Sunday, December 13, 2015

Marching to Our Own Little Drummer Boy

Rev. Kit Ketcham, PUUF, Dec. 13, 2015

I’d like to read you a story written by my colleague the Rev. Christine Robinson, of First Unitarian Church in Albuquerque. This is “The Grace of the Christmas Pageant”, written  a few years ago.
      I turned this year’s Christmas pageant over to an energetic member experienced in   improvisational theater. I gave her some old scripts, the box of costumes, told her about the (cardboard) animals which must be included with their pre-school creators, recruited someone to play the carol “The Friendly Beasts,” and left the rest to her.
     She recruited my husband, who came home with ominous news. “Wise Guys,” he reported, “midwives, and every kid in the Sunday School can wear a costume and bring an appropriate gift.”
     “Wise Guys?” I ask, skeptically.
     “With the gift of humor.”
    “You don’t think Joseph delivered that baby by himself, do you?” he quoted.
     If ever I am tempted to pray, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon us, miserable sinners,” it is at the time of the Christmas Pageant.
     The Saturday before the performance, I wandered through the rehearsal hall periodically, trying to keep my anxieties to myself. All was Chaos. There were an astounding number of people around, [one costumed child resembling the villain from “Star Wars”]. There were four figures on the stage: [an adult as] Mary holding a wrapped doll, Joseph, and a toddler. “Lucy won’t leave her mother,” the director explained to me, “so I just let her stay there. Maybe by tomorrow she will want to be a rabbit.” I retired to my study, astounded.
     My husband came home, swearing he’d never be involved in such foolishness again, and reported the lines of the head wise guy. “You need a sense of humor, little buddy; if you don’t have that, when you start doing miracles, you’ll get nailed.”
     All night, I dreamed of chaos, poor taste, and the church overrun by Rabbits and Darth Vaders.
     The first children to arrive Sunday morning are dressed as a football player and a rat. “What are you going to give the baby?” I ask, trying to keep my tone light. “Speed and courage,” says the football player solemnly. “He’ll need them.” The rat simply brandishes an enormous yellow sponge which, he tells me, is cheese.
     I speak to the first two Wise Guys I see, who agree that the Methodist Grandmothers in the congregation might not appreciate the reference to nails, and they agree to discuss the matter with the third of the trio when he arrives. A three-year-old rabbit with a beribboned carrot, an extraordinary two-boy camel (one head for each hump), two little girls wrapped in sheep skin automobile seat covers arrive in quick succession, and I am ready to retire to my study for the duration.
     The rat wants to light the flaming chalice, but agrees that someone who will not be in the pageant should have an opportunity. Two tiny children are crying over their (cardboard) animals. Some young pyromaniac has made off with the matches. It is time to begin the worship service.
     The first part of the service goes amazingly well, all things considered. There is even a moment of real silence at the time of the meditation, and one child catches on to the point of (joys and concerns) fast enough to light a candle for his father, saying “who usually doesn’t come to church, but came to see me in the play.” Mercifully, no one laughs.
     The pageant concerns a statue of St. Francis which comes to life and creates a living crèche, just as he did in Assisi. In the middle of the saint’s plea to the congregation for cooperation, the treasurer, who was not at the rehearsal, jumps up and says “It sounds like this is going to cost money!” He brings down the house, as they say in the theater business, which this is not.
     “We need some shepherds, some angels, some wise men...” continues Francis, and he is interrupted again. “And Wise WOMEN! ! !” yells an adolescent feminist dressed in an army jacket. She lopes down the aisle to give the baby her jam box treasure chest and her best advice. “Just be yourself, you know,” she says, and somehow, it is touching. The wise guys lurch down the aisle with their blind camel, and deliver their lines, uncut but sufficiently muffled that only the initiated laugh.
     The midwife arrives with her own children (“No baby-sitters in those days!”), and a zoo-full of animals proceed to give their gifts, one by one, to Mary, the baby, and the unexplained toddler. The gifts range from the sublime (a reading book, because you have to be able to read to be wise) to the ridiculous (a carrot to eat, when you are older), but they are clearly given from the heart. The adults have stopped laughing.
    The (cardboard) animals arrive. We all sing “The Friendly Beasts.” Saint Francis reads the old story from Luke. It is like magic. Even the rat seems enthralled. Mary has put down the doll and is holding her own child.
     “St. Francis” complains of stiffness and is helped by the Narrator (a teenager who didn’t know he could act) back to his pedestal. We sing “Silent Night.” I have goose bumps and the tickle of a tear in the back of my nose. It has been, as they say, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. Oh ye of little faith....
      It happens every year like this, and it occurs to me that if I understood the magic of the Christmas pageant, I would have the keys to the kingdom, or at least to the church. Whatever it is that brings a small mob of adults and children to a long and boring rehearsal on the busiest day of the year, that allows self-conscious adolescents to offer their best to the congregation, that permits adults to play dress-up in sheets and bathrobes in front of other adults -- well, it’s too big to be magic. It must be the holy spirit.
      In some ways, we never get far from the Christmas Pageant. Here we are: busy adults playing with children, self-conscious adolescents finding new talents and offering unlikely gifts, wise guys who say inappropriate things and are forgiven, two-headed camels lurching blindly around the place doing the best we can.... And yet somehow, it all comes together. With stunning regularity, chaos and kitsch are transformed by intention, idealism, and grace into moving, motivated offerings. This is the miracle of the church, as well as its salvation.

            When I first read this story, a couple of years ago, I marveled at the fact that we Unitarian Universalists have the freedom to interpret the Christmas legends in our own way.
            One of our UU playwrights, Joyce Poley, has written a Christmas pageant entitled “Would You Like to Hold the Baby?”  Here’s a synopsis of the story that unfolds, another example of reinterpreting an ancient story in a new way.
        Mary and Joseph are traveling to Bethlehem to pay their taxes; Mary is about to give birth to the couple’s first child; they are very tired and Joseph is trying to find a place where they can rest. So he goes to a nearby inn to see if there is space. No surprises so far, right?
       But the friendly innkeeper welcomes them instead of turning them away; seeing that Mary is so close to giving birth he offers them space in his private stable, cleans the stable quickly, furnishes it with fresh hay for a bed, shoos out the animals, and the innkeeper’s wife stays with the little family to help Mary with the birthing.
       The animals who have been shooed outside into the cold want to return to the comfort of their stalls in the stable and Mary’s donkey, who is also tired, makes a plea for all of them, despite the innkeeper’s wife’s objections. Mary responds “let them in---we are in their house---let them come back in”.    Not your typical Christmas story, right?             
         Shepherds arrive and the innkeeper tries to bar the door to them, pointing out their lowly status as homeless wanderers. But Joseph tells the innkeeper that he, Joseph, is a lowly carpenter himself and allows the shepherds to come in, where they tell their story of having witnessed a choir of angels who directed them to the stable.
     Magi arrive with their camels and offer gifts, telling of a star, though the shepherds are fearful and urge Joseph to refuse them entry, as they are strangely dressed and clearly not Jews. But Joseph welcomes the Magi and they present their story of following that magnificent light to find the newly born child, and after giving their gifts, the magi depart, leaving the little family to sleep; Joseph finds a spot to rest in and Mary ponders.
      But what’s this? The innkeeper’s young daughter has crept back for a look at the baby. She has no idea of what this all may mean, she only knows that there is a newborn in the stable and like all children, she is captivated by the new little life which has come so mysteriously.
       Mary sees her watching and invites her to come closer, “would you like to hold the baby? Would you like to see him smile? Can you make your arms a cradle and rock him for awhile? This gift that I’ve been given is yours as much as mine, would you like to hold the baby? Take your time, take your time.”
       This version of the ancient story shifts the spotlight from the traditional elements and focuses on the moments in which real human beings behave with both kindness and judgementalness. Rejection is turned into welcome. Human beings learn real human lessons about hospitality, acceptance, giving, and promise.
        Mary and Joseph invite us all to hold the baby, not keeping him separate from those who are poor or different or unfamiliar. We are urged to seek something larger than our own daily needs and desires. We are surprised and awed, alongside the shepherds and the magi. We rejoice at birth and at life’s promise. We give without expectation.
This is one of the delights, for me, of our faith---that because we are a Living Tradition, that is, we are always seeking new truth, new understandings, new insights, we have the freedom to reconsider those old stories, so often interpreted through lenses of literality and dogma. We have the freedom to look for new truth, new understanding, new insight---and new ways of responding.
I’m sure Bill O’Reilly and the other Christmas Warriors would say we are waging a war on Christmas by taking a new slant on the ancient legends.  But I’ve been volunteering at the Warming Center these past few weeks, and I see chilling similarities between the ragged, hungry, cold men, women, children, and pets who come to the doors of the Warming Center at 8 o’clock at night to get warm and dry after a day in the rain, to have a hot meal and a safe place to sleep.
Because in my mind’s eye, I see in them the faces of the refugees from Syria and other embattled countries and I hear the rejecting responses of so many people who are afraid of them, who would like them to remain in misery rather than setting aside their fears in favor of hospitality to the stranger.
I have found that this volunteering at the Warming Center is a welcome antidote to my own tendency to feel despair at my limited ability to change the world.
            American poet Wendell Berry wrote this:
When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water and the great heron feeds.
            I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.  I come into the presence of still water.  And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light.  For a time, I rest in the grace of the world and am free.
So I walk the Riverwalk, talk to the ducks and the herons and the crawdads, say hello to my fellow walkers, the respectable dog owners and the raggedy wanderers, and recharge my batteries with this kind of prayer, this communication with the universe.
The next morning I go to the Warming Center, greet the folks who’ve slept on the floor, who’ve had a hot meal and a friendly smile,  who may say thank you OR gripe about something that didn’t go right,  and I spend a few minutes saying goodbye to departing guests and then wielding the mop, the disinfectant, and gathering up the washables in plastic bags for later cleaning, getting ready for the night to come.
When I leave the Warming Center, my sense of despair has waned.  I feel regret that we can’t yet do more for these wanderers, but I am glad we are doing something, even if it’s not enough.
At this festive, chaotic time of year, instead of avoiding or rejecting those who are different, our UU interpretation of the ancient story of Christmas would have us welcoming the stranger, providing comfort, food, and a warm place to sleep. 
People from all walks of life, religious and secular, have an opportunity to reach out in multiple humanitarian ways, offering welcome and hospitality to the stranger.  Not just by opposing demagogues who would refuse entry to our country or mistreat those they are afraid of but by neutralizing some of that hate with hospitality. 
I would love to see some of you join me in this outreach to our homeless folks.  I always choose a time slot that isn’t too early or too late, I am joined by other volunteers so that I do not work alone, and I am blessed by the time I spend there.  It is one of the most rewarding things I do with my time.
There are signup sheets on our bulletin board in the social hall for the taking or I can email you a copy.  There is training for newbies and a great deal of appreciation for the time spent.
If you can’t give your time, perhaps you can donate warm, washable clothing---sweatshirts, sweat pants, gloves, hats, scarves.  I guarantee you that it will make your holidays more joyful than you might have expected!
So…be not afraid.  Welcome the stranger.
Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.

BENEDICTION:  Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place.  Let us go in peace, remembering that we ourselves have been lonely, rejected, far from home and needing comfort.  May we remember our own humanity and treat others with all the dignity and worth that we ourselves need so badly.  Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

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