Sometimes it feels like a progressive thief has stolen Advent and Christmas from us! Sometimes being a progressive Christian is about as sad as being a “who down in Who-ville;” why sometimes I even miss old Santa Claus himself and in my nostalgic haze, I long for a simpler time and faith! How are we supposed to celebrate Advent and look forward to the coming of Christ, when some of the best stories of the season never actually happened they way we’ve been lead to believe? In this sermon (preached on Advent 1A – Dec.1, 2013) the beloved myths of a birth long ago are proclaimed as transformational stories that have the power to open to what lies beyond the words to the Word. Readings: Isaiah 2:1-5, “Amazing Peace” by Maya Angelou, Matthew 24:36-44
I couldn’t believe that this was happening to me. You read and hear about it in the newspapers and on TV, but you never expect it to happen to you. You know that it happens all over the place, but you somehow believe that you are immune to the dangers. You take precautions, you’re not stupid, but you can’t live your life in fear. Then one day, when you least expect it, you find yourself face to face with a nightmare.
The back alley of a downtown street sounds like a risky place to be; a place you should never go alone. But when it’s the alley behind your own apartment building, the alley where you park your car, well you take the risk. Sometimes it made me nervous, sometimes I would rush from my car to the apartment because I thought I heard something in the darkness. But most evenings, I never gave the dangers of city life much thought and then one night, when I wasn’t expecting it, it happened. I was half way across the alley when from behind a parked car, he jumped out at me. He grabbed me by the arm and spun me around. There was no time to think – – pure terror filled my mind. He pushed me up against a wall and for a moment just a moment I thought the unthinkable. Every fiber of my being decided immediately to resist and I managed to shake him off. That’s when he pulled out the knife. It wasn’t much of a knife really, just a tiny penknife, but it had the power to capture all my attention. His hand was trembling. I took my eyes off the knife long enough to see that his whole body was trembling. I took a deep breath and looked him in the eyes. His face was filled with fear. Sweat was dripping down from his forehead. He was breathing with a great deal of difficulty. We stood there in the darkness, staring at one another, both of us breathing heavily.
“Money! Money give me your money!” Never did I ever imagine that these words would cause relief. He wasn’t after me; he was after my money. Then I realized that I had no money. But he didn’t believe me. So, I tried to explain that I never carried cash. I use my bankcard for everything. I could see the panic race across his face. He was in bad shape. He needed money. No doubt he needed a fix. But I had no money on me.
What kind of fool walks around in the city without any cash? I decided that if he was in as bad a condition as he looked, I just might be able to convince him. So, I told him that I had about twenty dollars upstairs in my apartment. I begged him to let me go upstairs and get the money for him. He shook his head in confusion, so I went on. If he just let me go upstairs, I’d get his money and then he could be on his way, there might even be more than twenty dollars. The state he was in made it impossible for him to think straight. Why else would he have agreed? He let go of me. I raced to the apartment. It took several attempts before I could get the key in the door, but finally it opened and I dashed inside and pushed the door shut. I raced up the three flights of stairs and into my own apartment grabbed the phone and began explaining to the 911 operator that my attacker was waiting for me down in the alley. By the time the police arrived, he’d figured things out and was long gone. But they picked him up a few hours later. The next morning when I went into the police station to make a formal statement, an officer explained to me just how lucky I was. Often when an addict doesn’t get what they want, things don’t work out quite so well. The officer explained that I probably wouldn’t have to go to court because they had enough other things they could charge him with and I might as well save myself the trouble. Besides this guy knew where I lived. So, I went home vowing to be more careful, to stay alert. To keep watch. The thief in the night changed the way I lived my life in the city. I became much more careful and to this day, I always make sure to have at least twenty dollars in my purse.
Thieves in the night come in all shapes and sizes and you are never the same after having encountered a thief in the night. According to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus compared the coming of the Chosen One to the arrival of a thief in the night. It’s an odd comparison, one that I’ve never understood, until recently. You see, in some ways it sometimes feels like a thief has stolen Advent and Christmas. It started years ago, long before I ever thought about seriously studying the scriptures, I began hearing and reading about New Testament Scholarship; Scholarship that changed the way we think about the stories about the birth of Jesus, scholarship that showed that the stories about Jesus birth in the gospels according to Matthew and Luke aren’t actually historical. Somewhere during my undergraduate studies, I managed to reconcile the mythological nature of Jesus’ birth-narratives to my faith in Jesus. I did a pretty good job of navigating the waters of faith and scholarship and managed to keep a pretty firm hold on the doctrines of the Christian faith. After all I am a Lutheran and scholarship isn’t frowned upon in the Lutheran church. We encourage people to develop a mature, intelligent faith. But over the course of the past few years, many of those Christian and indeed Lutheran doctrines of the faith have been challenged. We’ve been on an incredible journey together here at Holy Cross and with the help of some pretty incredible theologians we’ve engaged in a Re-Thinking of Christianity that has opened us up to so many new ways of encountering the Divine. But sometimes, it feels like a thief, a progressive thief has come along and stolen Advent and Christmas. Sometimes, I’d like to go back to the old days, when Advent and Christmas could be celebrated without all the hard work of trying to re-think anything. How do we celebrate Advent and Christmas when it feels like so much of what we once took for granted seems to have been stolen from us?
There are days when it feels like some progressive Grinch has stolen all that we held dear. Sometimes being a progressive Christian is about as sad as being a who down in Who-ville; why sometimes I even miss old Santa Claus himself and in my nostalgic haze, I long for a simpler time and faith! How are we supposed to celebrate Advent and look forward to the coming of Christ, when some of the best stories of the season never actually happened the way we’ve been lead to believe? What are we supposed to do with the myths about Jesus’ birth and about Christ’s coming again? Well, perhaps we should begin by getting our stories straight because when you think about it, many of our best loved stories never actually happened the way we tell them. Take my favorite Christmas Story, Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” take Scrooge for example; does any one of us actually believe that Ebenezer was really visited by three ghosts? We know that it is a story that never actually happened the way it has been told to us; and yet it has the power to take us somewhere, to move us as we watch the incredible transformation of old Scrooge and we too are moved to keep Christmas well. One thing I do know for sure, is that you can tell if a story is any good; if its taking people somewhere, or if its moving them, or transforming them – simply by how often the story is told. Really good stories, like the stories about the birth of Jesus have not only been told over and over again for generations reaching back some 20 centuries, these stories have been told in scared places on holy days. The stories of Jesus’ birth have been elevated to the category of myth. Please don’t make the mistake of thinking that myths are not true. On the contrary myths have the power to communicate truth.
A myth is only untrue when it is presented as a fact. Myths are so much more than just mere facts because myths have the power to tell us the truth about the deepest mysteries of life. Myths are metaphors about the very stuff of life and they have the power to help us to understand what it means to be human.
Joseph Campbell who spent most of his life studying the myths of the world defined myths as metaphors about human life. It may appear that myths only describe great external events like the creation of the world, or the union of the human with the divine, or a miraculous birth, an heroic act, or an against all odds struggle, or a tragic death or a mysterious resurrection. But according to Campbell, myths derive their power to communicate truth because they are really stories about the things that go on inside of us; in here, right now, rather than “out there” somewhere in the distant past. “Myths are stories of our search through the ages for truth, for meaning, for significance. Deep inside, we long to understand the mysteries of life and relationships both human and divine. On a good day, most of us are functioning at a conscious level and carry around with us baggage that we usually manage to confine to the realm of our unconscious self. Stored within our unconscious self are all our personal memories, our experiences, our desires, our fears, our urges, our compulsions and our deepest longings.
Jungian psychologists would tell us that in addition to our personal unconscious self, each of us is also deeply connected to what they call our collective unconscious. Our collective unconscious is the place where the baggage of the whole human race resides. Carl Jung described the collective unconscious as our “collective closet”. According to Campbell, myths are born in the deepest realm of our collective unconscious. The actual contents of our myths are different from one culture to another; but some of the same fundamental motifs that deal with the mysteries of birth, life, death, and certain forms of rebirth and renewal run through the great myths of the world. The difficulties with myths occur when we get hung up on believing in them as facts, when we refuse to look beyond the metaphors to see the truth to which they point. It’s kinda like standing in front of a painting. We don’t stand there and ask is this painting true or false? Did this scene really happen? These kinds of questions miss the whole point of the artist’s work. We need to approach myths in the same way as we approach art. Does this painting touch me? Does this music move me? Does this movie inspire me? How does this work of art change the way I think about life?
Great myths like great art move us, touch us, and transform us in the deepest realms of our being. I believe that the stories about the birth of Jesus have been told over and over again, on holy days, in sacred places for 20 centuries precisely because they tell us something about our God and ourselves that has the power to transform how we live in the world.
In the stories of Jesus’ birth we learn that our God is intimately involved with the stuff of life. In the stories of the child born in Bethlehem, we learn that our God is born among us and dwells among us. And so today, standing here in the 21st century: we declare that long ago, a child of questionable parentage was born under very precarious conditions, born to homeless wanderers, in a place fit for animals.
Today we declare that this strange birth had cosmic dimensions. The night skies lit up, celestial voices and songs were heard by nearby shepherds; why even the planets aligned themselves so as to attract the attention of far off astrologers.
Today we proclaim that this child born in poverty, in dangerous times, under such precarious circumstance is also Divine. We have the audacity to proclaim this because of all that we have seen and heard in the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.
The stories told about Jesus’ birth could only become myths because the people who first crafted these stories had experienced the power of the life and witness of the Man Jesus. We know that this Jesus proclaimed a message of justice, love, and peace.We know that Jesus taught a radical new understanding of the nature and character of our God who is LOVE.
We know the LOVE of God because Jesus lived that LOVE in his very being.
No matter what the people did to Jesus, he loved them.
No matter what they said to him, Jesus loved them.
Jesus was denied and Jesus loved those who denied him.
Jesus was betrayed and Jesus loved those who betrayed him.
Jesus was forsaken and Jesus loved those who forsook him.
Jesus was tortured and Jesus loved those who tortured him.
Jesus was killed and Jesus loved those who killed him.
With his life Jesus personified the Love of God.
And so, when the people came to tell of this amazing life, they remembered him in the way that their neighbours always remembered exceptional lives and they cast a star in the sky, described an incredible union between the human and the divine, and a birthing filled with challenges, and set the whole thing to music sung by a celestial choir.
Each one of us has a deep desire, a hunger, a longing to give birth to something miraculous, the story of Jesus birth, declares that we can give birth to a new level of awareness.