25 December 2008

A Little Vinegar With Your Sugarplums?

Rarely do I post what I say in church. That and this are different places, with different voices. But for some reason, what I said last night seems worth sharing. You decide.

You deserve better than this. Shouldn’t the Christmas Eve sermon be the very best of the year, pondered and polished for days and days so that its message was as pure and clear as the midnight sky? But no. This priceless message was composed at the last minute, fit between the ten inch snow storm on Friday (and the shoveling of it), the five inch snowstorm on Sunday (and the shoveling of that), the 8 inch snow storm on Tuesday (and the shoveling of that, twice). Also a trip to Chicago and back on Monday, an insurance physical, and the usual flotsam of every day.

I have no excuse, though. Any reasonable person could anticipate that December would have its challenges. Everyone knows that life goes top speed from October 31 to January 31. Anyone with an ounce of wisdom would have realized that depending on an unbroken string of good luck (and good weather) was foolishly naïve.

“Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”

These verses struck me yesterday, rereading them to find a thread of an idea. Clearly Joseph did not plan things very well either. After all, he had plenty time, nine months in fact. Even if the census order came unexpectedly, surely he could have sent word for a room. And if he came from Bethlehem, surely he had relatives there? People did not move around much then. Something doesn’t add up. It all seems to be a bit, well, contrived. That provoked a memory.

Nikos Kazantzakis, in his version of the life of Jesus, portrays Jesus noticing that Matthew has been writing a lot recently. But when Jesus reads what Matthew has been writing about him, his is outraged. "This isn't the truth. These are lies! I was not born in Bethlehem. I've never set foot in Egypt in my life. I don't remember any magi! And the dove did not say, 'This is my son, ' while I was being baptized!"

He’s right. It’s all a lie, the whole sweet story, from begats to shepherds, magi to manger. Not a fact in it. Two of the gospels don’t even refer to his birth, and the two that do, Matthew and Luke, don’t add up. And nowhere even in these two does it mention winter at all. So we are here tonight in honor of a story that didn’t happen, not this way and not at this time. The whole story of Christmas is a lie.

But the truth of Christmas is not. And what is that truth? Ah, here is where you expect me to tell you about the spiritual meaning of the story, its symbols and ideas. You are waiting for me to unwrap a little insight about messiahs or magi, about the tenderness of hope born in a stable and bleary eyed wise men who are searching for the pearl of great price.

But I am not going to do that. The truth of Christmas is that somewhere about two thousand years ago a woman gave birth. That happens every day of course; is happening right now. While we bathe ourselves in memory and hope, surrounded and enthralled by the beauty of eye and ear, a woman just up the hill is sweating and grunting and frightened. She is not alone. Thousands of women are in labor right now. Most of them not in the presence of nurses and doctors or even clean sheets. But the miracle of birth for them all is messy, and hard, and painful.

This is the truth of Christmas – miracles are hard work, and costly too. While the familiar words of the Bible resound in our ears, she takes deep breaths between contractions. While the music we love lifts us to celestial heights, she grinds her teeth and clenches her fists. And as I preach to you now, the waxy crumpled face of a child emerges from her body into the world. Most of them cry, their first act a shout of protest. Some do not cry. Some of them die. It is nothing like what we think Christmas is, and yet this is the truth of Christmas.

I tell you this because of what happened to me yesterday. I sat down for coffee with a young person in this congregation. She is searching. Lots of people are. And lots of churches know this. They’ve even created ‘seekers services’ for those who are not yet sure they are Christian. But this woman was telling me that what she wants is not an answer so much as a church willing to be really honest and honestly real.

That’s when I knew that the lovely lies would not be enough tonight. They are all right, so long as we remember that underneath them lies a prosaic fact that once, a very long time ago, a woman in Roman Palestine gave birth to someone who she later saw executed as a criminal. This fact lies at the center of the sweet story and this fact is what deserves our attention. “For this you mother sweated in the cold,” wrote the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay.
For this you bled upon the bitter tree
A yard of tinsel ribbon bought and sold
A paper wreath; a day at home for me.
The merry bells ring out, the people kneel;
Up goes the preacher before the crowd
With voice of honey and eyes of steel
Droning your humble gospel to the proud.

The world is asking for someone to tell the truth, a truth not found in soaring spires and rising choirs, a truth as often obscured by majesties of worship, a truth uncloaked of satin words upon your eager ears. Eloquence becomes a lie of its own, for if I do not tell you the truth now, then when? Though I would love to please you with well wrought words and win your admiration, though it is infinitely harder to speak thus, especially tonight when the soft sounds of the story are what you came to hear, the siren of beauty, the angelic song is drowned out in my ear by the groans of women bearing children and those same women keening when they die. That story is what needs to be told.

Every day Mary labors, and every day Jesus comes into the world. Every day Jesus dies and every day Mary mourns. (Even the lovely lie ends with the slaughter of innocents.) But beloved of God, you whom I know and whom I do not know, here is what I do know.

We love. Not perfectly, not wisely, not even well, but we do love. In this cold, hard, strange world we dare to love. We sweat in the cold, groan in pain, weep in silence, struggle, labor, rejoice; we pour out of lives – which is what Mary did and Jesus – for love; something no one has seen or touched, something that cannot be cataloged or codified, something that to eye and ear is invisible.

All love has is stories, wild stories, stories no one can prove.


Revwilly said...

Of course I disagree with you about the truth of the story. I'm sure, however, that you preached it passionately and that is what I admire in you.

WFW said...

As a UMC sort of guy, I doubt you take the natvity stories as a record of historic fact. If so, then the 'truth' of Christmas is not what it says happened, but what the story says it means. On this we likely differ, but may be not entirely.

All I said was that all we know, for sure, is that Jesus was born and lived and died. The rest is less certain. We should take that elemental fact as seriously as the fabulous parts - shepherds and magi and all that. Why do we need magic to convince us reality matters?

Tony Kroes said...

I liked this that night...and after re-reading it even better. I think you are right when you've said that the essentials of the JC tale are captured- with birth at Christmas and moving to death at Easter - and range across the spectrum of life; from the the miraculous to the mundane (tax collection!)and, yes, cold hard reality.

PoetNessa said...

Hey, I'm with you on this Fred!! I consider it a myth kind of story. I wonder where all the facts really are. Have you some research about it? I'd love to know that, like that class you gave at FSC comparing the various versions of the Bible and giving details about history during the time of the writings. I used to believe the Bible stories I learned as a kid, but now as an adult, I use my rational brain more. I guess I'm a heretic. Oops, now they'll be looking for me... Oh and I'm sorry that we didn't get to hear this in person, but now I get to read it at least!!