On occasion my sermons take the form of “Tales from New Heidelberg” — stories centered around Pastor Branderhorst and old First Reformed Church in New Heidelberg, a fictitious little Dutch enclave on the North American prairie. Think poor-man’s Garrison Keillor.
Here is an adaptation of a New Heidelberg sermon from last year, 2019. The extra-attentive reader may also note how I borrowed from/was inspired by a post here on The Twelve.

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The week between Christmas and New Year’s is supposed to be a quiet week of relaxing — wearing your new pajamas or wooly slippers, reading a new book, playing a new game by the fireplace, drinking a sweet coffee concoction with a candy cane stirrer. If you’re really industrious, go for a walk on a brisk winter day.

At least that’s what Pastor Branderhorst thought, especially since it was an unusually sunny week in New Heidelberg, the little Dutch enclave on the North American prairie. His daughter, Taryn, was home from college in Michigan, and he was looking forward to catching up with her on her experiences there.

Christmas was a relaxing day. But at 7:50 on the morning of the 26th, his phone rang. It was Nancy Zuidema.

“Sorry to call so early, but I know you’re an early-riser. I’m wondering if I could come talk with you anytime today?”

“Of course,” said Pastor Branderhorst. “How about 9am?”

Nancy was there at 8:45, pretty broken up. Last night her son, daughter-in-law, and their three kids were loading up after a wonderful Christmas, heading back to River Junction. Mark pulled her aside and said that he and Chelsea were getting a divorce. They were going to tell the kids at the end of vacation. He’d tell her more when there was time. But he wanted her to hear it from him. Now he had to go.

Nancy had hardly slept. She was devastated. Filled with unanswered questions. Feeling terrible, especially for those three grandkids of hers. Wanting to be mad at someone, but not sure exactly who.

Pastor Branderhorst was listening — trying to offer tissues not fixes or answers — when his phone rang. He could see it was Don De Haan. He let it go to voicemail as he wanted to give his attention to Nancy. But two minutes later it was Don again. He hesitated for a moment. “I’m sorry Nancy but I think I better take this.”

He was glad he did. Don was breathless, possibly in shock. He had just received a call from the Nebraska Highway Patrol that his sister and brother-in-law had gone off the road and both were killed instantly. They’d just left New Heidelberg that morning after spending Christmas together. Had they hit a patch of ice? Fallen asleep? It was too soon to know.

Pastor Branderhorst apologized to Nancy and said he really needed to get to the De Haans. He spent most of the day there as family and friends came and went. He heard the same stories over and over again. How they’d left at 5:30 that morning. They’d had a nice breakfast together. Sent them off with lunch of sandwiches and some leftover Christmas goodies. They’d even had a little prayer for traveling mercies and then watched the red tail lights disappear into the darkness.

Again, there wasn’t much for Pastor Branderhorst to say. Just listen. Just be there. Some people were in stunned silence. Others wept. Others talked and tried to keep busy. Word spread fast. Phones were ringing. Neighbors were bringing food.

Eventually in the late afternoon Pastor Branderhorst headed home — wrung out, exhausted. He hoped that Taryn would be there and they could talk a bit. But she had gone to Carthage to see a movie with friends.

The next morning, he needed to get an early start — to work on his sermon and the bulletin for the coming Sunday. He backed out of the driveway as the sun was just rising. It was barely light, but he noticed something was wrong. Something was missing. His nativity lawn ornaments were gone!

He stopped the car to investigate. The first thing that went through his head was that it was a prank. Maybe Taryn and her friends had taken them. They were probably upside down on the garage roof. His family was always so embarrassed that he insisted on putting these large glowing plastic figurines in the yard each Christmas. Maybe they were tacky, but they were also a gift from Clyde and Cora Vander Stouw in his first congregation and he had a soft spot for them.

As he got closer he saw the electric cords were cut crudely. If this was a prank that was totally uncalled for. Had someone actually stolen his Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus?

Flustered but in a hurry, Pastor Branderhorst headed to church. He had to at least begin sketching out Sunday’s sermon. He would check on Nancy and, of course, the De Haans. Given everything, he wondered about recycling an old sermon from the barrel.

He looked at the designated scripture passages for the coming Sunday. Arrrggghh! It was that terrible story from the Gospel of Matthew where King Herod kills all the babies around Bethlehem in an attempt to exterminate Jesus.

Really? His little town was in shock. A pall of sadness hung in the air. Marriages were unraveling. Even Mary, Joseph, and Jesus were missing from his front lawn. And he was supposed to talk about killing babies? Couldn’t there be at least one Sunday of Christmas merriment and mirth?

He was jotting some notes for the church secretary about the bulletin for the upcoming Sunday. On Christmas Eve, Pastor Branderhorst’s sermon title had been “Christmas Changes Everything!” He thought it had gone pretty well. But now in a fit of pique, he scribbled that the sermon title this coming Sunday would be “Christmas Changes Nothing!” He scratched it out, but still that was how he felt. Sadness and death and tragedy seemed to prevail.

In his 26 years of preaching, he’d never tackled this grotesque story. Why now? Was there a reason this passage had shown up this week? Pastor Branderhorst started doing some reading and research. His books said that this bloody story kept us from a naive, sugary understanding of Christmas, as if everything was sweetness and light, beauty and joy from now one. How do you preach that?

The week wore on. He checked in with the De Haans several times. They were heading to Colorado for the funerals. He got back to Nancy Zuidema. She’d learned a bit more. Her son said he was in love with a woman at work and that he hadn’t really loved his wife for years. Knowing didn’t make her feel any better. But at least she now knew.

Friday evening, Pastor Branderhorst finally had some moments with Taryn. He inquired if she’d heard anything about his missing lawn ornaments.

“No one I’ve talked to knows anything about it, dad. I think someone stole them. I was looking online and vintage ones like yours are only increasing in value.”

Then his daughter said to him, “Hey, there’s something we really need to talk about.”

Did anything good ever follow those words?

“I’m not going back to college. I’m not really happy there. I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t want to waste your money, my time. I don’t want to run up a big debt.”

Why did this hit him so hard? His emotional reserves were pretty well spent from the week. So much of what Taryn said made sense. Still, shouldn’t his family be college educated? What was her future? Was she going to live with them? What would people think?

That night Pastor Branderhorst and his wife were in bed reading on their iPads. She turned to him and said, “Listen dear to what I just saw online. It’s really interesting. Do you remember that chess champion, Bobby Fischer?”

“Was he that odd, erratic one? A bit of a renegade? Maybe champion in the 70s or was it the 80s?

“Actually he became national champion in the 50s, at the age of 14. He played some debonair champion in the “Game of the Century,” the kind of guy who wore an ascot and velvet smoking jacket. Bobby Fischer showed up in jeans and a t-shirt. Early in the game, Fischer exposed his queen. The spectators were aghast. Obviously, the kid was in over his head. It was a humiliating gaffe. He had crumbled under the pressure. The champion eagerly took the queen. Everyone was certain that it was just a matter of time before the game was his. But then within a few moves, Fischer is chasing the champion’s king all over the board. Check. Check. Check. People were stunned, disbelieving. How could this be? It had looked like all was lost but now twenty moves after giving up his queen, Bobby Fischer announces to the champion. ‘Checkmate.’ And really, the most amazing part is that when experts go back to analyze the game, they understand now that when Fischer gave up his queen, the outcome was sealed. No one could see it at the time. It looked like a disaster, but in fact he was unstoppable after that. Isn’t that amazing, dear?”

She rolled over to turn off her light. “By the way, how’s Sunday’s sermon coming?”

Pastor Branderhorst turned off his light too. “I think it will come together and be okay.”

And in his head he thought he heard a voice say “Checkmate!”

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

9 Comments

  • RLG says:

    Great story, Steve. I really enjoyed it. As a pastor, it’s good to have such a story in your pocket, especially for rainy weather. Such a story explains it all. It’s kinda like a Superman story. He always wins in the end. No matter if evil and destruction lurk at every corner, the final destiny is assured with Superman at the helm. We all like a feel good story, even if the present reality feels like anything but good. And it gets the minister off the hook. I’ve heard that sermon (and preached it) too many times. Thanks, Steve.

    • Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell says:

      Yes, I guess it is a bit like Superman. I think we call it the resurrection of Jesus. Not sure it gets ministers off the hook. Seems to put God on the cross. Sometimes it can sound tired and trite. I suppose that’s the risk of telling the story.

      • RLG says:

        Thanks, Steve, for the reply. I like your response, “I guess it is a little bit like Superman…” Your reply would seem to have turned my comment back on me. But I think you may have missed the point of comparison. And that is, just as Superman is obviously fiction, so also is the resurrection and the bizarre story of Christ’s incarnation. God given common sense tells us that Superman is fiction, as are all the miraculous stories of other religions. So we quickly and reasonably discount such stories and religions. But Christians hang onto the story of Jesus so called victory, just as the adherents of other religions hang onto their own unique miracles as being true and a confirmation of their religions. The miracles of all such religions do not confirm the reality or truthfulness of such religions, but only confirm their fictional reality. It would seem that such stories, whether from our religion or any other do give a false sense of security and comfort, as is seen from the comments of others. Thanks, Steve, for your further comment.

  • Wow. Thank you. Are you planning a book of these tales of Rev. Branderhorst?

  • mstair says:

    grateful … loved this … took me here today (Eph. 2:10 CEB) :

    “Instead, we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives.”

  • Marty Wondaal says:

    Synopsis:

    A small-town pastor carries existential angst in his soul from the heavy burdens and tragedies of his congregants. Then grace appears in the form of his own daughter, who makes a brave, beautiful and mature decision in her life.

    Four and a half out of five stars.

    Mild dance references, occasional spotten.

  • Andy Rienstra says:

    I know you are telling this as a story Steve, and it is well told. That is because many of us have had such an experience. In over 60 years of ministry, I can remember days similar to that of Pastor Branderhorst, especially to have a loving spouse help pull me through.

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