Let’s admit it. Most of us, at some point in our lives, have gotten our big break. We’ve gotten a start in our careers, and in our lives, because someone took a chance on us. Everyone wants someone with experience but you can’t get experience if no one gives you a job. It is the Catch 22 of life and work. And usually how we make it through this time in our life is someone vouches for us, and someone takes a chance on us. Once we get the job, most of us probably don’t know what we are doing. So as the old expression goes, “We Fake it till we make it.”
Thus was the case for my second Parish internship that I got after I graduated from seminary in 2009. As some of you may remember the economy wasn’t exactly doing well in 2009. And my ordination committee required me to get a year long parish internship. After looking for several months I was out of options and about to graduate. And then I met the Reverend Dr. Robert Johnson. He had come to my seminary to speak about his time as a missionary to Pakistan as a Teacher at Forman Christian College, the only Christian College in Pakistan. Later I looked up his church online. I took a risk and asked him for a job and he gave me one. Robert taught me much about what I know about ministry today. He spoke at my ordination and he really was my first spiritual father.
But my first week on the job at Forest Hill Presbyterian Church was certainly a “fake it till you make it” moment. You see two weeks before Robert hired me a Muhammad Sajjad, a Pakistani pharmacy student, known to his friends as Sajjad, told Robert that he was coming to America to take a unpaid pharmacy internship at the local university. He was coming to the States, and with two weeks notice, he told Robert that he needed a place to stay.
So my first week working at Forest Hill I walked into Robert’s office and found a strange young Pakistani sitting on the couch. My assignment for that week;
“Find Sajjad a place to live.”
Considering what Sajjad was willing to pay it seemed like an impossible task. While we were driving around the city, trying to find any housing that he could afford, I remember Sajjad asking me in his Pakistani accent;
“Will, will you be my friend?”
I had known Sajjad for about a day at that point so I told him I didn’t know we would have to see what happened. Well by a series of strange events, which I would define as the Sovereign hand of God, working in Sajjad’s favor, we were eventually able to find Sajjad a place to live, at an impossibly low cost. And yes, Sajjad and I eventually became close friends. Today he has his green card and pharmacy license and probably makes way more than I do, which irks me only a little bit.
Now you may think it rather irresponsible for Sajjad to call Robert with two weeks notice to tell him that he needed a place to stay. But in fact it was standard operating procedure a guy from a middle eastern culture. You see in middle eastern culture hospitality is of central importance. It is expected in the middle east that if you are traveling you can call upon a friend or relative at a moments notice and it is there honor to host you. Apparently this applies even if you are traveling across the Atlantic. The tradition of hospitality in the Ancient Middle East, the middle east in which Joseph and Mary made their trip to Bethlehem would be even more different than hospitality today. You see today hospitality is an industry. In this industry you are welcome, but welcome only if you can pay. As American’s in a constantly moving culture, the first place we choose to stay when we are traveling to a foreign place is a hotel, it is the inn. Even, if we are traveling to a family reunion, we still might rather stay in a hotel, at least I would. Perhaps your family is as crazy as mine.
But in the ancient middle east there was no massive hospitality industry. The default for people who were traveling would be to stay with extended relatives. Even today the middle east does not have our traditional “nuclear” family. Instead, multiple generations live together and are connected together. In America we are individuals who have families, but in the middle east the family is first and individuals is second. It would be a dishonor for someone to refuse to host a traveling family member. There is even a big tradition in the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, to provide for the foreigner, the stranger, the non-Jew.
Knowing this, about the tradition of hospitality in the middle east, caused me to see this passage in an entirely new light. We think as Americans that Joseph and Mary first went to the Inn to find a place to stay, and because of the census there was no room. But considering their culture, I believe the hidden context of this passage is that the inn was in fact their last ditch option. According to the text, this was Joseph’s home town. Didn’t he have any extended relatives for them to stay with? But it seems that every door was shut to them and they were forced to pay for hospitality, something that in that culture was provided for free. And even then they were turned away.
If my theory is true, then why did Joseph’s family deny them a place to stay? Well Matthew tells us that when Joseph discovered that Mary was pregnant before they were married, he sought to divorce her quietly, so as not to disgrace her. Perhaps a similar thing is going on here. For while this is a culture of hospitality, it is also a culture of honor and shame, and Mary, to the world, is a mother having a child out of wedlock. Maybe some of you have been there or know someone who has. You have been desperate for someone to make room for you, you have been in a vulnerable and unexpected place, yet you had the door shut in your face.
My second year in seminary I did my first parish internship in Southwest Georgia in a place called Tifton. If you don’t know where Tifton is, that’s okay, no one else does either. Coming from Virginia, I have had several people comment that they are surprised that I don’t have a Southern Accent. Well Virginia isn’t as southern as some people might think. And I didn’t know what the south was till I went to Tifton. There is an imaginary line called the knat line that cuts through the state of Georgia a little bit south of Atlanta. They call it the knat line because if you cross it in the summer the knats will eat you alive.
Well early on that summer I was playing ultimate Frisbee with a group of kids and youth in Tifton. These were some of the first people I had met outside of the church and I was eager to make friends. Well sometimes while I am playing sports, or stuck in traffic, or generally frustrated trying to find stuff I have misplaced, which happens often, I will sometimes say some less than Holy things. Till this day I don’t remember what I said. No one came up to afterwards to say they were offended. But in that small southern town someone told their mom, who told someone else’s mom, who told someone else, and in a game of shaming telephone it got back to my pastor. And he told me I could no longer play with those kids for the rest of the summer. I had an apartment above a candy shop that summer, so I drowned my sorrows in candy and cookies, which caused me to gain 10-15 pounds, which added more shame.
It is true, as the scriptures say, that out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks, and there were some things in my heart I needed to deal with, and still do. And it is true that though we ministers are simply human like other people, we are and should be held to a higher standard. Because the problem is when we fall, everyone sees. The question is whether the way to my healing and repentance could be accomplished best by exclusion or embrace?
Those of you who have heard me preach know my answer. I have said it before and I will say it again. There is simply no room in my church for guilt, gossip, or shame. I will not have it. And if I have guilted or shamed you in any way, intentionally or unintentionally, I repent. For there is room for repentance, there is room for confessing our sins to one another so we may be healed, there is room for God meeting us where we are but not leaving us there. 2 Corinthians 7 talks about a godly grief that leads to repentance and a worldly grief that leads to death. Most churches I will admit lead people to a worldly grief and to death. That’s not what I want for this church and you need to hold me accountable to that.
Christine D. Pohl, in her book, “Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition,” a book I will be teaching a Sunday school on starting Janaury 4th at 9:00am, btw, writes something that shattered my view and understanding of hospitality, of making room for others. She notes that the Greek word for hospitality is philoxenia, which combines the Greek word for family love, Philo, with the Greek for “stranger” or xenia. Thus the original meaning of the word hospitality is not to welcome our family and friends, but to treat strangers as our family and friends.
That’s what I did for my friend Sajjad. Why? Because I remembered what it was to be a stranger in a strange place and that allowed God to work his mercy for Sajjad through my life. I love my friend Sajjad, and I want him to know my Lord Jesus whom I love. I have had conversations about faith with him. But the greatest witness I could give him was that he was a stranger, and in the name of Christ I welcomed him.
In John 14, Jesus tells his disciples before he is about to be crucified, buried, and ascended into heaven; “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God.; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?”
I don’t care who you are, where you have come from, what doubts you have, what trials you have endured, what shame you have suffered that has suffocated you and stopped you from crying out for help. I don’t care if every door has been closed on you, and even the motel 6 has no room for you, because Jesus says in his Father’s house there are many rooms and he has gone to prepare a place for us. He has made room for you, won’t you make room for him in your hearts? Won’t you make room for the estranged, the stranger, the broken ones in your life? You may be done with church, you may be done with your messed up family, you may be done with serving in a thankless job, you may be done with feel good religion or shame filled religion. You may be done with those things. Well so I am I . But I am not done with Jesus. And he is not done with us. So won’t you make room for him today? In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.