of a few, part of a group.
But as schools change and kids grow up, friends often split and drift. And we did. So I had the find something new to belong to. And there was no shortage of activities: church, Boy Scouts, clubs, sports.
Now, I was never the greatest athletes. This was probably because when I was 5 I was yelled at pretty hardcore by a t-ball coach when I ran to grab a ball after a teammate swung and missed during a game. A kid trying to be kind an help out not realizing he was breaking a rule. And that yelling coach told me clearly that I didn’t belong there.
So sports was never my place of belonging. Instead, it was music. A caring piano teacher who was also my church kids choir director and some amazing trips to summer music camp told me that I did belong. A band director and his wife who took a personal interest in me told me I belonged. And so I discovered belonging as an apprentice within a guild of craftsmen. The craft was music and the guild was band.
A new church that was growing and had a dynamic preacher and compassionate youth minister with inspiring messages and a tight group of youth who turned bible stories into video projects. (I remember so well filming the story of Hosea and Gomer in the mid 90s; yep, a church youth group parading all over Apex and Cary, NC acting out the biblical story of a prostitute!) I remember going on ski trips and summer mission trips and lock ins and youth choir and handbells. And so I discovered a sense of belonging in church because of community – because of shared experiences and common beliefs.
This continued into college as I discovered I could belong to several different communities. I began to learn what it means to be an adult. That is, that you have to learn how to navigate communities that don’t always fit together in your life. People in your craft or your job who you share common work with, people in your spiritual Community who you share faith with, people in your family who you share livelihood with, people who are your friends who you share laughter and crying with.
Juggling all these groups to which I belonged became tiring and tough. And then I found someone who represented the intersection of all these things. Someone who was navigating these same different groups of belonging with me. And we got married and I discovered belonging through love and commitment to another person.
And maybe because I thought I had found the ultimate belonging through my relationship with my wife, we were bold enough to do the craziest thing in the world….to try to replicate that sense of belonging with other people. And so we created a family-friends-church-job community where every group was wrapped up together.
And you know how well your work friends get along with your spouse and your family; and how well your pious church friends get along with your kinda crass college friends; how your bowling league friends get along with your concert going friends…? Well, it’s about like how your old high school sweetheart gets along with your wife, or how your progressive friends get along with your conservative friends! And so, at the end of the day that imploded.
Joanie and I have now come back home searching for belonging back where it all began. And even today, I find that sometimes I’m the admiral of a fleet of 3-4 year olds, and other times I’m homing my craft within a band of folks working alongside me, and I’m back close to the family I belong to, and I’m part of this amazing community of faith charting a spiritual course into the future.
And I realize, I’m still searching for belonging. Because that’s part of being human. We want to belong. Need to belong, have to belong.
I said I wanted to talk about belonging today. And that is because belonging is at the core of the Christmas message. It is at the very heart of Jesus’ name – Immanuel, God With Us – that we are exploring this Advent season.
Immanuel, God with us, is a reminder that we belong. No matter what our experiences, no matter how we feel about the people around us, no matter what groups we are in or what groups we are out of, no matter what we think or believe…. we belong. We belong to God because god is with us, Immanuel.
Read with me John 1:9-14:
The true light that shines on all people
was coming into the world.
The light was in the world,
and the world came into being through the light,
but the world didn’t recognize the light.
The light came to his own people,
and his own people didn’t welcome him.
But those who did welcome him,
those who believed in his name,
he authorized to become God’s children,
born not from blood
nor from human desire or passion,
but born from God.
The Word became flesh
and made his home among us.
We have seen his glory,
glory like that of a father’s only son,
full of grace and truth.
This is a passage about Immanuel.
- Immanuel – word becoming flesh and making his home among us
- Immanuel – light coming into the world, to the people
This passage begins and ends with these phrases. And in the middle it is about belonging – becoming God’s children and being born from God.
We often think about belonging to God as meaning we are God’s children. But belonging goes both ways. And here’s the thing: we don’t think as much about God belonging to us. But it’s true. Not that we possess God or own God or that God is ours and not others. Though if we are honest there are people of faith that take this route. That is, their belief is one that says God is mine and not yours. Whatever you worship or follow is not God because God is ours.
If life has taught me anything it is that no person has anymore of an edge on God than any other. We all long for God, seek God, strive to know God more. And we do ourselves damage when we claim that God is exclusively ours and not others. The fact is, I don’t own God. You don’t own God. Christians don’t own God. Nor any other religion.
God is not to be owned. Because God is family. And that is the message of Christmas.
God and humans are connected through the idea of belonging not because of possession but because of family. And, you know, we talk about God as family a lot. We approach God as father. We call ourselves children of God. We think of one another as brother and sister.
But I’m not always sure we get the power and truth of this family. You and I belong to the family of God. It’s about our identity. It’s about our DNA, what is built into us from the very foundation of our being. We are connected to God. We belong to God and God belongs to us because we are family.
And this is a central message of Christmas: God comes into the world as a child making clear the connection between God and humans. God becomes one of us. A human being literally born from God through Mary. It’s a story that is about the DNA of a human coming together with the DNA of God. It’s a story through which God is born into a human family (Mary & Joseph) and belonging to that family. And that one specific family symbolizes the whole human family.
God is born as a baby with a name with fingers and toes. A baby who grows up as every child grows up to be a man with a heart and a history and a home. And so, God belongs to us because God was born to us. In the infant Jesus, God is born as a child within the human family. And Christmas is the story of how that family came to be, it’s a family origin story.
Perhaps this Christmas you can hear this story in this new way. Not as simply a religious story. Not just a miracle story. Not just as a Christian story. Not just as the Christmas story. Not simply as the story that proclaims the real reason for the season. It is all of these. But it’s more!
It’s a story about family; a story of belonging. A story which tells us that we belong to God and God belongs to us because we are family. A story that tells us who we are and whose we are. A story that reminds us no matter how alone you may feel, no matter how outcast you may be, no matter how many times others may have turned their back on you, no matter how you may feel about religion and church, no matter how much you may feel disconnected and distanced from the people around you, no matter what … you belong, we belong, all of us belong because of the Christ child, Immanuel, God with us.
I want to leave you with this: if the Christmas story is a story of belonging, then it’s also a story of welcome. You belong in this family of faith because God is our Father and our Mother and because Christ, our brother, was born of God and of Mary. You belong in this family because God came to be with us. The divine came through the human to be with us as one of us and so you belong. You along with every one of us human beings belongs to God, and God belongs to everyone of us. No one is left out, no one is excluded. Everyone is welcome because God came to be with us all.
So, the question left us today is this: Will you accept the invitation of welcome? Will You accept God with us? Will you welcome God into this world into your life this Christmas?
You already belong because of what God has done through the Christmas birth. So you have nothing to lose. By accepting this belonging, this welcome, you embrace your family of faith.