New Messages In an Old Story

by The Rev. Susan Springer

Rector, St. John's Episcopal Church

Boulder, CO 

This week’s column reflects on our Sunday Dec. 13th Christmas pageant and the power of stories.


On Sunday instead of presiding at worship I enjoyed the gift of sitting in the pews and watching St John’s talented children (supported by some equally talented adults) tell Luke’s version of the events surrounding the birth of Jesus. I wasn’t prepared for the theological insights their portrayal provided, and so I share those with you here. 

In the pageant, the great company of small angels looked radiant, innocent, and fidgety, somehow managing to exhibit these qualities simultaneously. Their gentle and persistent fluttering in the choir pews reminded me that real angels are never still but are always eager to take wing and fly off to protect those they have vowed to serve in the Name of the Most Holy One.

Over the course of the pageant a few of our small angels’ glittery golden-garland halos came loose and trailed as they walked, and it brought to mind one of my favorite snippets of poetry, from William Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimation of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.”

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting: 

The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star,
        Hath had elsewhere its setting, 
        And cometh from afar: 
        Not in entire forgetfulness, 
        And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
        From God, who is our home: 

Heaven lies about us in our infancy!

Heaven surely lay about these little people, and their trailing golden garlands were intimations of their own trailing glory.

In the choir pews opposite the white-robed company of heaven, even the littlest of shepherds, in a remarkable display of self-control, managed to refrain from tapping or poking their shepherd-neighbors with their crooks. The cost of such self-control was several ill-concealed shepherd yawns, and it struck me that that’s precisely what the shepherds in Luke’s story must have been doing when the giant star appeared overhead and snapped on its billion-watt light. The biblical shepherds “were keeping watch over their flocks by night,” but those same shepherds probably were on day-shift too. And so I imagine them struggling to stay awake and attentive, yawning broadly, stretching their limbs, and utterly unprepared for the unusual star and the voice of the angel of the Lord. Isn’t that how God often materializes—when we are absolutely not paying attention?

The cut-out foam-core board animals make their appearance on the chancel each year as silent witnesses but so real to the children that I watched one angel thoughtfully swat imaginary flies away from the hide of one of the beasts. None of the gospels mentions animals being present at the birth of Jesus. Artists depicting the nativity inferred their presence from the fact that the gospels do note Jesus was born in a feed trough in an animal barn, and that shepherds arrived, guided by the star, and that magi came from the east. It’s not a stretch, then, to conclude that animals were present or at least near-by. Feed troughs are used by cattle, barns by donkeys and oxen, shepherds are accompanied by sheep, and magi—lacking minivans or even magic carpets—traveled by camel.

One journalist, writing on the theological role of animals in the nativity, quotes theology professor Michael Bourgeois who claims: “The birth of Jesus isn’t just about humans but about all of God’s creation.”  [1] It’s a powerful theological statement that beginning with the birth of Jesus (through whom all things were made in the first place) the entire created order would be renewed, but it’s an idea that has support in Scripture (John 1:3 and Revelation 21:5, to name a couple of places). I wonder if, at this time of year, animals in barns and forests across the earth tell the nativity story in their animal languages to new generations, just as we tell our own children the story by bringing them to church and enrolling them as participants in the pageant.

The child playing Mother Mary surely wins an award for “Best Baby Wrangling By a 10-Year-Old” as she took a slightly fussy Baby Jesus from his manger on the chancel and comforted him with amazing poise, confidence, and skill. Such a stark contrast to what I imagine of the biblical Mother Mary: scared young teen, huddled in an unheated, unlit barn, absent the company of supportive women, attended in this most intimate of acts by a fiancé she did not yet, in the biblical sense, “know.”

The not-quite-three-months-old lively, healthy infant who played Jesus in our pageant is also a living witness to the healing power of Our Lord: shortly after the birth of our infant actor I visited him in the NICU, where he was being treated and had danced on the edge of life for a time. What a powerful reminder that all our fragile lives are at all times held in the hands of God, and that God’s dream for us is life—a life larger, fuller, and more eternal than we can imagine.

The angel Gabriel standing tall and beaming in the pew suggested the pride that the real angel by that name must have felt when he was selected by God to be the messenger who would bring the news of the impending holy birth to Mary. The pageant Magi as they shyly approached the manger on the chancel suggested the wonder the real magi must have felt when they came face-to-face with a child the likes of whom they’d never seen: a child who glowed from within and lit up the hay and the air around him. The seriousness and concentration on the faces of the children in the St John’s string orchestra suggested the care the heavenly host must have taken in singing their hymn of welcome and praise to the infant: Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace to all whom he favors. Theirs was no humming along to the radio in the car or yodeling in the shower, but a choir of carefully and finely tuned harmonies, and our own St John’s orchestra reminded me of that.

Finally there was the reminder that the Christmas pageant connects one generation of St John’s to the next, and connects new members to those of long standing. In chatting with people after the service I heard one couple reminisce about when their 42-old-son played Joseph in the St John’s pageant, and a newer couple share that their 25-year-old daughter had played the baby Jesus in an Episcopal Church in another state. The Book of Common Prayer liturgies connect us one generation to the next, and one parish to another, but so does the Christmas pageant. It is part of a story that is always the same and yet always new and fresh and always full of insights. Thanks be to God who created the story and chose his only beloved Son to be its star.




Instant Preaching


(Editor's Note: The Episcopal Preaching Foundation, founded by Dr.
Shilling almost 30 years ago, just completed its 28th week-long Preaching
Excellence Program for 63 seminarians and priests who are early in their
preaching careers. The participants delivered previously-prepared sermons in
small groups, which then critiqued them but also preached extemporaneous
sermons on randomly-assigned texts for which they had just 15 minutes to
prepare. Gary participated in one of these "Instant Preaching" workshops,
led by Rev. Dr. Micah Jackson, Associate Professor of Preaching at Seminary
of the Southwest in Austin, Tex. This was his message.)

Wash your hands before eating! No, I'm not referring to my late mother's
demand when she called us four kids for dinner and I was all dirty and
greasy from fixing my bicycle. Instead, it's what the Pharisees and other
Jewish leaders of the day told Jesus in the 7th chapter of Mark's Gospel,
when they saw his disciples eating with unwashed hands two thousand years
ago. Those bigwigs followed Jewish tradition by thoroughly washing their
hands as well as washing their cups, pots and kettles.

Let's approach this incident on two levels. First, we'll all in this
workshop assume we're modern day medical students. Do you have your
imaginary stethoscopes in your hands? From this perspective, we've got to
say, Jesus, you're a great religious leader but you don't know much about
hygiene and these Pharisees act like they do.

In the first century AD, of course, they didn't know anything about
bacteria, but from many generations of experience, the Jews knew that
washing before eating reduced the risk of illness. They'd never heard of
trichinosis and that thoroughly cooking pork kills it, but they did know
that avoiding pork altogether eliminated the problem.

Also, we're sorry, Jesus, but your knowledge of human anatomy is all wrong.
You said to the religious leaders, "Do you not see that whatever goes into a
person from the outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but
the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?" Jesus, nutrients are absorbed
into the body from that food as it passes through the digestive system.
Otherwise, we'd starve. So substances from the outside do enter our bodies.

This brings me to the second level and the real significance of this
passage. Set aside your imaginary stethoscopes and put on your religious
collars as you consider Jesus's point. The Pharisees were emphasizing form
over substance. They were interested in visible customs that showed they
were following the many laws that governed everyday Jewish life, but Jesus
said that what's inside you is what counts. "It is what comes out of a
person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil
intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness,
deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly." Did he leave anything

Paul, in his epistles, took the concept further. He believed that regardless
of how hard you try, you never can make it by following all the numerous
religious rules of the day. So you need to simply accept God's acceptance of
you-warts and all. But in return, you should be "zealous for good deeds," as
he wrote to Titus. This is, of course, the Pauline Doctrine.

In a sense, not much has changed in 2,000 years. Many of us concentrate on
material success to the exclusion of family relationships and spiritual
development. Some have so many houses that visiting them resembles checking
into a hotel for a two-week or shorter stay.
Advertisers take advantage of people's belief that drinking a specific brand
of beer enhances their prestige. Pre-torn jeans are a fashion statement,
although my wife believes the patched clothing I use for beekeeping and
gardening have zero clout.

Jesus is telling us to avoid actions designed solely to impress others and
uphold convention, and concentrate instead on our inner spiritual life and
thoughts. He also implies, I believe, that we shouldn't let the criticisms
of others overwhelm us. How many of you believe that in just the last week,
you've been abused, misused and misunderstood by others?
Come on now, raise your hand. We all feel that way. But dwelling on it can
overwhelm us and keep us from realistically dealing with problems,
regardless of how difficult, and concentrating on helping others.

External thoughts, words and deeds obviously influence your inner being.
But don't let them dominate you. Remember that most of what you are comes
from within.

From the executive director: What makes a sermon good?

The late salesman, evangelist, and to be honest, raconteur, Zig Ziglar, was said to sometimes challenge his audience to a test of archery skills, proclaiming that he could prepare anyone to be a better archer than the national champion, provided the champion was blindfolded and spun back and forth a few dozen times. Which he then proceeded to do.  Bow and arrow in hand, the blindfolded, dizzy champion took aim. As the audience dove underneath their seats Ziglar concluded, “You cannot hit a target you cannot see.”

Epiphany Preaching Blog

In my day job at the School of Theology in Sewanee I listen to sermons. Lots and lots of sermons. Loads of sermons. Tons. They pay me to do this because I am expected to listen critically, and evaluate the strengths, problems and potential of the sermon to help the student grow as a preacher. Then they graduate, are ordained, and unless they come back to enroll in the D.Min. in Preaching program or come to an Episcopal Preaching Foundation conference, they rarely receive meaningful evaluation and feedback. Except for the exceptions, and Epiphany is a marvelous time to become an exception.

2012 National Conference: What We Learned

“What language shall we borrow?” was the subtitle of the third National Episcopal Preaching Conference, once again held at the Kanuga Conference Center, this year from April 23-26. After two years of gathering with familiar names and faces from the world of homiletics, this year we invited preachers and teachers not as well known to Episcopalians, spiced it with some incredible jazz, and invited among to keep us focused in prayer. I suspect that to an outsider the lineup seemed the work of a madman. Guilty. But there was method in my madness, born of equal parts frustration and hope – frustration that my best efforts were not making much of a dent in the quality of preaching in the Episcopal Church, hope that, well, I have only been at it for six years, and only one as Executive Director of the Episcopal Preaching Foundation. So now is not the time to throw in the towel, abandon ship, or otherwise surrender.