Like Howard Thurman’s “Prayer of Thanksgiving,” I like sharing this story a friend shared with me as “the best sermon” my dear friend and mentor Rev. William Sloane Coffin, Jr., who passed away last year, “never preached.” It was Christmas Eve and the pews at New York City’s Riverside Church were packed. The Christmas pageant was underway and had come to the point at which the innkeeper was to turn away Mary and Joseph with the resounding line, “There’s no room at the inn!”
Never mind that no figure of the innkeeper actually appears in scripture. We’ve all imagined him delivering the message of no room, of inhospitality to the baby Jesus and His parents. And it seemed the perfect part for Tim, an earnest youth of the congregation who had Down Syndrome. Only one line to remember: “There’s no room at the inn!” He had practiced it again and again with his parents and with the pageant director. He seemed to have mastered it.
So there he stood at the altar of the sanctuary, bathrobe costume firmly belted over his broad stomach, as Mary and Joseph made their way down the center aisle. They approached him, said their lines as rehearsed and waited for his reply. Tim’s parents, the pageant director, and the whole congregation almost leaned forward as if willing him to remember his line.
“There’s no room at the inn!” Tim boomed out, just as rehearsed. But then, as Mary and Joseph turned on cue to travel further, Tim suddenly yelled, “Wait!” They turned back, startled, along with the congregation, and looked at him in surprise.
“You can stay at my house!” he called.
Well, Tim had effectively preached the sermon at Riverside Church that Christmas Eve. Bill Coffin strode to the pulpit, said, “Amen,” and sat down. It was the best sermon he never preached.
For Christians, another holy advent season is upon us. People of all faiths are reflecting on things done and left undone during the past year and making resolutions for change in the new one. When, oh when will we individually and collectively as congregations, as communities, and as a nation resolve to stop saying to our children, “There’s no room at the inn”? When will we, like Tim, start saying, “You can stay at my house”? When will we say to poor, hungry and homeless children, “Wait! We’ll make a place for you at America’s table of plenty”? How long until we say to children whose parents are working hard every day trying to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads, “We will help you escape poverty”? “We’ll catch you in our safety net until your family is able to provide for you again”? And when will we ensure that no child is without health coverage in our rich nation that lets our nine million children struggle without health coverage?
In 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., also delivered a Christmas Eve sermon. In “A Christmas Sermon on Peace,” given at Ebenezer Baptist Church on his last Christmas Eve, Dr. King reminded us that one of the things “we must be concerned about if we are to have peace on earth and good will toward men is the nonviolent affirmation of the sacredness of all human life. Every man is somebody because he is a child of God…made in His image, and therefore must be respected as such.” He also reflected on the “I Have A Dream” speech he had given at the March on Washington four years earlier, and how he had already begun seeing his dream turning into a nightmare as he watched current events unfolding. But Dr. King refused to give up his conviction that our nation could change: “I still have a dream today that one day justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream. I still have a dream today that in all of our state houses and city halls men will be elected to go there who will do justly and love mercy and walk humbly with their God….With this faith we will be able to speed up the day when there will be peace on earth and good will toward men.”
Is the day of good will toward all still coming? As Christians celebrate the miracle of the incarnation—the belief that God actually came to live among us as a poor baby and child—I also hope we can honor Him by raising a mighty voice for justice and protection for all the poor babies and children who are sacred and made in God’s image but left behind in poverty and hopelessness. As we celebrate the seasons of Christmas, Hanukkah, Ramadan, and Kwanzaa, look ahead to Eid al-Adha, and enter the time of year of new beginnings, let us repent and reaffirm our commitment to building a nation where all children find room in our nation’s and world’s inn.
For more information on the Children’s Defense Fund, go to http://www.childrensdefense.org/