William Sloane Coffin said the best sermon he never preached was at a Christmas Eve service when he pastored New York City’s Riverside Church.
The poinsettias were beautiful. The people were joyful. The place was packed. It was time in the Christmas pageant for the innkeeper to deny Mary and Joseph with the resounding line, “There’s no room at the inn!”
The innkeeper role was perfect for Tim, a young man who had Down syndrome. That’s what the pageant organizers thought. That’s what Tim’s parents thought.
Tim had, in fact, rehearsed the one line – “There’s no room at the inn!” – many times with parents, pageant organizers and participants alike. He had it mastered. He was ready.
So there stood Tim at the altar of that church’s majestic sanctuary, bathrobe costume firmly belted, as Mary and Joseph made their way down the center aisle. They approached him, said their lines as rehearsed, and waited for his reply. Everyone in the sanctuary and a host of angels waited with bated breath, leaning forward as if willing Tim to remember and resound his line.
“There’s no room at the inn!” Tim boomed, just as rehearsed. But then, as Mary and Joseph turned on cue to travel further, Tim suddenly yelled “Wait!” They turned back, startled and surprised by this off-script move. “But you can stay at my house!” he called.
Bill Coffin strode to the pulpit, looked out at the congregation, and said “Amen.” He sat down. The best sermon he never preached.
Remembering this story made me, again, wonder when we individually and collectively will have the courage to stop saying so often, “There’s no room at the inn” and instead, like Tim, start saying, “But you can stay at my house.”
To the hungry and homeless, imagine the impact if we were to say collectively, “Wait! We’ll make a place for you at America’s table of plenty!”
Or to the sick and uninsured, “Wait! We won’t turn you away from the doctor.”
Or to those working hard every day trying to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads, “Wait! We will help you escape poverty and we’ll authentically analyze and act on the systems and situations that exacerbate poverty.”
Or to children who are home alone or on the streets after school, “Wait! We’ll make a safe place for you with caring adults in after-school programs.”
I’m one who believes that God came to live among us as a child – a child who cried and laughed, loved and learned, born as a vulnerable baby needing care and dying surrounded, at least partly, by a supportive community. And, between his birth and death, he challenged the cultural and political priorities of his time and stood up for the poor, the weak and the vulnerable.
It seems to me this is a good time of year for all of us, and especially those who believe in the incarnation I named above, to repent and reaffirm our commitment to building communities, a nation and a world where all can find room in our inn.
Nathan Day Wilson is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Read his blog at www.nathandaywilson.com and follow him on Twitter: @nathandaywilson.