Just before I left for Columbia seminary, we got a new pastor at 1st Pres in Lakeland, Florida. Things changed after Tom arrived. One of my favorite changes involved establishing a living nativity scene in front of the church. We began that very first year.
The church sits on a lake and people circle around every year to look at the Christmas lights. It’s like a contest to see who can burn the most bulbs or come up with the craziest display of Santa on water skis. We set up a stable, sewed up some costumes and began recruiting Mary’s and Joseph’s for Witness on the Lake.
Animals were our first problem. That area is not exactly overrun with farm animals. A large animal vet came to our rescue, delivering a donkey, a goat, and two sheep to the church.
Housing the animals became our next problem. A small, fenced enclosure behind the parking lot worked well, after we moved the canoe trailer. The neighbors weren’t so sure what they thought. We lived in dread fear of a call from the zoning commission informing us that our four-footed actors had to go. Fortunately, that call never came.
Unfortunately, the donkey had such a bad attitude that we had to trade him in for a shetland pony. A very old shetland pony with cataracts so bad that he spent a great deal of effort trying to turn away from the headlights coming around the lake. This caused Tom to wonder why we kept getting the business end of the horse!
We’d been out there for 3 or 4 nights and things were going going fairly well when the big night finally arrived. Christmas Eve was wet and cold. Several of our characters called in sick and we scrambled to find folks to be Magi and shepherds in the final hours before the service. The young adults’ group turned out in full force and we were back in business.
The pony bit Tom. The goat looked depressed or sick or both. The sheep, who’d played their parts well all week, simply stood blinking in the dripping rain. We huddled in the makeshift stable, shivering in our costumes and munching chocolate chip cookies some kind soul had made. I wasn’t sure we were being much of a witness!
Amazingly, people still came! Cars drove round and round. Even the newspapers showed up. Somewhere in the middle of all the bustle, a young mother walked up with her daughter who was about 4 years old.
The little girl stood, tattered and wet, one finger in her mouth, and looked. She looked and looked and looked. Finally she pointed at a sheep and we assured her that it was safe to pet the soggy animal. Suddenly, scattering hay everywhere and scaring the sheep half to death, she darted into the little stable. Gazing down at our baby-doll Jesus lying in an orange crate she asked, Who are you supposed to be?
Several of us answered at once. Mary – Joseph – a shepherd… Our little friend looked even more puzzled. Then a young man, who sold cement for a living, decided to start at the beginning and we began to tell the Christmas story. Slowly her mother joined us, listening as intently as the little girl who was now holding the baby-doll Jesus. Finally they wandered off into the rain – the little girl crunching another cookie and her mother promising to think about our invitation to return for church that evening.
As we settled back into our roles – still huddled in the stable – another person approached us. A lovely woman, dressed for a party. Her high heels sank into the wet ground and she wrapped her expensive raincoat more tightly about her. She held a small camera in one hand but she, like the little girl, stood for long moments – just watching. Finally she looked directly at us and said, I have just one question. Why do you do this ridiculous thing?
We stammered a bit… Well, it’s Christmas and the children like it and… but she was already walking away, her unused camera swinging at her side.
Her question has haunted me ever since.
I told this story for the first time in 1990, in the pulpit of a tiny church I had come to serve. And I was compelled to tell it again, today.
I’ve learned a lot since that night in the rain when a woman I did not know asked, Why?
In some ways my answer has gotten more complex. I’m more aware of the ways stories like this have been used to belittle or frighten those of different traditions.
I’m more aware of those who don’t feel included.
I’m more aware of the ways people who claim the story but not the love behind it have used it to grab power in our world with no concern for any but themselves.
And yet, I am compelled to do this ridiculous thing again because I still believe it is about hope. Hope in the promises of the Creator.
I think many of us tell this story because we remember those promises – promises of belonging and posterity and relationship. And maybe, just maybe, our remembering has a bit to do with reminding the maker of those promises that we haven’t forgotten! That the truth of this story is somehow more true, even, than what we see with our own eyes in these days.
If the woman in the raincoat was here today, that is what I would tell her. We do it because, somehow, the story of Creator and Creation is more true than Fox News.
Maybe you know that woman in the raincoat and you can tell her for me!
And maybe you’ll tell me some of your sacred stories, too. So be it. Amen.
ps… to you and yours from me and mine… love and peace and hope in this moment and always.