Sunday, December 22, 2013

Fitting In

For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. ~ Galatians 3:26-28
Somewhere in the middle of the weeks leading up to Christmas, Fox news anchor Meghyn Kelly generated a small firestorm of controversy by asserting on her program that both Santa Claus and Jesus were “white men.” Even leaving aside the question of Santa Claus -- whose reputed European heritage is hardly the most incredible claim made about him anyway -- the description of Jesus as “white” provided ample fodder for television comics. Late night TV was quickly filled by comedians gleefully pointing out that as a Middle Eastern Jew, Jesus likely looked more like an Arab than a Swede, and probably would have been profiled as a potential terrorist by airport security.
But as a friend pointed out, what got lost in the controversy over Kelly’s words were the real story, which was about the struggle to fit in when the dominant culture incessantly and insistently tells us we are “other.” The black woman Kelly was replying to was making a point about how isolated and alone she felt as a child, surrounded by white Santa and white Baby Jesus, when her own family looked very different. It’s a struggle familiar to anyone who lives in the midst of people whose race, language, or religion is noticeably different from one’s own.
And it’s not just differences of race and ethnicity that can make us feel isolated and alone, my friend adds. Being unable to afford Christmas gifts when everyone is talking about Christmas shopping and the airwaves are wall-to-wall commercials for gifts to buy; being alone, without family or friends nearby, when everyone is asking about holiday plans; being in mourning for a loved one recently lost when everyone else is laughing and merry -- all can leave us wrestling with how to “fit in” in an world that feels alien and strange. You can probably add other examples from your own life. Sooner or later, all of us have the experience of not belonging.
But as it turns out, Jesus was one of those people who didn’t “fit in,” too. A Jew from Palestine under Roman occupation, a hick from a rural backwater called Nazareth, the son of a woman who had not been married to his father when he was conceived -- Jesus would certainly have known what it was like to be disregarded by the “in” crowd. What’s more, people who didn’t “fit in” were exactly the people Jesus befriended. Lepers, tax collectors, prostitutes, Samaritans -- these were the people Jesus lived among and ministered to, and scandalized the authorities of the day by associating with. People who didn’t “fit in” -- the blind, the lame, the sick and the poor -- were exactly the ones the Good News was intended for.
That is where Meghyn Kelly’s response to her guest failed. In asserting Jesus ‘s difference from “those others,” she missed the point of Jesus’ message -- that in God’s kingdom, we all belong. No one is a stranger. No one is an outcast. Leper and lawyer, black and white, Greek and Jew, male and female, all “fit” in the Body of Christ, by virtue of God’s love for each of us. Whether Jesus is “white” or not, he is always and undeniably for those who don’t fit in, those left out, those who are alone and on the margins, with no power and little hope. For those, like Kelly, used to viewing Jesus as “one of us,” it may be strange to say Jesus is “one of them.” But if we want to be like Jesus, it’s not our race or our gender we should compare: it’s our willingness to stand alongside those who don’t “fit in.” And maybe that would be easier if we imagined Jesus as black, or gay, or a woman, or an immigrant now and then.
The church must always strive to be a place where those who don’t “fit in” finally do: Not because we make them like us, but because we have learned from Jesus how to truly welcome those who are different. We must recall our baptismal vows, and be willing to see Jesus not just in those who look and act like us, but also those who look, or speak, or act very differently. We must be willing to hear the voices of those who have not felt like they belonged, so that we can expand our understanding of what God’s Kingdom is like until we see that the Good News is truly Good News for everyone.
Was Jesus white? Probably not, but that’s far less important than realizing that we are welcome and loved as we are -- and the same is true for people who are not like us at all. It’s time we set aside whatever need we have to see Jesus only as “one of us,” and realized that God’s Kingdom -- and God’s church -- is for all of us, in all our variety and all our differences, and in all the ways in which we don’t fit in.