Thursday, December 24, 2015
Rev. Elea Kemler
First Parish Church of Groton
So it is time for my annual Paper Bag Nativity pageant report. Most of you know we do our pageant the Sunday before Christmas. We call it a Paper Bag pageant because all the costumes are put in brown paper grocery bags and lined up in the aisles and you come in and pick what you want and put on your costume and join the story. No rehearsals, no stress, no suffering. No Suffering is our guiding principle and the only stage direction we give out is that there are no mistakes, just us, bringing the story to life messily, chaotically and hopefully with a lot of joy. We figure that is which is how new life usually comes so that is how we do the pageant too. This year’s pageant was beautiful. Mary was so calm and gentle that it seemed like all the little manger animals gathered up front, who can sometimes get a little raucous were calm too. Jesus who is a very happy baby was not surprisingly content and enraptured by the donkeys playing with this hands and feet. And the six Wisepersons blew bubbles as they arrived in Bethlehem this year, which was an inspired addition to the story.
However. In the spirit of full disclosure I do have to report that there was a minor incendiary incident with the advent wreath which caught a tiny bit on fire because one of the candles was burning too low. Karen, our intern minister, quietly and expertly put out the flame with her bare hands and then poured her glass of water over it to make sure it was really out. A few people saw it but mostly no one knew what was going on except Joseph whose eyes got as big as plates. I am nominating Karen for instantaneous ordination to the ministry because when you put out a flame on the altar with your bare hands things have gotten very, very real and this moves you out of the student minister league in my estimation.
This year I decided to give the innkeeper a few more lines to say. His part seemed a little harsh the way it was. Poor Mary and Joseph and their donkey arrive so weary and pregnant and exhausted and the innkeeper just says, “There’s no room for you. You can’t come in.” But he clearly has a change of heart and lets them stay in his stable so I added a little more about that part, where he reconsiders and says, “Wait, don’t leave. I can make some room for you. It isn’t great accommodations and it smells like animals because it is a stable but you can at least lie down in there and it will be warm and I will bring you some food and blankets.” It doesn’t say anything about food and blankets in the gospels, but there is so much emphasis on welcoming the stranger in the Bible, or inviting in the stranger because you never know whether or not you are actually entertaining an angel, so it seems possible the innkeeper would have responded like that, and even likely.
So one of the kids volunteers to be the innkeeper and he happens to be the older brother of Joseph and I show him the lines and he says something I didn’t quite catch like, “Oh you never know what I could say because Joseph IS my little brother.” Turns out he did his part beautifully, like a seasoned actor but the whole first part of the pageant I was wondering what he had in mind. What would he say? And I found myself imagining what if he said, no wait a minute, we had a last minute cancellation. We have a room for you. Or we can double people up and make space. Or what if he said, Joseph you’re my little brother. Mary is my sister. Of course, I will give you my room. What if he upheld that tradition of biblical hospitality? How would the story unfold from there? I almost wished it had happened. It would have made the rest of the pageant a little more confusing but we would have figured something out. Because I like this version of the story quite a lot. I like the version of the story in which there is enough room in the Inn after all and Joseph and Mary get taken inside.
The stable is an essential part of the story of the birth of Jesus as most of us understand it. The barn, the manger, which is really a feeding trough, the animals, the noise, the smells, the wrongness of having a baby in a place like that. The traditional interpretation of the story is that God came into the world in a stable — an uncomfortable, humble place not meant for babies. God came to a simple family who were far from home in far from ideal conditions. The stable reminds us that holiness comes into the world, not just in beautiful places, but in all places. And this interpretation of the story suggests that maybe it is in the humble places, the messy and poor and broken down places, both in us and in the world, that holiness can most easily make its entrance. Because those are the places where there is an opening, where there is a little space for God to come through. Holiness is not looking for Pottery Barn. If God were going to get born today it would probably be in a homeless shelter, a residence motel, on the streets of a city, in a refugee camp or waiting at a border where no one would let a pregnant mother cross into their country. Holiness, what the poet Jan Richardson calls that blessed light, looks for the cracks, the imperfections, the least pretentious and most vulnerable circumstances because that is where it can come shining through. As Leonard Cohen so famously wrote, “Ring the bells that still can ring Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” That is a beautiful and important theological lesson and one I deeply believe.
But what if the innkeeper said of course you can come in. Of course we can make room. It turns out there may be truth to this. My colleague Meg Barnhouse recently did some research into the work of Bible scholar Kenneth Bailey, who is a New Testament expert who also holds graduate degrees in Arabic language and literature as well as systematic theology. He spent forty years living and teaching New Testament in Egypt, Lebanon, Jerusalem, and Cyprus. He is the author of books in English and in Arabic and has done extensive work alongside Palestinian Christian Bible scholars, to understand the story of Jesus’ birth as it is told in the Gospels. He says that hospitality is the highest value of the Palestinian culture, and that has been so for thousands of years. Joseph returning to the city of his ancestors would never have stayed in a commercial inn, even if Bethlehem had been large enough to have one. Joseph and Mary would have stayed with family no matter how distantly related. For a descendant of David to be turned away from staying with family in the City of David would have brought unthinkable shame on the whole town.
Plus Bailey says that the whole idea of Mary and Joseph staying in a commercial inn is inaccurate — that is not what the text actually says. The word that has been translated into English as “inn” is the Greek word kataluma. This does not mean a commercial building with rooms for travelers but a family home. Baily says that A simple Palestinian village home in the time of King David up until the Second World War had two rooms—one for guests, one for the family. And there would always have been animals inside at night because in a typical house the family room had an animal area, usually about four feet lower than the rest of the room. And this is where the family’s donkeys and cows and sheep would spend the night after being brought in from the courtyard.
It makes sense with everyone returning to Bethlehem to be counted for the census that there wasn’t room in the guest room of the home by the time Mary and Joseph arrived. So they stayed with the rest of the family in the family room of the house. They never would have been turned away or sent outside. The stable, if we can call it that, was part of the home, right there, in the midst of everything. Mary, young, a first time mother, did not labor and deliver with only Joseph to help her. All the women of the family would have been there. And the new family would have been surrounded by animals, aunties, uncles, and cousins. Warm, noisy, crowded, familiar, passing the new baby from one set of arms to another before laying him down to sleep in the manger. We have seen the story with our modern eyes, our Western eyes, but put in the context of the culture and the way people actually lived, the message of the story changes. It is about making room. It is about the belief that we can always make a little more room.
This year we need this new understanding of the story so badly. As the Syrian civil war heads toward its fifth anniversary, today there are more than 4 million registered Syrian refugees, over 3 million of them women and children fleeing violence in their homelands. They are waiting for us to make room for them. Fear has come to play a larger and larger role in our national conversation. American Muslims are afraid of violence being turned against them. We talk of closing our borders. Not letting them in, so that we might be safe, as if perfect safety has ever existed, or as if our safety could ever truly consist of building walls, closing borders, turning people away, turning our hearts away.
The end of the story of Jesus birth is that Mary and Joseph had to take their child and flee to Egypt. Remember that the Wiseman had told Herod they were going to find the newborn King of the Jews. They were supposed to report back to him after finding the baby but they did not; they realized Herod was a danger to Jesus, so they went home by another way. When Herod realized he had been outwitted and this threat to his power still existed, this new king whose birth was accompanied by signs and portents, he sent soldiers to kill all the male babies in Bethlehem under the age of two. Such was his murderous rage, such was his intent to preserve his own power. A story we have seen repeated time and time again. Jesus was only saved by becoming a refugee — he was saved and grew up to adulthood because his parents left behind their home country and went to Egypt until Herod died and it was safe to return. This is the birth we are celebrating tonight.
This baby, on the one had, wanted, loved, beloved and born in the midst of home and family, and on the other hand a refugee. This baby, who grew up to live a life that was all about compassion, all about inclusive and unlimited love, especially for the people that his society and culture, much like our own, did not value: the most vulnerable, the outcast, the marginalized, the poor, the mentally ill, the homeless, the disenfranchised.
I suspect that part of why we are here tonight is because something in us yearns to be reminded that love like this is possible, that welcome like this is possible, that we can in fact make more room that we thought we could. But the kind of love that Jesus talked about and taught about and demonstrated with his own life is a love that will change us. It is a love that will cause us to question all of our assumptions about who is acceptable, who is worthy, who is deserving of forgiveness and compassion and tenderness. Jesus said there is no one outside of that circle, including us. There is no one outside of the circle of welcome and if you start to live as if you really believe this, you will be changed, and your life will change.
So what of you? How will you answer to the call of love? Who or what will you make room for? What or who will you welcome, welcome back, welcome home, or welcome for the first time? Jan Richardson writes: