"There's no room here, or at the Holiday Inn, the Days Inn, or the C'mon Inn," the desk clerk said, shaking his head. "The Shriners have a gathering downtown, the Mary Kay convention is at the Coliseum, and there's a quilt show at the Marriott."
This was not welcome news. It was a cold, autumn night in Bismarck, N.D. My husband Toby and I had just finished a four-hundred-mile motorcycle ride from Wisconsin across Minnesota into North Dakota. "Please ... really ... we'll take anything," I said, starting to worry. "There is NO room here," he said with an impatient tone in his voice. "The best you can do is ride up to Fort Mandan and try the Sunset Motel." "But that's thirty miles!" I said. "Yup," he said, "and you'd better hurry. Because they're gonna fill up, too."
Exhausted and cold, we fired up our Harley Road King and headed up the Interstate for Mandan. As we crested the last hill before our exit, we saw the sign in the distance - an antiquated neon marker with the "tel" of the motel's name missing. It flashed: "Sun Mo."
The missing lights were just the beginning. There had been clearly no maintenance in years, and the lobby smelled like the inside of an unfiltered cigarette. But we had no choice, so we walked up to the front desk. The woman behind the counter, gray hair to her waist, barked, "Can I help ya?" "Y'all have any rooms?" I asked, praying fervently. "Last one," she said proudly, producing an old timey key with a plastic teardrop-shaped medallion attached.
When we opened the door to the room, I immediately flashed to Luke's Christmas story 'cause this - this was definitely a manger. I'm pretty sure the last guests to stay in that room were livestock. It was a tiny space with worn carpets, a cigarette-burned bedspread, and a sign in the bathroom that read: "Please don't use towels to clean guns." We didn't care. We were out of the cold in a place we could lay our heads. That was comfort enough.
It's a bad feeling to be left out in the cold. To be told there is no room at the inn, told we aren't welcome. It's a bad feeling to be excluded, left out, pushed aside. Tragically, I'm afraid the refrain "no room at the inn" is commonplace. We've all been there. Maybe it was early in life when someone didn't pick us for their sports team or invite us to sit at their table during school lunch. Or maybe it was later when we were pushed aside for a job we wanted. Or perhaps, it was even later in life, when we felt left out by our families, or ignored because of age or illness.
The refrain "no room at the inn" is commonplace. For eight million American children, for example, there is no room at the "inn" of healthcare; for seven million Americans, there is no room at the "inn" of full employment; for 925 million people globally, there is no room at the "inn" of food and sustenance; and for more than 500,000 Americans, the only room available is a homeless shelter.
And then there are folks who are told there is no room at the inn because of their skin color, religion, sexual orientation or nationality.
And there are two more examples I must mention. First, there's the "no vacancy" hung out by the church. Some church "innkeepers" say there is no room at the inn for those who are different. For some, the church is reserved for the paying customers, the high rollers, the VIPs. For others, church is a safe place to escape and be protected against "those people" who don't have reservations.
And then there's the second example and perhaps, the most important. An inn which, thanks to our own abuse, is about to hang out a no vacancy sign, and that is the inn we call Mother Earth. Between carbon emissions, strip mining the proliferation of plastic, overpopulations, over logging, over fishing; there will soon be no room at the inn. That means no room for giant pandas, Sumatran tigers, polar bears ... and us.
It's a bad feeling to be left out in the cold, and we've all experienced it in one way or another. However, this scripture not only offers us a poignant reflection of our pain, but also a powerful way to transform it.
We have all lived Mary and Joseph's story at some point in our lives, but guess what? No matter how many times we've been turned away, we all have the potential to transform into the one with the keys to the inn.
Like in our story from Luke, Jesus, even though his family was left out, was told there was no room. Jesus was born; a savior was born that night - a savior who opened the doors of the kingdom and welcomed the stranger, the needy, the lonely, the sick. A savior who taught: "What you do to the least of them, you do to me." A savior who transformed from the one rejected by the world to the innkeeper of the world.
About a year or so ago, Jose Moran, the custodian for the Holy Child Jesus Church in Richmond Hill, Queens, New York had just finished setting up the Nativity scene and gone to lunch. When he returned about an hour later, he heard the cries of an infant. He went into the sanctuary and found a tiny baby boy swaddled in purple towels on the floor of the manger. He was so young he still had his umbilical cord.
An earlier neighborhood surveillance video showed the mother with the wee baby in the 99-cent store buying purple towels, then heading out the door toward the church. What transpired was a 21st century version of the book of Luke. For that day in Queens, the world had no room for this little baby, so he was left in the manger by what turned out to be a single, unwed mother, and wrapped in purple towels (the color of royalty) from the 99-cent store. In fact, the congregation nicknamed the baby "Emmanuel," which as we know is Hebrew for "God is with us." Today, the baby is with a loving family and has a chance to begin again.
Like baby Emmanuel, the story doesn't end with Jesus being turned away from the inn. In fact, it's here that it begins. His call was for something bigger, for Jesus came to fling open the doors of the inn for all to come and find shelter. Come to me, all ye who are heavy laden and I will give you rest.
And our call is the same. We will be rejected in this life, turned away, left out in the cold ... but that's not the end of the story. Like Jesus, we are all called to become the innkeeper, to become the builders of the kingdom, the protector of our brothers and sisters.
And when we step into that call, something amazing happens. Our own pain tends to fade when we are focused on others. Our own situation seems a little less important when we are reaching out a hand to someone in need. Brothers and sisters, when we lift someone else up, we not only lift up ourselves, we lift up the Christ child ... for what we do to the least of them, we do to him.
For all those who feel left out this holiday, for all those who have been excluded, rejected, turned away, for all whose hearts and spirits are broken, there is good news on this Christmas eve. For on this day is born to you, a savior. A savior who welcomes you - no matter who you are, no matter what your past, no matter what your present, no matter how lost or defeated you may feel,
UNTO YOU is born this day a savior, Christ the Lord.
Let us pray.
Gracious God, we give thanks for the birth of your son, Jesus Christ, and for the message of love and mercy that he brings. May we step into his shoes, become the inn keepers, so that we, too, might insure that all God's people are welcome in the Kingdom. Amen.