VCC Executive Officer, Rev (Deacon) Sandy Boyce, delivered the Christmas message to the Melbourne Church of South India Christmas Carols service on 26th November 2022.
Firstly let me acknowledge we meet on the sacred lands of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation. It has been their land since time immemorial, land that was taken, not ceded. I wish to acknowledge their right and responsibility to care for the land and the waters. I acknowledge their Elders – past, present and emerging, and invite us all to a commitment to walk with the First Nations People as they seek truth-telling and for their voices to be heard and valued, as they seek justice, and as we all turn our attention to the imperative for reconciliation.
And let me say – welcome! It was such a joy on Wednesday to officially welcome the Melbourne Church of South India as a Member Church of the Victorian Council of Churches. We are glad to have you join this vibrant ecumenical body, and we welcome your contribution.
I have been invited here tonight as the Executive Officer, Victorian Council of Churches. And as a friend to MCSI.
I am a Minister in the Uniting Church in Australia. In fact, in the lead up to union in 1977, a great deal of consideration was given to the Church of South India model (established in 1947). We share a lot in common!
In a previous role I held in the Uniting Church, I coordinated the program for Australian people serving as volunteers with partner churches in Asia, Africa and the Pacific. Over a period of several years many volunteers were placed in India, continuing the rich heritage of those who had served as missionaries, living with and supporting the partner churches in India – Church of South India and Church of North India.
I had the privilege of visiting the volunteers, and key personnel in CSI who had responsibility for their volunteer placements.
I have visited Kerala (including a cricket match in Cochin!), but most of the time I have spent in India was in the Diocese of Madras, at the theological college in Madurai (TTS), as well as in Coimbatore and Andhra Pradesh. I learned to love so much about Indian culture, and also the strength, resilience and faithfulness of the Church of South India.
One year, I was visiting India in the Christmas season, and I visited a quite remote village with a small CSI chapel for Christian worship – memorably called Church of the Nativity. Such beautiful hospitality was extended to me, and those who accompanied me. It might also have had something to do with the fact the Bishop accompanied us!!
When most people think of the message of Christmas, they normally think about angels, wise men, shepherds, joy to the world, peace and goodwill, and “to us a child is given.” Christmas is indeed a time to celebrate God’s blessings and peace to all. For the faithful, Christmas is a celebration that God is for us, God is near us, because God was one of us, embodied in the life of Jesus.
On that visit, the Bishop gave an address to the people where he offered a profound insight. He had learned to read the text through his experience of marginalisation and oppression. He spoke about the first people who received the good news of Jesus’ birth. Those shepherds in the field, workers, farm hands, watching their flocks by night. Social outcasts viewed with suspicion and contempt. And because they working with animals they were viewed as ‘polluted’, and cruelly ostracised.
It was those simple shepherds who first received the good news the angel brought – to them was born a saviour, the Lord, who would bring peace on earth. Not through the power and domination, but through the way that Jesus lived, the message he proclaimed and the good news he embodied. Jesus, Prince of Peace.
The Kingdom/Reign of God is the reverse of human societies. In the realm of God, it is the poor and the marginalized – the people without any power or privilege, like the shepherds – who are closest to God. What good news for those longing for signs of hope. No wonder the shepherds RUSHED to greet this child, the long awaited Messiah, God’s own in their midst, sharing the human journey.
It opened my eyes to something that is self-evident – but I had not seen. And once you see it, you can’t unsee it. That the Christmas story is populated by people on the margins. The shepherds. And Mary, a teenage girl from Galilee expecting her first child a long way from home, without the support of close family and friends who could help her through the birth. Tradition has a donkey in the story but none of the gospels mention that form of transport and Mary and Joseph probably walked most of the way. They would have arrived tired from the journey, and then found no welcoming place for them to stay and so they stayed in the warmth of the place where the animals were kept safe in the cold of winter.
It’s interesting to think, what if Jesus had been born in entirely different circumstances? In the comfort of a home, with family and friends providing a warm welcome to the infant. But, instead, he arrived in a place far from home, a makeshift place for his birth, laid in the straw of an animal’s feeding trough. In a sense, not being born into grand circumstances placed him right in the midst of ordinary people living in extraordinarily difficult times – under occupation by a foreign power, and in the midst of a dark, cold, suffering world. It is a familiar story that has repeated throughout human history, and today we remember the people in Ukraine.
The Christmas story reveals that God’s liberating love will always be found and that hope will be born anew – even in the darkest corners of the world.
It would be true to say that Jesus’ birth, and his years in Egypt as a refugee, led him to deeply understand our struggles, as individuals and as a global community – of displacement, loneliness, financial hardship, and marginalisation by a society that too often gives power only to those with status and wealth.
Mary sang a song we call the Magnificat (Luke 1:26-35), of the realm of God breaking into the world, and upending systems, where there would be liberation from despair, fear and condemnation.
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 And his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
52 he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
Mary’s song proclaims that the powerful will be brought down from their thrones, the lowly lifted up, the hungry filled, and the rich sent away empty.
Now, the insights from the Bishop transformed my understanding about the Christmas story. Whereas some would spend time on arguing is the Christmas story true (what really happened?), the fresh insights opened my eyes, and also prompted me to think about power, wealth and status, and where I found my own place in the Christmas story. Because, I realised, it’s hard to see just how incredible the Christmas story is unless I was able to recognise that I was a beneficiary of education, status and power, and that so many people miss out on those privileges that I take for granted. Many are struggling. Many are denied basic human dignity.
To use this lens of displaced and marginalised people in the Christmas story brought it alive in completely fresh ways. God’s preferential option for the poor and marginalised makes these characters central to the story. And Jesus, born amongst ordinary hard working folk, is the one who would share God’s liberating love and grace and mercy, who would share the good news of hope.
If God’s preferential option is for the poor, the marginalized, and people without any power or privilege (like the shepherds), then the way to draw close to God is to be close to people who are like the shepherds in our time and place. The poor. The homeless. The lonely. The misunderstood.
Jesus manifested God’s love, in human flesh. Not through power and privilege, or wealth and status, but as one who came as a servant, offering hope, lifting people up to their full humanity.
The Christmas story marks the beginning of God renewing things on earth as they are in heaven – through the life of Jesus.
Christmas is not meant to be about consumerism and endless buying. Rather, it is the reminder we all need, each year, that we are called to follow the distinctive way of Jesus, and to manifest the love of God so all know they are welcome in God’s reign.
Now it’s our turn to be bearers of God’s love, justice, hope, peace and joy – to embody it as Jesus did. To join in with what God is doing in the world.
Christmas for Christians is intended to be a bold profession to entrust ourselves to God’s ways, and to resist the ways of the world.
The Christmas story is God’s alternative story to all the evil, injustice, brutality, suffering and death that we see around us. It will happen through loving kindness, reconciliation, peacemaking and a commitment to non-violence, and generous hospitality around a shared table where all are welcome, all are fed, all are loved.
May this blessed season of Advent bring peace, joy, love, and justice to each of you. Continue to preach the gospel in words and actions, to make the love of Jesus real to your friends, family and neighbours. Amen.