This is the sermon that Adam Slate preached on Sunday, December 27, 2015. You can listen to it if you prefer.
Everyone here knows the movie The Wizard of Oz, right? I want to ask you a question. Remember the scene where Dorothy first lands in Oz, and her house has fallen on the Witch of the East, and the wicked Witch of the West shows up demanding her sister’s ruby slippers?
What did you think of the witch when you first met her? How many thought she wanted those shoes for some kind of evil magic?
Now let me ask, how many of you felt bad for her? How many of you sympathized with the grief of someone who had just learned that her sister had died, and thought maybe she wanted the shoes as a keepsake?
Stories are powerful things. Each time we hear a story, or experience something in the real world, we get to interpret it as we see fit. And the way we choose to make sense of it... affects what we learn from the story, and how we let it change us.
So that’s what I want to talk about this morning. In particular, I want to look at opportunities we have to interpret what we see and hear in ways that can open us up to being in relationship with each other; or can keep us separate, and isolated.
We have been celebrating the first few days of Christmas, the time of year when Christians commemorate the birth of Jesus. As the story goes: Joseph and his pregnant wife Miriam, a Jewish couple, travel to Joseph’s home town of Bethlehem to be counted in the census. When they get there, the city is crowded. They look for a place to stay and can’t find room, and eventually an innkeeper lets them stay in his stable. One night, Miriam goes into labor and gives birth to a son. Nearly all of us can conjure up the familiar image of the baby and his parents in the stable, surrounded by animals and shepherds.
Except I no longer think that's how the story goes. Several years ago I heard an Episcopal minister at a Christmas eve service tell a different version of those events that really resonated with me. I’ve since done some research, and have come to believe that the popular version of the story puts an unfortunate spin on it.
First of all, when the couple returns to Bethlehem to register for the census, the book of Luke uses the Greek word “kataluma” to describe where the couple is hoping to stay. The Reverend Ian Paul, former Dean of Studies at St. John’s Theological College in Nottingham, England, points out that “kataluma” is often translated as an “inn,” but really refers to a reception room in a private house. As supporting evidence, he notes that the same word is used in the Gospel of Mark to describe the room where the Last Supper took place. Rev. Paul says that a different word, “pandocheion,” is used to describe an inn or place where strangers would stay.
The implication is that Joseph and Miriam would be staying with family. This interpretation makes sense, as the custom in the First Century would have been for the travelers to stay with relatives. And I don't know how many of you were raised Jewish, but I can tell you that there's no Jewish son who returns home with his pregnant wife who's ever going to get away with staying at a hotel, whether he wants to or not.
Ian Paul goes on to note that it would have been customary, with a lot of relatives returning home at the same time, for the elders of the family to get first dibs on the kataluma, with younger relatives having to stay downstairs in the living area. So what we end up with is not "no room in the inn," but rather "no available guest room."
Rev. Paul further points out that the design of Palestinian homes included a room lower than the main floor for animals to be brought in at night. Their body heat actually helped to keep the house warm. The main floor of the house near the lower section had hollowed out areas on the ground filled with straw for the animals to feed. The word used to describe one of these indentations was “phatne,” or manger, and would have been a convenient place to lay a baby in an overcrowded house.
If you put all this together, it suggests that Jesus was not born in a barn, but rather in a house overflowing with family. And does it not make sense from a Christian perspective that God’s son, his gift to humanity, would be born immediately into the midst of people, rather than alone in a stable?
Rev. Paul put forth this idea in 2013, but wasn’t the first to do so. The first identified occasion was in 1584 by Francisco Sánchez de las Brozas of Spain. Although Sánchez was denounced during the inquisition for his translation, he was *not* executed, tortured, or even imprisoned--the punishments typically imposed upon heretics--suggesting that at least some people thought his interpretation made sense.
How interesting, then, that this translation of the Christmas story hasn't caught on. Over the centuries we've been so drawn to the story of the poor child alone against the world, a story now memorialized in so many hymns and carols, that we continue to dismiss what seems to me a much more plausible interpretation.
I think we tend to be so inspired by stories of individual achievement, and the “go-it-alone” mentality, that we often miss community even when it's staring us right in the face. But there are too many instances out there of people being self-serving, fearful of differences, and insulated from each other. We can't afford to miss it when genuine community comes knocking. We would do well to open ourselves up to it, and not let it pass us by.
But we often do let it pass us by. We focus on our suffering rather than the support systems around to combat it, we see our isolation and our differences rather than how much we have in common. Sometimes, we do this because we were raised to see things this way. Sometimes, we do it because of our fear of others who are different from us.
And sometimes we do it because we’re in the grip of clinical depression or other mental illness. Around the same time I learned of Ian Paul’s translation of the Book of Luke, the relative of an extended family member took her own life just before Christmas, leaving behind, among others, and teenage daughter who loved her very much. Like the misinterpreted Christmas story, I imagine that the woman’s illness led her to view herself as more alone than she actually was.
But we’re all surrounded by human support networks and communities, if only we can access them. Liberals and conservatives once famously debated the truth to the African proverb that “it takes a village to raise a child.” But there should be no question that whole villages are available for that kind of support--the challenge for all of us is recognizing and connecting with them.
So my opinion... is that Jesus was born into a loving community, but that people have gone out of the way to think of him as having been born alone and forsaken. We find almost the polar opposite story in Andy Weir’s novel, "The Martian."
In that fantastic tale, which takes place in the not-too-distant future, an astronaut on an early Mars mission is presumed dead during an emergency evacuation and is abandoned on the Red Planet. He is left without immediate means to communicate with NASA. He doesn't have enough food to sustain himself until a rescue mission can be deployed. The title "The Martian" emphasizes that he is completely isolated from the 7 billion other human beings back on Earth.
And yet, the human population doesn't abandon him. The global community as imagined by the author takes extreme measures in attempts to both communicate with him and rescue him. So unlike the newborn Jesus, surrounded by a large family but who we’ve chosen to think of as isolated and alone, the protagonist in “The Martian” is utterly alone, but the world community isn’t ready to release him from its grasp.
These two very opposite examples illustrate how we can process our stories, and indeed the world around us, the way we want to see things. And most stories are malleable enough to be interpreted according to our needs. So what is it we need most, if not each other?
At one point in The Martian, the author reflects on the very high cost of trying to save one person stranded on Mars. "Why bother?... They did it because every human being has a basic instinct to help each other out. It might not seem that way sometimes, but it’s true. If a hiker gets lost in the mountains, people will coordinate a search. If a train crashes, people will line up to give blood. If an earthquake levels a city, people all over the world will send emergency supplies. This is so fundamentally human that it’s found in every culture without exception. Yes, there are [people] who just don’t care, but they’re massively outnumbered by the people who do."
It’s human nature to care about each other; for people out there to care about you, and me, even when evidence suggests they might not. This is one of the stories I hope we tell ourselves when we encounter people who, say, don’t share the same politics or religion as we do, or live down a different end of the ideological spectrum: that most people have a generous and loving spirit. The truism that “there is always more room in the inn” (or maybe I should say “in the guestroom,” or “the kataluma”) isn’t only something to keep in mind when people come to us in need. It’s also worth remembering when we’re the one looking for someone to take us in.
I want to tell one more Christmas story, one that’s also about a family coming to a city that doesn’t have room for them. They are the Habashieh family, Muslim refugees fleeing civil war in their Syrian homeland. Middle Eastern people from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Eritrea--fleeing their native lands in unprecedented numbers this year--have repeatedly been turned away from other countries reaching what they consider to be their capacity for taking in refugees.
According to a CNN article, France has said it will accept 24,000 refugees over the next few years. The UK will take in 20,000 people over 5 years. Hungary and Denmark have imposed even tighter restrictions. And recent action by the US Congress virtually shutting down immigration from Iraq and Syria has ensured that the United States will not be taking on the role of humanitarian champion during this crisis.
And then there are the countries making Herculean efforts to accept refugees. Turkey is struggling with about two million new residents. Lebanon has taken in over a million, expanding its nation’s population by more than 25%. For displaced people seeking new homes, compassion has come in many forms. But maybe the most surprising country to be found on this list of heroes is Germany.
Lead by Chancellor Angela Merkel--whose leadership has earned recognition by Time magazine as 2015’s Person of the Year--Germany has thrown open its country’s borders to about one million Muslims, who Merkel views as victims rather than terrorists. As a result, the Habashieh family just celebrated Christmas in their own apartment in the German city of Zwickau, after months of uncertainty about where they would end up. And in the spirit of gratitude and community, the have decorated their front door with red and green bells and glitter along with their Christian neighbors.
As the descendant of a Jewish family that no longer exists in Europe because of German atrocities during World War II, I don't take lightly how far that country has stretched to absorb so many displaced families. I would never have guessed growing up around relatives, and family friends, who survived the Nazi holocaust, that Germany would lead the Western world on an initiative like this in 2015. Is it a Christmas miracle? I don’t know. Yeah, why not? I know it is for hundreds of thousands of Middle-Eastern families.
Extraordinary community and human compassion don't exist everywhere, but they always exist somewhere. The amazing thing about love... is that there's always more room in the inn. It's our responsibility to find it, and name it when we see it, wherever it resides. And to return it when we can.
So let us strive to add to the Christmas story, and to our own lives, the message that we are meant to be surrounded by supportive communities. That even in Christianity’s central narrative, God didn’t intend for his son to be born cold and alone, visited only by strangers from afar, but rather aided and celebrated by family and friends.
And the same is true for us. May we all know the support and embrace of many of our neighbors--in our congregation, in our city, and around the world. And may we learn to see the light that shines in each of us before we see the things that make us different.
Amen, and Happy New Year.