Tuesday, December 24, 2013

"No Place for Them in the Inn"

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
December 24, 2013

Christmas Eve: 10:00pm Service
Isaiah 62:6-12
Psalm 97
Titus 3:4-7
Luke 2:1-20

“No Place for Them in the Inn”

            Merry Christmas!
            In the gospel passage I just read, Luke writes, “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.”
            “No place for them in the inn.”
            This past Thursday afternoon I had the privilege of participating in the Fifth Annual Interfaith Homeless Memorial Service, sponsored by our friends at Garden State Episcopal Community Development Corporation.
            Many of the people who were in church that day are homeless, there to remember lost friends or maybe just to enjoy the church’s heat, or to get the free meal and the food and toiletries, like toothpaste, that were distributed after the service. Or, maybe, they were there for all those reasons.
            No matter the reason, I’m sure everyone who was there would agree it was a very powerful and moving service. Members of the clergy read Jewish, Christian and Muslim scripture. And one pastor read the stirring, hopeful words of the great reformer activist, Dorothy Day:
            “What we would like to do is change the world--make it a little simpler for people to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves as God intended them to do.”
         During the service we prayed and lit candles for the shockingly large number of homeless people who died right here in Hudson County over the past year.
            This year the service was held over at the Old Bergen Church. The church was already beautifully decorated for Christmas – decorated with all the usual poinsettias, wreaths, Christmas trees and the rest – not so different from St. Paul’s.
            And, at first it felt disorientating – wrong, somehow - to be having this kind of service surrounded by all the joyful sights and smells of Christmas.
            But, then I thought, actually nothing could be more appropriate, nothing could be more right, nothing could be more truly Christmassy, than drawing attention to the plight of the poor and the homeless.
            After all, it’s on this glorious night, surrounded by all the joyful sights and smells and sounds of Christmas, that we remember and celebrate the birth of Jesus the Messiah, Jesus the Lord, Jesus the Savior. We celebrate the birth of Jesus, born poor and homeless.
            Each year on Christmas Eve we hear the story of Jesus’ birth as told by Luke.
            Luke sets the stage by mentioning the Emperor Augustus – the one who much of the world acclaimed as the King of kings – Augustus, who much of the world worshipped as a god – Augustus, who much of the world thought of as the lord.
            Little did Augustus or Governor Quirinius or any of the other famous and powerful men back in the First Century suspect that God was about to enter the world in the most unexpected way.
            God could have entered the world with trumpets blaring and lightning flashing and thunder rumbling.
            God could have entered the world in Rome, in the emperor’s palace, or in Jerusalem, or some other center of political or religious power.
            But, instead, God chose to enter the world in the insignificant town of Bethlehem.
            Instead, God chose to enter the world through a “nobody.” God chose to enter the world through Mary – a peasant girl the world would have seen as in every way unimportant and unremarkable.
            But, God saw – God knew – that this unremarkable girl was most remarkable.
            God chooses to enter the world accompanied by Joseph, a good man but a man who couldn’t even provide a decent place for his fiancée to give birth – a man who couldn’t do better for Mary and the child than a manger – which sounds sort of nice but is just a fancy word for a feeding trough used by animals.
            God chooses to enter the world and nobody even knows.
            Well, almost nobody.
            It’s the shepherds – low class people, for sure – who are given the inside word first by one angel and then by a multitude of the heavenly host singing their great song,
            “Glory to God in the highest.”
            The young peasant girl Mary must have been so, so tired – so tired after traveling in a harsh land while far along in her pregnancy, so tired after the anxious search for a place to give birth and so tired from giving birth.
            And, yet, Luke tells us, that the young peasant girl Mary treasures the words from the awestruck shepherds – treasures this most amazing experience – and ponders all of it in her pounding heart.
            Of course, this old, old story doesn’t end there in Bethlehem in the feeding trough. There will be much more for Mary to ponder in her heart.
            Eventually Jesus – born on the margins of society - begins his ministry, teaching and healing and declaring that God’s kingdom has drawn near.
            And eventually some politically and religiously powerful men of the world did take note of this teacher and healer – this nobody that a only a small band of disciples sort of, sometimes, recognized as king – and, sure enough, the politically and religiously powerful men disposed of him on the cross – disposed of him as easily and as bloodily as they dispose of countless truth-tellers and troublemakers throughout history.
            And the politically and religiously powerful men thought that was that – they thought that they and the world were done with Jesus.
            They were so wrong.
            Three days later, God raised this man from the dead. God raised Jesus, who had been born to a couple of nobodies and placed in a feeding trough used by animals.
            And it’s because Jesus is raised from the dead, it’s because love and life defeat evil and death, that we are here all these centuries later, re-telling this old yet ever-new story here in this beautiful place on this special night.
            It’s Christmas – a joyful time to celebrate – to celebrate like we’re doing right now here in church – a joyful time to celebrate with family and friends – a joyful time to celebrate by giving gifts, by singing, by holding tight to those we love most in the world.
            Maybe, though, we can also celebrate Christmas – we can also celebrate the gift of Jesus – by caring about and caring for Jesus’ own people, Jesus’ own people, the poor and the homeless, the “unimportant” and “unremarkable” people, the “nobodies,” for whom there is still no place in the inn.
            Jesus is surely found right here in church, most especially in the bread and wine we will receive in just a few minutes.
            But, Jesus is also surely found right now huddled in a doorway on Bergen Avenue, or panhandling under the Turnpike overpass, or hoping against hope for a bed at a homeless shelter.
            I mentioned that the other day at the homeless memorial we read a quote from Dorothy Day. Here’s how that quote ends. May it be our prayer on Christmas, and always.
            “… There is nothing we can do but love, and, dear God, please enlarge our hearts to love each other, to love our neighbor, to love our enemy as our friend.”
            Merry Christmas to you all.