I am a parish minister currently serving the Eliot Church of Natick MA. Eliot Church is a Community Church affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ. Any statements made and postions held in "Unity," however, are solely mine(of course, they may be used with appropriate atribution). Therefore if you disagree, please do not blame the church!

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Advent Sermon IV

So, here is the last of the Advent sermons. I apologize for its lateness, but I was stranded away from my computer longer than I expected, thanks to a snow storm between Natick and Maine, where my parents live. It is a little rougher than the others, probably because of the intensity of the season....

I am very much indebted to a sermon I read by the Rev. Rick Brand, that helped me to put the people back in my internal nativity scene. I do not know much about him and probably will not encounter him again. However, it is important to note that one of the great things about living in community is that our thoughts and deeds affect many folks we never never meet or get to know. This is a great responisbility, too...

In other news, Christmas Eve went extremely well. We had our two services and they were well attended. The high point of the first was the musical participation of our older kids. They really made a "family" event. It was lovely. Thank you to all the kids!

Also, the Catholic Church near us (almost next door, actually), Sacred Heart is experiencing a painful struggle as a part of the church closing issue here in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Boston. My prayers go out to them this holiday season. That they are willing to fight for their church to remain open is a sure sign of the strength of their faith and of the importance of church communities everywhere....

Advent IV
Eliot Church, 2004
Rev. Adam Tierney-Eliot

What child is this who laid to rest On Mary’s lap is sleeping
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet, While shepherds watch are keeping?

What child is this?
This question has been asked for well over 2,000 years
And in that time there has been no general consensus
But a great many competing answers
The quest for a better understanding of Jesus of Nazareth
Has raised up countless denominational institutions
And competing orthodoxies
Founded universities and nations
Brought war and established peace
Yet in all this time, we still do not really know
For certain what or who this person is or was

This confusion is natural
As it concerns a life that was only vaguely
Sketched by biographers who
In their varying agendas and perspectives
Contradicted each other
Yet it is a life that has affected us all
So, naturally, we have stepped back a bit
To consider smaller parts of the bigger question

Today, amongst mainline Protestants, for example
People question whether the Romans
Those masters of governmental efficiency
Would actually take a census based on where one was born
Rather than where one lived
Requiring people to travel around the ancient world
Clogging up the highways and slowing commerce
And in the face of abundant evidence to the contrary
Conclude that Jesus was either born at home in Galilee
Or in Bethlehem under different circumstances

But that discussion would take us well past lunch time
And, really, for today it is beside the point
We can get so hung up on whether the story is true
That we miss the truth that the story contains
There is something else that needs to be addressed:
And that, is the role of the Inn and the innkeeper
For regardless of where Jesus was born
This story exists for a reason
And much of it hinges upon one moment
The moment in our pageant
When we hear the words
No, no, no! No room in the Inn

Now, in the misty past of my own life
I spent some time working as a case manager
For people with special needs
Who were employed on laundry and cleaning crews
At motels in Bangor, Maine

In the spring, near the end of basketball season
There would occur an annual pilgrimage
To that city a much anticipated event
As regular as the flooding of the Nile:
The regional and state
Boys and Girls Basketball tournaments
[I (and many others) have always been partial
To class C and D (small school) ball]
An event so big in the life of Northern, Western and Eastern Maine
That it is usually also televised
But the action is best in person

So for two weeks, in the city of Bangor
(Which is not much bigger than the town of Natick)
In the city of Bangor you cannot get a room
At the Holiday Inn, or the Motel Six,
Or any other similar establishment for that matter
Every bed is reserved and filled
And sometimes the floor space, too

The city is crowded
There is traffic and confusion
As people try to get to where they need to be
At the appointed time
And all attention is centered
On the Bangor Civic Center
The local coliseum, if you will

I tell you this story not to celebrate the wonder of sport
But because this is what Bethlehem
Was supposed to be like when Jesus was born
Except paying your taxes is less fun
Than watching basketball

So into this maelstrom of human activity
The holy family arrived,
And went looking for an inn
Each one they visited was full
And each time they were sent away
Until they arrived at this one particular place
And one particular innkeeper

Upon this pivotal figure, with his brief appearance
Hangs, in many ways, the foundation
Not just of the holiday but of the faith
He decides not to turn Joseph and a clearly pregnant Mary away
But sends them to sleep in the Barn

The innkeeper is a somewhat ambiguous figure for us
He didn’t make room in the inn
But he did ease their burden

This is where many of us
Start to ask ourselves some questions
Rev. Rick Brand, a Presbyterian puts them this way
Was the innkeeper’s offer of a manger an act of compassion or greed? Do you think the innkeeper charged Joseph for the space on the floor? Do you see the innkeeper looking at Mary and, out of compassion offering them the space? Did the innkeeper’s wife and children help Mary and Joseph clear out a small corner?

Whether we admit it or not
His complexity is part of his attraction
There are many characters in the Bible
Who play bigger parts yet have drifted into obscurity
The innkeeper is human, like us
And has to deal with the situation before him
He must have asked himself, standing at the door
“How much can I do?”

In that job in Bangor
I came to know many innkeepers/motel managers
Some of them could have been a bit more caring
Others were generous
To the point of risking their own financial security
But most were somewhere in the middle
Just like the rest of us
Just like those who, while we seem to be busy
Forget to take the time for the things in our lives
That are really worth taking time for

But, no matter what the reasons of our particular innkeeper
Everyone in town was busy and nerves were raw
And our little family found a place to stay
Far from the Coliseum, far from the center of the action
And there they were, mostly forgotten
But, really, they still were not alone

The animals, of course, were there
But, in Bethlehem, or wherever,
There were other people
Sleeping with the animals that night
Slaves and servants of the wealthy
Some employees of the inn, probably as well
Making room for one more guest

And, yes, there were
A few others like Mary and Joseph
Homeless, tired, and too late to town to get a room
They are not visible on our Christmas Cards
And few folks add them
To the pristine silence of the nativity scenes
That decorate mantles this time of year
But they were there, too
If we were honest we would put them in
Impromptu midwives to help deliver Jesus
And willing carpenters, servants and slaves
To congratulate Joseph and keep him out of Mary’s way

All of them making noise that could be heard
Along the tightly-packed streets
Possibly drawing other onlookers, too
Pulling their attention from whatever business
Had brought them out
Turning their attention
To the side stage that for a moment seemed more important

We should put these people in
Because Jesus wasn’t born on a Christmas Card
Or a movie set
But in the real world
In a place where people need miracles
And sometimes even look for them

A place where, (like we do today)
Where they look up into the heavens
Hoping for a sign
Why not a star? Asks Rev. Peg Gooding
Some bright star shines somewhere in the heavens
Each time a child is born

But, of course, the story doesn’t end there
It continues on to the present day
And we questers for faith
May ask what it means for us
That Jesus was born in a manger
Not in the quiet rural refuge
But in the crowded tenements
Of a first century city

Well, to start, we can consider this:
That Jesus was born into a community
It was a community of strangers
And one made up
Of the poor and the dispossessed
Of those who live constantly at risk
Of ruin
And of the beasts of the field
A community of the good, the bad and the indifferent
Drawn together and, at least at first
Strangers to Jesus and to each other

Now, we all enter into this world
As strangers
Throughout life
Our comfort depends on our ability to reach out
And on others ability to do so
Sometimes we come to a place
A community, a town and too often a church
We come to a place where we find
No room at the inn
The door is shut,
And no opportunity for us to enter is given
No chance to make room

This is not the way of Christian hospitality
Jesus tells us in Matthew 25 I was hungry and you gave me food: I was thirsty and you gave me drink: I was a stranger and you took me in.
That is to say that
When the door is closed to us, we are not alone
And when we are inside,
We must keep the door from being closed
We need to challenge ourselves
We need to ask what kind of innkeepers
We want to be
Sometimes we must choose to make our bed in the barn
Among those who arrived late
And those who had no choice but to be together there
To take our place with the animals
With natural world, too
To be like Jesus, learning and growing
And finding the spirit in all that we see and feel

And so, the birth of Jesus tells
To tread lightly, and to give back
To, in the words of Henry David Thoreau
Suck out all the marrow of life
Not just for our sake, but for everyone’s
For that is where we find the divine
That is how we make the beloved community
The Commonwealth of Heaven

So Merry Christmas to you all
May it be all that you wished for
May you keep the spirit of this season
Of the birth of Hope, Joy, Love and Peace with you
All through this year
And those that come after