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Friday, December 24, 2010

A Night With the Innkeeper (Luke 2:1-7)


I am pleased to share with you my sermon for Christmas Eve, 2010. I am indebted to John Fitzgerald, the senior pastor of Boone UMC, who wrote a similar poem and shared it with the Boone congregation Christmas Eve, 2007.

The poem below is uniquely and originally mine, but the idea and inspiration came from John.


(knocking on outside door)

I’m coming! I’m coming! I hope they’re all right.

I wonder who it is, knocking so late in the night.

Come in, weary friend, come in from the cold!

Come in and sit down, and rest from the road.

Welcome dear traveler, to the Royal David Inn!

The finest, the nicest, in all Bethlehem!

The inn is better and grander than ever before,

Air-conditioning, HBO, new carpet on the floor.

You’ll find we’re convenient to all sites in town.

A quick walk will show pretty much all that’s around.

Yes, we have room, we have room for you.

One with a hot tub? Or camelside view?

I’m sorry, forgive me if I seem sorta crazy.

This time of year, you see, makes my mind hazy.

What is it that occupies my thoughts in this way?

Something that happened years ago on this day.

It happened right here, this very same night.

Would you like to hear more? I thought you just might.

Have a drink, take a seat, right next to the fire.

And I’ll tell you a tale that’s sure to inspire.

It happened right here, this same time of year . . .

Rome ordered a census, they wanted a count

Of all of its citizens, every valley and mount.

People could only be counted in their hometown,

Which meant they came here, from miles all around.

They came here in droves, they came on their camels,

They came on their donkeys, and all sorts of mammals.

And all of them needed a place they could stay.

Who was I to turn business away?

And business was good, I mean, it was good!

Business was wonderfully, exceedingly good!

We filled all the rooms with guests from afar.

We rented the closets; I slept in the bar.

We stacked them three high all the way down the hall,

And still they kept coming; I found room for them all.

The house was filled with all those good folk.

I had just logged the time they all wanted woke,

I was headed upstairs to get me some rest,

When I heard a knock on the door – a very late guest.

I opened the door and peered out in the street,

Where stood a poor couple looking to greet.

It was clear they had travelled awhile and were tired

They held one of my coupons I knew had expired.

“Sir, if you please, we need room for the night.

We’re cold and we’re tired and we missed our flight.

So we rented this donkey and rode all the way here,

From Nazareth – no small task this time of year.”

My eyes were adjusting to the dark just outside,

And I looked them over – top to bottom, side to side.

He was a bit older, a working class guy,

gray in his beard, compassion in his eye.

His wife was younger, barely more than a child,

Her manner was gentle, tender, and mild.

I was just preparing to turn them away;

We had no more room, there was nowhere to stay!

I have a heart, really I do!

There just wasn’t room to squeeze in a few.

But that’s when I realized, standing there in the cold,

The woman was pregnant, very much so, I’m told.

I couldn’t say no, not with her condition,

But still the dilemma – where would I put them?

And then an idea flashed bright in my mind;

There was yet one more place they could go to unwind:

My stable out back where my animals sleep,

I could put them up there, and rent it out cheap!

I pitched the idea and we settled a price,

Even gave them fresh hay to make the barn nice.

The sheep were awake, the cattle were lowing,

I wondered aloud if they’d get their sleep going.

They looked the place over and said they’d be fine.

I brought out some food on which they could dine,

Then bid them good night and went off to bed,

Falling asleep just as soon as I laid down my head.

I was wakened at three by my beautiful wife,

Who knows I need sleep lest there be strife.

I knew right away there was something the matter,

As I listened to her excitedly chatter.

“Come quickly! Come quickly! O, you must see!

A sight to behold – come downstairs with me!”

She pulled the breath in and pushed the words out,

I still didn’t know what she was talking about.

She paused, caught her breath, and sat down in a chair,

Regained her composure, and smoothed out her hair.

And began to tell me how events did unfold.

I thought, “I can’t take this; I’m getting too old.”

She said, “Remember the couple out back in the stable?

Two are now three; believe that, if you’re able.

The woman gave birth just an hour ago

To a beautiful boy, I’m telling you so.

“He’s healthy and happy, they’re all filled with joy

To welcome tonight this wonderful boy.

You must come and see and congratulate them

Imagine it – here – in little Bethlehem!”

She went back outside and I looked for my shoes,

Still groggy, still sleepy, absorbing the news.

Then I opened the door to the cold, wintry yard,

Where it seemed all creation had let down its guard.

I remember the starlight so well on that night,

How it bathed the whole place in heavenly light.

The stars shone so brightly on our little town,

Made us look like a beacon for miles around.

I needed no lantern to light up my way.

The stars were so bright, it could have been day.

“It’s something,” I thought, but I didn’t know what

And sensed the excitement, building down in my gut.

So still, so solemn, the world lay in wait,

Yet knowing this day would forever be great.

I stopped just outside that cold, smelly cave –

The stable, the barn – good shelter it gave.

Around my stone manger, the family stood still.

Adoring the child, what a warm, precious thrill.

I stepped just inside and they looked up at me,

They lit up with smiles just as wide as could be.

“Come over and see” they said with such joy.

“Come over and meet our new baby boy.”

I walked through the filth and over the hay

And right to the manger, where the new child lay.

“What name is he given?” I wondered aloud.

“His name is Jesus,” said his mother, so proud.

Then she proceeded to say unto me,

“This child is special, he’ll set the world free!

From darkness and heartache and war and from strife;

To beating these things, he’ll devote his whole life.

“From fighting and feuding and hardness of heart,

He’ll reconcile all things, give all a new start.

The divide between persons will cease to exist,

No more divisions from east and from west.

“His name is Jesus,” she said with a grin,

“For he shall save all from the depth of their sin.

He’s God’s Anointed, yes, He is the One.

His name is Jesus, and he is God’s son.”

I hoped she was kidding, so I looked in her eyes

And saw she believed it, it was no great surprise.

I turned to her husband to see what he thought.

He confirmed the whole story with one silent nod.

I paused for a moment and let it sink in.

The child will save us all from our sin?

I wrestled a moment with what I’d just heard,

Pondering carefully every last word.

They claimed the outrageous! They thought it was true!

The child they had birthed would save me and you!

I thought they were crazy, that’s how it all seemed.

My stable? In Bethlehem? Birthplace for a king?

The place was so lowly, so near to the earth.

Hardly the place for the Messiah’s birth.

I knew what the prophets had forseen back of old

How events of Messiah were supposed to unfold.

They predicted a king! A strong mighty leader!

Not a child born to peasants in my cattle feeder.

Why would these people claim something so grand

When they held so little in their peasant hand?

How could this child be the long-promised king?

Who would ever believe such a thing?

You probably should know that I’d never had use

For faith or religion, they just seem an excuse

For dear feeble minds to be filled to the brim

With fanciful tales they believe on a whim.

This couple was nice and they seemed quite devout.

They believed God was working this whole thing about.

But I was a skeptic, I didn’t believe

That God had some purpose he intended to weave.

At least, I was trying to cling to my doubt

But all my excuses were plain wearing out.

The family looked joyful and filled with such hope,

My doubt was hanging by a very thin rope.

The child was held in his mother’s embrace,

Who lovingly gave him a kiss on the face.

Her husband stood by filled with love and with care

I was honored and humbled to be standing there.

The mother looked up, and she asked me a question,

She said, “My good sir, would you like to hold him?”

Me? Hold the child? Now what was she thinking?

Talk about crazy! She must have been drinking!

I’m no good with kids! Why should I hold the child?

What if I drop him? Imagine the suit to be filed!

I’m no good with kids! I don’t know what to do!

“I’m honored, but I prefer that he be held by you.”

But then she assured me the child wouldn’t break.

Though some crying, perhaps, little Jesus would make.

Placing him in my arms, she said, “How does that feel?”

“It’s natural” I lied, trying not to make a big deal.

Yet before too long, that statement was true.

The baby relaxed and started to coo.

I relaxed, too, and I finally looked down

As the child in my arms woke from sleep without sound.

Now, listen quite close to what I must say.

Because it sounds quite absurd in every way.

You’re free to think I’m a crazy old guy,

That’s fine if you do, I won’t wonder why.

But friend, I must tell you just what I perceived.

In my stable out back, on this very same eve.

What I experienced is a tale to be told,

Again and again, from those long days of old.

I was holding the child, what I felt was quite odd:

Somehow I just knew, the child was God.

How did I know? I really don’t know!

Just something within me made me know so.

I can’t quite explain it. I’ve tried! Take my word!

What I experienced just seems absurd.

What happened could only be described as an art;

Something softened within me, down deep in my heart.

It’s a feeling I knew wasn’t there just for me.

It’s for the whole world, it’s even for thee.

The child is God-with-us, yes, Emmanuel,

The presence of God is here with us to dwell.

God has entered our world, let all hearts prepare room!

The light of his presence dispels all our gloom.

His birth is a thin place between heaven and earth.

God’s presence has crowned all creation with worth.

God reached through the thin place to you and to me.

Providing new life for all people to see.

The child is God-with-us, yes, Emmanuel.

So remember this story, remember it well.

Write it and tell it, share the good news!

Christ Jesus is born for Gentiles and Jews.

His birth didn’t happen just once in my stable,

He is born yet again in hearts that are able

To prepare room for God to make home in our heart,

With forgiveness and love, granting all a fresh start.

He didn’t come once and then vanish away.

He can soften our hearts here and now, on this day.

He is changing all hearts toward God’s kingdom way

He brought heaven to earth, his kingdom shall stay.

Well, there you have it. The tale you have heard,

Of what happened on this night – Believe every word.

You can take it or leave it, that’s still up to you.

This time each year, there’s still something to do.

Open your heart to receive Jesus in.

If you’ve done it before, then do it again.

Let love fill your being, and hope flood your soul,

Prepare room for the Savior to make your life whole.

May God’s love shine its light down deep within you.

May it touch your whole life and make you brand new.

May you say it long after I’ve gone out of sight,

Merry Christmas to all, and to all, a God-night.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Five Moms for Jesus (Matthew 1:1-6,16)


An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David.

And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah . . .

And Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.

Our passage of Scripture this morning is believed by many to be the most boring chapter of the Bible. There are actually passages in the Old Testament books of 1 and 2 Chronicles that are much more boring than this, though this is a difficult passage to read. Our Scripture reader today must have spent hours practicing at home to get all these names down. Go ahead and take your sermon notes out of your bulletin so you’ll be ready to jot down anything of interest.

The first chapter of Matthew’s Gospel is the “begat” section, an old word that literally means “to bring into existence.” This chapter is considered so boring that most people skip it to get to the second where Jesus Christ is born. But if we skip this chapter, we skip the fact that Matthew has some important things to say to us in all these names, and for those who are brave enough to dig it out, the first chapter of the New Testament is filled with meaning. May we pray.

Here is how the New Testament begins: “An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1). Why does the New Testament begin with a genealogy? Because in those days, if you wanted to know a person, it was important to know about their family.

Like it or not, we are all known by our relationship to our family. Many of you will get to meet my father toward the end of December and beginning of January. In fact, he’s preaching here on the 2nd of January, so you’ll even get a chance to hear him. There is no denying that I am my father’s son. Just seeing the two of us standing next to each other and you’ll realize that I am his son, that he “begat” me. People would say they could see the family resemblance and that I look just like my dad, and let me tell you, that’s just what every 15-year-old wants to hear. I’d be thinking, “So, does that mean I’m going to wear knee-high socks with my sandals when I grow up?”

When people know our family, they know something about us. People will make judgments about us based on our family. I used to ride my bike around the neighborhood, and had a favorite way of, shall we say, “watering the trees.” I had been forbidden from “watering the trees” near our house, but around the corner mom couldn’t see me! I was always surprised when my mom found out before I even got home, because one or more of our neighbors just couldn’t mind their own business, knew whose son I was, and called my house before I was even back on my bike.

When I was about 8, several of the kids in the church would have army crawl races under the pews after worship was over. Six of us were crawling under the pews, and I was ahead, until one of the stalwart members of the church pulled me up by the back of my shirt collar and said, “Andrew Jeremy Thomas, your father is the minister of this church, and YOU should know better!” My first thought was, “Thanks, lady, you just lost me the race,” well, actually that wasn’t exactly my FIRST thought, but I can’t say here what I was really thinking, but then I thought, “Wait a minute, what about all these other kids?” Shouldn’t they know better, too?”

We tend to identify people by the families. It is true today, and it was true in the ancient world. And what a family Jesus came from!

Jesus Christ was a descendent of Abraham. That was important in those days. It meant that Jesus was one of the chosen people. If you look closely at the covenant in Genesis 17:6, one of the promises God made to Abraham was that “kings shall come from you.” But notice that the first name in our passage is David – King David. The prophet Isaiah said: “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given . . . He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom . . . forever” (Isaiah 9:6 ff). The purpose of the first chapter of Matthew’s Gospel is to introduce us to Jesus Christ, to tell us about his lineage, but most importantly, to tell us that the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords has come to us. And so all of us are invited to bow in submission to Jesus, to make him our King and the Lord of our lives.

But here is the strange thing – Matthew adds the names of five mothers in our passage. In those days genealogies were traced through the father’s side of the family. Maybe you’re thinking, Hold up there, just a minute. If I understand the Christmas story, then Jesus was not descended from Joseph’s side of the family. You’re correct, but you’re thinking too much like a modern person and not like someone in the ancient world. You see, in those days, genealogy wasn’t about biology, but about belonging. Mary was engaged to Joseph, so in that worldview, she belonged to Joseph’s family. We would expect a list of fathers in this genealogy, but Matthew inserts five mothers. Why? Let’s take a closer look.

The first mother mentioned is Tamar. Her story can be found in the 38th chapter of Genesis. Tamar was the wife of the son of Judah, and get this, she was not Hebrew. I don’t want to gossip, but the Bible says that she was Canaanite. That was scandalous in those days! Hebrews were forbidden to marry Canaanites. Why would Matthew put her name in the family tree? Is Matthew trying to tell us that Jesus had some mixed race blood in his veins?

He certainly didn’t look like it, at least not in my children’s Bible, in the pictures of Jesus that hung in my grandmother’s home and in all my childhood Sunday School classes. Take a look at this picture – who is this? Jesus, of course! That’s just what Jesus looks like. If this is the image of Jesus you know and love, then you’re probably not going to like what I’m about to say. Jesus didn’t look like this.

There’s an old saying that in the beginning, God created mankind in God’s own image, and we’ve been trying to return the favor ever since. In other words, our image of God is often a reflection of our own biases and preferences. And so, for Christians whose origins go back to Western and Northern Europe, it’s not surprising that the Jesus in our art, in our stained glass and in our minds has flowing golden hair, fair skin, and blue eyes.

Have you guys seen Will Ferrell’s movie Talladega Nights? One of my favorite scenes from that movie is when Ferrell’s character, race-car driver Ricky Bobby is saying grace before a meal with his family, and he prays to his favorite version of Jesus: “Dear Eight Pound, Six Ounce, Newborn Baby Jesus, in your golden, fleece diapers, with your curled-up, fat, balled-up little fists pawin' at the air...”

His wife interrupts and says, “Hey, um, sweetie, Jesus did grow up. You don't always have to call him baby.” But he simply responds by saying, “Look, I like the Christmas Jesus best, and I'm sayin' grace. When you say grace, you can say it to Grownup Jesus or Teenage Jesus or Bearded Jesus or whoever you want.”

Now there’s some humor in that, but there’s also some truth in it too. All of us have a version of Jesus in our minds we prefer, and this preference usually closely aligns with our own biases. Too often, we have made Jesus in our own image, and ended up with a Jesus who is simply a more powerful version of ourselves.

Does it really matter what Jesus looked like? Does it matter what color his skin was, or how curly his hair was, or how wide his nose was? Unfortunately, to some I think it still matters. Because when we have cast Jesus in our own image, it may be entirely too easy to marginalize others who are outside this image.

For instance, and, be honest here, would you be nervous if you were boarding a plane and this guy and 12 of his friends were on board? How about if they came into town and showed up here at church because they said they had something they wanted to teach us?

Now, brace yourself, this picture has been described as the most historically accurate picture of Jesus ever created. A few years ago British scientists teamed up with Israeli archeologists to make this picture. Using advanced forensic anthropology techniques, the took three skulls from the first century found near where Jesus lived. They used computer x-ray images to add flesh material. Then they took the three images and combined them to make a composite. This might be what Jesus really looked like. Of course, this could also be Peter, James, or John, or any first century Galilean.

I remember growing up, and a woman in our church was upset because her soon-to-be grandson was going to be of mixed race. “Where will he belong?” she wondered. If she came and asked me this today, I would tell her, “Tell him he belongs here, because here we worship a Savior who was the son of Tamar the Canaanite, here we worship a Savior who was of mixed race.”

Would you like to see one of my favorite pictures of Jesus? In 1999, Janet McKenzie’s painting “Jesus of the People” was selected from 1700 entries to be the cover of the special Millennium Issue of the National Catholic Reporter. She intentionally painted Jesus with mixed racial characteristics, feminine and masculine features, and friends, this is what St. Matthew is also telling us in the first chapter of his Gospel: Jesus Christ is here to save all people. Jesus Christ is the Lord of Lord and King of Kings; he is the savior of Hebrews and Canaanites, of Jews and Gentiles. In this place we worship a savior who is the son of Tamar, the Canaanite.

The second mother Matthew mentions is Rahab. Her story is found in the second chapter of Joshua. Rahab was a woman of the evening. Rahab was a working girl. Rahab had a penchant for entertaining gentlemen callers. Rahab was a woman of ill-repute. Why would Matthew have someone like her in Jesus’ family tree?

Because I have a friend who is a recovering meth head. He was addicted to meth. He dabbled in other drugs, but when he was addicted, he would have done anything for meth. His life was not his own – everything he did was devoted to getting meth. He lost his job, his home, his family, and he didn’t care. Years later, he had an amazing story of how God had delivered him and given him the strength to find a new life. He got plugged into a church in his town, and the pastor asked him to share his testimony. He was reluctant to do so, at first, because there are so many churches that would be uncomfortable with hearing about his past.

Friends, that shouldn’t be. You may have a past. I may have a past. The line from Steel Magnolias seems appropriate here: “If you can achieve puberty, you are old enough to have a past.” But, whatever our past may be, the church is a place where people can find new beginnings. In this place we worship a savior who was the son of Rahab.

The third mother is Ruth. We know about Ruth because she has her own book in the Old Testament. The story of Ruth begins during a famine, and Ruth leaves her home to be with her mother-in-law, Naomi. Ruth was an immigrant.

John Fitzgerald, the senior pastor of Boone United Methodist Church where I served on staff before coming here, told us about a church he had previously served that began a ministry to Spanish-speaking people. People in the church volunteered to teach Spanish speakers conversational English. The volunteers didn’t have to speak Spanish, they could simply point to a picture and say, “Food” or “Post Office” or whatever.

John said there were some who asked, “Why are we doing this?” John replied, “Because in the Bible in the book of Leviticus it says, ‘Be kind to strangers because you were once strangers in the land of Egypt yourself.’ Because in the Bible in the book of Hebrews it says, ‘Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for some have entertained angels unaware.’ Because in the Bible, Jesus himself said, ‘If you have done it unto the least of these you have done it unto me.’” They said, “But if we do it for some, more of them will want to come here. Have we checked their documentation? Has anyone checked their green cards?” John said, “No, because this is not a division of the US government; this is the church of Jesus Christ!” In this place, we worship a savior who was the son of Ruth, the immigrant.

The most scandalous of all was the fourth mother, Bathsheba. Let me give you the PG version of her story. One night King David was on the roof of his palace, and he looked out and saw Bathsheba bathing in her backyard. And David thought, “Well, that’s just fine!” He sent for Bathsheba, she came to the palace, and they spent the night together. Remember, David was the king and his army was off to war, and David should have been with them. Instead, he was lazily lounging about the palace – idle, with lots of time on his hands, and he got himself into a situation that never should have happened.

You also need to understand the dynamics here. David was the king, and he wanted Bathsheba, and the king generally gets what he wants. Bathsheba has no choice the matter. What happened between them wasn’t consensual, and King David abused his power and took advantage of Bathsheba.

Bathsheba didn’t do anything wrong. She was bathing in her own backyard, at a time of day when darkness should have provided a reasonable level of privacy to her. She is a victim to King David’s out-of-control libido.

But then, even more trouble: she was found to be pregnant. One big problem was that she was married to Uriah, one of David’s soldiers, and so David had him sent to the front line and then abandoned by the rest of the troops, leaving him to be killed in battle. Bathsheba is twice a victim to King David’s abuse of power. First, in taking advantage of her, and second, in the murder of her husband. Matthew’s Gospel explicitly calls her “the wife of Uriah” not “the wife of David” or “the mother of Solomon.” Matthew reminds us that King David abused his power and took what belonged to another man. Why the focus on this low point in Hebrew history?

Because, somewhere in town there is a man or a woman who is a victim of someone else’s abuse of power. They have been marginalized, they have been made to feel guilty because of something that happened to them that they had no control over. They are not here this morning because they think people here will judge them. They think they will be condemned. The Christians they have known have probably been the most harsh and condemning toward them of anyone. They blame themselves for the wrong someone else did against them. That is simply not true. If that is where you are this morning, let Advent be a time for healing.

Bathsheba is included in this story to remind us that Jesus doesn’t identify with the powerful. Jesus identifies with the outcast, with the marginalized, with the friendless, with the powerless, with those who are victims to others’ abuse of power. In this place, we worship a savior who is the son of Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah.

And finally, the fifth mother is the obvious one: Mary, the mother of our Lord. We have heard the Christmas story so many times that it no longer shocks, but perhaps it should. When God chose to enter human history, he chose an unwed teenage peasant girl from backwater Nazareth for whom there was no room in the inn. We tend to picture the stable as a wooden barn with warm firelight and soft hay and docile animals, but a stable in Bethlehem would have been a dark, cold, smelly cave. In those days, the manger wasn’t wood, but a stone feeding trough. Picture this place filled with hay, dirty animals, and plenty of filth underfoot. I cannot imagine a lower place on earth for a royal birth.

But if God could reach down from the heights of heaven to a dirty barn and a lowly manger, don’t you think God can reach you or me wherever we may be this morning? Garth Brooks sang, “I’ve got friends in low places.” However low you may be, Christ has been there – Christ was born there – and he has come to lift us from there to God.

The Gospel of Matthew begins with the genealogy of Jesus, and there we find five mothers of our Lord named. What is Matthew telling us? Jesus is the King of kings and the Lord of lords, but more specifically, Matthew is telling us five things. Jesus is the son of Tamar the Canaanite, the woman of mixed race. Jesus is the son of Rahab, the woman of ill-repute. Jesus is the son of Ruth, the immigrant. Jesus is the son of Bathsheba, the victim of abuse. Jesus is the son of Mary, the lowly and powerless.

In this place, we worship Jesus, who is all of these things, and who still wants to be my king and your king – the Lord of my life and your life. And we say, “Come, Lord Jesus, Come.”