Sermon, Christmas Eve, 2013
An Open Door Policy
Phil Campbell, Northern Light United Church, Juneau, Alaska
Text: Luke 2: 1-16
1In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
8In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” 15When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.
For reasons that I hope will become clearer in a few moments, Christmas time evokes for me a childhood memory from a quite different time of year. The memory is of lazy summer Saturdays in my hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Sometimes, I found myself just sitting around and itching for something to do. My dilemma would not last long, however. There were lots of kids on my block and even more on the next one over. When I was in elementary school the local paper named that block the one with the most children in the city. Thus, about the time I was most bored, I would spy a friend walking by the house or riding their bike up our driveway. Tim, Fred, Brent, Tommy or even Margaret, would see me peering out the window and call to me to come and play. I would barrel out of the house as fast as I could, rarely stopping to close the door behind me. When this happened on a Saturday, my father was often home to observe my behavior, and he would respond in a way that revealed his rural roots. Tulsa was a big city by Oklahoma standards but my dad grew up in the hard scrabble environs of west Texas. Later, he lived on a dairy farm outside a small town in eastern Oklahoma. As I raced to join my friend, he would yell after me, “Were you born in a barn?” which infers that only country bumpkins would leave a door open. I doubt this phrase has been wildly popular in Juneau given the lack of barns in the area, but an unscientific poll of acquaintances who grew up down South reveals that mine was not the only parent who was partial to this saying. My dad’s retort has stuck in my mind over the years, although it was rather unsuccessful at getting me to change my behavior.
“Were you born in a barn?” Wherever the phrase came from, and research into its origin is inconclusive, it has come to be used as a jab at the uncouth whether delivered light-heartedly or not. The reason I think of it during this time of year has to do with an outfit called the Church Ad Project. They have produced a series of thought provoking posters designed to encourage creative rethinking of our faith. One features a baptismal font like ours with the caption, “There is a difference between being baptized and brainwashed.” Another declares that “God isn’t colorblind. God loves us because of our differences, not spite of them.” There is one with particular relevance for this time of year. It shows a crowd gathered around a manger above the words, “In a religion born in a barn, an open door goes without saying.”
“Were you born in a barn?” The Church Ad Project flips the meaning of the phrase. Instead of it being a put down to those ill-mannered and unkempt, it becomes a declaration of Christianity’s inclusive beginnings. Being born in a barn is a Christmas message of radical welcome. Everyone is bid come, born in a barn or not. The message wasn’t just for two thousand years ago. A word of welcome is needed still. I believe we are a welcoming church. I believe most churches are, or want to be. The reason Pope Francis has captured the imagination of so many both inside outside the church is his pastoral emphasis of caring more for people than about doctrinal purity. Sometimes, however, our actions are not consistent with our words. Sometimes congregations resemble the one depicted in a one frame cartoon that shows a moveable sign board outside the building that says, “Welcome to First Church. We try to be as friendly as we say we are.” Churches want to be welcoming. I believe that. There is not a congregation that tonight is singing in English, or Tlingit or any other language, “O Come Some of Ye Faithful…” No! We sing, O Come ALL Ye Faithful.” Sadly, not everyone receives the news. Instead, they have heard that they are not welcome, that they are not accepted, that they have to be like someone else if they want to fit in. But this is not the case. In a religion born in a barn, a door open to all should go without saying. Consider it. The surprise of the good news of great joy that the angels declared was that they delivered it to a bunch of unkempt shepherds that eked out a living on the margins of Palestinian society. A group of folk likely to have been asked if they were born in a barn! At Christmas, they were welcomed through the open door of faith. The door is open for one and for all.
Canadian folksinger Bruce Cockburn updated the message for modern day shepherds who may not have experienced an open door welcome. In his earthy ballad, Birth of a Tiny Babe, he sings, “There are others who know about this miracle birth. The humblest of people catch a glimpse of their worth. For it isn’t to the palace that the Christ child comes, but to shepherds, and street people and hookers and bums…It’s a Christmas gift you don’t have to buy. There’s a future shining in a baby’s eyes.”
In a religion born in a barn, an open door goes without saying. One and all are welcome. The door is open for you, and you are welcome to walk through it. There are other words important for Christian faith, of course, but the first word is, “welcome.” If you are seeking and searching, you are welcome here. It is also important to hasten to add that the door remains open. I pray you will find what you are seeking here. That for you it will be good news of great joy. But if it is not, the door remains open. The church is not a community of coercion. We don’t lock the door once we get you inside. If the faith isn’t for you, the door is open for your departure so that you may, with our blessing, go out to search elsewhere. Because, in a religion born in a barn, an open door goes without saying. It was open then and it is open now. Open for you and for all. Now, that is good news of great joy! Merry Christmas, everyone.