A meditation on Isaiah 9: 2- 7 and Luke 2: 1- 14, 15 – 20
Rev. Cathy C. Hoop Grace Presbyterian Church December 24, 2018
What is your first memory of being away from home? Summer camp? A week at your grandparents’ or cousins’ or aunt’s home? For some it is a more difficult memory…staying with a friend while a parent was ill, or the family was in transition for any number of reasons. When my sister was growing up, she would frequently spend one weekend night with our mother’s parents. They had great times together going to Memphis State football games and visiting the relatives. When I got old enough, I went over for my first “spend the night” at their home. By eight o’clock I was in tears, and by 8:30 I was back home. I was ashamed and embarrassed. I loved my grandmother but even with my favorite blanket, I couldn’t make it to bedtime. I didn’t even last long enough to have a Coke float! That was my ominous beginning…I was never very good at leaving home. I tried not to cry all the way to Nashville when my parents drove me up for college, and I knew plenty of people there. Yes, I was that kid…a pathetic homebody.
But things shift, and we grow up and learn how to live on our own. I’m still not particularly good at living alone during the weekdays, and look forward to the weekends when my commuting husband makes the return trip to T-town. When people ask me where I’m from, I don’t always know how to answer. I was born in Memphis, but until five years ago, my entire adult life was spent in Nashville. I call T-town home, but it isn’t the home of my birth, or my sons’ births, and the place of your birth is always something of an anchor. So, I’m still never quite sure how to answer that question. It all depends upon the question behind the question.
I think of Memphis as the home of my parents and grandparents, who spent their whole lives there. My life in that Mississippi River city seems like such a long time ago, but I still have a little bit of family there, and several high school friends. Alex, our former organist, and his wife, Jen, just moved there so I know I would have people who would take me in if I needed to go back. Whether they would take my stinky bulldogs? Not so sure…My memories of Memphis are mainly positive, but it isn’t my home anymore.
I wonder if that’s how Joseph felt, when he, with the very pregnant Mary, began the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Mapping software estimates 28 hours of walking time. Today that involves a lot of turns through roundabouts and travels down unpaved roads. And a border crossing. Don’t forget that. As we seek to build a wall that will prevent people from seeking asylum, from seeking hope, let us remember a wall in the Holy Land, a wall that does nothing to promote peace or reconciliation among people. Can we imagine Mary and Joseph passing through a check point to return to Joseph’s home? What a strange world. God have mercy.
I’m guessing Mary and Joseph and their little donkey had a trip much longer than 28 hours. A pregnant woman has got to sleep…and eat…or take a few rest stops along the way. I don’t even want to imagine the arguments that went down on that journey! I would hazard a guess that there were more than a few emotional tears. Because going back home isn’t easy when we don’t know what awaits us. Mary may have carried fears of rejection or judgement. Joseph may have been preparing the speech he would make to his family. They both must have wondered if anyone would believe a story of angel appearances, and strange prophecies.
Under the weight of all these emotions, they arrived in Bethlehem. And found themselves on the street. You know how you hear something so many times that you stop listening? Really listening? Like the story of Jesus’ birth. Let’s think about this for a moment. Joseph was returning to the city of his birth. This is not Jerusalem. This is not even Nazareth. This is a small town. In small towns, people know each other. If you grew up here in Tuscaloosa, you pretty much know everybody else who grew up here! So where was Joseph’s family? Even if his parents were no longer living, surely there was a sibling, or a cousin or a second cousin twice removed who could take in a woman on the verge of giving birth.
I have three siblings and we span 14 years so we were always at varying life stages when we would come home for Christmas. My mother would have built a room on the back of the house herself if she had thought that was what it was going to take to have us all home, under her roof, for Christmas. She would have become a one woman “Habitat for Humanity” if that would have been required. Fortunately, she only had to go so far as buying a futon for the study. It was lumpy, but not much worse than the fold out couch, not nearly as springy as my childhood twin beds. Sleeping bags, air mattresses, an addition to the house, whatever it would take to keep us together, she would have done it.
So where was Joseph’s family and why didn’t they take him in? Or did they?? It’s a bit of a mystery. Some would argue that of course his family took them in…but if that’s the case, why doesn’t this self-professed very methodical author, Luke, offer us this information? The image of an actual “inn” still lingers, but it’s not accurate. While larger cities would have had public houses, a small town like Bethlehem would not have had its own version of a Motel 6 much less a Hotel Indigo. Luke doesn’t use the Greek word for “inn” here. (As he does in the parable of the Good Samaritan when the compassionate man pays for the wounded man to stay in an inn.) I’m not even going to attempt to butcher the Greek form, but it is a word that means “public house.” In the story of Jesus’ birth, Luke instead uses the word, κατάλυμα (ka TA lu ma), which refers to the guest room of a home. This space would be used for storage on most days, but cleaned up when a guest came through town. κατάλυμα refers to the breaking up of a journey. It’s a lovely image isn’t it…when you think of Jesus being born in a guest room. Just a stop on his journey from God to us. κατάλυμα. From ancient of days, hospitality to the stranger was expected. Hospitality for family members was a no-brainer. So did Joseph’s family welcome him or reject him?
Some have speculated that Joseph’s family may have turned their back on him. After all, he was returning with his very pregnant fiancé. Would this have been such an offense that they would have refused him shelter? It seems strange that this man, a descendent of King David, upon returning home, would end up homeless.
We can hope that wasn’t the case.
We can hope that his family welcomed him, embraced Mary, celebrated the imminent birth of a baby.
We can hope Joseph’s mother was one of the women who gripped Mary’s hand, remembering the birth of her own son as she encouraged Mary’s labor.
We can hope Joseph’s father stood by his side and assured him that he would be a good father.
We can hope that his family chose welcome and tolerance over judgement and scorn.
We can hope that they could let go of their preconceived notions of the “right” way to be a family, so that they might embrace God’s concept of family.
We can hope. But if they were not there, we can take comfort in knowing that others were there for Mary & Joseph. They added more than one new member to their family that night. Shepherds and villagers, midwives and neighbors all became part of their family that night. Jesus himself acknowledged this when he was gathered with a large crowd some 30 years later. His mother and brothers were trying to get to him, but all they could do was get a message through to him. In response, Jesus said, “My mother and brothers? They are the ones who listen to God’s message and put it into practice.” He wasn’t turning away from his family, he was expanding it.
Look around you at the family gathered here: these people who listen to God’s message and put it in to practice. Sharing, comforting, praying, teaching, serving. Telling others what life is like in the family of God. In this family, where all are welcome. Where all are forgiven.
Let us not forget how this family was born, in a guest room. A stranger’s house? Maybe? A family member’s? Definitely. We are born into one family, and by God’s grace adopted into the ever expanding family of God. And Joseph’s family? Even if they did close the door to their son, to his betrothed, they had opportunities to reopen that door. Because God never says, “no room.” God just says, “move over a little!” That is the way of God.
Thanks be to God, the opener of every door. Amen and Amen.