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. Continue reading