WelCom September 2018:
No room at the inn. Those words are carved deep in our Christian sensibility. Over the centuries, we have imagined a heartless landlord turning away a woman in labour, and her anxious husband; but the reality was probably a bit different.
It was census time, and Bethlehem would have been crowded. Inns were basic buildings, one large room with straw on the floor for bedding. That evening, the inn would have been full of dusty, noisy travellers, some of them intoxicated, and it was certainly not a place for a woman about to give birth.
So our image of the landlord changes. He is now thoughtful, caring. He takes the couple away from the crowd to a quiet place that houses his animals, and no doubt he provides bedding. Perhaps he calls his wife away from duties, to help with the birth. We are not sure. But the evidence suggests the landlord was more compassionate than heartless, and there is connection between the crowded inn and the stable where Jesus was born.
For some of us, this can be seen as a metaphor for church.
Many of my encounters this year, have been with stable-dwellers, people who find Jesus on the fringe because they feel there is no room at the inn. Most have been Catholics: people divorced and remarried, people committed to loving same-sex relationships, women who feel they have no voice in the church. I suspect these have become so many that in some places they are majority. A few years ago, an American Catholic paper stated that 61 per cent of American Catholics lived outside the sacraments. To extend the metaphor, this suggests that the stables are becoming larger than the inns.
Here in New Zealand, the stable-dwellers come to retreats and prayer days. They hunger to belong, but they feel a disconnection between their relationship with Jesus and the institutional inn. How can we demonstrate that the landlord is compassionate and caring, that the inn and the stable may seem separate but are connected and actually one territory?
That kind of rhetoric doesn’t work for divorced and remarried couples, or same-sex couples, who see the church as being unloving about loving. It doesn’t work for women who consider the landlord deaf to the feminine voice that can’t express itself with masculine language.
There is a gap made by two extreme views, and the middle ground seems to be empty.
What will close that gap? The answer to any question of faith, lies with Jesus in the Gospels. As a devout Jew, Jesus believed his mission was to his own people. He told his disciples they were not to take the good news to Samaria or the pagan territories but only to the lost tribes of Israel. However, Jesus’ intentions changed with need. He preached to the Samaritans. Later, the faith of the Syro-Phoenician woman in the Decapolis resulted in him ministering to the people considered pagans. It was at this point that his mission went global.
Always Jesus’ concern was for the spiritual wellbeing of the people. What did he say about same-sex relationships? Absolutely nothing. He did comment on marriage and divorce but that was in response to some curly questions from the Pharisees. All his preaching was about forgiveness and love.
Today, it is Jesus who answers that voice of fear in us that makes us want to judge either the landlords, or the people dwelling on the fringe. It’s his love that heals our divided thinking, and I am convinced that this is our way forward. Love in action fills the gap between the inn and the stable.
I believe the landlords of our church, are caring and compassionate. They have given their lives to this work and they do it well, but some demands are outside their job description. It is up to the occupants of the inn, the lay people, to go out to the middle ground. We have the freedom to minister to those who see themselves as fringe-dwellers. We can listen to their stories, respect and honour them where they are. We allow Jesus to love them through us, and allow Jesus to love us through them.
I’ve experienced Jesus’ love in many ways, in beautiful masses and parish functions, in teachings, retreats and days or prayer. I’ve also experienced his love when writing blessings for people who wanted God in their civil union ceremonies, and in communication with friends in prison. And in all this I’ve felt a healing in myself.
So my Christmas present from Jesus this year, has been the gift of inclusiveness. He tells me that the inn and the stable are one.