Is there room for me? A Christmas Sermon

What follows is my sermon, “Is there room for me?” to Monmouth College at our annual                                          Christmas Convocation based on Luke 2: 1-14.

Traditionally, in a Protestant worship service, all the children are invited forward for a special time or message from the pastor.  One Christmas, when I was the pastor of a small church in North Carolina, I decided to involve the whole congregation in my children’s message by acting out the scene where pregnant Mary and Joseph are looking for a place to stay in Bethlehem.  I gave the people sitting on the aisles doors made out of posterboard.  Then I led the children around the sanctuary to knock on the doors and ask if there was room for them to come in and stay.  I did this not realizing how difficult it would be for my church members.

Two-year old-Garrett, clutching his tattered teddy bear, knocked on Leon’s door and asked, “Do you have room for me?” and Leon—well, I could tell that Leon wanted to cave—so, I interrupted, “No, Leon, you’ve got no room for Garrett.  Now shut the door.”  The same thing happened when sweet little Grace in her red velvet dress knocked on Sharon’s door.  Sharon’s a grandmother who never says no to a child.  She looked devastated to have to turn Grace away.  “I’m sorry sweetie,” she said.  Finally, my own 4-year-old, tow-headed, son, Isaac, knocked on Mack’s door, with his sweet little six-inch clip-on-tie and his shirt tail untucked.  Isaac and Mack had a special connection.  They looked for each other every Sunday morning and that Christmas, Mack had made Isaac a toy train out of wood.  So when Isaac asked, “Mr. Mack, do you have room for me?” It was all Mack could do to stay on script, “No, Isaac, I’m sorry, but I’ve got no room for you.”

Every Christmas, as I consider what to say to you at this convocation I try to take the pulse of our community and then respond in a way that I pray is both helpful and faithful.  This year, with race and interfaith relations boiling over, the rescinding of DACA, and our divisions growing ever wider, it seems to me that many of us just feel left out in the cold, or feel left to wonder, is there room for me?

Our seniors getting ready to graduate wonder, “Is there room for me, is there a place for me, in life beyond college?”

The woman living in a society where glass ceilings are yet to be broken and #metoo is trending on twitter wonders, “Is there room for me, for my aspirations and my success?”

The white man, tired of hearing about his unearned privilege and confused over what, exactly, to do about it, wonders, “Will there still be room for me if I let others in?”

The transgender man who just wants to use the bathroom like everyone else wonders, “Is there room for me?”

The undocumented student, who fears her and her family’s deportation, wonders, “Is there room for me?”

The Syrian refugee, whose family is scattered all over the world and whose home has been decimated by violent, warring powers wonders, “Is there room for me?”

The African American student attending a predominantly white college, wonders, “Is there room for me?”

Pondering this question (the question of whether or not there is room) I returned to the text and discovered a detail that I had missed. When I read this story of Jesus’ birth before, I had always pictured a weary Innkeeper greeting Mary and Joseph in the middle of the night, a lantern reflecting their faces desperate for a place to stay and the Innkeeper’s regret as he, reluctantly, followed the script, “I’m sorry, but I’ve got no room you.”

Well, apparently, I made this whole scene up because there is no innkeeper in this text.  In fact, I learned recently that the word inn would more accurately be translated as “guest room” or “guest bed” in the peasant house or desert cave where Mary and Joseph more likely stopped. This was not a place of business—not some kind of hotel—but family and friends who had come home for the census and crowded in for the night with people and animals sleeping on different levels.  So yes, there was no bed for them, no guest room with a private bath, no luxury to speak of at all.  But there was room.  Mary and Joseph were taken in.  Their baby was born, wrapped in bands of cloth and laid in a manger.

Knowing this, now I wish I could go back in time, back to my church in North Carolina and back to the Christmas when I led all those children around the sanctuary.  I wish I could go back and give my church members the right script.  I’d tell Leon, go ahead and cave. Let Garrett in. Sharon, it’s okay, you’ve got room for Grace.  And Mack, you can make room for Isaac, just like I know you would for any child of God.

In today’s world, it seems like we’ve been operating under a script that tells us there just isn’t enough—there’s not enough room, not enough resources, not enough jobs, not enough alternative sources of energy, maybe even not enough love to conquer the hate or good to overcome the evil.  This belief in scarcity arises out of fear and anxiety.  I get that.  I know that fear too.  But this belief in scarcity only leads us to hoard in excess, to isolate ourselves, build walls, choose sides and arm ourselves to the hilt to protect our own.

The birth of Jesus Christ flips this script.  It proclaims the good news of great joy for all the people.  No one is left out in the cold.  Nor is anyone left out as Jesus grows up and purposefully reaches out to those who have been left out: the women, the children, the stranger, the sick, the poor, even the despised tax collector.  Jesus apparently believed that what God has given, God has given in abundance. There is enough.  There is room for us all.

There is room for the graduating senior and the woman with career aspiration.  There is room for the privileged and the underprivileged.  There is room for the lgbtq, for the undocumented, for the refugee, for the minoritized. There is room for us all.

The angel Gabriel wasn’t kidding when he said, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior.”  A Savior born in an overcrowded house among the animals because the good people there believed they had enough to make room.

This Christmas, may we know this Savior and this salvation when we too make room for all of God’s people.

[Feature Image: Wbeem]

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Another Holiday Party

77906706_230622b507_oCarefully making my way in the dark, I climb a steep set of cement steps to a glowing house and my fifth of seven holiday parties. Entering a home unannounced goes against all my parents taught me—ring the doorbell, knock, don’t walk in as if you own the place, be a good guest—but at this house I know I am simply expected to enter. My hand on the doorknob, I hesitate. Without someone there to greet me and pull me inside I am offered a moment to reconsider, to imagine myself on my couch at home, under a fleece blanket, reading a novel, sipping a steaming mug of ginger lemongrass tea. Mmmm. The thought that I am expected here is the only thing that pushes this isolationist urge from my mind. I turn the brass doorknob, open the door, and walk myself into the party.

A pile of shoes lay strewn by the door. I add mine even though my stocking feet feel cold and insecure on the hard wood floor. I scan the room of partygoers, clumped like grapes in threes and fours around the living and dining rooms. A woman approaches me. I know her. I like her. I feel myself both welcome and recoil from her company. I need a party partner. It’s too awkward to stand alone. But I just don’t feel like carrying on a conversation about anything to anyone. My introvert switch keeps getting flipped at these parties, leaving me to shut down socially like a robot that is unceremoniously unplugged. I do my best to chat with the woman for a while. I feign interest until an appropriate moment arises to excuse myself, saying I need a drink. The kitchen is crowded. Lots of people need a drink, apparently, or need to be near the drinks. After a brief search, I find a clean glass and a half empty bottle of white and take my time pouring.

Now that I have a glass in my hand, I feel myself relaxing a bit. Maybe it’s the alcohol. Or maybe it’s just having something for my hands to hold—like a magic party feather. The wine buoys me enough to mill about, move in and out of a few clusters and search for my husband who I know is here somewhere.

When I find him I am not surprised that he has removed himself from the crowd. I sit down next to him on a soft, two-seater couch in a far corner of the living room and am rewarded with a rare gesture of affection as he stretches his arm across the back of my shoulders. We are not alone for long. Others eventually move to sit with us, in our cozy removed corner. But the warmth of my husband’s body next to mine softens my jangled, need-to-escape nerves. The golden liquid in my glass reflects the light in the room. Laughter and conversation bubbles up and breaks around me in a spirit of merriment.

Our host calls for our attention so he can make a toast. I admire the beauty of his dark, Pakistani skin—extremely rare in our small, central Illinois part of the world. Joy radiates from his face in the form of tears that silently, yet without shame, escape to streak his cheeks. He lifts his glass to friendship, to the tiny midwestern community that welcomed him, to love offered and accepted, and to the hope born within all of us whenever we are received as a cherished guest.

 

[Feature Image: Tony Blay]

 

The Hard Work of Welcoming

4344878104_e746795618_oI have three fantastic student interns this year who are learning about the hard work of welcoming. At our college’s Presbyterian House we host a “Dinner and Devotion” program every Sunday that we advertise as “All Students Welcome.” Of course, not all students feel welcome attending a religious and spiritual life program, unless you work hard to let them know that you mean it—that they really are all welcome.

On their own, my student interns have come up with some great ideas about how to welcome people to the Presbyterian House and help students feel comfortable. Read this post, “Getting Comfortable” by my student intern, Angela, to learn more about their great work.

Typically, though, about twenty to thirty students show up at our Presbyterian House each Sunday. My students and I greet everyone at the door as they arrive. We insist on nametags (knowing someone’s name is a crucial step in welcoming) and we never relax as the hosts. We are always circling the group, reaching out to students on the margins, making conversation with those who look uncomfortable, introducing students to other students.

After each program we take time to debrief—to discuss what went well and what we could improve upon. This is when the challenge of “all welcome” becomes abundantly clear because the group we have successfully welcomed to the Presbyterian House is diverse. Predominantly, the students who attend are Christian. But we are also excited to have some non-religious students; students who are questioning; students who are Hindu, Muslim, and Jewish; students who are gay, straight, transgender; students who are conservative, moderate and liberal. It’s an eclectic mix—which offers the potential for great discussions—but also makes the work of welcoming that much more difficult.

Lots of questions arise for us such as: Can our Presbyterian House program be explicitly Christian and yet still be welcoming to students of other religions or no religion? How do we pray without making our non-religious students uncomfortable? What kind of food should we serve given different dietary needs? How do we acknowledge and value the perspective of the three or four minority students without singling them out? Honestly, our questions about how to welcome just lead to more questions—which sometimes lead to feeling overwhelmed by the difficulty and complexity of the task.

I think my understanding of the biblical practice of hospitality has been overly nostalgic. The theme of welcoming the stranger, the foreigner, the alien, runs throughout the bible giving our scriptures a beautiful “all welcome” feel. Never have I stopped to consider, though, that such beautiful hospitality would, practically speaking, be so difficult. But how could it not? Jews were expected to make space for strangers and share limited resources. Jesus and his disciples relied on the cultural expectation of hospitality as they traveled from town to town. With no way to make call-ahead reservations, just imagine what it took to welcome this unexpected crowd of thirteen! Practicing hospitality in biblical times meant practicing inconvenience; it involved some serious self-sacrifice. So I’m sure all sorts of questions arose in the first century too about the difficulty and complexity of this task.

But as my social media feeds blow up with haunting images of the refugee crisis, dismissive statements about the #blacklivesmatter movement, and Donald Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric about Mexican immigrants, I am reminded that these are questions worth asking. Yes, welcoming others is hard work. It’s overwhelming and exhausting. But when I think about the kind of community we are seeking to create at our college’s Presbyterian House, and the kind of hospitality we are teaching our students, I cannot help but wish more would commit themselves to this beautiful, biblical practice. I wish we could hang a sign out on the front door of God’s house saying, “All are Welcomeand then work hard to let every person know that we mean it.

 

[Feature Image: Nathan]