Now for a Good Word for the Innkeeper
A Christmas Eve Sermon by
The Rev. Dr. George Hermanson
George Hermanson is a minister in the United Church of Canada, serving in Ottawa. He directs the Madawaska Institute for Culture and Christianity.
Now for a good word for the innkeeper.
We have all heard these words “no room in the inn,” Christmas after Christmas. We have had generations of sermons that have emphasized the surface meaning of the story. We have been called upon to open our closed hearts, to prepare room for the heart of love. We have been asked to birth a generous spirit. Of course, there is truth to this metaphor. It is true that at this time of the year our hearts are touched and we do become more inclusive and welcoming of the stranger. All good stuff from those famous lines.
However, there are more life shattering meanings to this story of inns, births, shepherds and messengers. When we dig deeper into the story, to move it from sentimental images, Christmas can be an explosive season. For there is a disruptive element to this birthing. For birthing redefines and transforms our world. Nothing remains the same.
As we gather this evening to rehearse, retell, and re-sing the formative story of our faith, let us take a little time to probe the story for its radical point of view. This is not simply a narrative of past events; it is a story that speaks of God"s presence with us, in this world of ours. The story begins with a birth that speaks of the “scandal of particularity.”
God’s love comes crashing into reality, and in this story, history is a profoundly moral story in which each of us, however small, has a part to play well or badly. The story tells us we are not left alone in an empty universe, for the whole creation resounds with the music of God. All existence sings songs of joy. It is a birthing unlike other births, for it leads to the overturning of the status quo, a crucifixion, and a resurrection. Through this story we can interpret our own struggles, victories, sufferings, and hope.
So let us return to the story and examine all the characters, for they give us a fuller understanding of Luke’s intentions. He is reminding us of the continuous theme of the Bible - hosting and carnality.
We are invited to jump into life, to taste it, to have the enjoyment of our bodies. The God we celebrate loves the flesh and blood of life, and it is in this flesh and blood that we encounter deep spirituality. True spirituality takes us deeper into our world, to love it and move it to more beauty. Hosting is about nitty-gritty reality, hosting others with our hearts pounding with expectation.
When we wander through this Christmas story and reread it in its historical context, we see the writers were using stories of great births in our messy history. It is a story about hosting and that can help us see ourselves as natural hosts.
However, this quality needs to be nurtured, so our hearts leap with joy, for like Mary we carry God in our bodies. This story reminds us that in our messy and incomplete world we birth the hope within the world.... born this night ... incarnated with the promise of a new reality of healing.
The different characters remind us how serious and rewarding hosting is. They remind us that it takes time to welcome a different reality: guests who present themselves without our invitation. For hospitality brings its burdens and inconveniences.
For there is Joseph, as Leonard Cohen put it, some Joseph slouching toward Bethlehem. Our story is full of unhappy campers - Joseph being one. He had to come to terms with the demand placed on him. When we read behind the lines, we see how the Gospel writers make Joseph every man. He did not ask for this. He is dishonored, his family dishonored; yet God is asking him to provide blanket protection - to host this discredited woman.
The line that says they had to find an inn tells us not all is right with this situation. Normally, the hospitality rule requires kinsfolk to care for the traveler. The story says it is his hometown, so there would have been some family there to take them in. Yet here they are at the inn.
Here comes that misunderstood innkeeper - note how one translation says there was no space for them. When read this way we see an innkeeper who does his best to provide shelter from the storm. Rather than being hard-hearted, the innkeeper was sensitive to all his guests. Inns in that time were not even up to the standard of those motels that charge by the hour. What you had was one big room full of those who had no honor. To have Mary in such a place would make her unclean and Joseph dishonored. Things that would cause them problems and could lead to exclusion from their community. Then, those men would be double unclean, not only from their professions of solders and shepherds, but because Mary giving birth in their space would make them unclean. For those who had no home their burden would have been increased.
So the innkeeper is a double sign of hospitality. He cared for the needs of all - Mary and those who slept in the inn. He had compassion and provided a warm place - the stable. This metaphor suggest that God’s home is in the muck and smell of the stable - the world. There the dishonored and shameful are made whole. Earthiness is the place where we practice hospitality.
Then the shepherds - they were not highly honored - they were the cowboys of their time - hanging out in all the wrong places. So for them to be the honored witnesses is to reinforce the idea that God hosts this world in all its brokenness and seeks to bring healing. From the edge of society comes the announcement of here is a King - not your normal source of hosting life.
The stories remind us that hosting and carnality are the reasons for the season. For hosting is healing - binding together our wounds and connecting our webs of relatedness so we can experience wholeness. The storyteller drives home this point - if we are open, we too can hear the angel voices - see the glory of God in everyday events.
We gather at the table to be hosted by God, to rehearse the joy of hospitality. This is a table where all are welcome, a place to find healing and forgiveness. And after tasting the bread and wine of God, we go to host this world of ours. Having claimed our inner sense of beauty we go out to create more beauty in our wold. We birth a new way of being - we go out singing and embracing a way of life that is inclusive, caring, sharing of burdens. Affirm the light of God that lights up this dark night of our soul - remember once again - God is born in us tonight.