There was no room for them in the inn.
These days who wouldn’t travel to a busy city without making make a reservation online for a hotel room, or something through Airbnb? Remember when we paid attention to the “vacancy” or “no vacancy” signs outside motels?
A Jewish woman was stranded late one night at a fancy hotel resort that did not admit Jews. The desk clerk looked at his book and said, “Sorry, there is no room. The hotel is full.” The Jewish woman said, “But your sign says that you have vacancies.” The desk clerk stammered and bit and the said curtly, “You know that we do not admit your kind of people. You’ll have to try the other side of town.” The woman said briskly, “I converted to your religion” The desk clerk responded, “Oh, I see. Let me give you a little test. How was Jesus born?” She replied, “he was born in a little town called Bethlehem to a virgin named Mary.” “Very good,” the clerk said, “tell me more.” “He was born in a manger,” she said. “Yes, and why was he born in a manger?” the hotel clerk asked. The woman got angry: “Because a jerk like you in the hotel wouldn’t give a Jewish lady a room for the night.”
At the borders of our country and others around the world, refugees and migrants are told there is no room for them. Some churches have no room for people who are divorced, gay, transgender, or don’t ascribe to a certain doctrine. And more and more, people have no room for others who don’t look like them, worship like them, or vote like them. Maybe we have no room in our lives anymore for surprise or mystery. No room for God.
Thomas Merton, perhaps the most significant spiritual writer of the last century, died fifty years ago. Merton was a Trappist monk, yet his contemplative practice led him to make room for dialogue with Eastern religions, to take stands against war and racism, and to open his heart to a God that transcended what he thought he knew.
Consider Merton’s prophetic words:
We live in the time of no room, which is the time of the end. The time when everyone is obsessed with lack of time, lack of space, with saving time, conquering space, projecting into time and space the anguish produced within them by the technological furies of size, volume, quantity, speed, number, price, power and acceleration.
As the end approaches, there is no room for nature. The cities crowd it off the face of the earth. As the end approaches, there is no room for quiet. There is no room for solitude. There is no room for thought. There is no room for attention, for the awareness of our state.
In the time of the ultimate end, there is no room for us.
There was a time someone would ask me when my next “movie sermon” would be. I didn’t set out to have back to back sermons with Broadway musicals—but after being in New York last Thanksgiving, Dear Evan Hansen inspired me for my last Advent sermon. And today—The Band’s Visit seems just what is needed.
There is no inn in The Band’s Visit. Actually, there isn’t even a hotel. An Egyptian Ceremonial Police Band travels to Israel to give a concert. There is a mix-up when the bus tickets are ordered. And they end up in Bet Hatifka instead of Petah Tikvah. And Bet Hatifka is in the middle of nowhere. The people there are bored—waiting for something out of the ordinary to happen to them.
While the band members are stranded there with no place to stay, the natives make room in their homes and hearts for these strangers. They move past labels and judgments and by learning about one another, they begin to see their own lives in new ways. The songwriter has a Jewish mother and Lebanese father. The composer, weaves together Israeli and Arab musical themes so that you cannot tell them apart.
In oft-quoted words of Merton: Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for him at all, Christ has come uninvited. But because he cannot be at home in it – because he is out of place in it, and yet must be in it – his place is with those others who do not belong, who are rejected because they are regarded as weak; and with those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons, and are tortured, exterminated. With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in this world. He is mysteriously present in those for whom there seems to be nothing but the world at its worst… It is in these that he hides himself, for whom there is no room.
Christ is born for all peoples of earth. In God’s love there are no borders or boundaries. As The Band’s Visit reveals, people are people. When you take away the politics and tribal ways that separate us from one another, we all have the same need for food and shelter and music—and for love itself.
On this shining night we Christ revealed in the most surprising circumstances, the most unexpected people. In word and silence, in bread and wine—this luminous feast. May we like Mary, enfold God the guest—God the homeless one who makes his home now in us.