Each year when I unpack our Nativity set, I think about the innkeeper. I didn’t grow up as a Christian so I never played a shepherd, angel, friendly beast or Mary in a Christmas pageant. If I had the opportunity now, I think I’d like to play the innkeeper. Let me tell you why.
My Nativity set has quite a story. In the year 2000, I was in Israel and Palestine as the Second Intifada began. Our group of 25 pilgrims were one of only two tour groups to visit Bethlehem on a day that would normally see hundreds. The streets were empty and the shops were locked for fear of violence. We were instructed to stay together and not to stray from our group as we headed to the Church of the Holy Nativity, the structure built upon the site where the original inn and manger were supposed to be.
I was on a mission in Bethlehem. A dear parishioner had given me $100 to purchase an olive-wood nativity set, hand-carved in Bethlehem. I wasn’t going home without it. A Lutheran pastor friend covered for me as I ducked into the only open store in the plaza. I rushed to a Nativity set, put it on the counter, plunked down my $100 bill in a quick “take it or leave it” deal and said I’d be back.
After a tour, prayers and singing of Silent Night in the crypt it was time to go. We passed the store once again and I rushed in to pick up my wrapped package. It was all so hasty and confusing that I wasn’t sure what I was getting. Later, when I unpacked in in my hotel room, the beauty and simplicity of the figures delighted me. But I was confused. There was Mary, Joseph, the 3 kings, animals, baby Jesus, the shepherds and one other figure. It wasn’t a shepherd or a king. Who could it be?
My guess is that it is a Joseph figure from a different carver and a different Nativity. Somehow he snuck into my bag. But he is no extra in our Christmas crèche. Every year, he has a starring role as the innkeeper. He kneels outside the main action, looking in at the stable that he has tended and filled with hay. He probably sees the leaks in the roof and the animals doubled into stalls to make room for this poor family. If he was open these days, he’d be concerned about fire codes and insurance coverage since he’s using his space for a purpose not covered by the regulations.
It doesn’t say anything about whether he witnessed or worshipped the holy birth, but at least in our Nativity display, he’s present, taking a short rest from his labors to kneel in awe and wonder as light and love and life come to all in the form of a tiny babe.
I can relate to the innkeeper. This year as my husband, Bryon and I were preparing for a 6-week sabbatical trip, we heard the tidings, as most of us do now, on Facebook. A couple with two adopted teenagers, a 3 year old and a Labradoodle had run out of time in their rental while waiting for their home to be remodeled. They were about to be without anywhere to stay, the teens were starting 2 different new schools, and the Mom was 8 months pregnant.
There was no room for them, no home to hold them. Bryon and I looked at one another, looked around at our small house and knew that this was one of those, “Never resist a generous impulse” moments. We replied to the post and within minutes the father responded. Before we knew it we were clearing all our stuff off of shelves and out of cupboards and drawers. We only had a couple weeks before they moved in. At that time none of us knew that she would give birth weeks early, just days after they got settled in our place.
Because of COVID and the need to respect their privacy, we observed from the outside. When they were ready to invite us in, we tiptoed into our bedroom. There in our king-sized bed were the Mother sitting up with the child in her lap, the toddler cuddling on one side and the dog on the other. All the upset over leaving our home so quickly and watching it taken over by the chaos of a family of six disappeared in that moment. All I could think was how blessed we were to witness and play a small part in the birth of this beloved child.
Maybe you know what it’s like to be the innkeeper. It’s always hard to make room when we’re overwhelmed by demands; when the world around us is scary and everything is uncertain; when those who search for a place in our lives are different, unknown, or demanding. It’s particularly hard to let people in when staying safe means staying apart. It’s hard to welcome family and others into our lives when we disagree so strongly about not only opinions, but even facts. It’s easy to expect the poor and needy to go away where we don’t have to see them or respond to the suffering and chaos of their lives.
Maybe with all you have been through, it seems reasonable to say, “There’s no room at the inn.” You’ll have to find somewhere else. I’m done. I have nothing left to give. I can only take care of my own.
The innkeeper had no idea who he was welcoming into his stable that night over 2,000 years ago. All he could see was a poor, young, pregnant woman and her older companion. They were strangers, possibly illegal, certainly desperate. And while he did not open his home, he made room for the holy to be born in Bethlehem.
Later, in the midst of all the work of caring for an inn full of people, he may have caught a glimpse of angel wings, or heard the singing in the night sky. He may have had a moment to pause and look up to see the star and be overcome by the beauty and promise he witnessed. He may have been alarmed to see ruffian shepherds coming into town, unwashed and hurrying to the manger. When he went to throw them out, I like to think he too was overcome by the holy presence and kneeled, just like he’s doing right now at our home Nativity.
It’s never convenient or easy or simple to open our hearts for Christ to come in. It can be strange and scary and foreign. It will lead us to open our lives in other ways; to open our hands to share what we have; to open our minds to new ways of understanding under the guidance of the Holy Spirit; to open our futures to unexpected possibilities.
Many of you heard recently that our community worked together to build relationships of trust and to leverage city resources to help over 70 people move from homelessness into transitional housing including tiny homes, shelters, permanent housing and hotel rooms. Last year at Christmas these same folks were camped in and around the Ballard Commons without heat, a door to lock for safety, running water, indoor plumbing, security and proper hygiene. Now, they come back to let us know that they are doing well, sleeping through the night for the first time in ages. They may not have found room at the inn, but they have a place in the manger and the hope of transformation out of the nightmare their lives had become. I’m grateful for all the innkeepers who found space for them.
And now, little St. Luke’s has an opportunity to provide room at the inn for over 80 families right here on a portion of our property. We have been approved to move forward with plans for affordable family units for those who make just 30-60% of the average median income in Seattle. There will be space for babies to be born and children to play, for multi-generational families to stay together, for essential workers to live close to their work, and for those who could not normally afford it to benefit from the amenities that this neighborhood provides. This is not transitional housing for those coming directly out of homelessness. Our neighborhood has two current buildings and one on the way for housing first. Instead this will be the first affordable one, two and three-bedroom units to be built in Ballard in decades.
This is because this congregation has opened its heart and its resources to share with those who could not otherwise find room at the inn.
Are you ready and willing to take on the Nativity role of the innkeeper this year? Perhaps you are called to make room for God to bring a new birth of faith, hope and love into your spirit. Maybe you are ready to forgive old grudges and create space for reconciliation to move in. I wonder what it will be like for you to be the innkeeper to the holy. Will you be startled as you recognize the Christ in your midst? Will you see the face of Jesus in an unexpected person? Will a moment of peace and stillness come upon you in the midst of your busy and overbooked schedule? Will the balm of comfort ease your grief and sorrow just a bit? Will the light of a tiny flame illumine your darkness and kindle hope?
May you welcome the birth of Jesus. May the light of Christ shine upon you. May you sing with the angels and rejoice with the shepherds. And may you, with the innkeeper make room for the unexpected and miraculous holy to be born. Amen.