Sermon ~ Sunday, January 8th, 2017 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson
Taking Off the Bathrobe
Let me see, it was back in November right before Thanksgiving, Rev. Williams approached Leslie Jordan and Grace Holman about resurrecting the annual youth Christmas spectacle. It had been a few years since Mrs. Martha Stockman had produced, cast, and directed the Church’s Christmas pageant and no one has stepped forward to continue the tradition after Martha and Mr. Stockman moved to their son’s in Maryland.
Seems everyone was reluctant to fill Martha’s director’s chair, it wasn’t that they were uncomfortable working with the youth and children, but feared that Martha just might return and have a few choice comments about any substandard quality and talent of her replacement. There were those that swore Martha was so particular about the portrayal of the Nativity because she had worked with the original cast! Bertie Dickson (shepherd 1968-70, Joseph 1971-73) said that “No, she wasn’t there for the Nativity but for sure she was around for the first Thanksgiving! Imogene Reynolds, never one to mince words, commented that it would have been easier to continue the tradition if she had just passed away!
Leslie and Grace were new enough to the congregation not to have known Martha and so Rev. Williams thought it safe to ask them if they would consider it. Why not they said. Between the two families they constituted a full third to a half (some days) of the Sunday program.
Well, when Leslie and Grace went to the storage room to look over the props and costumes they were a bit dismayed to find the plywood props had gotten wet when the ice built up and leaked through the roof back in the winter of 06-07. Under the water faded and curled Bethlehem Inn backdrop they found what was left of the angels’ wings and halos, all the tinsel had disintegrated from the clothes hanger frames. A family of mice had nested in the shepherds and magi’s’ robes and the water had washed out the holy blue dye that Martha Stockman had insisted on for Mary’s gown.
By this time, with only three weeks to get things together, the new co-directors opted to go with simple scenery and few props, relying on the familiarity of the story to help set the mood. With a cast of green rookies (Like I said it had been a while the most recent “Mary” was now married with three children of her own!) with backdrops borrowed from the Baptist Church over on the Plains, and two rehearsals under their belts, the intrepid directors and players were as ready as they were going to be for the long-anticipated return of the children’s Christmas Pageant. They asked Rev. Williams to pray that the nor’easter predicted for Christmas Eve would track more to the north so that it might keep attendance down. But his prayers were to no avail. The low went out to sea well to the south and Christmas Eve came with just a light dusting of snow and balmy temps in the mid-20s. The sanctuary was full!
The lights dimmed as 12-year-old Billy Holman, Grace’s oldest boy middle child, read from the Gospel of Luke:
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register. . . .
Grace Holman gave a quick nod toward the back of the sanctuary and slowly up the center aisle came Joseph and Mary. They stepped carefully up the chancel steps to the manger. Billy continued:
And 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.
Sarah Fulton, in her debut as the Holy Mother Mary, on cue reached into her robe to give birth to the baby Jesus. But somehow the Savior of the world had gotten lost under the multitude of folds in her robe. Let’s just say, being her mother’s robe it was bit large in just about every dimension, (Leslie had temporarily shortened tightened it using safety pins.) The holy child’s arm gets tangled in the sleeve and flips out of the meek Mary’s arms to which she very clearly cries “Son of a Biscuit!” Only it wasn’t biscuit!
Baby Jesus flies through the air striking a corner of the makeshift manger and bounces on the floor and immediately begins a raspy wailing sound. Apparently, Sarah had insisted on using her Balling Baby Boy doll for the baby Jesus! Mary trying to catch the Incarnation of God before he hits the floor, knocks over the manger, which Bobby Flanagan as Joseph tries to catch but trips on his over-length robe and with his bath towel head piece blocking his vision, falls into the manger totally crushing it. Fortunately, gasps from the congregation covered Bobby’s colorful run of expletives.
Rory Jones, the Magi with the myrrh, whose father is the Chief of the Rockhaven Volunteer Fire Department, is standing just off stage. He sees this unfolding disaster and like his dad jumps into action to save the scene.
As he hurries down the side aisle of the sanctuary, he trips over his father’s old bathrobe that with a belt hitching it up makes up his outfit. Picking himself up, he proceeds to pull the bathrobe off and flings it into Lucille MacDonald’s lap as he passes by her, rounds the corner of the front pew, bounds up onto the chancel and begins assisting Mary to her feet and then offers to help a very embarrassed Joseph try to put the shattered manger back together.
Meanwhile Mary grabs the balling baby Jesus and lifts his swaddling clothes in a very unmotherly like manner finds the switch to quiet his wailing!
It was about then that Rory realizes that he is standing in front of a full Christmas Eve sanctuary wearing only the aluminum foil covered crown and his basketball shorts. You see before the pageant he had been rather warm under all that robe so off came his shirt and outer pants. I mean after all, under that robe who would know the difference, right? There he is, Rockhaven Rebels right there on the side of his shorts, the blue devil logo for all to see!
Grace and Leslie look up from the front pew in either in alarm or on the verge of laughter; it was hard to tell. Rory looking down, sees the expressions on their faces and just shrugs his shoulders and says to the directors and the whole congregation: “Sometimes a fellow just has to take off his bathrobe!”
Leslie shoots a pleading glance toward the organ and Clara French resets a few stops and everyone soon finds their way to “Silent Night” as the chancel lights dim over the not so “still we see thee lie” Bethlehem!
Lucille MacDonald is smiling as she folds up Rory’s wise man’s robe in her lap. She’s thinking, “Oh Martha Stockman will certainly hear about this! But that’s okay. We’re doing it differently now. Oh are we doing things differently now!”
A couple of weeks later on the Baptism of the Lord Sunday, the Reverend spoke on the ninth verse of Isaiah 42. The words of the Lord through the prophet to the people of God:
See the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare.
Pastor pointed out how our faith may stretch back into history for thousands of years, but our faith isn’t just a lesson in history. It’s not enough to say “this is what we’ve always done,” or “this is what God did a long time ago.” We might have worn our parent’s comfortable old bathrobes and bath towels in the Christmas pageant a few weeks ago, but eventually those robes must come off.
Our faith isn’t just another exercise in the recalling the past. Sometimes while we are trying to recreate the past we find God breaking in and altering our plans. Sometimes we have to take off the former and try on something new.
The things that God has done in the past point toward what God is still doing today, and what God might do tomorrow. The former things have come to pass, and we should celebrate them. And know them, teach them, savor them.
Our faith didn’t just happen. It happens. Like fresh shoots bursting forth from the ground in the springtime or even after something heartbreaking, difficult, life changing as a fire, the new things of God are still happening.
The people of Israel gathered with John the Baptist out into the wilderness, at the River Jordan. The river, where the People of God had finished the Exodus, and crossed into the Promised Land. God had done something incredibly amazing a millennium and a half before John in that place.
But, John wasn’t there for a history lesson; he was there to declare the new thing that God was about to do in Jesus. And there Jesus was baptized, in those waters which had set a people free; in those waters of new life and liberty, in those waters of salvation.
God is still setting us free. God is still liberating us. There are new Promised Lands that we are being led into. We are washed in those same waters.
Eventually we may have to take the old bathrobe off, as comfortable as they may seem. Sometimes, like Rory found, they just get in the way.
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