Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
The gospel of Luke famously pulls out all the stops to show Jesus including those others might exclude, focusing much of his attention on outsiders and those on the margins of society. We’ll have occasion to visit with a number of these characters over the course of this series on Luke which will take us well into the New Year. For now, I invite you to notice it’s the shepherds, a bunch of working-class guys pulling the night shift, who are first to hear the good news of great joy that a Savior has been born in Bethlehem.
It struck me this week, though, that for all its focus on outsiders across its 24 chapters, Luke’s gospel actually starts out among the insiders.
Back in chapter 1, Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, is a priest serving in the temple. It’s his wife Elizabeth, Mary’s relative, we read about Mary visiting last week. In other words, Jesus’ mom has an in-law who’s a priest. Meanwhile Joseph’s lineage traces back to King David. So before we ever get to the shepherds, before we get to the no-room-in-the-inn scene with the babe in a manger, Luke establishes the impressive family credentials of this unusual child with connections both to Israelite royalty and to the Israelite priesthood. And we’ll see there’s movement from this insider position outward as Luke’s story unfolds.
In today’s text from Luke 2, for instance, we find Mary and Joseph headed to Bethlehem to participate in a census mandated by the Roman Emperor Augustus and his occupying forces in Israel. So insiders they may be within Israel, but they’re also colonized people, and here I imagine they’re finding themselves shoulder to shoulder with other colonized people of every demographic and description as the crowds make their way to their registration sites. There’s no room in the inn at least in part because there are a whole lot of travelers needing to register. And while I suspect having some money to throw at the problem might have helped, perhaps Joseph the carpenter and his very pregnant fiancé were not among those with sufficient funds to guarantee a reservation.
What an interesting mix. Family connections among pillars of the religious community. Family roots tracing back to royalty. At the same time apparently without much in the way of resources, and Jews living in an Israel under Roman occupation. In Mary’s song back in chapter 1 she certainly identifies herself with the poor and the hungry as opposed to the rich and powerful. (Luke 1:46-55) And as she sings about the blessing of a lowly person like her being chosen to give birth to the Son of God, she notes that God is in the business of upending expectations.
Speaking of upending expectations, let’s return to those shepherds in the field keeping watch over their flocks by night. That’s where God’s angels are sent first when it’s time to announce the good news of Jesus’ birth. Not back to Elizabeth and Zechariah’s house so they could make a big announcement at the temple the next day. Not to the halls of power, whether of Israel or of Rome. The rich and powerful would hear about Jesus in time, of course, but let’s not bury the lead, Luke seems to imply. Who really needs to hear this good news? The kind of folks Mary just sang about in the prior chapter: those without power or privilege, beginning with this group of ordinary shepherds.
Now clearly there’s far more to Luke’s gospel than this one dynamic of moving from the inside outward, from a family of priests and kings to a pregnant teenager, her fiancé unable to find her a decent birthing suite, and to those shepherds abiding in a field. But if that movement is even part of what Luke intended us to notice, I wonder what message it holds for us?
Particularly as we install our church officers for the new year. It’s a very “religious insider-y” thing we will be doing in a few minutes as we ask questions of our elders and deacons and they make promises about serving God faithfully in their respective roles. The group of people filling those roles are pillars of our church community. We are grateful to have them serving as leaders and we value tremendously the gifts they bring to us. But there’s no question that, like all of us who are worship regulars, some of the rest of us ordained officers too, those we install today are insiders when it comes to church.
This year we’ve also been noting how we as a community benefit from privilege and status in various ways beyond the bounds of our church’s specific work. To paraphrase a line from a psalm we studied a few months back, “the boundary lines have fallen for [us] in pleasant places.” (Psalm 16:6) To say that another way, it’s pretty comfy here on the inside. Plenty to eat, warm homes to live in, for quite a number of us the luxury of being able to stay home much of the time to lower our health risks during this pandemic. And life in community with all of these wonderful church friends can be a comfortable place to live as well.
So I, for one, have been convicted by a recent wake-up call from the Rev. Tali Hairston about our life together as church insiders. When he preached for us last month he reminded us that most of Jesus’ ministry actually took place outside the temple. That’s where he preached and taught. That’s where he healed wounded bodies and spirits. That’s where Jesus invited people to a new vision of the kingdom of God. Not inside the temple, but outside, walking around in the community.
What if that’s still true? What if, while we’re all busily at work trying to keep the church going for Jesus, Jesus is doing his thing outside the church, wondering why we haven’t followed him there? What if staying safe and comfy as a community of privileged insiders is actually preventing us from seeing what Jesus is up to in the world?
Rev. Hairston has become known in our presbytery for challenging us to engage far more fully with our neighbors so that we can join in the good work God is doing around us. Not only in a transactional way where we offer something other people need. You all do a great job with this – so generously offering food and funds and Christmas gifts. Certainly such generosity is important. But he urges us to connect in a transformational way, too, where meaningful relationships are built that can change all parties involved, and where that change can ripple outward into the community at large.
We’ve talked for a while now at MPC about redefining the word “us” so it’s about more than just our own church family. I’m excited that Rev. Hairston has invited us to participate in a brand-new grant-funded initiative through our presbytery that will help us broaden that definition even further. We expect to hear more about that possibility early in the New Year.
Meanwhile, back to Luke 1 & 2. The movement of the story may head outward pretty quickly – to a long line of occupied people making their way to Bethlehem, to a newborn baby lying in a manger warmed by the breath of farm animals, to shepherds pulling the night shift out in a field… The story may head outward quickly, but it begins inside a family line of privilege and credentials, inside the temple, inside a deeply religious household with Zechariah and Elizabeth. This tells me the good news of great joy is indeed for all people, for it seems the God who loves outsiders intends to scoop up all of us temple insiders along the way too.
Even if only to urge us out so we don’t miss the best parts of Jesus’ story.