We invited Harrow’s own Elvis Tribute Artist, James Gibb, to be our special musical guest for this Sunday. In a ‘normal’ year, James and some of his musical friends would put on a fundraising show in our sanctuary. In lieu of that, he shared his talents with us during our worship service.
In place of my regular “Learning Time” I wrote a letter to the editor of The Bethlehem Gazette, in the voice of a certain famous, or infamous inn-keeper.
Here is the audio file of the Learning Time:
I’ve had this story to tell
My inn’s on Bethlehem’s only street,
But it’s no heartbreak hotel.
It’s been years that cold winter night. Every hostel, inn, rest spot, spare room and courtyard was full to bursting with visitors, people summoned by the Romans to be counted in their ridiculous census, just so Caesar could tally up how much more he could squeeze out of the people in taxes.
Caesar, and his governor Quirinius, they were the bad guys,
But small business owners like me took the rap.
I was not the one who sent all those poor, hungry, cold travelers on road trips at the worst possible time of the year, to places like Bethlehem that didn’t have the capacity for all those extra people.
Folks gave me a hard time for having to say no, I don’t have a room.
What was I to do- pick one of the other families that were sleeping under my roof,
and toss them out?
Who wants to make that choice?
You have to go, they get to stay! How terrible!
Either way, I’d still be sending someone out into the cold dark night.
Bethlehem in those days was just a little crossroads town.
Usually, our only customers were scraggly shepherds looking for a mug of something to warm them up,
a few Roman soldiers looking to spend their pay,
the occasional traveler in search of the “King David was born here” monument.
We weren’t set up for the insane number of people who claimed Bethlehem as the hometown of their ancestors.
What a hare-brained, or Herod-brained idea anyway!
Who ever heard of going back to where your great-great-great-grandparents came from,
just to be counted?
Doesn’t it make more sense to record a person’s current address?
Wouldn’t it be easier to do that, I don’t know, maybe at your current address?
People don’t seem to have much to say about that.
But when the story gets told about the birth of Mary’s son,
they usually manage to take their shot at the poor innkeeper. Me.
I am not even sure how it got out.
If you read the official story, recorded by that guy Luke,
There’s no mention of me, or my family.
All it says is Mary gave birth to her firstborn, a son; put him in a simple cloth wrapping, and laid him in a feeding trough for cattle, because there was no room for them at the inn.
But people like to add details, to colour in between the lines, even when the lines aren’t actually there.
Take a look at Luke’s Gospel for yourself, and you’ll see. We aren’t actually in the story.
Sometimes, when the story gets told, or acted out, they put a no vacancy sign in the hands of actor that plays me, or my wife.
What they don’t tell you, in those half made-up versions, is our house was full to the rafters with all those travelers, and their families. And a lot of them were poor folks, like those two that ended up where we kept the animals. We let them stay, and we fed them, and took care of them. And it didn’t matter if they could pay us. We took in as many as we could because that’s how we were raised.
I should not have to tell the editor of the Bethlehem Gazette that the history of our people goes back much farther than Jesus, or even King David. We descend from Father Abraham and his wife Sarah. Do you remember what happened to them?
Three strangers appeared outside their tent in the heat of the day. Abraham followed the code of hospitality of all desert peoples, treated them as honoured guests. He bowed before them, and offered food, and drink, and a place to rest. He instructed his wife Sarah to prepare bread. He chose a calf from his herd and had a servant butcher it and cook the meat. Then he himself fetched milk and curds, and with the meat and the bread fed his guests a big meal.
Our ancestor did these things not for any reward, but because that is who we are, and what we do. We do not let the traveler go hungry, stranger or not.
The story goes on to say these guests told Abraham that in less than a year, his wife Sarah would bear a son. Sarah overhears them from inside the tent, and laughs, because she and Abraham are very old, and gave up trying a long time before.
Sarah laughed, but it came to be true. She bore a son, Isaac, who became Abraham’s heir, and through him, the family line was carried on, and became a great nation. None of us would be here today if it wasn’t for him.
Not that we do these things expecting a reward. It has been said that some of us have offered hospitality and were surprised to discover we had entertained angels unaware of who they were, or where they came from.
Some say it was three angels that Abraham and Sarah took care of that day, so many years ago. I couldn’t tell you. I personally wouldn’t know an angel if they flew over my own barn.
I did hear some shepherds talk about angels in the Bethlehem area, around the time that couple stayed in our cowshed. But I didn’t see them. I was too busy seeing to the needs of all those guests in our home, and those in our outbuildings. Because that’s what we do. We care for the hungry, the poor, the wanderers. That’s what it means to be faithful.
But that’s not the story that gets told. We hear, year after year, about the couple we had to turn away, but not about all the other families who found shelter from the cold night, at our inn.
Maybe this will help to set the record straight.