A sermon preached at Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, CA
Dec 24. 2020
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. It has a grown up Jesus walking into the house, with an open door behind him. And his mother Mary yells out “Jesus Christ, were you born in a barn? Shut that door!”
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” to share a passover meal (Luke 22:11). 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 upper 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, guest or women’s quarters on the upper 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 or hotel. They weren’t at their own home, but they were in someone’s home.
I’ll be home for Christmas, as the song goes.
For Joseph and Mary, it was more like
“Christmas Eve will find me,
where the cows all sleep,
I won’t be home for Christmas,
King Herod is a creep”.
It doesn’t have quite 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.
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. People reluctant to care for the health of their neighbors and refusing to wear masks while gathering in crowds. 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.
The point of the Christmas story is that God chose to come be with us, as one of us. We are not alone.
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 Herod and their 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 to 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.
Are we willing to have hearts open to receive stories of hospitality and kindness, willing to let go of the narrative of fear that tries to divide and separate us?
I read a story this week about a woman named Kelly Kenney, who walked past a little fairy garden a child had made in her neighborhood early in the pandemic. “Amid the turquoise rocks, painted stones and garden gnomes was a laminated note from the child’s parents, written in verse. “Our 4-year-old girl made this to brighten your day. Please add to the magic, but don’t take away. These days can be hard, but we’re in this together. So enjoy our fairy garden and some nicer weather.”
Kenney decided to write to the child, pretending to be the fairy who moved into the house that had been built for her, and leave her fairy gifts to thank her for the lovely fairy garden. (She also gave her contact information to the parents so they’d know what was up).
Sapphire the Fairy and the little girl became pen pals. She wrote: “Doing this every night gave me purpose in a horribly painful and lonely time. I looked forward to my days again and I started ordering art supplies and little trinkets to leave her,”
With hearts open to connect with others, we can extend hospitality even in a pandemic, from six feet or more apart.
The little girl’s family recently moved to another neighborhood and the girl was worried about leaving her friend, so Sapphire the Fairy wrote the girl a note saying it was time for her to move too. And she and the girl’s mother arranged a chance for the girl to meet her pen pal fairy. Little known fact, the day that a fairy moves, she becomes human sized so it is easier to move her belongings. After covid tests, and while still wearing masks, and a cape to hide her fairy wings, the girl “caught” the fairy by the fairy garden and they visited and agreed to keep in touch by writing letters.
Here’s how Kenney described the experience: “We are all in this time together, living through a pandemic in the year 2020, trying to take everything one day at a time. It’s easy to be pessimistic and get lost in the painful and chaotic stories we see every day, there’s a lot of pain in the world right now, but if you have the ability to brighten even one person’s day, you never know what that might turn into,”
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’m sure Ms Kenney thought she was the one helping the little girl at first. But by the end, she was the one who’d received the gift.
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?
Right now we can’t welcome people in our homes as we’ve done in the past, but after we get through Covid, I hope we’ll think differently about hospitality.
Who will we invite into our homes? And while we wait for vaccine distribution, who can we even now invite into the homes of our heart?
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, especially now that my family has multiple households.
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.
This year, many of us are feeling away from home. We aren’t gathered with extended families. We aren’t crowded into church pews and ‘home for Christmas’ the way we wish we could be. But we are still together. We are still ‘home’ with and for each other while we worship together, yet apart.
I pray you have the opportunity to both give and receive hospitality in these days. As a recipient of your welcome and hospitality as I’ve begun this new call with you, know how grateful I am that you welcomed me in and have given me safe space.
As we prepare for a new year, though, I invite us to consider who else God might be preparing us to invite into our understandings of “home”. Are we dreaming big enough with our welcome, with our budgets, with our actions?
I pray you can feel that you’re home for Christmas this year, even if it isn’t what you wanted, planned, or hoped it would be. When Bing Crosby crooned “I’ll be home for Christmas” during World War 2, it was likewise to people who weren’t where they wanted to be, to people who weren’t having the holidays they hoped they’d have.
Christmas eve will find me
Where the love light gleams
I’ll be home for Christmas
If only in my dreams
Our Advent theme “Those Who Dream” has been taken from the 126th Psalm.
When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, “The Lord has done great things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.
Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses in the Negeb.
May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.
Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.
Tonight, we are those who dream. We lay claim to a story of welcome and hospitality, of incarnational love and radical justice, and where we don’t see that story, the Christmas story, reflected in our world, we commit to re-shaping our world, to dreaming a new world into existence. We are those who dream, for return to community, for an end to needless death and loss, for welcome for all God’s children.
May the child born in a stable inspire us to fling open the doors of our hearts, so we may all be home for Christmas, no matter where we find ourselves in these days. Tonight, we are those who dream.
Amen. Merry Christmas.