December 24, 2018
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register.
So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.
And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.
My first Christmas Eve as a Pastor was a disaster. I was serving as a pastoral fellow in Philadelphia, with a congregation that was known for its love for the city, especially those experiencing poverty, homelessness, and hunger. We crafted worship with and for folks who didn’t find a spiritual home anywhere else; people with more questions than doubts, queer folk, artists who encountered the Holy in the art buildings, the dance studios, and activists who found the Spirit organizing and marching in the streets, Musicians who heard revelations at concert venues, but not always, or ever really, in the hymnals. You were much more likely to hear Stevie Wonder or Johnny Cash than Great is thy Faithfulness in our services.
I liked that we did things differently, that our life was shaped by our doubts and desires for the world to be a different place, one where everyone could find a home, especially those who had never felt that way in Church. I had told my family I wouldn’t be traveling back to Oregon for the Holidays, explaining that I needed to be with my congregation, and that I was looking forward to experiencing Christmas with this new family of faith. But pretty early on, I realized that this wasn’t going to be a hallmark movie Christmas Eve experience where the kindly, Vietnam Veteran experiencing homelessness was going to teach the well-meaning, young pastor the true meaning of Christmas.
To start off with, it was cold. Like Arctic Vortex cold. I had never heard of a Code Blue before, but I quickly learned that it was to be dangerously cold out, and that the Philadelphia police department and offices of human services were to mobilize to create emergency warming cafes so that no one would be outside.
Our church was to serve as a cafe that night, with extended hours into the next day, or until temperatures were at a safe level. To me, that seemed like a fitting way for a church to spend Christmas Eve, inviting folks in from the cold, and I figured, hey, the more the merrier, right?
But then we started working to figure out how this was going to work. The Cafe was run by staff from another agency, and they had a way of doing things that didn’t always match up with the way most of us would like to be treated. Often, before the Cafe would open, people would be forced to line up outside, on the sidewalk in front of the church, waiting and hoping that there was a place for them inside that night. And my fellow pastor, Andy, and I realized that folks coming to our Candlelight Christmas Eve service would be walking into the same doors that people would be waiting outside for the cafe.
Andy lives for extending radical hospitality to the most marginalized people. The worse your situation is, the more loyal Andy becomes. I’ve never seen anyone as gifted as pastoring someone in the throes of addiction, someone coming to terms with the loss of a loved one, I have never met anyone as compassionate to the most difficult to love people as him.
Andy looked at me through his pink rimmed glasses, with a level of intensity and determination that had cemented our friendship in Seminary. “Look,” he said “We’re going to invite the cafe guests in just as soon as we possibly can for Christmas Eve. We’re going to need extra chairs. Also, don’t you think we should have hot chocolate and cookies for folks? I’ll get congregants to make some cookies if you can cover the hot chocolate. And get the real stuff with whole milk; people are going to need it. It’s going to be brutal out tonight.”
Andy and I liked the intensity of ministry, of doing the hard, right thing, and throwing ourselves fully into our work. I grabbed a cab to the local Acme, and the store was a madhouse. It turns out, four gallons of milk weighs a little bit. I was pretty low on cash those days, living off an AmeriCorps Stipend, and I had the brilliant idea that I would save money by walking back, instead of cabbing.
It was not my most well thought out idea, which is saying something. But I was determined to figure out how to make this work. As I started to feel a little funny, I realized I hadn’t eaten all day, and the cold was like nothing I had ever experienced. But I also could feel an anger and resentment building. I was trying to do my best with what I had, and it never felt like what I had to give this job was going to be enough for the needs at hand.
Emanuel, God with us, is one of those theological concepts that, if you’re not careful, can change the way you treat people and see the world. If God is with us, becoming flesh and living among us, then something odd can happen if you’re not careful; your neighbors start to seem a whole lot like Jesus, under cover. Every interaction can be a revelation. And on that cold Christmas Eve in Philadelphia, Jesus was at our church, and it was clear that she was not happy. Jesus rolled up to the door of our Church in Her wheelchair, in the familiar form of Miss Barbara. In her prime, she had been a lounge singer, popular in the piano bars of the Gayborhood, just a few blocks from where we now stood in the cold. Her voice had been legendary, as was her biting wit. Now, the effects of age and poverty, of living on the streets and resisting shelters and a permanent placement, had left her bitter, but her wit and determination were as sharp as ever. She wanted to come to the Christmas Eve Service. She loved to come to church, to hear the singing, and join in as best she could. And besides, she had heard there was going to be cookies and hot chocolate. Now, Andy and I had made that decision maybe two hours ago, max, but Poor folk are the original social network, and the homeless internet of gossip works at a speed that puts Comcast to shame. And so, here was Miss Barbara, ready for church and cookies, and a rich cup of hot chocolate. She was in the churches lobby, all horrible red carpet and deep stained wood, the neo-gothic architecture adding a Dickensian flavor to the scene as Andy explained that there wasn’t any way to safely get her in her wheelchair to the small upper room we were having the Christmas Eve service in. There wasn’t going to be a place for her in our service. I took a knee next to her, and made deep eye contact with Miss Barbara. I offered everything I had that I could do; I’d personally wheel her down the stairs to our social hall, I’d make her hot chocolate myself, and pick out any cookies she would like. But as Andy looked on, she broke both of our spirits in that moment, saying “but I won’t be at church with you, with the music and the piano.” We tried to do the best we could with what we had, but we hit the limits that define so much of being human, no matter what our intentions are.
Just like Andy and I, just like all of us in this room, Mary and Joseph, they knew human limits. Mary and Joseph were going to have to figure out how to make it work, trying their best with what they had, but could they ever really feel like they were good enough for this child? Could the stakes be much higher, than giving birth to, and caring for God incarnate? They do what they can though, and they make the journey to Bethlehem. But now it’s time to give birth, and they’re stuck. There’s no room for them.
I grew up hearing this passage translated as “Mary 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.”
But one of the surprises of Biblical Greek was learning that we’re not talking about the Super 8 of the Near East in this text having a big-ole no-vacancy sign. That fits many of our understandings of God being marginalized in the person of Jesus through the incarnation, which can be helpful. But there’s something much deeper going on in this text; a source of hope, actually, on dark nights like tonight. The kind of hope that got me through my first heartbreaking Christmas Eve.
In Biblical Greek, the word for the space where there is no room for Mary to lay the Baby Jesus is Kataluma. It’s the same kind of room that Jesus gathers in to celebrate the Passover with his friends the night that he will be betrayed, arrested, and handed over to suffering and death. Katalumas were upper rooms in a home, often the space where you would entertain, or let the guests of honor stay. It’s where you want to be, above the animals on the first floor, the warmth rising, but not all the way up, where there’s storage and the sons who sleep on the roof.
When we think of Jesus in a manger, we often think of a barn, but the text seems to be hinting at a very different scene, one that I think feels a little bit more real. Imagine this.
Joseph’s people end up having a forced family reunion at the hands of Emperor Augustus. The house is full of aunts and uncles, cousins and nephews and nieces, many of whom are meeting for the first time. The place is in chaos, but the whole town is as well. Folks are recognizing their eyebrows and noses, ears and hair on people walking by in the streets. Uncle Zephna? Is that you? Nephew Nehemiah, you’ve grown child!
Joseph’s people’s house is crazy, the women are cooking as much as they can possibly make, children running everywhere, animals all about. The men have retreated to the roof to keep an eye out for straggling relatives, to guide their way in, calling out to them in the dark. On the roofs, teenage boys are talking to one another; old men hear the news from far and wide across the empire. Some just lay back and enjoy the stars, others tell stories that delight and scare the older boys who have been sent away from the women below, this their first taste of budding adulthood. And then, on the roof, someone sees Joseph, and the men know, by the way he’s moving, that something is wrong. A young man is sent downstairs to find an aunt who is a midwife. She is calm, and ready, determined to bring life into the world, but the problem is, where? There are so many people! They can’t clear the upper room in time, in the space that a child should be born, and a new mother should recuperate, where a family should cuddle and bond together. But that’s not going to be able to happen; there are grandparents and great aunts asleep, this is no time to have a baby. There just going to have to make it work. Children are sent out with the animals, get them out of here, go to the neighbors, and explain what’s happening. Women start ripping cloth that they can spare for rags, for swaddling clothes. Some people pray, a teenage girl, not much older than Mary starts to rub her feet. Women, with hands marbled by wrinkles and knobbed by hard work brace her arms. Breathe child. We’re holding you. When it’s time, we are going to tell you to push.
By now, Joseph is on the roof, and in a hushed voice he tells the story, and while most don’t believe him, they hand him a wine skin and listen. And then, the sound of a baby crying greets them, and the entire home, the whole block erupts into Hallelujah’s and Mazel Tov’s, Joseph is called for. I like to imagine that it’s a child who has the idea of using the feed trough, the manger, to lay down the Baby. That could work, the midwife sighs. It would keep the Baby off the floor. Mary and Joseph and the Baby Jesus, they’re not going to get a private room tonight, but instead, that first night, they will sleep on the ground floor with extended family, joined together in joy, exhaustion, and a sense of accomplishment.
Everyone figures it out with what they’ve got, which is what poor folks have been doing, what families have done for generations this time of year when we gather. And it’s usually not ideal, right? I’m sure that many of us are surprised find ourselves in a church. This might not be somewhere that feels familiar, or it might bring back painful memories of someone not sitting next to you, or words of condemnation you’ve heard from people behind pulpits who don’t recognize your love as the Gift from God it is. And yet, here we are, all together in this place, being light for one another in a way that is beyond what the world sees us at.
The story of Christmas reminds us that God has a way of showing up among people who are surprised to be together, in the midst of oppression and the games of people in power, and making it work. I wonder, for you this evening, maybe family is a joy, a blessing, or maybe this is a hard Christmas Eve. And yet, this seems to be, somehow, the spaces in our lives where we can make it work, and set out to change our world.
Andy and I tried the best we could with Miss Barbara in her Wheelchair, and in the end, she was resigned to sit in our front Lobby with Mr. Elbert, our greeter, and Dwayne Grant, our Facilities Manager. We lit luminaries to lead the way up the steps, through the dark sanctuary, and to the small back upper room, the old Sunday school room for Worship And the service, well, it was wild. Folks who were waiting for the cafe rushed the doors, and bounded up our stairs, following the lights to the small upper room.
One of our musicians had a gig at an Irish Pub right before, and he showed up a little, how do I put this delicately, hammered, and sang a version of Oh Holy Night that, uh, could have been better. The cookies, that we had visions of saving for after the service were gone almost instantly when the doors opened, the hot cocoa was a hit, and I watched my first drug deal go down during a worship service as I got up to read our opening poem. I remember in the chaos, the senior pastor, Bill, preached a little longer than usual, which was saying something for him, and he kept the musicians singing extra refrains on the songs. I realized, when I saw his eyes watering, that the idea of having to close up for the night, when the shelters wouldn’t open for an hour or two, was more than he could handle. Eventually, though, we had to wrap up, and I watched as our congregants and guests headed to the subway tunnels; some to stay there for warmth, others to take the trains home. I left that night knowing that later our guests would emerge from the tunnels to line up to head back inside.
As we were cleaning up, Andy explained that we were never going to turn someone away from Church like we had with Miss Barbara ever again, and that we weren’t going to make folks come to a worship service just to be warm, if what they needed was a safe place with heat. There had to be a better way. We had made it work, but we were done with making it work. We wanted to make it right. Over the next year we talked with the emergency shelter staff and we said, look, there are some folks who don’t want to come to church, but absolutely want to come and have cookies and hot chocolate and get in out of the cold. So we’re going to set up a party for them. And if folks want to come to worship, we will do it in the big sanctuary, because it feels more like home, and it’s not so cramped. And you know what, we’re going to play with the space and the lighting, and do the music the way we’d love to have it. And then we will have more cookies downstairs. And no one is going to have to leave to wait outside before they can come back in: we will ask the folks who run the shelter to check folks in, so they will already know if they can stay, or where they can go, and if they have to leave after the service, we will call them a ride. And Andy and Bill, they learned Miss Barbara’s story, and when people asked what we needed to be the kind of community we dreamed of, we talked about the gift it would be to have an elevator. That story about Christmas Eve, our nightmare, for folk’s experiencing extreme wealth; it was a way they could make it right. We were done with making it work, and so were our friends, our neighbors, and our extended family.
Beloved, Christmas can be hard. I’ve had some doozies. But you know, Mary and the women she met that night, the new family she is thrust into, you know things were never the same after that night. Those men on the roof, I know they cooked up some thoughts about how life can be different. Looking at the life of Jesus, I think Joseph’s people were done with making it work, and wanted to figure out how to make it right. There’s no way the family could have remained the same.
We can repeat the patterns, or we can say, you know, it doesn’t have to be this way. We can make it work, but what if?
Beloved, our world is in desperate need of folks who can make it work, who can utilize every ounce of resilience to get done what needs to get done in a pinch. Babies got to get born, folks need to be sheltered, refugees need places to stay and folks to advocate for them, children need to be loved fiercely when they share how scary it is to learn how to practice for active shooters.
We can make it work in the short term. But the story doesn’t have to end there.
I would invite you that maybe this is the year you risk gathering with your people, be they kin or friends, or a support group, a therapist or doctor, and making it right. Maybe this is the year you go to a church basement and say “I’m an Alcoholic, and I’m powerless over this.” Maybe this is the year that you admit that there’s nothing you can do to make him love you, and you deserve to be loved, as much as you love.
This could be the Christmas that, instead of taking the bait to argue, you wonder out loud what’s so scary about being together that you’re family member is trying to get you to yell? Maybe this is the year you go see a Movie with friends just as soon as you can after the gifts are open.
I know for this community, this Christmas, we are joined by friends and family who have made new traditions, who have chosen to be together, to worship and change, so that everyone feels at home, and is fully celebrated. We are joined by a refugee we’re hosting and supporting, and becoming friends with. The world is not as it should be. It is what it is, and we’re taking a sober look at that reality, and figuring out how to make it work. And then, we’re asking “So, how does this change?”
As a family of faith, we’re going to need our people, just like Mary and Joseph did. But also, we’re going to need the incarnate God who shows up and speaks with new insights into old stories. We’re going to need to be inspired by the stories inscribed on the hearts of our neighbors that we learn how to hear. We’re going to need the strength found in prayer and silence and art and music that speaks to the deepest parts of who we are, and also, in those long conversations with friends, family and neighbors in a way where you feel see and known and empowered.
May we keep this oldest of Christmas traditions alive, of making it work, and then going on to change the world, shaping it more and more into the likeness of the Christ child who bids us come.
May it be so.