December 15, 2019
Christ Church Gardiner
My most favorite story to read this time of year begins with these words:
The Herdmans were absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world. They lied and stole and smoked cigars (even the girls) and talked dirty and hit little kids and cussed their teachers and took the name of the Lord in vain and set fire to Fred Shoemaker’s old broken-down toolhouse.
Maybe you know this story. This is the beginning of “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.” The tale of the famous Herdman kids has been on my December reading list since about 1982 when my mom first read it to me and my brother. Every year since then, I have read it, and every year, it’s like reading it for the first time. It’s one of those stories that is hysterically funny, but also tender. Each time I read it, I tear up at all the same parts and by the end, I am a big snotty mess. My kids might be a little embarrassed by the emotions it brings out in me, but they love this story, too. Even Patrick, now in high school, will curl up at the bottom of the bed to listen.
The story of the Herdmans and the Christmas Pageant is powerful because it’s a story about defying expectations. About thinking you have some thing or some one figured out, only to realize you didn’t really understand at all. It’s about being surprised by where and in whom God chooses to show up.
To everyone’s shock and amazement, the six Herdman children showed up at church—all by themselves, no parents dragging them there. But they didn’t show up because they were eager to experience worship or hear the Christian message. They showed up because they had been told that cake and punch and other treats were served each Sunday. And even though disappointed to discover that was a lie, they found themselves in the middle of the Christmas Pageant, and they were hooked.
Now I don’t know if you figured this out from the opening sentences of the book, but the Herdmans weren’t exactly the most well-behaved children. They terrorized all of the other kids. Even at church they stole from the collection plate, drank the grape juice meant for communion, and smoked cigars in the Ladies’ Room.
They didn’t see their parents much. The story was that their father had climbed on a railroad train and disappeared when the youngest child was 2. Their mother worked double shifts. “She’d rather be at the shoe factory than shut up at home with that crowd of kids,” the social worker claimed.
So the Herdmans: Ralph, Imogene, Leroy, Claude, Ollie and Gladys, fended for themselves. And in doing so, they learned to be tough and independent and resourceful. When they arrived at church and learned about the Christmas Pageant, they bullied their way into the leading roles. And of course, everyone decided then and there that the Pageant would be a disaster.
An understandable assumption. But there is a lesson here for us during this season of Advent. Because Advent is about waiting for God to show up. And it’s about an openness to being surprised about just how that will happen. Because so often we find that God shows up in the most unexpected places. Possibly even in the presence of the Herdmans.
We are reminded of this in our Gospel reading this morning. God showed up in both Jesus and John, and the people were surprised. They weren’t expecting a Messiah like Jesus—a poor, itinerant preacher who did most of his work far away from the Temple. He promised good news to the poor and those on the margins and condemned the rich and those with power. And yet surely, God was working through him. The blind could see again. The lame could walk. Lepers were cleansed. The deaf received their hearing. The dead were raised. And the poor rejoiced in the good news that Jesus brought.
Even John needed to ask again if Jesus was really the one they had all been waiting for. John was sitting in prison because he condemned those in power. He may have been wondering if Jesus would be able to save him. Could John trust that Jesus was who he said he was? That he would bring the kind of liberation that he promised?
And then, of course, there were doubts about John, too. The crowds following Jesus were questioning whether or not John had really been God’s messenger. And Jesus acknowledged that John wasn’t quite what they expected. The people thought God would send a messenger in fancy robes, living in the palaces near the Temple—they weren’t expecting this wild-eyed, locust-eating, desert-living prophet who got himself thrown in prison. But Jesus reassured the people that John was indeed the messenger they had been waiting for—and they could believe this because John told the truth, the difficult truth. A truth many people, including King Herod who had him thrown in prison, didn’t want to hear.
John and Jesus—God’s messenger and messiah, didn’t show up the way the people of Israel expected them to.
And the Herdmans certainly weren’t expected to show up as the Holy Family in the Second Presbyterian Church of some midwestern town. In fact, the people of that church community expected that the pageant would have the same cast of characters as always that year.
Mary would be played by Alice Wendleken with her beautiful blonde hair, angelic face, and Vaseline smeared on her eyelids so they would glisten in the candlelight. And, Elmer Hopkins would play Joseph, not because he cared about the role, but because he was the minister’s son and was forced to be Joseph every year. The littlest kids would be angels and bigger kids would be shepherds dressed up in their fathers’ bathrobes.
But the arrival of the Herdmans changed everything and left everyone whispering about how the Pageant would surely be a disaster that year.
And it almost was…
Imogene and Ralph, playing Mary and Joseph, forgot to come in at the right time. And when they did, they were disheveled and dazed and Mary had a black eye from running into a cabinet.
Gladys, the Angel of the Lord, shouted at the shepherds at the top of her lungs, “Unto You a Child is Born,” and left them trembling in their bathrobes, for fear she might punch them next.
When Leroy, Claude and Ollie arrived on the scene as the Wise Men, they had left behind their gifts of frankincense, gold, and myrrh. Instead, they were lugging the Christmas ham from the food basket that has been donated to their family.
But even though the Herdmans brought unexpected twists to the Christmas Pageant, the congregation slowly realized that maybe the Herdman version was much closer to the real nativity scene.
How would Mary and Joseph have looked after their long journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem? Pregnant and tired, only to find that the only place they could sleep was in a barn?
Wouldn’t the shepherds have been scared and confused by the message of the Angel? Luke’s Gospel tells us that “there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.”
And the Wise Men bearing a ham. Mary and Joseph were likely much more in need of food than the fancy oils and incense.
The pageant brought unexpected glimpses of what that Holy Night may really have been like. And perhaps the Herdmans were in a situation that made them better able to understand the story than others. Perhaps the Herdmans lived close enough to the margins of society to be able to experience the Christmas story in a way that many of us cannot. They got that the birth narrative of Jesus isn’t some fairy tale. They understood the seriousness of delivering a baby in a barn and placing a newborn in a manger. They grasped the threat from Herod and the vulnerability of that baby and his family.
It seems that the night of the pageant, God showed up to the Herdmans. And God also showed up through the Herdmans. On that night, Imogene, in particular, really caught on to the wonder of Christmas. And so, as it says in the book, “Christmas just came over her all at once, like a case of chills and fever.”
The hushed night, the candlelight, the carols, the sacredness of the evening all had a part to play in the Herdmans grasping the meaning of Christmas and for those around them to see it in their faces.
Everyone went away that night whispering that it was the best Christmas pageant ever. “Everybody said so, but nobody seemed to know why.” There was just something special about it that nobody could put their finger on.
When we hear the Christmas story this year, when we move through the joy of that season, I hope we will be open to meeting God in unexpected ways, in unexpected places, even in unexpected people. God is full of surprises, but we have to open our eyes and our hearts to meeting God in new ways. May it be so. Amen.