Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Is there room in the Inn? - a sermon for Christmas Eve 2013

As families gather to tell the stories of our life don’t we find that there are just some stories that you just can’t leave out. You know the stories I’m talking about:
·         Uncle Anthony’s trousers falling down while he was flipping the burgers at the grill that one Fourth of July
·         The Christmas that the kids got those kittens
·         The last Thanksgiving or birthday or Easter or any other holiday that you got to spend with that someone special
·         The first trip to Disney with the whole family in tow – all fourteen of them trying to be the one to take their princess on the ride
·         The honeymoon to Jamaica or the first day of college or graduation or that time you got into a scuffle with Dale as Disney World
We remember the stories and we tell the stories because they have meaning. They inform our lives and make us who we are and who we want to be. And just like we have those stories that we can never leave out, so too we have those few details in those stories that we always want to remember and get just right.
·         Like Uncle Anthony’s red-polka-dot boxers
·         Like that fact that one of those kittens just couldn’t wait and poked his head out of the lid of the box.
·         Like the smell of the birthday cake from mom’s last birthday
·         Like the name of the hotel where you spent your honeymoon or the name of the hospital where your kids were born or the name of the golf course where you got that hole-in-one
·         Like the feel of the gown on graduation day or the feeling of mixed terror and elation when dad pulls away from the curb after bringing you to college
·         Like knowing the scuffle you just got into with Dale as Disney World will one day be used in a sermon (This really happened, but not to me.)
Yep, there is just some details in every story that you can’t leave out. They may seem insignificant – the color of shirt you wore, the exact temperature, or the precise location – but they are important to the storyteller – for whatever reason.
And the story of the nativity of Jesus – the birth of the Christ – is no different.
We know this story. It is perhaps the most well known story in the scriptures. Mary. Joseph. The Archangel Gabriel. Bethlehem. The star. The shepherds. The magi. We know this story. We have seen heard it and seen it performed it countless times. We know about how Mary and Joseph had to go from Nazareth to Bethlehem to register for the census. We know that the inn was full, that the innkeeper sent them out back to the stable with the manger.
The thing told here – that God became one of us would be just as important, vital, valuable, and necessary even without all of those details. Listen to the heart of it: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Or, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Or, “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved to the end…Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” That is the heart of it and the meaning is the same without all those details about angels, shepherds, innkeepers, and magi.
But that’s not the way Luke or Matthew chose to tell the story. They tell us, instead, about a baby born to a couple – and an unmarried couple to add a little scandal. Luke goes on to tell us of the great journey Joseph and Mary had to make. He then tells us where the birth happened and, equally important, where the birth did not happen. Luke tells us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the city of David. But it wasn’t just Bethlehem. No, it was in Bethlehem in a manger, “because there was no place for them in the inn.”
You heard it right and, of course, you already knew. The Son of God, the Christ, the descendant of the great king, David, was born in a manger. Scandalous! You know, a manger really isn’t much. If you’ve ever seen one, you know what I’m saying. It’s a bit of feeding trough though it really is even too small to be called a trough. It was a small holder – really just some sticks laid together – for hay or straw to be gnawed on by the animals in the shelter, probably donkeys or ponies or goats. It was no crib with a mattress and fitted sheets with a darling little mobile of stars and planets hanging overhead. It wasn’t even a resting place for the animals. But this manger that wasn’t really much became the first resting place for Jesus. This manger became the resting place for the newly born Messiah, the savior of the world, God-with-us.
And we usually remember the manger with great sentimentality. Do we also remember why Jesus was there in the first place? Do we remember that when Mary and Joseph got to Bethlehem – when they searched for a place to stay – when they went to the inn (perhaps the only one town), they were turned away “because there was no place for them”?
I often wonder if that were really true. Perhaps there were some rooms available but the innkeeper saw this couple who looks suspiciously like they might be a lot of work. Maybe the innkeeper could somehow tell that they weren’t married. The young woman was quite clearly pregnant. Maybe the inn was “full” but not full-to-brim-full. The innkeeper just didn’t want the hassle of the pregnant woman who might just give birth that very night. There certainly must have been some place for this young woman to give birth other than a stable with a manger to lay her baby.
But that isn’t how Luke tells the story. There wasn’t room in the inn. Mary didn’t give birth in the inn. No, Mary gave birth in a stable our back. Jesus was born in the stable out back with lowly shepherds for his court and gentile wisemen on the way.
I am told there is a church in Bethlehem that marks the location of this stable where Jesus was said to have laid in the manger. It’s called (believe it or not) the Church of the Nativity. It is  considered a holy spot – the place where the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Quite frankly, just between you and me it might not even be the exact spot of Jesus’ birth. But we remember that place where Christ was born because we want to keep that place where God- became-one-of-us holy. We remember it and so it is kept holy.
But you know what isn’t remembered? Even though it is in the story, the place of the inn isn’t remembered. There is not marker for that place. We don’t even know the name of the inn: Bethlehem Motel, Road to Jerusalem Hacienda, Holiday Inn. We don’t know and never will.
I still wonder if that innkeeper ever came to realize who he turned away. I can imagine that decades later the innkeeper heard the stories of Jesus – maybe he heard the same story of the birth that you and I just heard. They hadn’t given Mary a room. Uh-oh.
But if this were just a story about an innkeeper who missed an opportunity 2000 years ago, I doubt that we would still be telling it today. This story is definitely not about the innkeeper. Now, this story is about God and about what God did and about what God still does.
And it’s about us – you and me – and about what we do. Jesus, who would be the Christ, was born on that day some 2000 years ago. And Christ still comes. Christ still comes into the world. Christ is still being born among us every day. That is our Advent was really all about: waiting for the Christ who is being born us today.
Sometimes, doesn’t God knocks at our door. Is there a place in the inn?
Sometimes, don’t we look out and not really like what we see or what we smell or what we hear? Or sometimes don’t we just not really like what it might mean to let Christ in? And so we close the door. “There’s no place for you here.”
Sometimes, though,  even when we don’t really like to or want to or we’re not so sure, we open that door anyway. “Yeah, I’m pretty full but I’ll find some room here.” That is what matters. Christmas is certainly about the story we proclaimed and heard this night. It is most assuredly about Mary and Joseph and the baby, about Gabriel, the shepherds, and the magi, and  about the manger and no place in the inn. But the story was remembered because it teaches us so much more than those details of an event that happened centuries ago.
It teaches us also about opening our lives to the work of God in our world. It’s about telling God: “There is a place for you here, even if I don’t know yet what that might mean.”
Our Episcopal denomination has mottos, “The Episcopal Church welcomes you.” I believe that. But more so, I believe that about God. I believe that God is not only still speaking, but God is still active in this world, and God is still writing the story. I believe that God wants to welcome you. You can be a part of that story. What happens next is up to you.
So the question is: Do you want to be the inn that closes its doors? Or do you want to be something else? I know who I want to be. I want to be the one hears what God is doing and comes running. When God works in this world, I want to be a part of it. Like that ground in Bethlehem, I want to be found holy because I am part of the story.
And I can be. And so can you. As so can we all. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that the baby born this night became an adult. When that Rabbi was asked what we must do, he answered them - and remember when the decorations are put away and tree taken to the curb, when Christmas dinner has been eaten and the nativity is packed away, it is these things remain.
Jesus answered them this: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”
May we do so this Christmas, and always. Amen

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