We all love a good Christmas story and I suspect many of you have a personal Christmas experience you will never forget. My first paying gig in a church was not as a preacher but rather as a Director of Christian Educator. The church was Second Presbyterian in Charleston, South Carolina. The members took being Charlestonians very seriously. For more years than anyone could remember each Christmas Eve the Christmas story was depicted in a unique pageant. The distinctiveness was not in the story, for the script was the usual homogenization of Luke and Matthew where kings and shepherds mingle together with the livestock. What made the event unique was every part, from sheep to king, was played by an adult. The costumes worn were far more expensive than any suit I had ever owned. Most of the cast had been playing their role for at least twenty years. It seemed the only way to retire from the play was to die. Unfortunately, the person playing the Innkeeper had passed away that summer. My job as Director of Christian Education was to recruit the new Innkeeper. Acting ability hardly mattered but it was imperative that the new thespian could either fit into the costume or knew a good tailor. After much searching I finally found my Innkeeper. Before signing up for this lifelong commitment he asked if there was a script.
“Well of course there is a script.”
“Are you sure?”
Well to tell the truth I wasn’t sure. I assumed any play had to have a script. On the other hand, since the same folks had played the same role for so many years the official script had probably found its way to the bottom of some discarded filing cabinet. So I turned to my new recruit and said, “Wing it.”
He looked down his long but properly proportioned South of Broad nose and replied, “Sir, we don’t wing it in Charleston.”
“You know what I mean. Ad-lib. Joseph will ask for a room and you say, ‘The Inn is full.’ He will say, ‘My wife is pregnant. Do you have anyplace we can I go’. You will reply, ‘I have a stable behind the Inn’.”
He nodded, the contract was signed, in triplicate, and I told him rehearsal would be Christmas Eve morning at 11:00.
Christmas Eve morning was a glorious day, in fact too glorious. At 7:30 I received a phone call from a cast member. The entire cast was headed to the golf course.
“Even Mary,” was all I could think to ask.
“Are you kidding? Especially Mary. It was her idea. She has a 6 handicap and gets to play from the reds. She takes our money every year.”
“But what about the play?”
“Don’t worry. We haven’t rehearsed in years.”
Christmas Eve morning I went to the church to make sure all the prompts were in place for the production. At 11:00 I turned and spotted my newly recruited Innkeeper coming through the door. He sheepishly looked around and asked, “Am I early?”
I explained how I was not aware that rehearsal was solely dependent on the weather. He seemed to understand. I told him I was sorry no one contacted him but he reminded me in Charleston you have to be part of something for at least ten years before you are considered a member. I thought he was kidding. He wasn’t.
Switching the subject I asked, “You want to run through your lines.”
“Nah, I’m good. The wife and I have been working on them.” I found that pretty remarkable since I still had not discovered a script. But if he was OK, so was I.
“Great, I’ll see you this evening.”
The place was packed. Folks I had never seen occupied seats in pews that had been bought by family members at least a century ago. There were even folks in the balcony. We began with the children’s choir. Forty kids, all dressed in perfectly pressed robes, thrilled us with their versions of Christmas classics. After Dr. Randle delivered the Christmas Eve Prayer, the adult choir performed selections from Handle’s Messiah. Then it was time for The Play. It was pretty obvious everyone watching knew each line by heart. I could have asked anyone to have played the Innkeeper.
In the third scene Mary and Joseph made their way down the center aisle toward the makeshift city of Bethlehem. As they approached the Inn, my star pupil made his appearance. There was an anxious rustle through the sanctuary as folks realized who had been given the honor of replacing their dearly departed friend. Joseph was the first to speak. “Friend, we are looking for a room.”
On cue, the Innkeeper replied. “We have no room. The entire town is filled with folks here to pay their taxes.”
Joseph responded, “You must find me a room. My wife Mary is with child.”
Somewhat baffled the Innkeeper asked, “Excuse me, she’s what?”
A buzz ran through the congregation. Everyone in the city of Charleston not only knew the proper line but also realized knew for the first time in their lifetime the sacred words were about to be altered. I scrunched down in my pew fearful of what might happen next.
Joseph, realizing they were off script tried to recover with a most logical response, “She’s pregnant.”
The Innkeeper replied, “Well it’s not my fault.”
The revered play ended its miraculous run when Joseph, unable to contain himself, spoke these extraordinary words, “Well, it’s not my fault either.”
As Christmas has been transformed from mystery into doctrine Joseph has become a forgotten character. Mary gets all the accolades. Is any saint more revered than the mother of Jesus? Mary has become so famous even the Beetles sang about her. But Joseph has no song. Joseph barely has a spot in the story. Perhaps we should occasionally skip beyond the romanticism of Luke and read the account recorded by Matthew.
Matthew is seldom anyone’s favorite gospel. Luke has the best parables. John is the most polished. Mark is short and to the point. Matthew reads like a blueprint on how to build the kingdom of God here on earth, which is exactly what Matthew had in mind. Time after time in the book of Matthew Jesus says, “Put conventional wisdom aside, forget what you were taught as a child, and imagine something your parents could never quite visualize.”
It began with Joseph. Imagine becoming engaged to the girl of your dreams and discovering she is pregnant. You know you are not the father. You know you should walk away. You know keeping her will destroy your reputation yet you cannot leave because you know the child is more important than anything in the whole world. Joseph should have left. Mary’s mess was not his fault. And yet he stayed. That’s what people building the kingdom of God do.
This year Kemp, Barbara, Anne, Ralph, Sarah, Frankie and Iantha died. Each of these folks was serving or had served as an elder. Each played a huge role in the life of our congregation. It wasn’t our fault they died. Yet I have quietly watched as many of you have taken on the critical roles that our dearly beloved use to perform.
This year we discovered our old gray mare just ain’t what she used to be. Our Fellowship Hall and many of the rooms downstairs were beginning to show wear. The floor needed repaired, the heating/air system was nearly crippled, the roof was beginning to leak and that was just the beginning of the list. It wasn’t our fault. Jim Wright and his crew were constantly performing miracles with duct tape, bailing wire, and a whole lot of prayer. Then you, playing Joseph, stepped up in order that we might find new ways to be the light in our valley.
That’s what the people of God do. We don’t offer excuses. We don’t worry with blame. We just step forward and do what is necessary to continue our holy covenant with each other and with God. We play Joseph, that solitary figure so often regulated to the back of the stable. We play Joseph, watching over the child, watching over the church. We play Joseph, always stepping forward at the most unusual moment to declare, “He shall be called Emmanuel.”
While Mary will always be seen as the godliest character in the Christmas pageant, perhaps Joseph is the most God-like. From the back of the stable, God observes the tragedy and mayhem that is always part of the human adventure and must think, “It’s not my fault.” Thankfully what God thinks has never postponed what God does.
That is why the most important part of any Christmas celebration is declaring, “Emmanuel, God with us.” Amen.