At this time of year I often think of the powerful lessons in a pair of Christmas Eve sermons given by two of my mentors, the Rev. William Sloane Coffin, Jr. and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In the story shared with me about my dear friend Bill Coffin, 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!” The innkeeper was played by Tim, an earnest youth of the congregation with 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 the pageant director and seemed to have mastered it.
So Tim stood at the altar, bathrobe costume firmly belted over his 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, and looked at him in surprise.
“You can stay at my house!” he called.
Well, Tim had so effectively preached the Christmas Eve message at Riverside Church that Bill Coffin strode to the pulpit, said “Amen,” and sat down. It was the best sermon he never preached.
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 whose families are more desperate this year than ever, “Wait! We’ll make a place for you at America’s table”? “We’ll catch you in our safety net until your family is able to provide for you again”?
Our children must have their basic human needs of shelter, food, education, and safety met right now but they also need more than material protection. They need hope and a sense that there is a future. On December 24, 1967, Dr. King delivered the sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on what would be his last Christmas Eve. Dr. King 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 water, 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.”
Earlier in the sermon, though, Dr. King shared a sharp warning for our nation and world: “Now let me suggest first that if we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective. No individual can live alone; no nation can live alone…We must either learn to live together as brothers or we are all going to perish together as fools.”
Even in the middle of so much suffering, our nation has a new chance to see elected men and women do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God as they strive to lead us forward. Dr. King’s words are as prescient as always. Has the trauma of the past year finally altered our world perspective? Is the day of good will toward all that Dr. King longed for—and Tim exemplified—still coming? Are we closer to living together and caring for each other as brothers and sisters rather than perishing together as fools? As Christians celebrate the miracle of the incarnation—the belief that God actually came to live among us as a child—I hope we can honor God by raising a mighty and desperately needed voice for justice and care and protection for each and every sacred child among us.