Christmas Day — December 25, 2022

Teri McDowell Ott pushes against the narrative of scarcity that is conveyed by the grumpy innkeeper in the Western church’s telling of the nativity.

Teri McDowell Ott's lectionary reflections are sent to the Outlook's email list every Monday.

Nativity of the Lord
Year A
Luke 2:1-20

One Christmas, when I was the pastor of a small church in North Carolina, I decided to involve the whole congregation in my children’s message. We’d act out the scene where Mary and Joseph were looking for a place to stay in Bethlehem. I gave the people sitting on the center aisle doors made out of posterboard. Then I led the children around the sanctuary to knock on the doors and ask if there was room for them to stay in the inn. This was a great idea in my head —but I didn’t realize how difficult it would be for my church members.

Two-year-old Garrett, clutching his tattered teddy bear, knocked on Leon’s door and asked, “Do you have room for me?” and Leon – well, I could tell that Leon wanted to cave – so, I interrupted, “No, Leon, you don’t have room for Garrett. Now shut the door.” The same thing happened when sweet little Grace in her red velvet dress knocked on Sharon’s door. A grandmother who never says no to a child, Sharon looked devastated to have to turn Grace away. “I’m sorry sweetie,” she said. Finally, my own tow-headed 4-year-old Isaac, knocked on Mack’s door, with his sweet little six-inch clip-on-tie and his shirt tail untucked. Isaac and Mack looked for each other every Sunday morning and that Christmas, Mack had made Isaac a toy train out of wood. So, when Isaac asked, “Mr. Mack, do you have room for me?” it was all Mack could do to stay on script, “No, Isaac, I’m sorry, but I’ve got no room for you.”

This year, Christmas uniquely falls on a Sunday. People who show up this Sunday, mere hours after Christmas Eve worship, might be the rarest of saints, or, they might be longing for a place of welcome. Too many are turned away today in our church, society and communities — people left outside to wonder, “Is there room for me?

The parents who work multiple jobs and still can’t manage their monthly rent payments.

The autistic child who struggles to make friends at school.

The gay couple who just want a safe place to hold hands and dance with their friends.

The Black teenager who wants to wear a hoodie without having people assume he is a threat.

The Brown third-generation immigrant weary of being asked, “Where are you from?”

Is there room for those seeking welcome? Pondering this question, I returned to Luke’s text and discovered a detail I had missed. I’d always pictured a weary innkeeper greeting Mary and Joseph in the middle of the night, a lantern reflecting their desperate faces, and the innkeeper’s regret as he followed the script, “I’m sorry, but I don’t have room for you.”

Apparently, I made this whole scene up because there isn’t an innkeeper in this text. In fact, the word inn in this passage would more accurately be translated as “guest room” or “guest bed” in the peasant house or desert cave where Mary and Joseph more likely stopped. (Read more here.) This was not a place of business – not a biblical Motel 6 – but family and friends who had come home for the census and crowded in. People and animals were sleeping all over the place. So sure, there wasn’t a bed for them, no guest room with a private bath. But there was room. Mary and Joseph were taken in. Their baby was born, wrapped in bands of cloth and laid in a manger.

Knowing this, I wish I could go back in time, to my church in North Carolina and the Christmas when I led all those children around the sanctuary and give them the right script. I’d tell Leon, “Go ahead and cave. Let Garrett in.” I’d say to Sharon, “It’s okay, you’ve got room for Grace.” I’d disclose to Mack, “You can make room for Isaac, just like I know you would for any child of God.”

How often we operate with a script that tells us there just isn’t enough — not enough room, not enough resources, not enough jobs, not enough alternative sources of energy, maybe even not enough love to conquer the hate, or good to overcome the evil. The birth of Jesus Christ flips this “not enough” script. It proclaims the good news of great joy for all the people. No one is left out in the cold. There is enough. There is room for us all.

Questions for reflection:

  1. What thoughts, feelings, images or ideas arise as you read this text?
  2. Who are the people looking for room in your community?
  3. What do you have enough of this Christmas to share?

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