A Christmas Eve Sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho
Dec 24, 2018
I’ve been on the lookout for a Christmas card a friend received many years ago. And I haven’t been able to find it. But I found a close version of it when procrastinating on writing this sermon.
Sadly, this card is not theologically accurate, and neither are any of our nativity scenes. Jesus was not born in a barn, even if he was laid in a manger.
The word Luke uses, that gets translated from the Greek to “inn” doesn’t mean a hotel, or a place where strangers would stay. It is the word used at the end of Jesus’s life, when he and his friends gather in an “upper room”. It is the guest room of a family’s home, not a place where you’d pay to rent a room from a stranger.
There was no place for them in the guest room at the home of whatever relative of Joseph’s they went to, presumably because other family had gotten there already, as the family of David returned to the city of David, Bethlehem.
Palestinian homes were built with family quarters on one level, and with a lower level where they’d park their animals at night. A cow garage, as it were. Since there was no room for them in the guest room, they took the space that was available, in the home of a family member, most likely with animals for company at night.
I still love that Christmas card. But it is good to know that Joseph and Mary weren’t abandoned in a barn when Jesus was born because nobody would welcome them into their home. They weren’t at their own home, but they were in someone’s home.
There’s no place like home for the holidays, they say. For Joseph and Mary, it was more like “there’s no place like a distant relative’s crowded home and cow garage for the holidays”.
It doesn’t have the same ring to it. It does, however, bring to mind some important things.
The birth of our Lord and Savior happened the way it did because of hospitality. Someone opened their home to people in need, and likely at great inconvenience to the hosts. They already had people in the guest room, which means more mouths to feed, and people to entertain. And now a woman is giving birth in their basement. I guess they didn’t have lawsuits and malpractice cases to worry about back then, but childbirth in any age is not always what people want to have to deal with in their family room.
Hospitality was, and is, the norm in the Middle East. When I traveled in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and Palestine a number of years ago, I discovered a depth to hospitality that I hadn’t experienced before. I was a stranger, from a country often at odds with the governments of those countries, and I was treated as a valued and welcome guest everywhere I went.
It made me realize the limits of my own practice of hospitality—which was often to people I knew, or people in safely constrained situations. It challenged me to speak to strangers, asking them if I could offer help, or directions, or other assistance.
The Charities Aid Foundations puts together a global report on generosity, and they measure three behaviors in each country.
Amount of money people donate to charity.
Time spent volunteering in the service of others.
Do people help strangers.
In the most recent report, 9 of the top 10 countries, (out of 144 countries surveyed), for helping strangers were in the Middle East and Africa.
5. Sierra Leone
7. The Gambia
8. Saudi Arabia
Maybe we have an idea that if we had more money, or more time, or more leisure, we’d help people more. Libya and Iraq are both countries torn apart by war and violence, places where people don’t have the leisure or the resources we have here in this country. And in the past month, 8 out of 10 people in those countries helped out a stranger. Hospitality is a part of who they are.
There is a lot of horrible stuff on the news these days, about how we divide into “us” and “them”, stories of government policies that separate families, leaving children in camps. There are increasing stories of racist acts and senseless violence. It’s easy to read those stories and conclude that people don’t care, and that we’re on our own, and better not plan to rely on anyone else for kindness.
It’s not true.
We are not alone.
Any guesses for the country ranked 10th in the helping out a stranger ranking?
10. United States of America
And in the overall list we’re the 4th most generous country in the world.
Reading that list reminded me that our elected leaders are creating new scandals and crises every day. And the news industry is often built on moving from crisis to crisis. And so it seems that we are nothing but the petty meanness we see on the news. It is important for the Press to bring our leaders behavior to the light. Yet there are other stories that reveal our compassion, our willingness to help strangers. I pray we will be on the lookout for those too. So the crises don’t become our whole reality.
Had there been a 24 hour news cycle in Jesus’ day, it surely would have covered the travesty of the census, forcing people to be displaced from their homes just so Rome could better tax and control the territory they were occupying. It would have had special features on Quirinius and his corruption. There would have been Sunday news talk shows about the economy of Bethlehem, and how the influx of people was bringing in money for the local economy.
The story Luke gives us hints of all of that, but the focus of Luke’s story is on hospitality that welcomes people into an already crowded home, trusting that there’s room for everyone. Luke’s Christmas story focuses on God’s intention to bring people together, when our intention may be to build walls to keep people apart.
The poet Mary Oliver, in her poem “The World I Live In”, speaks of how we live on the lookout for stories of grace and welcome.
I have refused to live
locked in the orderly house of
reasons and proofs.
The world I live in and believe in
is wider than that.
what’s wrong with Maybe?
You wouldn’t believe what once or
twice I have seen. I’ll just
tell you this:
only if there are angels in your head will you
ever, possibly, see one.
Are we willing to have hearts open to receive stories of hospitality and kindness, willing to let go of the fear that tries to divide and separate us?
I read a story this week about a man named Randy Heiss, hiking on his ranch on the Arizona/Mexico border. A piece of red caught his eye, and he found the remains of a balloon. He was going to throw it away when he noticed a piece of paper attached. He looked at the paper and saw a list, written in Spanish. He doesn’t speak Spanish, but he figured it must be a letter to Santa. His wife, who does speak Spanish, confirmed that it was a list, from a girl named Dayami.
The man decided he wanted to find the girl, and see if he could help get her letter to Santa, as it were. He posted it on Facebook, and then he contacted a radio station in Nogales, Mexico, a town about 20 miles on the other side of the border, asking them to help him find Dayami’s family.
Dayami’s mother contacted the station and Randy and his wife drove 45 minutes to Nogales to meet them, and they came bearing gifts for Dayami and her younger sister.
While this seem like a nice story for the little girls, that kind of hospitality was a gift for Heiss and his wife too. Nine years ago, their only son died. They don’t have any grandchildren.
He said, “Being around children at Christmastime has been absent in our lives,” Heiss said. “It’s been kind of a gaping hole in our Christmas experience.”
He has since reflected on what a “miracle” it was that he spotted the balloon at all, let alone was able to locate Dayami and her family.
“We now have friends for life,” Heiss said. “And, for a day, that border fence with its concertina wire melted away.”
With hearts open to connect with others, we can extend hospitality across borders, across whatever we pretend could divide us.
I’ve found hospitality to be a two way street in almost all instances. I might think I’m the one helping someone out, but somehow in my interactions with them, I end up confident I am the one who was blessed by our exchange.
I wonder about the distant family who let Mary and Joseph sleep in their cow garage. What was it like for them when the shepherds came into town and knocked on their door, looking for the child? What did they make of the tale the shepherds told of the angels announcing the birth?
Who are we inviting into our homes—either literally or into the homes of our heart? Or are we keeping ourselves excluded from God’s mystery with our fences, our walls, our privacy?
What does home mean to you? Is it the house where you live? As I’ve gotten older, my understanding of ‘home’ has expanded. It’s not as much about a physical address anymore. It’s about where my people are.
I think about this at the holidays when the boys are only home for a short time, and I’m noting the tension between wanting everyone safe and sound under my roof and also recognizing that much of life happens once you leave home. If we never left the places we lived, what kind of adventures would we have? Think of all the people we’d never meet.
Home can be an actual building, or it can be an identity. It can be a place of safety, which is an understandable desire in times of uncertainty and fear. Home can also be a place of exclusion, a gated fortress where four walls keep out people who are ‘different’ than we are. Home can be a source of pain, a reminder of who is missing, a reality that doesn’t quite live up to expectations and dreams.
The idea of “home” is a great concept, and I will remain grateful for all of the moments when my people are safe and sound, under one roof.
I also am aware of how much richer my life is because of the way my understanding of home has expanded. The intentional practice of hospitality has transformed my understanding of home. Because if the only people in whom I’m invested are the people who live at the same address I live, then my world is very small indeed, and I miss out on the opportunity to play host to God being born in our world today.
Jesus was not born in his home, or even his hometown. His parents were on the road, dislocated because of a political situation beyond their control. I’m quite certain Mary would have preferred having her friends with her when she gave birth, instead of in-laws, cows, shepherds, and crowds of other people displaced on the roads because of Herod.
I wonder if Jesus was born “on the road” because God wants us to challenge the way we limit what “home” means for us. Home can’t be contained to a particular building. Or to one group of people, or religious affiliation, or skin color, or sexual identity.
By being born “on the road”, as it were, a guest in someone else’s home, Jesus won’t be contained. Whenever we try to lay too heavy a claim, an ownership, on Jesus, he reminds us he was born in temporary quarters, born to remind us that home is where our people are, and born to ever expand our understanding of who is included in “our people”.
Later in Luke’s gospel, 9:57-58, this somewhat odd conversation takes place:
“As they were going along the road, someone said to Jesus, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’
Jesus answers the man’s statement, saying to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”
When I connect that verse to that Christmas night in Bethlehem, I can understand how “the son of man has nowhere to lay his head” is the appropriate response to, “I will follow you wherever you go, Jesus”.
If you follow me wherever I go, he says, you will give up claims on having only one place to call home. You will have to learn to rely on the hospitality of others.
If you follow me wherever I go, you will give up claims on having one small group of people to claim as yours. You will have to practice hospitality that makes you uncomfortable and shatters your stereotypes.
If you follow me wherever I go, you will have to step into the messy middle of the political situations of the day, standing up to Herod, welcoming refugees who are on the road through no choice of their own, and seeing who you can make room for in the Inn of your life, home, and heart. It just might be God, seeking shelter, looking for a place to lay his head.
As you go out into this winter wonderland, enjoy your time at home with the ones you love. As we prepare for a new year, though, I invite you to consider who else God might be preparing you to invite into your understanding of “home”.
May the child born in a stable inspire us to open our doors, and build bigger tables instead of taller fences so we can all be “home” for the holidays.
Amen. Merry Christmas.