Picking a Role
This past Sunday the children in our congregation practiced their pageant. I enjoyed the chaos which surrounds rehearsal. In the sanctuary, a shepherd with a costume half on asked me for help; obviously I know about robes. Then I found a donkey upstairs, outside Graham Chapel. That’s what happens when the shepherds aren’t ready.
The big question of the pageant concerns roles. Who will be Mary? Jesus? The head angel? Over the years I watched my sons move through the various roles - from Jesus, to angels, to animals, to shepherds and innkeepers, to Magi and holy family.
The roles tell a mashup of the Gospel stories of Jesus’ birth. We start with Luke’s version of the angels appearing to the shepherds. The visit sent them into Bethlehem, where they found the Holy Family in a barn because they couldn’t find lodging in a home. To that we add Matthew’s version of the Magi coming to visit Jesus with special gifts.
But conflating these stories from Luke and Matthew can make it harder to see their differences. I’m particularly thinking of the difference between the innkeepers and the Magi. It’s a difference Dan Hoxworth, an advocate for justice from the Twin Cities, brought to my attention.
The innkeepers in Luke shut their doors to Mary and Joseph. There’s a Mexican tradition of enacting this rejection: a couple dressed as Mary and Joseph travel from house to house seeking shelter until at last they find somewhere to lodge. In the Gospel an innkeeper finally let Mary and Joseph shelter for the night out with the farm animals.
While the innkeeper could only spare some scraps, the Magi give their best. Matthew tells of the Magi crossing deserts to find Jesus. They searched night and day for him. They looked in big cities and small villages. They would not rest until they found Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. And when the found them, the Magi gave abundantly the best of what they had.
It’s a stark difference: the innkeeper’s reluctantly provided scraps, the Magi searched the earth to help a family.
And this difference between innkeepers and Magi didn’t just happen once long ago. It’s a choice we face in our lives all the time.
Mary and Joseph, the Holy couple, lived two thousand years ago in Israel. But they can be found through history, throughout the world: they are the poor and vulnerable, the ignored and the destitute, not just in Israel long ago but this night in Milwaukee, too. It’s not just an old Mexican tradition; Mary and Joseph wander streets tonight looking for help. They are the 600 youth in Milwaukee without a safe place to sleep. The parents struggling to find meaningful work as a way to feed their families. Men and women seeking to restart their lives after prison. And undocumented immigrants, women and children fleeing from gang violence in central America, wandering as an all too literal enactment of Mary and Joseph through our country. Mary and Joseph are real - not just long ago, but this night, this week, this year in Milwaukee.
When I think of Mary and Joseph, I remember the story of a Honduran teenager named “Wander.” Really, it’s his name. His mother had wanted to name him “wonder,” but she misspelled it. The name Wander stuck. And it came to fit him.
Wander’s father ran a small business which provided the family with a good income. Wander grew up well-dressed and with the ability to go to a good school. The relative wealth of his family made them targets when a gang arrived in the neighborhood. Wander was kidnapped. Once the ransom was paid, Wander identified one of the kidnappers to the police. But the kidnapper got a tip; Wander was taken again, this time threatened with death because he snitched. Wander barely escaped. And once on the run he kept going until he got to America, where he lives in the shadows as an undocumented immigrant. His mom wanted to call him Wonder, he lived as Wander, but I think he might be Joseph.
Or I think of Amber. She grew up in Milwaukee, but in high school became homeless. She was one of the 3,000 homeless students attending Milwaukee Public Schools. For her, the gym shower at Washington High, a safe place to clean up; the locker, secure storage; and the dismissal bell, a call to find someplace to sleep for the night. Her searching sounds like Mary.
On Christmas, we remember a very old story of two young people searching for shelter and safety. But this night, we can also see the very same story lived out in Milwaukee.
And so we face a question: what role will we play in this all too real pageant? Will we be an innkeeper or a Magi? Will we give scraps to people in need or will we go so far as to search the deserts for those who need a safe home?
As we think about that question, it’s worth thinking more about the difference between the innkeeper and the Magi. It comes down to privilege. The innkeeper who helped Mary and Joseph provided meaningful help - shelter - but did so in a way that reinforced the social hierarchy - you sleep with the donkeys and all their manure. But the Magi up-ended the social hierarchy of their day - they brought gifts fit for royalty to a poor child, treated Mary like the Queen of Heaven, and Joseph as a hero.
In other words, the innkeeper gave assistance, but kept all his status in tact. The innkeeper kept his social privilege. But the Magi took risks. Just think of it: King Herod knew of their efforts to find baby Jesus; once they found him, they had to sneak back home, past Herod and his murderous guards, on the run for their lives. The Magi came to live like the very people they sought to help. The Magi risked their social status, their privilege, in order to help Mary and Joseph.
Joseph, Mary, Wander, Amber: these are real people in our community. This Christmas and this year ahead, what could we do to start living like Magi instead of acting like innkeepers? Alleluia and Amen.