A Touch of Mercy

Last year, our youth group hosted our Live Nativity for our community. A week before the production, our staff members constructed the stable out of lumber and tin. We stacked hay bales inside. The night before our production, I stopped by the church. The youth group had finished their final rehearsal earlier that evening. The parking lot was dark and empty. The rain had started and all you could hear was the rain flowing into the storm drains. There was a sheen on the wet asphalt from the streetlights. I could see there was a slight movement inside of the stable. I walked closer. I thought maybe it was the hay stirred by the wind. Or perhaps a stray cat. But I looked closer. It was not wind or animal. On the hay was a woman lying down with a dirty red blanket. She was asleep. Right where Mary and Joseph would lay down the babydoll Jesus the next night, she lay there peacefully. 

I stared for a moment unsure what to do. I had seen similar scenarios posted about church nativities in downtown areas, but our church is tucked in a neighborhood. Internally, I was replaying all of the conversations our church staff and congregation had recently about safety policies. We have a Weekday Children’s Ministry with more than 150 kids here each day and we wanted to ensure their safety which meant we did not want strangers on the property unattended and that included the homeless. We supported Intown Collaborative Ministries to help the homeless because we were not equipped. I’m sure there was much more I could have done. I could have called a hotel and gotten her a room.  But it was getting close to 9 o’clock. The stable was dry and the hay was warm and clean. It was the perfect place for her that night.

I walked to my car and got inside and called a church member. I told her the situation and we both agreed that by the letter of the law in our policies we should ask this lady to leave, but how could we, really? This church member said, “Well, we don’t need to make a habit out of it, but this just seems too much like the Christmas story. I’d say we offer a touch of mercy.“ So we did. I cranked the car and left. 

The next morning, I arrived back at church for work. The sun was out. I looked down to the end of the parking lot. I could see her gathering her belongings in grocery sacks. I approached her and she said to me, “Don’t worry. I ain’t staying, but it sure was nice to stay dry last night. The shelters were full.”  With those words, she continued on down the road. 

Later that night, our youth performed their live nativity for our community… with cows and angels and shepherds in their dad’s bathrobes. It was a wondrous night. Our neighbors sat on the hay bales watching Mary and Joseph make their way to the stable and I listened as the narrator read, 

When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. (Matthew 1:19).

It struck me as fiercely as ever that over two thousands years ago Joseph had a decision to make. Would he choose to punish Mary to the fullest extent of the religious law or dismiss her quietly without public shame? He chose to show a touch of mercy. Because of his righteousness and Mary’s, God intervened and brought us the savior of the world. 

The night before in the cold rain in a parking lot in Morningside, the nativity was as alive as it had ever been. It was a living picture of the Christmas story.

Like Joseph long ago, we had to rethink what righteousness means. Is righteousness enforcing the letter of the law or is it showing a touch of mercy? And throughout your lives, dear friends, you will face that question too. 

Who needs a touch of mercy this Christmas? 

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