Many years ago on Christmas Eve, at the famed Riverside Church in New York City, the renowned William Sloan Coffin was scheduled to preach. The Christmas Pageant preceded his sermon. They had come to the point where the innkeeper was to say there was no room in the inn for Joseph and Mary.
The part seemed perfect for Tim, an earnest youth of the congregation who had Down’s syndrome. It was one line and he had practiced it over and over again with his parents and the pageant director. He had this! So there Tim stood in the sanctuary, a bathrobe over his clothes, as Mary and Joseph made their way down the center aisle. They approached Tim, said their lines, and waited for his reply. “There’s no room in the inn,” he boomed out just as rehearsed. But then, as Mary and Joseph turned to travel further, Tim suddenly yelled, “Wait!” They turned back startled. “You can stay at my house,” he called.
Bill Coffin did not wait for the pageant to end to deliver his sermon. He strode to the pulpit right then and said, “Amen!” Later he said it was the best sermon he never preached.
Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, you can stay at my house. In this Christmas season when our church buildings cannot be open, let’s say that again and again. Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus you can stay at my house. We miss being in Church so much. But your presence is still here. A pandemic cannot stop your love for us.
Theologian and spiritual guide Richard Rohr says this: “We are not human beings having spiritual experiences. We are spiritual beings having human experiences.” Now there is a lot to unpack there. But let’s go with it as true. We are not human beings having spiritual experiences. We are spiritual beings having a human experiences. Now we are having the human experience of a pandemic with all the economic and social disruption and suffering it is causing. How do we live as people of faith in this time?
It has been said “every time a baby is born, it is proof that God has not given up on the world.” My family has been blessed with two births this year. Our granddaughter, Charlotte, was born on April 28. And Elizabeth, called Bee, was born on June 6th. Both were borth in New York City where the curve was starting to flatten but the virus was still rampant. On June 6th, 5 week-old Charlotte needed emergency stomach surgery. Betsy and I sat and waited to hear if Charlotte would come through the surgery OK. At the same time, we waited to hear how the labor was going and anticipating the birth of Bee. Talk about having a human experience! The surgery on Charlotte was successful and everything went well in the birth of Bee. Thank God.
“Every time a baby is born, it is proof that God has not given up on the universe.” That is exactly what the Gospel writers Luke and Matthew tell us so clearly. Luke tells us that the birth of Jesus causes an angel to go to shepherds and proclaim, “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 who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you. You will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”
Matthew is a lot more low-key about the events of that night. He just writes, “She had borne a son and he (Joseph) named him Jesus.” But Matthew tells us a lot more about what happened after that. There is the story of the Magi and King Herod’s plan to kill the baby by killing all babies two years old and younger around Bethlehem. This results in Joseph and Mary taking the baby and fleeing to Egypt for two years. They remain there until a dream tells Joseph that King Herod is dead and it is safe to go back to Israel.
Two years living as refugees in a foreign land with no Zoom calls with the grandparents and the aunts and uncles. Two years of staying faithful in the midst of suffering.
2020 has been a brutal year for our country, for our world, AND God has not given up hope. I’ll end with a poem from Madeleine L’Engle which has touched my soul this Advent and Christmas. It is called, “First Coming.”
He did not wait for the perfect time.First Coming, By Madeleine L’Engle
He came when the need was deep and great.
He dined with sinners in all their grime,
Turned water into wine.
He did not wait till hearts were pure.
In joy he came to a tarnished world of sin and doubt .
To a world like ours, of anguished shame
He came, and his light would not go out.
He came to a world which did not mesh,
To heal its tangles, shield its scorn.
In the mystery of the Word made Flesh
The Maker of the stars was born.
We cannot wait till the world is sane
To raise our songs with joyful voice,
For to share our grief, to touch our pain,
He came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!