Christmas Eve 2014
Call to Worship – from Mary Wellemeyer (adapted)
Like those shepherds who were on the hillsides
with their flocks,
like those wise ones in their observatories
with their telescopes and astronomical charts,
like the innkeepers who sit behind their desks waiting for dawn,
we find our daily work interrupted by these holidays.
Like them, we can’t keep on working,
we have to listen to singing angels,
we have to deal with the call of that special star,
we have to decide if we have room for strange visitors.
The little town of Bethlehem is thronged
with people who have come to be taxed,
Tourists crowding streets and shops,
and we have to find our way to an unknown place,
where we will open the doors of our lives for a wonderful new beginning.
What precious new birth are you seeking this night?
For what do you push through crowds?
What have the angels told you?
What is the call of the star in your life?
Homily – NO VACANCY by Mark W. Harris
When you are traveling on vacation or even going back to a far away, yet familiar place in order to be taxed, like Joseph and Mary, and have not made plans in advance, what can be more frustrating than to find there is no room at the inn. We have all gone searching for shelter on a cold, dark night, and found only neon red signs that say, no vacancy. This search can seem endless. Tempers become short. When will it end, and will we find something, anything? It was years ago when my parents and I decided not to stay in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. It was over crowded and too sleazy, my mother said, and besides all of the nice hotels were full. Then we took off in my little orange Subaru over the mountain pass to find a hotel that had some room for three weary travelers. On the map it looked like a straight and flat highway, the most direct route to Pocatello, Idaho, but it turned out to be steep and narrow, cold and forbidding; in another time, filled with crevices and boulders for bandits and robbers to hide. The little car chugged up the mountain like the little engine that could; I think I can. And we did, but while the ride up was a slow gasp for power, the ride down was like a roller coaster, 10,000 feet up and descending a mile a minute or more. Soon a giant tractor trailer went roaring by, making wind that shook my car like a butterfly in a hurricane. Then at the bottom of the mountain, we saw the real dangers of late night rides into darkness. A shepherd had tried to cross the road with his flock, from one pasture to another. The flock and the truck had collided with terrible results. A few minutes before it would have been my little car. and us that met an untimely fate with all those wooly beasts, whose ancestors ranged on Judean hills while shepherds watched with care. Slowly we made our way through what might have been our disaster, and soon were safely in the nest of a warm evening’s lodging.
What can happen to you on a night when you are confronted with the no vacancy sign? The message is you cannot stay here, or you are not wanted. In first century Judea the prospective parents had to go ask the innkeeper, can we spend the night?
Surely the city was crowded with people who had returned to pay their taxes, or even tourists looking for a night on the town. Perhaps the inn was full of people, or the innkeeper did not want these shabby undesirables staying in the main house. They could spend the night with animals because they smelled like them. He may have seen them as country bumpkins from Nazareth, and not worthy to rub elbows with wealthy merchants. Wasn’t this young girl pregnant, and traveling with a man who was not her husband?
When do we put out the no vacancy sign? When do we only make room for others who look like us or who fit with our idea of what is right? We have all endured painful reminders this year of a world where people continue to put up symbolic no vacancy signs to Black Americans, suspected time and again of some crime or misdemeanor as the powers of the culture tell them you are nobody because we assume you must be poor, or a convict.
Jackie Robinson’s story of breaking the color line in major league baseball began with several no vacancy stories before he took the field for his first day of spring training in Sanford, Florida in 1946. On the trip from Los Angeles, Jackie and his wife Rachel were denied entry to segregated restaurants and hotels. When practice was over, the white players went back to their whites only lakefront hotel while Robinson went to a private home in the black section of town. That Sunday, when church was over, blacks by the hundreds walked to the ballpark, hoping to see their dreams fulfilled. Yet only one Florida city allowed Robinson to play – some padlocked the stadium, another said its lights weren’t working, even though it was an afternoon game, and in Sanford, Robinson was escorted off the field by the chief of police. More than six decades later a teenager named Trayvon Martin lived in Sanford, and one day, unarmed, lost his life there, too.
Ed Charles, who became a third baseman for the New York Mets, was a 12-year-old living in Daytona Beach during the 1946 spring training. When Robinson’s team left town on a train north to begin their regular season, Charles and several black children ran after the train until it disappeared from sight. “And when we finally couldn’t hear it any longer,” he said, “we ran some more and finally stopped and put our ears to the tracks so we could feel the vibrations of the train carrying Jackie Robinson. We wanted to be a part of him as long as we could.”
From the very beginning Mary might have been ridiculed or abused by everyone in the town of Nazareth because she was an unwed mother. And she could have accepted that sign that said she was worthless, but she refused to do so. Instead she believed an angel, a special heavenly voice that told her, your son is a very special child of God. What signs do we accept as truthful? We must determine which signs to follow.
Are any of us made to feel that our mental illness, or learning disability, or job, or education, or appearance somehow makes us less worthy? What if you felt the vibration in your blood and bones that you are worthy, even if you didn’t have the right papers – birth certificate, college degree, or green card.
Last year when a young homeless family from Arizona came to the church seeking shelter, I found none of the shelters would take them because they did not have paper work that registered them with the state, and were not welcome because they were from out of state. Go back home they were told, or go to a hospital. How do the homeless go home, even in the midst of howling snow storms, on the road, traveling with a baby? Who would tell this poor young family your child is a child of God? Could it be me?
Who is turned away when we hang a no vacancy sign in our school, our town, our church or our country? A gift we can offer this season is a world of vacancy signs open for all. The story tells us that God dwells with the one who is turned away from the inn.
Let us be more afraid of missing a chance to meet that child of God than we are of open doors.