Wise as serpents . . .
by Fr. Christopher Seifferlein
There was a young whippersnapper of a pastor that came to a parish whose traditions were as old as the hills. You know, he was the kind that just arrived from the seminary, with all that youthful enthusiasm and not much wisdom to match. As for the traditions of this church, which had been around far longer than he was ever alive, this youthful boy trampled on all of them. This town, which was rather stuck in its ways, was stirred up, and the conversation among the boys at the local coffee shop changed from the weather to, “How’s that pastor of yours?” and “What’s he up to now?”
Well, one from the group who sat in that coffee clutch was on the Board of Elders, and while the pastor always said for them to “keep things close to the chest,” he didn’t think that telling one or two of his closet comrades would hurt anything; and so the boys at the local shop always looked to him for the most recent news about what the pastor was up to.
"Well," he said one morning as he gripped his coffee in his hand, “you will never believe this!" "The pastor wants to cancel Christmas." "Cancel Christmas?" the men gasped, "and why in God’s good name would he want to do that?" “Well, he said he was tired, and very busy with work and his family and all, and being that it fell during the week this year he thought they could just celebrate Christmas the Sunday after and just ‘transfer’ the feast.” “He said that it was a busy night, that it would save him a lot of time and energy, and that he would not have to go out of his house, but could stay home and enjoy the night with his family, after all, ‘it was in the middle of the week.’”
Soon the nature of the private conversation between the pastor and the elder had spread all throughout the town. The villagers couldn’t quite believe it. For some of them it was the last straw. “I am not sure if I ever want to go to that church again!” they said. “We’ll just have church without him,” another said, and while it was said in haste, it seemed like a good idea when they thought about it. After all, maybe their pastor was busy, maybe they had worked him too hard, and maybe he did need a break. They would have church without him, and keep it quiet. You might be surprised, but while they were quite poor at keeping the pastor’s secrets, they were very good at keeping their own secrets from him. And so for them it became a kind of game.
Old Mrs. Schmidt said she would get the children to sing something for the service. Roger volunteered his wife to play the organ. And the old elder said that he would “get something together for the sermon.”
Time came for the service. They lit their candles as to not disturb the pastor in the parsonage, parking on the other side of the building and down the street. Surprisingly, half the community came just to see what would happen. It was like the services in olden days. “Welcome to our canceled Christmas service,” one of the elders said as they began the service. Songs were sung, prayers were offered, and even a prayer or two for their new pastor ushered out of their lips.
Time came for the sermon, and lo and behold, out of the vestry, came the pastor stepping into the pulpit!
“My friends,” he said, “this was planned all along.” “Christmas really was never cancelled. You see, some things are valuable for you, and that today I see. And some things are valuable to me, as you have learned to see also. We both find things valuable. That is what traditions are. Yet many of those things we find valuable are different. Together we find meaning and love as we learn to value what each of us finds important.”
He talked about traditions and the importance of them. About honoring others traditions even if they aren’t very important to you. He talked about working together as a congregation. He talked about the Bible and the importance of Jesus’ birth. He spoke about Christ’s life and death and how important every event from the life of Christ was. Even as he mentioned the birth of Jesus and the first Christmas, the title of his sermon was evident, “The Canceled Christmas Service that Still Met.”
Most thought the pastor’s message was about the best they had ever heard him preach, but they were still puzzled why he canceled Christmas and then showed up. It was one of those sermons that truly brought the congregation together and installed confidence in their pastor once again.
Several months went by and things at the local coffee shop were back to normal. Nobody gave much thought to the event that happened at Christmas. It was time for another elders meeting, and the old elder asked the pastor to begin with his report.
“You know that service I have been meaning to start?” the pastor said. “I’d really like to have a service on Ascension this year.” “After all, besides Christmas and Easter, it is the most important service of the year.”
The old elder quickly interjected. “The people are much too busy!” “They have lives and work and families to attend to!” “Besides, it’s in the middle of the week.” “How about we just cancel the service and have it on the following Sunday.”
The pastor smiled a big grin, like he had finally, just this once, pulled the wool over the eyes of his old elder. “You know,” he said very slowly, “I think that’s just what I said too!”
A few weeks later the service began. The pastor peeked out of the vestry to see if anyone had gathered. It was the largest crowd on Ascension Day that he had ever seen. As he was buttoning his robes his wise old elder walked into the vestry and said with a big smile on his face and an outstretched hand, “How about a Christmas service this year too, pastor?”