The story told in this sermon can be found in Maeve Binchy’s book of short stories “This Year it Will be Different.” As always I am indebted to those progressive grinches Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, John Shelby Spong, and Michael Morwood for their insights into the sacred. Our sermon hymn was No Obvious Angels. The readings were all from Luke 1:1-56.
You can listen to the sermon here
Years ago, I struggled with most of the stuff I was reading both in the bible and about the bible. I’d been attending church every Sunday since I was 15 and I was doing my best to be a Christian. But the more I read the bible, the more I studied the stories in the bible, the more difficult it became to reconcile all of the inconsistencies. Nowhere are those inconsistencies more apparent than in the stories about the birth of Jesus. Long before I ever dreamed of going to seminary to become a pastor, I was introduced to the work of progressive scholars like Marcus Borg, Dom Crossan and Jack Spong. It was a relief to learn how to take the bible seriously without taking it literally. It was also a relief to discover that my pastor and indeed most of the pastors I knew didn’t take the bible literally. But I have to admit that Christmas in the Church just hasn’t been the same since I learned that the stories about the birth of Jesus that appear in the Gospels according to Matthew and Luke are not historical narratives. I must also confess that since we here in this community embarked upon this grand adventure together of ReThinking our Christianity, the celebration of Christmas in our worship together has become more and more of a challenge. There are days when I feel like a progressive Grinch who is determined to steal Christmas. Then there are other days when I feel like the Grinch’s little dog, who try as he might he just can’t seem to balance those reindeer antlers on his tiny little head. There are days, and some sleepless nights when I simply long for the good old days, when we could sink into the sentimentality of the season without having to delve into scholarship or worry about our evolving theology.
I miss those Advents when we all acted as though prophets foretold the birth of Jesus centuries before it happened, when we suspended disbelief and went along with the idea that angels visited Mary and Joseph, and we marveled at the fact that Mary conceived will still a virgin. It was easier when that Star guided wise guys and heavenly hosts actually visited shepherds abiding in their fields. Damn those progressive Grinches who’ve robbed us of our simple ways of celebrating the birth of Jesus
and as for those radical Grinches who have us questioning everything from the divinity of Jesus to the cosmic reality of the Christ, well I for one wish they’d leave us alone to sing our songs in peace. We Whos did just fine down here in Who-ville before those Grinches tossed all the elements of the birth stories upon their sleighs and left us here wondering what to do and how to sing. For however shall we celebrate the birth of the Son of God now that we know Mary couldn’t have been a virgin, and Matthew and Luke were the worst historians ever?
Well fear not my friends, because like all Christmas stories ours too has a happy ending. The good news is that those progressive Grinches who have stolen Christmas, do indeed have a heart after all. Even that Grinch Marcus Borg knows a thing or two about opening his heart to the wonder of the stories about Jesus birth. Yes, Borg, just like the rest of those Grinches like Spong, Crossan, and Morewood, leads us to understand that the stories of Jesus birth didn’t actually happen the way the gospel storytellers wrote them. The good news is that Borg, just like the rest of those Grinches, does have a heart big enough not to just stop with the reality that the birth stories are not history. Borg’s heart is big enough to cope with his mind’s ability to give us a better question than, “Did the birth stories happen they way they were written? When Borg encourages us to ask: “why did the gospel story-tellers tell their stories they way they told them?”
Borg’s heart leads him to remind us that the stories may not have happened exactly the way they are written, but they are absolutely true because these stories are always happening. The sacred is always being discovered in the ordinary stuff of life. Every birth is sacred because in every birth their lies among the muck and the mess of birth the reality of Divinity which lives in, with, through, and beyond each and everyone of us. The birth narratives open us to the reality of the sacred, which lies at the very heart of life; all life. Humanity is born over and over again, and over and over again comes the sacred possibility of abundant life; life in which we are capable of living deeply and loving more fully that we can possibly imagine.
In the life and teachings of Jesus people experienced this divine abundance and it opened them up to the possibilities of a world in which the reign of God who is LOVE accomplishes peace through justice. Why did the gospel storytellers write about the birth of Jesus they way they did? Could it be that the divinity embodied in the life of Jesus of Nazareth could not be killed by the worst that the Romans could conceive? The storytellers told the story of Jesus birth using the tools that they had available to them to open their contemporaries to the reality that in Jesus the sacred dimension of life was experienced in the flesh. These parables about the birth of Jesus have opened generations to the sacred Holy One in whom we live and move and have our being. When we begin to experience the more-than-literal meaning of these parables about the birth of Jesus, we are opened to the sacred in our midst in ways that only LOVE can open humans.
The power of these birth stories lies in their ability to create for us thin places…I used to believe that thin places could be defined as places where the boundaries between heaven and earth fall away so as to allow us to be more permeable to the sacred. But now, I have learned from those big-hearted progressive Grinches that thin places are in fact places were the veil between the sacred and the everyday falls away and we are able to experience the sacred in the everyday stuff of life. Christmas with its powerful parables, myths, metaphors, and symbols acts as a giant welcoming thin place were the boundaries and veils fall away and we are able to recognize the sacred in ourselves and in one another, and in the world around us.
Yea, I love those progressive Grinches, and I also love being a bit of a Grinch myself. There is great value in stealing all those material presents so as to strip away all the nonsense because under all that stuff we can discover the sacred reality that lies at the very heart of life. There is something to be said for the sentimentality of this season of good cheer, provided we are not engaging in the sentimentality just for the sake of sentimentality. If on the other hand, like the skilled storytellers known as Matthew and Luke, we use that sentimentality to create thin places so that we can discover the sacred in the everyday, then Christ is born anew. If those thin places open us to the LOVE that is Divinity itself then we can be empowered by that LOVE to change the world and we ourselves can be the Love that life needs in order to create peace.
But rather than go on and on like the progressive Grinch that I am, let me demonstrate that I too have a heart. Let me tell you a sentimental little story, a story designed to create a thin place were together we can see the veil between the sacred and the everyday fall away. This sentimental little story comes from the pen of an Irish woman, because the Irish are so very talented at creating thin places. So, let me tell you a tale woven by Maeve Binchy about a very successful businessman, who was dreading the arrival of Christmas. The story is entitled: “A Typical Irish Christmas” but it begins in New York City.
“Everyone in the office wanted to ask Ben over for Christmas. He was exhausted trying to tell them that honestly he was fine. Ben didn’t look fine, he didn’t sound fine. He was a big sad man who had lost the love of his life last springtime. How could he be fine? Everything reminded him of Ellen. People running to meet others in restaurants, people carrying flowers, people spending a night at home, a night away. Christ would be terrible for Ben. So they all found an excuse to invite him. For thanksgiving Ben had gone to Harry and Jennie and their children. They would never know how long the hours had seemed, how dry the turkey, how flavorless the pumpkin pie, compared to the way it had been with Ellen. He had smiled and thanked them and tried to take part, but his heart had been like lead. He had promised Ellen that he would try to be sociable after she was gone, that he would not become a recluse working all the hours of the day and many of the night.
He had not kept his promise. But Ellen had not known it would be so hard. She would not have known the knives of loss he felt all over him as he sat at a Thanksgiving table with Harry ad Jennie and remembered that last year his Ellen had been alive and well with no shadow of the illness that had taken her away. Ben really and truly could not go to anyone for Christmas. That had always been their special time, the time they trimmed the tree, for hours and hours, laughing and hugging each other all the while. Ellen would tell him stories about the great trees in the forests of her native Sweden, he told her stories about trees they bought in stores in Brooklyn, late on Christmas Eve when all the likely customers had gone and the trees were half price.
They had no children, but people said this is what made them love each other all the more. There was nobody to share their love but nobody to distract them either. Ellen worked as hard as he did, but she seemed to have time to make cakes and puddings and to soak the smoked fish in a special marinade.
“I want to make sure you never leave me for another woman…” she had said. “Who else could give you so many different dishes at Christmas?”
He would never have left her and he could not believe that she had left him that bright spring day. Christmas with anyone else in New York would be unbearable. But they were al so kind, he couldn’t tell them how much he would hate their hospitality. He would have to pretend that he was going elsewhere. But where?
Each morning on his way to work he passed a travel agency that had pictures of Ireland. He didn’t know why he picked on that as a place to go. Probably because it was somewhere he had never been with Ellen. She had always said she wanted the sun, the poor cold Nordic people were starved of sunshine. She needed to go to Mexico or the islands in winter. And that’s where they had gone, as Ellen’s pale skin turned golden and they walked together, so wrapped up in each other that they never noticed those who traveled on their own. They must have smiled at them, Ben though. Ellen was always so generous and warm to people, she would surely have talked to those without company. But he didn’t remember it.
“I’m going to Ireland over Christmas,” Ben told people firmly. “A little work and a lot of rest.” He spoke authoritatively; as if he knew exactly what he was going to do. He could see in their faces that his colleagues and friends were pleased that something had been planned. He marveled at the easy way they accepted this simplistic explanation. Some months back if a colleague had said he was doing business and having a rest in Ireland, Ben would have nodded too, please that it had all worked out so well. People basically didn’t think deeply about other people.
He went into the travel agency to book a holiday. The girl at the counter was small and dark, she had the kind of freckles that Ellen used to get in summer. It was odd to see them in New York on a cold, cold, day. She had her name James to her jacket—Fionnula. “That sure is an unusual name.” Ben said. He had handed her his business card with a request that she should send him brochures and details of Irish Christmas holidays.
“Oh you’ll meet dozens of them when you go to Ireland, if you go.” She said. “Are you on the run or anything?”
Ben was startled, it wasn’t what he had expected.“Why do you ask that?” he wanted to know.
“Well, it says on your card that you’re a vice-president, normally they have people who do their bookings for them. This seems like something secret.”
She had an Irish accent and he felt he was there already, in her country where people asked unusual questions and would be interest in the reply. “I want to escape, that’s right, but not from the law, just from my friends and colleagues—they keep trying to involve me in their holiday plans and I don’t want it.”
“And why don’t you have any holiday plans of your own?” Fionula asked.
“Because my wife died in April.” Ben said it badly, as he had never done before.
Fionnula took it in. “Well, I don’t imagine you’d want too much razzmatazz then.” She said.
“No, just a typical Irish Christmas,” he said.
“There’s no such think any more than there’s a typical United States Christmas. If you go to one of the cities I can book you a hotel where there will be a Christmas program, and maybe visits to the races and dances, and pub tours…..or in the country you could go to somewhere with a lot of sports and hunting and –or even mabybe rent a cottage where you’d meet nobody at all, but that might be a bit lonely for you.”
“So, what would you suggest?” Ben asked.
“I don’t know you, I wouldn’t know what you’d like, you’ll have to tell me more about yourself.” She was simple and direct.
“If you say that to every client you can’t be very cost effective; it would take you three weeks to make a booking.”
Fionnula looked at him with spirit, “I don’t say that to every client, I only say it to you, you’ve lost your wife, it’s different for you, it’s important we send you to the right place.”
It was true, Ben thought, he had lost his wife. His eyes filled with tears.
“So you wouldn’t want a family scene then?” Fionnula asked, pretending she didn’t see that he was about to cry.
“Not unless I could find someone as remote and distant as myself then they wouldn’t want to have anyone to stay.”
“Isn’t it very hard on you?” she said, full of sympathy.
“The rest of the world manages. This city must be full of people who lost other people.” Ben was going back into his shell.
“You could stay with my dad,” she said.
“You’d be doing me a huge favour if you did go and stay with him, he is much more remote and distant than you are, and he’ll be on his own for Christmas.”
“Ah, yes, but…”
“And he lives in a big stone farmhouse with two big collie doges that need to be walked for miles every day along the beach. And there’s a grand pub a half a mile down the road, but he won’t have a Christmas tree because there’ll be no one to look at it but himself.”
“And why aren’t you there with him?” Ben spoke equally directly to the girl Fionnula, whom he had never met before.
“Because I followed a man from my hometown all the way to New York City, I thought he’d love me and it would be all right.”
Ben did not need to ask if it had been all right, it obviously had been nothing of the sort.
Fionnula spoke. “My farther said hard things and I said hard things, so I’m here and he’s there.”
Ben looked at her. “But you could call him, he could call you.”
“It’s not that easy, we’d each be afraid the other would put the phone down. When you don’t call that could never happen.”
“So I’m to be the peacemaker.” Ben worked it out.
“You have a lovely kind face and you have nothing else to do.” She said.
The collie dogs were called Sunset and Seaweed. Niall O’Connor apologized and said they were the most stupid names imaginable chosen by his daughter years back, but you have to keep faith with a dog. “Or a daughter,” Ben the peacemaker had said. “True, I suppose,” Fionnula’s father said. They shopped in the town and bought the kind of food they would like for Christmas, steak and onions, runny cheese, and up-market ice cream with lumps of chocolate in it. They went to midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. Niall O’Connor told Ben his wife had been called Ellen too; they had a good cry together.
Next day as they cooked their steaks they never mentioned the tears. They walked the hills and explored the lakes, and they called on the neighbours and they learned the gossip of the neighbourhood. There had been no date fixed fro Ben’s return. “I have to call Fionnula,” he said.
“She’s your travel agent,” Niall O’Connor said.
“And your daughter,” said Ben the peacemaker. Fionnula said New York was cold but back in business, unlike Ireland which had presumable closed down for two weeks. “It went great, the typical Irish Christmas,” Ben said. “I was about to stay on and have a typical Irish New Year as well ……so about the ticket…?”
“Ben, your ticket is an open ticket, you can travel any day you like … why are you really calling me?”
“We were hoping that you could come over here and have a quick New Year with us,” he said.
“Who was hoping…”
“Well, Sunset and Seaweed and Niall and myself to name but four,” he said. “I’d put them all on the phone but the dogs are asleep. Niall’s here though.”
Ben handed the phone to Fionnula’s father. And as they spoke to each other he moved out to the door and looked at the Atlantic Ocean from the other side.The night sky was full of starts. Somewhere out there two Ellens would be pleased. He took a deep breath that was more deep and free than any he had take since the springtime. *********************
Just a sentimental little story; it could never have really happened like that. It doesn’t matter if the story is true or not, because we all know that it is absolutely the truth. Christmas is a thin place. A place where the boundaries between the sacred and the everyday become permeable and the veils with which we insulate ourselves from the miracle that this life is fall away, and as the scales covering our eyes are healed by the proximity of the Divine we open ourselves to the wonders of life. If we have the courage to open ourselves to the thin places of Christmas we can see once more the beauty of all that life can be. Christmas with all its nostalgia and sentimentality is a thin place indeed; a place were we can become if only for a moment or two, all that we are created to be. Christmas is a thin place where we are opened to the LOVE that is always there.
The gospel-storytellers wove their tales about the birth of Jesus in ways that would open their people to the wonders of life in the midst of time when seeing the beauty of life was almost impossible because of the incredible persecution, violence, and hatred that was part and parcel of everyday life at the end of the first century in Palestine. Those gospel-storytellers used all the sentimentality available to them to create the necessary thin place to open their people to the beauty and the wonders of life. So, they summoned up angels, and heavenly hosts, the brightest of stars in the sky, and exotic wise folk from distant lands to meet the reality of an unmarried young girl, a frightened old man, a paranoid King, poverty, persecution and unparalleled violence. Once their carefully constructed parable was created, these gospel-story tellers pointed to the miracle of birth to open their listeners to the reality of the Divine ONE they had experienced in the life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth.
Did it happen they way they wrote it? If you can’t see beyond the parable, filled with metaphors, symbols and images to the truth to which it points, you haven’t yet arrived at the thin place. Open yourselves. Indulge yourselves in the sentiments of the season. Let those smaltzy Christmas movies, all that sappy Christmas music, the nostalgic Christmas cards, the over-the-top crescendos and the sentimental stories of Christmas’ past, do what they are designed to do and embark on the journey into the thin place that Christmas is, so that you can experience the sacred in the everyday stuff of this amazing, wondrous, miracle that life is. Let the LOVE that lies at the very heart of reality permeate you.
In this thin place, let us remember the story of young woman who was visited by a messenger and told that she was going to experience the miracle of new life that was growing inside of her. In this thin place let us open ourselves to the reality of Love so that we too can celebrate new life growing inside of us. In this thin place that Christmas is, let us nourish the Love that dwells among us so that LOVE can take on flesh and nourish the world. In this thin place may the boundaries between the sacred and the everyday become permeable so that Mary’s dream of the peace that comes through justice for the poor, the powerless, the oppressed, and the outcasts can be born anew in this world that cries out for LOVE. In this thin place may the veils and the scales fall away so that we can see again the wonders of the miracle that life is. In this thin place that Christmas is, may you and yours be touched by the Holy ONE who dwells among us, now and always so that Love can once again be born in you.