Once, there was a little boy who was so excited one Sunday after practice for the church Christmas play that he practically jumped into the minivan when his mother came to pick him up. When he finally settled into the back seat, his mom called back to him, "So what part did you get that's making you so excited?"
The boy could hardly contain himself. "I got the part of the hero!"
"The hero?" she asked. "Are you Joseph?"
"Nooooo, Mom!" The look he shot her made it clear that he thought she was truly clueless.
"Are you the lead shepherd just like last year?"
"Nooooo, Mom!" She really didn't get it.
"Are you going to be a king and wear a crown this year?"
"No Mom! It's better than that!"
"The Angel Gabriel?"
"Tell me you're not baby Jesus!"
"Aw, Mom. I told you I'm the hero of the whole show."
"Well, who are you?"
"I'm the innkeeper!" the boy announced, grinning from ear to ear. "Without the innkeeper, there wouldn't have been any place for Jesus to be born!"
This is my favorite Christmas story because, until I heard it, I had never thought about the innkeeper. The innkeeper isn't part of most Nativity sets. I haven't heard any carols about the innkeeper. There don't seem to be any paintings that include him, either.
I can imagine the scene: Bethlehem is crowded with people coming home for the census. Rooms have been booked for months. It's late at night when the innkeeper opens the door and finds a young couple standing in front of him. The woman is nine months pregnant, and she and her husband look exhausted. They've walked 100 miles from Nazareth over rough and rocky terrain to get here.
The innkeeper is confronted with a dilemma.
As a child, he learned the story of Abraham and Sarah. He knows that couple welcomed the 3 strangers who showed up at their house by slaughtering the fatted calf and offering their guests a lavish feast. Then it turns out that the guests are angels sent to bring great news: As impossible as it seems, Sarah is going to have a baby. And so now there is a tradition of entertaining strangers, because often they are messengers to us from God.
The innkeeper also knows Moses' admonition in the Torah, reminding the people of Israel that they are called to love the stranger as themselves, because they remember what it was like to be strangers in Egypt.
He knows the tradition of having an empty chair at the table ready to welcome the one who comes as a stranger, as Elijah, at the great Pesach feast.
Now there are strangers on his doorstep. What to do?
I can imagine him pulling the door to a bit, and hastily consulting with his wife. Is there any space, anywhere? There are three people in each bed, and people sleeping on all the couches. There are air mattresses covering the living room and dining room and bedroom floors. What to do? They whisper back and forth, racking their brains, trying to come up with a solution.
Suddenly, he thinks of the stable out back. It's not much, but it's protected from the wind. The body heat of the animals makes it a warm place, no matter how cold it gets outside.
He flings open the door, and welcomes the couple with a broad smile. He explains he doesn't have much, but he has a possibility. A stable. Will it suffice?
And the innkeeper saves the day.
As it turns out, this is not the only inn and innkeeper in the Gospel of Luke.
The central story of that Gospel is a story we know as the story of the good Samaritan. In that story, Jesus tells us that a man is robbed on the road to Jericho. The good Samaritan comes along, bandages the man, and then brings him to ... an inn and an innkeeper.
The good Samaritan gets all the press for his efforts. Yet who is the one who cares for the wounded man day after day? Who changes the bandages and the sheets? Who feeds him every day? Who does this, not knowing whether he or she will actually be paid for this work or not? The innkeeper!
The innkeeper is the hero or shero of that story, too.
Then, at the end of Luke's Gospel, there is another story about an inn.
A couple is walking along the road to Emmaus. A stranger joins them. The three of them talk as they travel together. The couple shares their disappointment that Jesus is dead. It's very clear their hopes for the future are dashed.
The travelers come to an inn. The couple turns to enter the door. And, Luke tells us, "the stranger makes as if to go on."
There is a long, pregnant pause. The couple has to make a decision. Did they understand what Jesus had been teaching them during the three years they'd followed him? This is a test. The couple is standing on the doorstep. The stranger is beginning to walk away. They look at each other.
The silence is broken when the couple suddenly calls out, each one's words tripping over the other's. They invite the stranger to stay with them. They insist he join them, and share their reservation at the inn. The stranger turns toward them, and agrees. But first, they must have dinner. And as they are eating together, the couple discovers through the stranger, through their guest, that Christ is with them. It is a Christmas moment, all over again. Here is Emmanuel, God With Us!
* * *
This winter, in Fargo-Moorhead, there are over 500 homeless households. The overflow is so great that, for the second year in a row, a number of churches are housing the homeless people who do not have beds in the local shelters. It's literally a matter of life or death here. People can, and sometimes do, die on our streets in our subzero winter weather.
This year, once again, First United Methodist Church in Fargo volunteered to be one of the primary sheltering sites. That church was asked to take the unprecedented step of serving as a shelter for two or, possibly, three weeks. As soon as the dates were set, the members of First Church were quickly joined by the members of Edgewood United Methodist Church.
Because the Edgewood congregation worships in the First Church chapel, the room that serves as the primary guest bedroom at the church, the members of Edgewood decorated the chapel with lit Christmas trees and wreaths. They wanted the guests to have an experience of safety and beauty and delight as they rested in that room lit by Christmas lights each evening. At the same time, the First Church team came up with a floor plan that provided privacy for each guest, a priceless commodity for anyone homeless.
The guests were at First Church for two weeks. Many more than 80 volunteers from both congregations provided welcoming, registration, snacks, toiletries, overnight care, cleaning, and re-arranging.
It was a bit like having extra guests at home. There were beds everywhere, and extra places at the table. Many of the guests were young adults. One was a woman who was nine months pregnant. Most were working. One young man worked until 3 a.m. cleaning up the Fargo Dome after a big football game, and then had to walk the four miles to the church. A warm welcome, snacks and bed were waiting for him when he arrived.
Why did the people of First United Methodist Church and Edgewood United Methodist Church do this? Why did we open our hearts, and our minds, and our doors to complete strangers?
It's simple. Jesus made it very clear that he comes among us in many forms. As the person who is hungry or thirsty. As the person who needs a warm coat or gloves. As the sick person who needs comfort. As the person in jail who needs to be visited. As the stranger who needs welcoming and a place to stay.
Being innkeepers for our homeless guests this Advent has been good practice for living into our daily, all-year-long call to serve Jesus. It has allowed each one of us to grow in faith as we serve as Christ's hands, and feet, and open heart. As innkeepers, we have helped each other learn how to welcome Emmanuel, God With Us, right here in our home community.