She said it right in front of everyone. “It says you are insignificant.”
I was standing at the checkout counter of the grocery store with a line behind me. “It says what?” I asked. “It says ‘insignificant’,” she announced. By now, I could translate. I had forgotten to transfer funds into my personal account. Her computer said I had insufficient funds.
I handed over the card to our joint bank account. The people behind me breathed a sigh of relief. But it made me think. I am insignificant in many ways, and I am insufficient in more areas of my life than my banking habits.
Being labeled as insignificant and insufficient made me think about how Christian community is shaped. After all, the work of a grocery store is not just to take and make money, but to be part of the community – to provide employment, and food that feeds individuals and families. If the community is composed of people who keep showing up with insufficient funds, the grocery store won’t exist very long, and the community will suffer.
Shaping a community involves people working together, sharing what they have, paying what they owe, and being trustworthy. Community means acknowledging that certain kinds of actions and behaviors are insufficient and that sometimes our desires are insignificant compared to the greater work of the community or the needs of another member. Those are essential aspects of shaping a community, but they can be uncomfortable and wearying.
The people to whom the gospel writer Luke told the story of the birth of Jesus, were bearing a heavy load. They had been labeled as insufficient and insignificant.
The mode of Jewish religious authority which had come to predominate was invested in an entanglement of codes and prescriptions that labeled most people as insufficient. Like some modern evangelical Christian theologies, it felt a moral imperative to point out people’s sins, failures and lack of faithfulness. Additionally, those who did not fit their normative patterns of family, relationship, health, ethnicity or ability were described as inherently insufficient.
On top of that came the oppressive rule of Rome. Rome deemed Jews, Judaism, Israel and the God of Israel as insignificant. What were any of these before the might of the Roman empire? And, like any good bully, what it saw as insignificant it didn’t just ignore but sought to destroy.
Everyone in the region of Galilee, Judea, Jerusalem and Bethlehem heard it announced. Jews were: Insignificant and usually: Insufficient.
But shaping community requires more than recognizing one’s small place and problems. Codes and condemnation and containment were never God’s final word to the community. God’s final word is always grace. From the beginning of creation, God was always speaking to faithful people about their important place in God’s plan. Throughout all of Israel’s history, God was always shaping community by loving those who had fallen away and run away and run amok.
So, while the appearance of a heavenly host must have startled a little band of Jewish shepherds up in the hills tending their sheep, the message they heard would have been deeply welcome and somewhat familiar. “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” God says to these weary, working people who bear the burdens of their religious codes and the law of Rome, “Good news. Good news of grace for you. For you. Good news of great goodness for all people.”
That is the kind of joy-filled message that shapes community anew – expands it and strengthens it. And sure enough, the shepherds come down from their isolated spots to be in the center of a bustling Bethlehem, filled with travelers, packed to the gills with others pushed about by Rome and Pharisees. They come into a neighborhood, enter a home, are welcomed as family and share the gracious word they have received. “Our community is significant. We have received what we need. We have what the world needs. We have good news to share.”
Gathered around that newborn child, out of those who were isolated and ignored, on the wrong side of the code and under the thumb of the mighty, a community was being shaped by God’s grace and love. It’s a community not shaped by physical prowess or political clout, or economic strength, or perfect families or bodies. Because it is shaped by grace – this community welcomes everyone.
This is what I see at the Team World Vision tent when people get together to go long distances for clean water. A great community turns up – different ages, different races, different social circles. Some walking some running, some being pushed in strollers, some in shape and some still huffing and puffing. They are smiling, cheering, and encouraging one another, many are laughing, even though they are cold and fatigued. Some wear silly hats or coordinated costumes. Some carry humorous signs and wear orange wigs. Why are they celebrating? They know they haven’t gotten clean water to everyone who needs it. They are joyful because they are hopeful. They have seen the first fruits of this struggle for clean water -and they’re resolved to do their share to bring goodness to all people.
We are the church, a community shaped by Jesus Christ. He embraced the insignificant of all shapes and sizes. He was, finally, labeled as insufficient by the authorities and crucified. He is now calling us out of our isolation and us into a new life of joy and plenty. He is shaping us to be a community that shares great good news with one another, with our neighbors, with the planet.
The store clerk’s computer knows part of the truth when it labels certain members of the community as insufficient, or notes that our small problems or purchases are insignificant. But it doesn’t tell the whole truth. When I transfer money into the right account or better yet, when I have it there in the first place, the register will only take my payment. There’s no love or grace there. There’s no joy or hope there. When I make my small purchases, the clerk never says – “It says you are of great worth. Everything you need has been paid for.”
But those are God’s words to us. God has pronounced that we are worthy, our debts have been paid, we are sufficient to the calling of our community – and our community has significant work to do. We can start celebrating now. Glories stream from heaven above. Heavenly host sing alleluia. Christ our savior is born.