KEEPERS OF THE STORY
TEXT: Matt. 1:18-25; John 1:1-5, 10-14
Probably a number of you saw the article in the paper about our Live Nativity last Sunday night. The reporter came about an hour early to talk with me and others about the event. As we got into the conversation, she asked me about the purpose of having a live Nativity, and I told her that it helped us to experience the events in a way that was at least a little bit closer to the events as they happened.
A real mother takes her real baby outside to a place surrounded by animals; there are people who have to really take care of real sheep and so forth. I mentioned how hard it must have been for Mary to ride more than 70 miles on a donkey and then give birth in a stable. Then the reporter asked, “Why did she do that?” I explained a bit about the census and how they had to show up in the town of their ancestry in order to pay their taxes.
“So they went from Jerusalem to Bethlehem?” I explained that they came from Nazareth in the north. “Why did shepherds come?” she asked. We talked some more. “What’s a heavenly host?” was the next question. “When did they kill the babies?” As the conversation went along, it became obvious that this bright young woman in her early twenties did not know the story. She knew bits and pieces…things you might pick up from common carols or pictures on Christmas cards…but she could not have sat down and told a child the story of Jesus’ birth.
Now you can fault her or her parents for that, or maybe you think it doesn’t really matter. I think it does matter, and I think the fault lies in the church. We are the keepers of the story. Not just this local congregation, but the church with a capital C…the church universal…Catholics and Baptists and Methodists and Lutherans and Episcopalians and all the others. If there are people living around us who don’t know the story, we are not doing our job.
Stories…whether they represent historical events or flights of imagination…are a critical part of life. I don’t care if you read them or listen to them or watch them on DVD, the stories we hear shape our lives and teach us how to view the world. I remember a girl at the first church I served in Florida named Hillary who was about 11 years old at the time.
Hillary lived in a run-down house with a mother who used drugs and neglected her, with step-brothers who beat her up almost daily and down the street from an uncle who raped her. She came by the parsonage almost every afternoon for a hug and sometimes a meal. Sometimes her clothes were torn from a recent fight. Sometimes she had no shoes. One of the days she wanted to stay until her mother got home, we had some soup and then sat down to watch a video. She selected Cinderella.
In watching that movie with Hillary, I became aware of how important fairy tales are to our lives. No, Prince Charming was not going to save her from her horrible life. There was not likely to be any happily ever after for her. But, there on the couch for a couple of hours, things could be different. She could hear a story and learn to believe in magic and miracles. She could learn to hope for better days and for someone who would love her. Hillary didn’t just like the Cinderella story—Hillary needed the Cinderella story. She needed to believe in a world where the good are rewarded and where inner beauty and goodness can wash away ugliness, cruelty and servitude. She needed to believe that someday her prince would come.
And if she needed the story of Cinderella, how much more did she need the stories of Jesus. And she got them. She was there every Sunday in church, even though she made people mad because she was noisy and couldn’t sit still. But she needed the Christmas story and the Easter story and the stories about how Jesus loved those that everybody else thought were pretty awful. She needed to know that God had given her…and everybody a gift in Jesus, who was born a poor baby, just like her. She needed to know that Jesus got beaten up, too, but that he was the winner even so.
She needed the stories about Jesus; she needed the stories that Jesus himself told—the parables that helped his followers see the world in a different way. And we in the church were the keepers of those stories. We couldn’t change Hillary’s life. When we tried to get Hillary out of that house and into the Methodist Children’s home, her mother packed them up and moved so that she wouldn’t lose the extra money for Hillary in her welfare check.
We couldn’t change her circumstances, but we could give her the stories, true stories, stories of hope and love and of a God that would actually come and live among us to help us get through. The stories of Jesus have been with me all of my life. My parents and my church could have given me no greater gift. Of course a lot of the time the church was trying to tell me what those stories meant and what I should or shouldn’t think about them. And, even though I do that, too, to that approach I say, “Bah humbug!”
It is the stories themselves that have shaped me. They meant one thing to me when I was five. They meant more things when I was ten. They shifted and moved and morphed through every age and stage of my life so far and…rebel that I am…all that shifting and morphing has very little to do with what anybody has ever told me I should be thinking about them. The story simply says that God loved the world so much that God decided to be born as a baby and live a human life…as Jesus.
It was a hard life. It was a short life. It was a life that loved everybody that society said you weren’t supposed to love and a life that got fighting mad when religious people made it hard for others to find and love God. It was a life that told stories and a life that became the greatest story every told.
We have no business keeping that story to ourselves. We have no business demanding that people come inside the walls of a church in order to hear it. As we learned at the Hanging of the Greens a few weeks ago, that’s what made St. Francis of Assisi put on the very first Live Nativity back in the hills above Greccio, Italy in 1224 AD. The printing press wasn’t invented, so every book had to be hand-written. There weren’t many around, except in libraries and universities. The average person couldn’t read.
But St. Francis knew the power of the story, and he knew the story was never meant for just the priests and the scholars. If the story showed anything, it showed that Jesus belonged to everyone—especially those who didn’t have the special opportunities and privileges of life. And so St. Francis told the story in a way that anybody could understand.
So he gathered real animals and real people and put them in a real cave in the hills. And the people came. And they cheered. And they praised God, because the story itself made God’s love obvious. What sort of God would do this? What sort of great deity would give up all that glory and lie down in a feeding trough? That’s what a manger is, you know. A manger is where you put the feed and hay for the animals. The people there that night experienced the story. They became a part of it and they understood God’s love because St. Francis remembered that if you don’t know the story, all the rest is pointless.
When I went through the ordination process in Florida, my interviewing committee asked me what Bible passages I would show to someone who didn’t know anything at all about the Christian faith. One of the reasons I didn’t pass the interview was that I told them I would send the person home with the entire book of Luke because there was nothing to teach if a person didn’t first know the story. They wanted me to whip out Romans, explain that the person was a sinner and that the wages of sin was death. They said I didn’t know anything about evangelism.
I stand by my answer. It’s about the greatness of God’s love, not the enormity of our sin. It’s about the story, not the interpretation. Take it in…young and old. “And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth.” Here it the first time. “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.” Hear it again and again. “And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.” Let it live and move and breathe through the ages and stages of your life. “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.” There is a God and here’s the story of what happened when God decided to become a real live baby. “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.’ It is your life in conversation with that story that will reveal its meaning, because if you are willing to live with the story, you will one day wake up to discover that you are living with God.
Don’t keep the story to yourself. And don’t feel that you can’t tell it just because you haven’t studied it for years. You don’t have to say what it means--the Holy Spirit will teach those who hear it. Just tell it. A friend of mine refused to let any Christmas present be opened in their household until they had all first read the Christmas story together. She didn’t preach. She didn’t teach. She simply told the story and let the story itself do its work of salvation.
John says that the Word became flesh. That’s what a story does. That’s what a Live Nativity does. That’s what happened when the story of God’s love reached Hillary’s heart. That’s what happens when a story lives. That’s why we tell it. Year after year. Again and again. We are the keepers of the story. Let’s not keep it to ourselves. Amen.
Sermon © 2006, Anne Robertson
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