Christmas • 25 Dec 2015

John 1:1-14

Rev. Chris Udy

Over the last few years
I’ve been collecting stories
about pageants that don’t go exactly to plan.
Some of the stories don’t fit together,
so we can’t turn it into
one seamless narrative,
as most pageants try to do
with the Christmas stories in the Bible,
and like all the best stories –
including the ones in the Bible -
we’re not really sure
whether some of these things actually happened -
but they all have the ring of truth.

Usually the actors in a pageant are children,
and most pageants seem to go smoothly
to the point where Mary and Joseph
arrive, after their long and difficult journey,
in Bethlehem.
Mary and Joseph come to the inn,
knock on the door,
and the innkeeper greets them -
and that’s where things get interesting.

In one variation,
presented as ‘gospel’ truth by the storyteller,
Mary and Joseph knocked on the door of the inn
and asked for a room.
The innkeeper told them there was no room.
Joseph said, "But my wife is going to have a baby,"
The 10 year old innkeeper replied,
"Well, that’s not my fault."
To which Joseph replied,
"It's not my fault either."

In a similar variation with six-year-old actors
Joseph knocked on the inn door.
Innkeeper said 'yes, whadaya want?'
and Joseph replied as the script replied,
but there was no response from the innkeeper.
“Well,” said Joseph “can we come in?”
“No, no room” he was told,
and a long silence followed -
with tension growing stronger every second.
Finally Joseph said
“Well, haven't you got anything for me out the back?”
And the hall broke out in loud applause.

It seems to be the innkeeper
who brings things unstuck
in most pageants -
so in another group of stories
problems begin
when the innkeeper’s line isn’t forgotten,
but changed.

Tommy, for example,
had protested loud and long
that he really didn’t want to be the innkeeper;
that he’d rather be a shepherd with the cool guys,
or one of the kings -
or even, if he absolutely had to, an angel -
but Tommy was fairly round,
so the pageant producer decided, despite the protests,
Tommy would be fitted the part.
The day came for the pageant;
Mary and Joseph arrived,
Joseph asked if there was room in the inn,
and Tommy, with mischief in his eyes,
stepped aside and said
“Of course there is –
step right inside” -
and again the pageant came to a grinding halt.

Again there are variations:
in one of them,
it seems the young man playing Joseph
was a quick thinker, too.
He looked around the landlord into the inn,
and said, “What a dump!
You think we’d stay here?
No thank you!
I think we’ll sleep in the stable!”

But my favourite variation is this last one -
and this time the pageant was being performed,
not only by children,
but by the whole congregation
in an inner-city congregation.

The part of the innkeeper
was being played by Reggie.
Reggie was in his 40s, and homeless.
He'd often sleep up against the church door,
and he'd come in during the day,
to get out of the rain, or to keep warm,
and to help in any way he could.
His role in the play
was to stand at the end of the church's aisle,
and when the pregnant Mary
and tired Joseph
asked him for a place to spend the night,
as usual, he had to say 'No room'.

That was the plan.
But when it got to his line,
instead of saying 'No',
Reggie, grinning slightly, said
'Yes, you’re welcome,
come on in!'

As you can imagine,
Mary and Joseph were quite confused,
and they weren't sure what to do next,
so they reverted to the script and asked again.
And again, Reggie said
'Yes, you’re always welcome,
come on in!'

Seconds dragged out,
and as the time passed,
everyone began to understand
that Reggie hadn’t forgotten his line,
and he wasn’t being mischievous,
but he’d decided to make a point -
and his point was
that in his Christmas story,
no-one is homeless,
and no-one is turned away from shelter.

Those who wrote this story down
went on to say
that Reggie changed the meaning
of the Christmas story for them.
Now they understood it as good news
for people who had heard the word 'No' too often.
Reggie helped them see it
as a story for people
who have doors shut in their faces every day,
people who are told every day
that they’re not welcome,
that they don’t fit in,
that they're failures, losers, no-hopers.
They saw the Christmas story
as no longer just for children or for churches,
but for anyone who feels excluded,
or forgotten, or ignored.
The point of a pageant, they realised,
is that everyone has a place.
Everyone has a part,
and finds shelter –
even if it’s only in the play.
Pageants are for people who are afraid,
or lonely, or hurt, or tired;
for people who feel like outsiders
in a strange, confusing world.

What Reggie showed them, they said,
is that the heart of the Christmas story
is God's 'Yes' to us,
even and especially
when the script we’re given says 'No'.
It's the story of God's 'Yes' to Mary:
an unmarried teenager,
a poor girl who becomes the mother of God.
It's the story of God's 'Yes'
to a ratbag bunch of scruffy shepherds,
who most people thought were the scum of the earth,
and whose work had made them so unclean,
that they were forbidden ever to enter the temple
and to come close to the Temple’s idea of God.
But it was the shepherds
who came first in the Christmas story.
They became the first witnesses
to the birth of God-with-us.
The Christmas story is the story of God's 'Yes'
even to a group of foreigners,
the scientists of their day,
longing and searching for the ultimate meaning of life,
something they thought must be -
would have to be - universally transcendent -
written in the stars -
but instead these wise ones found ultimate meaning
in the most raw and grounded truth
of ordinary life,
in the birth of a new-born baby.

The Christmas story changes the script
and says there’s room in the world
for God to be born -
for holiness to be human.
There’s a place in the pageant for Mary,
and for Joseph,
who decides to stand by the girl
who's mother of a child that isn't his;
there’s a place for people
like that awkward innkeeper
who refuse to accept
that nothing can be done for people
who have no other refuge but our shared humanity –
more than 60 million of them at last count.
There’s room in the world –
there’s a place in the pageant –
for people whose lives don’t fit the script,
and who need the rules rewritten
for them to come to find
a truth that they can live for
and a God they can come close to.
So it’s good that pageants don’t always go to plan;
and it’s great that those
who think their only role
is to say hard lines to sad and tired people
sometimes depart from their script;
and it’s wonderful
that a story that’s been told so many times
can still end up in unexpected places –
because it’s in those surprises
and in the creative compassion that inspires them
that the Word becomes flesh
and God is born in human life again.