At the first unsuspecting church on which a bishop foisted me— we staged a Christmas pageant during the season of Advent.
During dress rehearsal that final Sunday morning before the performance, stomach flu had started to sweep through the heavenly host.
When it came time for the angelic chorus to deliver their lines in unison: “Glory to God in the highest” you could hear Katie, a first-grade angel, vomiting her breakfast into the trash can over by the grand piano.
The sound of Katie’s wretching was loud enough so that when the other angels should’ve been proclaiming “and on earth peace to all the people” they were instead gagging and covering their noses.
Meanwhile, apparently bored by the angels’ news of a Messiah, two of the shepherds—both third-grade boys and both sons of wise men— started brawling on the altar floor next to the manger.
Their free-for-all prompted one of the wise men to leave his entourage and stride angrily up the sanctuary aisle, smack his shepherd son upside the ear and threaten: “Boy, Santa won’t be bringing Nascar tickets this year if you can’t hold it together.”
Truth be told, the little church had neither the numbers nor the talent to man a lemonade stand much less mount a production of the Christmas story; nonetheless, a brusque, take-charge mother, who was a new member in the congregation, had approached me about staging a pageant.
And because I was a rookie pastor and didn’t know any better— and honestly, because I was terrified of this woman— I said yes.
The set constructed in the church sanctuary was made to look like the small town where we lived. So the Bethlehem skyline was dotted with Burger King, the local VFW, the municipal building, the funeral home and, instead of an inn, the Super 8 Motel.
At every stop in Bethlehem someone sat behind a cardboard door. Joseph would knock and the person behind the door would declare: “Sorry, ain’t no room here.”
The old man behind the door of the cardboard VFW was named Fred. He was the oldest member of the congregation. He sat on a stool behind the set, wearing his VFW beret and chewing on an unlit cigarillo.
Fred was almost completely deaf and not a little senile so when Mary and Joseph came to him, they didn’t bother knocking on the door.
They just opened it up and asked the surprised-looking old man if he had any room for them to which he would respond by looking around at his surroundings as though he were wondering where he was and how he’d gotten there.
Because, of course, he was wondering where he was and how he’d gotten there.
For some reason, be it haste, laziness, or a dare involving some sum of cash, the mother-in-charge of the pageant had made the magi responsible for their own costumes.
Thus, one wise man wore a white lab coat and carried a telescope.
Another wise man was dressed like the former WWF wrestler the Iron Sheik.
And the third wise man wore a gray and green Philadelphia Eagles bathrobe and for some inexplicable reason had aluminum foil wrapped around his head.
King Herod was played by the head usher, Jimmy.
At 6’6 and wearing a crown and a white fur-collared purple robe and carrying a gold cane, King Herod looked more like Kramer as an uptown gigilo than he did a biblical character.
When it came time for the performance, I took a seat on the bench in the back of the sanctuary where the ushers normally sat and, gazing at the cast and the production design from afar, I briefly wondered to myself a question you all cause me to ask from time to time too.
Why didn’t I go to law school?
I sat down and King Herod handed me a program.
On the cover was the title: “The Gift of Christmas.”
On the inside was a list of cast members’ names and their roles.
As the pageant began with a song lip-synced by the angels, the other usher for the day sat next to me.
His name was Mike. He was an insurance adjustor with salt-and-pepper hair and dark eyes. He led a Bible Study on Wednesday mornings that met at the diner. He delivered Meals on Wheels. He chaired the church council. He supervised the coat closet. He mentored kids caughgt in the juvenile justice system. He was the little church’s most generous donor.
And he was more than little officious in his righteousness.
Mike never liked me all that much.
Mike sat down, fixed his reading glasses at the end of his nose, opened his program and began mumbling names under his breath: Mary played by…Elizabeth played by…Magi #1 played by…
His voice was barely above a whisper but it was thick with contempt.
Of all the nerve.
I knew immediately what he was implying or, rather, I knew what had gotten under his skin.
There were no teenage girls in the congregation to be cast. So Mary was played by a grown woman— a grown woman who was married to a man more than twice her age.
She’d married him only after splitting up his previous marriage.
The Holy Mother of God was being portrayed by a homewrecker.
Of the three magi, one of them had scandalized the church by ruining his father’s business to fund his gambling habit. Another wise man was separated from his wife, but not legally so, and was living with another woman.
The innkeeper at the Super 8 Motel— he was a lifelong alcoholic, alienated from his grown children and several ex-wives.
Reluctantly shepherding the elementary-aged shepherds was a high school junior. He’d gotten busted earlier that fall for drug possession.
His mother was dressed as an angel that day, helping to direct the heavenly host. Her husband, her boy’s father, had walked out on them a year earlier.
Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, was played by a woman who was new to the church, a woman who often wore sunglasses to worship or heavy make-up or who sometimes didn’t bother at all and just wore the bruises given to her by a boyfriend none of us had ever met.
The man playing the role of Zechariah, the husband of Elizabeth and father of Jesus’ cousin John, owned a construction company and had been accused of and charged for fraud by several customers in town, including a couple in the congregation.
He’d bilked them out of thousands and thousands of dollars.
Zechariah— his name was Bill— every first Sunday of the month, Bill began to cry, tears streaming down his sunburnt carpenter’s cheeks, whenever I placed a piece of bread in his rough, calloused hands and promised him, “This is the Body of Christ broken for you.”
Maybe more than anyone in that little church, he depended on the promise that when Christ says “This is my Body broken for you” you means me, too.
“There’s no conditions,” I’d told him once after the you-know-what with his business hit the fan.
“It doesn’t matter what you’ve done. For all of us, that you means me. The forgiveness— it’s for you. You’ve got to take Christ at his absolving word or you’re calling God a liar, which is alot worse of a sin than any you’ve committed. The truth about you is never what you see in the mirror— good or bad— the truth about you is always found in the broken piece of bread placed in your hand. You’re no different than anyone else here.”
Mike, the insurance adjuster, held the program in his hands and read the cast members’ names under his breath.
Then he rolled up his program and he poked me with it and, just when the angel Gabriel was delivering his news to Mary, Mike whispered into my ear:
“Who picked the cast for this? Who chose them?’
And because I’m not a brave man (and because I didn’t much like her) I pointed at the mother-in-charge.
“She did. She cast them all. Blame her.”
He shook his head in disgust and then he gestured towards Zechariah, pretending now to be struck mute, and he said: “It’s one thing for him to even show his face here Sunday after Sunday without mending his ways but…this?! Do you really think he’s the sort of person who should be sharing this story with our church and our community? What in the hell have you been preaching to him, pastor? Go and sin some more?!”
The narrator for the Christmas pageant that year was a woman whose name, ironically, was Mary.
She hadn’t had the energy for any of the rehearsals. She just showed up at the worship service when it was time to perform the pageant pushing a walker, from which hung a black and green oxygen tank.
Mary was old and incredibly tiny, no bigger than the children that morning wearing gold pipe cleaner halos around their heads. Emphysema was killing Mary a breath at a time.
She had to be helped up to the pulpit once the performance began. I’d spent a lot of hours in Mary’s kitchen over the time I was her pastor, sipping bad Folger’s coffee and listening to her tell me about her family.
About the dozen miscarriages she’d had in her life and about how the pain of all those losses was outweighed only by the joy of the child she’d grafted into her family tree. About the husband who died suddenly, before the dreams they’d had together could be checked-off the list. About her daughter’s broken marriage. And about her two grandsons who, in the complicated way of families, were now living with her.
As the children finished their lip-synced opening song, and as the shepherds and angels and wise men took their places, and as Billy climbed into his makeshift throne, looking more like a Harvey Keitel pimp than a King Herod, Mary struggled up to the pulpit.
With the walker resting next to the pulpit, the tube to her oxygen was pulled almost taut. Her fierce eyes were just barely visible above the microphone.
With her hands bruised from blood thinner, she spread out her script and in a soft, raspy voice she began to tell the story, beginning not with Luke or with John but with Matthew, the Gospel of Matthew.
I wouldn’t have chosen Matthew for a Christmas pageant, but again I was terrified of the mother-in-charge.
The cadence of Mary’s delivery was dictated by the mask she had to put over her face every few seconds to fill her lungs with air: “She shall bear a son…(breath)…and you are to name him Jesus…(breath)…for he will save people from their sins…(breath)…”
That morning Mary didn’t start by narrating the Christmas story.
She went off script.
I don’t know if she went off script because she hadn’t been at the rehearsals or if in her old age she was confused and rambling, or maybe she was just filling time while she tried to locate her spot in the script.
I like to think she’d heard the scuttlebutt about Mike and his righteous indignation over the likes of the people who populated the parish’s pageant.
She began by introducing the passage.
“The Bible tells us about God being born as Jesus,” Mary said, “only after a long list of begats.” And she took a breath from her oxygen mask. “Emmanuel…God-with-us…(breath) comes from a family tree every bit as knotted as ours (breath) a family of scoundrels and unbelievers (breath) rapists and hookers (breath) cheats and those consumed by their resentment over being cheated upon (breath) all the way back to Abraham (breath) who wasn’t righteous (breath) but was reckoned so on the only basis any of us are so counted, faith, alone (breath). Christ comes from a family just like us,” she said and took a breath.
“He comes from sinners for sinners.”
And I looked over at Mike, who’d been standing in the narthex passing out programs. In addition to everything else, Mike was the head usher too.
When the pageant began, Mike’s ears had been beat red and the vein in his forehead throbbing so outraged and incredulous was he that we were “telling the story of our savior with those kinds of people,” but, hearing that tiny little women with her Gospel promise, he suddenly hung his head.
He looked embarrassed— as though, God the Holy Spirit had just smacked him upside the head.
Humility is only ever something we discover because humility is something done to us.
Katie in the heavenly host nearly made it through the Christmas pageant in the clear, but when the wise men showed up delivering their gift-wrapped boxes she ran to the trash can in the choir loft to deliver into it the last of her breakfast.
Mary never made it to the next Christmas. She died that spring clutching the same promise she’d preached to us that Sunday in Advent.
Zechariah left the church shortly after I did, and he became a preacher in a storefront start-up church, preaching the promise that whether we mend our ways or not, when it comes us, God never mends his ways. No matter what, God will deal with you tomorrow exactly as God dealt with you yesterday, by grace.
Turns out, he was a good preacher too— only those who know they’re not good realize that the promise is too good not to believe.
After the worship service that Sunday in Advent finished, I stood outside near the front door to the sanctuary, shaking hands as the bell rang and the organ groaned out the last notes of the postlude. Mike was one of the last to leave. In addition to everything else, he always cleaned up the pews after worship and vacuumed up the communion crumbs from the floor.
His hand felt hot and sweaty in the December air, like he’d been wringing his hands in consternation.
“We’ve all fallen short of the glory of God, but I guess that doesn’t stop us from measuring distances does it?”
But I didn’t catch his meaning because as he started to walk home down the sidewalk, I thought to myself (and remember, this is a long time ago in a county far far away, back in my pre-sanctified days):
“Thank God, I’m not a self-righteous, holier-than-thou, bookkeeping hypocrite like him.”
Two men went up to the temple to pray one Advent Sunday morning, the first a Methodist preacher— a professional Christian— the second a modern day Pharisee named Mike.
The latter, not the former, went back down to his house justified.
But on some other Sunday?
You know as well as I do.
Under a different set of circumstances, it could just as easily be the former not the latter. Come next Sunday it could just as easily be the tax collector ubering home whilst congratulating himself that he really gets how God’s grace works unlike that holy-rolling bookkeeper who makes himself the subject of all his prayers and gets caught red-handed in his self-righteousness.
All of us— we’re always, if not simultaneously then from one Sunday to the next, at once, sinners and saints. We leave church tax collectors enjoying our forgiveness, yet as soon as we get into the fellowship hall or log into Facebook we’re back to being Pharisees.
They’re two different characters in the parable, but they’re both in us.
No matter how hard you try, you will go and sin some more.
That’s why (this might sound obvious to some of you, but I promise you it’s not self-evident to many) the Gospel is for Christians.
The Gospel is even for Christians.
The Gospel is especially for Christians.
We tend to think of the Gospel (the promise that while you were yet hostile to God, Christ died for your sins and was raised for your justification)— as though it’s for non-Christians.
Street-corner evangelists stand on street-corners not in church parking lots.
We tend to think of the Gospel of grace as a doorway through which we pass to get into the household of God; so that, we can then get on with the real business of living like Christ and doing as Christ for our neighbors.
But thinking of the Gospel as prologue to your Christian life, nothing could be more unbiblical.
The Bible teaches that Christ comes to dwell in our hearts by what exactly?
And the Bible teaches that the faith by which Christ gives himself to us comes to us how?
Not by doing.
Christ gives himself to us by faith that comes to us by hearing the word.
And not just any word, the Bible teaches, a specific word.
The promise of grace.
The Gospel word.
The Gospel gives Christ himself to us the way a wedding vow gives a bride her groom.
The Gospel, therefore, is for Christians too not just potential converts.
The Gospel is for Christians especially because the Gospel that gives you Christ, the Bible teaches, is the same Gospel that grows Christ in you.
The way to grow in grace is to cling to the promise of it, to return to it over and again.
Living a grace-filled life is like learning a song by heart— this song.
Because we don’t ever stop being a tax collector one Sunday and a Pharisee the next, we don’t ever stop, we don’t ever advance past, we don’t ever level up beyond needing to the hear the Gospel.
This good word, the Gospel of Christ— just as Jesus said— it’s the Living Water without which first we get thirsty and then we get exhausted before finally our faith dries up, and we die in our sins.
The Gospel word that gives Christ to you is the Bread of Life that keeps on feeding Christ to you— that’s what he means by calling himself Manna.
The Gospel is the Bread of Life, and we’re always one meal away from starving.
And, without that meal, without the Gospel, we have nothing to offer our neighbor, we have nothing to offer the poor and the oppressed, we have nothing to offer them other than what the world already offers them and how the world offers it.
Which is to say, thank God.
God has not made us like other people.
God has made us Christians.
We are different from other people.
We are the particular people God has put into the world who’ve been set free by the Gospel to admit that we’re just like other people. We’re publicans and Pharisees all. We’re worse than our worst enemy thinks of us, yet we’re loved to the grave and back.
Thank God, we’re not like other people.
We’re different in that we have this Gospel that frees to confess that we’re no different.
And that difference—
A people set freed to know and own that we’re no different than other people…
That difference is the difference Christ makes in a world of Us vs. Them.