Texts: Isaiah 9:2-7 + Psalm 96 + Titus 2:11-14 + Luke 2:1-20
Last Saturday members of this congregation gathered for our 4th annual Las Posadas action for public and affordable housing here in our neighborhood. Although our action was put on by the Logan Square Ecumenical Alliance, Las Posadas is a 400-year old tradition with Mexican roots that has spread wherever Mexican people have made their homes. Like a “living nativity,” during Las Posadas members of the community dress up as Mary and Joseph who then lead a band of wanderers in search of warmth and shelter. Along the way they knock on the doors of “innkeepers” who, playing their assigned part, refuse shelter to the Holy Family until, finally, they come to a home where the doors are open, the expecting parents (and all their friends) are let in, and there is a great celebration with sweet treats and warm beverages and lots and lots of music.
Despite its rich cultural significance, there is something odd about the story of the Mary and Joseph being turned away time and time again as they look for a place to bring their child into the world: it’s not in the scriptures. Let’s take a closer look at what’s actually there:
“While they were there (in Bethlehem), the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” (Lk. 2:6-7)
Mary and Joseph had traveled from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem in Judea because the government had called for a census and, at least according to the story, people were required to travel to their ancestral homes for this event. Joseph was descended from David, so he and his family traveled to Bethlehem. The scriptures say, “while they were there…” so it sounds as though they might already have been in Bethlehem for at least a short while. And, where were they staying? Well, perhaps it was an “inn,” as the English translation would have it, though the word we translate as “inn” also means “guest room.” It’s possible, probably even likely, that Joseph was staying with kinsmen — and that, as with many immigrants and refugees, the house was overcrowded with too many people trying to make do with too little space. The guest room was full, so Mary and Joseph were staying in the common room with the animals, which was also not uncommon. Families brought their animals indoors at night to keep their homes warm, just the way this small space will continue to heat up throughout the night as we continue to eat and sing and pray.
So, the way things happened and the way we like to remember them happening may not be exactly the same — and that’s alright! Holidays like Christmas and Hanukkah are full of stories that get embellished with each re-telling, and the flourishes we add are not accidents so much as occasions for us to insert ourselves into the story. Instead of fussing over how it really happened that first Noel, we might ask ourselves why we are drawn to telling a version in which the family is turned away, time after time.
Don’t you suppose it’s because this is what we have seen in our own lives?
After years of stories and images of refugees flowing out of Syria, we’ve now seen a collapse — not only of Aleppo, but of international consensus and action to preserve the lives of the most vulnerable civilians, children and families, who have nowhere to go.
We don’t have to look oversees to find evidence of holy families being turned away at the door. Here in our own country we are hearing story after story of people who suddenly feel vulnerable and exposed. We are being told to prepare for a national registry of all Muslims. We sense hard won victories for women, people of color, and LGBTQ people beginning to crumble.
Then, when we’re honest with ourselves, we recognize that we, too, have been inhospitable to our neighbors. We have kept the doors of our hearts and our lives shut to struggling coworkers, aggravating relatives, the poor and homeless who live in our neighborhoods, in the spaces between spaces.
We embellish the story of this night with the detail about an unfriendly innkeeper because we sense that the story is incomplete without that character; because we know in our bones how unfriendly the world can be, how unfriendly we ourselves can be, to those forced to wander through the world relying on the kindness of strangers.
Thank God, then, that this is not where the story ends — with the family huddled among the animals giving birth to their firstborn child. Instead, and more to the point, the story continues:
“In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the LORD stood before them, and the glory of the LORD shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see — I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find the child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.;” (Lk. 2:9-12)
This is the heart of the story — not the hard-heartedness of an imagined innkeeper, or the supposed solitude of the stable, but the word of hope delivered to the least likely listeners: shepherds, working people going about their business, not knowing that God had entered space and time to challenge the powers and principalities by choosing to make a home among the forgotten, the overlooked, the lonely and the lost.
Dear friends, this has been quite a year, hasn’t it? Long and loud, dangerous and disappointing. Still, our city is plagued by gun-violence that claims the lives of women and men, parents and children, week after week. Our hearts have been broken, over and over again. In our despair we have wondered if our best days are behind us, if we have done something do deserve the pain that clings so tightly. We hear this ancient story and wonder which role we are playing.
You may be like the innkeeper, all out of room for the forgotten kin who keep showing up in your lives; or you may be like the shepherds, interrupted by angels as you go about the daily business of your life. You may be like Joseph, traveling to be with family; or you may be like Mary, amazed and pondering the meaning of these things. You may even be like the angels, filled with joy this night, irrepressibly singing your glorias into the darkness.
At the center of the story, though, is the infant whose birth signals a new beginning for all the world, an end to war, and a home for the homeless. This child goes ahead of us to prepare a place in God’s home, where there is room for us all. This child, who received shepherds on the night of his birth, will honor their labor by comparing God to the shepherd who goes after every lost sheep. This child creates families wherever he goes, tearing down every wall that divides us from our neighbors. This child is the sign of God’s presence with us, despite our fears and our failings. This child is born again tonight and every night to turn us from our anxious preoccupation with the past and point us once again toward the future, a future filled with hope.
Oddly enough, I imagine that the first night was not so different from this night. Families, all of them holy, who’d traveled distances great and small, cramming into a tight space, not quite sure how everyone fit together; strangers coming in from the cold dark, having heard that something was happening here, something important, something with the power to change the world. Prayers and songs of praise.
So we open our doors and we welcome each other in. Here, there is enough: enough room, enough food, enough warmth, enough hope, enough light. Christ is here, with us, for the world, forever.