Follow the Bad Guy?

Message at Durham Friends Meeting, April 1, 2018

Do you like crime stories? I do.  Ellen and I watch them on TV: Magnum PI, Inspector Morse, Major Crimes.  I am almost always reading one, too, and when I’m done I read another. Raymond Chandler, Agatha Christie, Elmore Leonard, Ruth Rendell, Louise Penny:  it is a long list that began with my father’s Ellery Queen magazines, a kind of pulp fiction of the 1950s.  I even read the stories again once the details have grown dim in my mind – as they regularly do.

It’s not just that crime stories are entertaining, though they certainly are. I also find I learn a lot about human beings.  What are people capable of doing and why?  How might they have been more sensible, or more clever?  Often I learn things about myself. Would I have known how wicked that person could be, I wonder?  Am I capable of anything like that? If I did that could I avoid being caught and punished? Could I commit the perfect crime?  I suppose all this is harmless entertainment so long as I don’t get any ideas that I might act on.

I’ve been reading one story over the past week – one of a series that features the same bad guy, and I want to tell you a little about it. It’s one of those stories where we know who the suspect is right from the start. The question is will he be stopped?  This bad guy is especially fascinating to me.

He moves around a lot.   He never seems to have a job that gives him an income, but he always seems to have places to stay, clothes and food to eat. He doesn’t want for anything. It’s suspicious.

He’s attractive and always has people around him: his crew you might say, his gang. When he needs accomplices to pull off something, there they are, always close at hand. None of them seem to work, either.

What does he do that’s so bad? That’s part of what’s so fascinating about this bad guy. The authorities know he’s a bad guy. They are always keeping an eye on him.  They frequently stop him on the street and question him. They don’t like his answers much, but he rarely says anything directly incriminating. He’s clever. Sometimes it seems he is toying with the authorities, mocking them.

At first the authorities think of him as sort of a grifter. Always has money; never works; seems charming.  He forever seems to do things that are against the law, but it’s hard to pin down – hard to catch him right in the act.  At other times he performs tricks that look like sleight of hand. He turns one thing into another, or seems to, plain water into something else, for example, something more valuable.  Sometimes he even seems to do miracle cures. Of course he isn’t a doctor. He doesn’t have any of the right training to make people better. That’s suspicious – but also a little worrying. Is he just scamming people?

Other times he just tells provocative stories that gather a big crowd. That worries the authorities.  He doesn’t come right out and tell people to disobey what the authorities tell them, but that seems to be the gist of every one of these stories. The crowds can’t get enough of them.  Suppose the crowd gets unruly. Suppose the crowds turn on the authorities. When he gathers a crowd, they seem more likely to follow his lead than to do what the authorities ask them to do.

This can’t go on forever, of course. It wouldn’t be much of a story if he just continued to dance outside the reach of the good guys.  Eventually the authorities arrest him. They are just fed up.

This bad guy goes off to jail peacefully. But he acts strangely as he goes. He seems to know this is what was next. Oddly, his mind seems elsewhere. And he acts like he knows they’ll never be able to hold him.

In this story the trial comes quickly. There is plenty of testimony against him, even though much of it is contradictory and some of it simply false. Still, the outcome is never in any doubt: he’s going to be found guilty.

The big surprise is the main charge against him. He’s accused of treason, a crime punishable by death. He’s accused of presenting himself as the king or the lord of all things. Treason: who would have thought a grifter would have been accused of that?

He doesn’t even protest too much. His attitude is resigned, unconcerned. To his friends and followers he seems to say ‘what did you expect?’ Did you expect that this merry adventure of ours would lead anywhere else other than execution?

It’s clear treason is a put-up charge. So much so that some of the authorities try to coax him to plead out to a lesser charge with a lesser punishment.  But the prosecution team is really steamed up, really angry. They want this treason charge to stick, and this bad guy doesn’t do anything to try to show the charge is foolish. When he is put on the stand, his responses only make matters worse for him.

If the trial was quick, the appeal is quicker still: over within hours.  And now the general population is into this as well. While this bad guy still has some friends and supporters, the mass of people want him put to death, no doubt about it. They crave a humiliating, slow and painful death. That will teach him and his friends a lesson.  And so he is taken to be executed.

Nothing that I’ve told you so far really makes this story unusual, really. It’s what happens next. Even his odd behavior at his trial doesn’t prepare you for it.

He escapes. But here’s the odd thing. He doesn’t escape before he’s executed in this slow, painful way. He escapes after we all know he’s dead.  Anyone would be dead: you can see it; his body is broken and bloody. He’s buried quickly to make sure he’s forgotten.

But the next day the body isn’t there. It’s just disappeared. Talk about your locked room mysteries. How did he pull this off? This is no ordinary grifter’s trick. It’s no three-card Monte, no pea under a shell trick. This is stupefying.  He hasn’t just escaped the tomb.  He has escaped death itself.

Told as fiction none of us would believe this, would we? It’s beyond credibility. But this story isn’t told to us as fiction.  This is the story of a man called Jesus (or The Christ, or The Messiah or The Promised One). It’s the story of an escape from death that we celebrate today as Easter. How’s that for a crime story?

We wouldn’t tell this astonishing story if we thought it was just a grifter’s tale. We wouldn’t tell it year after year if we thought it was all just a con or a made-up story.  We tell it because we think this tale of a bad man is really an account of the best man ever.

Most crime stories end up with a resolution: all the loose ends tied up. But this story is different. It ends with questions for all concerned.

Was he really a bad guy? The authorities thought so. Probably still would.

Most people thought so — at least thought him a troublemaker. Deep down, probably still would. How about you?

What do we make of the authorities, both political and religious?  Are they good guys or bad? Should we listen to what they tell us to think and to do?

Is this bad guy Jesus still with us, now that he has escaped? Does he yet live? Or has he gone away and could come again?

Will we escape death if we follow him?

And whatever might that mean: to follow him? \To escape death?

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Beloved Community

February 20, 2018

At a gathering this past weekend, we reflected on what the term “beloved community” means to us.  To all those present, the term is part of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vocabulary and legacy.  But is King the origin of this concept, or did he draw it from someone else?

Josiah Royce is the answer.  Shirley Strong (for example) writes:

The term “Beloved Community” can be traced back to Josiah Royce (1855-1916), the 19th century American religious philosopher. It was a part of the popular theological vocabulary of Boston University’s School of Theology during the early 1950s, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a doctoral student there. Royce characterized the Beloved Community as “a spiritual or divine community capable of achieving the highest good as well as the common good.”

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy provides a good overview of Royce, someone who deserves to be better known and appreciated.  Says that entry,

[S]ome communities are defined by true loyalty, or adherence to a cause that harmonizes with the universal ideal of “loyalty to loyalty.” He refers to such communities as “genuine communities” or “communities of grace.” Other communities are defined by a vicious or predatory loyalty. These degenerate “natural communities” tend toward the destruction of others’ causes and possibilities of loyalty. Finally, beyond the actual communities that we directly encounter in life there is the ideal “Beloved Community” of all those who would be fully dedicated to the cause of loyalty, truth and reality itself.

“Loyalty, truth and reality itself:” these are not the first words one would hear today in imagining the beloved community.  For example, Strong defines the “beloved community” as “an inclusive, interrelated society based on love, justice, compassion, responsibility, shared power and a respect for all people, places, and things—a society that radically transforms individuals and restructures institutions.”  I think most others would say similar things.

Good words all, but I also like Royce’s grounding in commitment, reality and truth.

(By “loyalty,” Royce meant “the practically devoted love of an individual for a community” [The Problem of Christianity, Royce, 1913].)

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Wendell Berry, “The Peace of Wild Things”

February 7, 2018

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

— Wendell Berry

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Is There Oneness Deep Down at the Center of Things?

Message given at Durham Friends Meeting, February 4, 2018

Today I bring you a question, a big question. Is there ONENESS deep down at the center of things? Is there? Do you believe there is?

If you do not think there is oneness deep down at the center of things, what is your picture of the cosmos where you find yourself? Can you make sense of things? Can you share things with others? Or is it all a giant wreck, everything in pieces and shards?

If you do think there is oneness deep down at the center of things, what is your experience of that oneness? What is your perception, your understanding? What do you make of that oneness — no matter how dimly you grasp it?

That’s the question, the big question for today.

Quakers have always been drawn to the Gospel of John. The opening verses of that Gospel assure there is oneness deep down at the center of things. Here’s the familiar, puzzling rendering in the King James Version of it:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

The same was in the beginning with God.

All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.

In him was life; and the life was the light of men.

And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

The author of this Gospel speaks of the Word, not the words. Of Light, not lights. No doubt a big Light, but just one Light. Word, Life, Light: all one.

The gospel writer says “All things were made by Him.” There is one maker, one source. The gospel writer of John believes there is ONENESS deep down at the center of things. Do you?

I know it is a very spacy kind of question: abstract, philosophical, even transcendental. Not an everyday question, but bear with me this morning.

I’ve been reading a new translation of the New Testament. It’s by David Bentley Hart, an Orthodox Christian scholar who currently is a professor at Notre Dame. His rendering of the first verses of John are different largely because of the word “Word.” He doesn’t think that’s a good translation of the Greek. It calls up something too small, too ordinary to us today. The Greek word is “LOGOS.” He doesn’t think there is an English language word that captures what it means for the Gospel writer. So here is Hart’s translation of those opening verses in John:

1 In the origin there was the Logos and the Logos was present with God, and the Logos was god;

2 This one was present with God in the origin.

3 All things came to be through him, and without him came to be not a single thing that has come to be.

4 In him was life, and this life was the light of men.

5 And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not conquer it.

6 There came a man, sent by GOD, whose name was John;

7 this man came in witness, that he might testify about the light, so that through him all might have faith –

8 But only that he might testify about the light; he was not that light.

9 It was the true light, which illuminates everyone, that was coming into the cosmos.

Origin, being, life, light. Logos.

So much does David Bentley Hart think the word LOGOS is hard to render into English that he adds a postscript to his entire translation of the New Testament. It’s titled “A Note on the Prologue of John’s Gospel; An Exemplary Case of the Untranslatable.” It’s those first twenty or so verses of John he thinks are toughest to translate.

Hart wants you to know how freighted with deep meanings was Logos when the author of John used that word. He says, “Over many centuries, logos had come to mean ‘mind,’ ‘reason’, ‘rational intellect,’ ‘rational order, ‘spirit;’ as well as ‘expression,’ ‘manifestation,’ ‘revelation’; as well as ‘original principle,’ ‘spiritual principle,’ and even ‘divine principle.’”

So we might say, in the origin, there mind. Or, in the origin, there was rational order. Or, In the origin there was divine principle…. However we say it, it’s oneness, and it’s a oneness that holds everything together in an important, meaningful way.

Enough Prologue. I don’t want to get lost in scholarship or Greek. I just want us to start with the realization that Logos is Big Stuff – and its Oneness

Is there ONENESS deep down at the center of things? Do you believe there is? That’s the big question I want to lift up today. That’s the big claim at the beginning of John.

Is there ONENESS?

This question is raised up for us today. Is there ONE GOD, or many Gods?

Before Jesus, Jews worshipped their God, YHWH, their God with the unspeakable name. He was their God with whom they as a people had a special relationship, a covenant. Their God had promised to bring them to the Promised Land.

Mind you, other peoples had their Gods. Some had Baal, for example, or Ashtoreth, or Dagon or Marduk. The First Commandment does not say ‘Thou shalt have no other Gods.” It says “Thou shalt have no other Gods before me.” Perhaps back then they didn’t believe in a oneness deep down at the center of things.

But After Jesus, we are asked to believe in one and only one God for all. We are asked to truly believe there is oneness deep down at the center of things.

This question is posed for us today. Do we all worship the SAME GOD?

Today, when Jews gather in worship on the Sabbath, are they praying to the same God to whom we pray on Sunday?

When Moslems roll out their prayer rugs facing east, do they pray to the same God to whom we pray when we say grace or say our prayers before bedtime?

If we do not all believe in the same God, are we accepting a world of endless strife? If we do all believe in the same God, what is asked of us in daily life that we are all children of that one God?

What is the NAME of the Oneness? Is it God, is it Allah, is it YHWH? Can it be said? Can it be known? Does it matter so long as we know there is oneness?

This question is raised up for us today. Are we ONE HUMAN RACE or many races?

That question is posed for us in the courts, at the ballot box, in where we choose to live, and with whom we keep company. That question is posed in whom we choose to aid and comfort, and whom we choose to shun or expel. That question comes up in whom we take to be our neighbors.

Are we one human race or many? That question comes in Burma, in Syria, in Israel/Palestine, in Turkey, in France, in Mexico, in Haiti, in England – and yes, in the United States, even here in Maine.

This question is raised up for us today. Is there one TRUTH or are there many truths?

Is there one truth or are there many truths that clash or contend? Is there one truth, or just my truth and your truth? Are there many truths clamoring to be heard, irreconcilable, seeking to establish themselves as the dominant truth only through power?

Is there oneness deep down at the center of things?

We Quakers speak of LIGHT, but we also speak of darkness. Are these two things? Are these two things in conflict with one another? Or is there one thing and its absence?

The question is posed for us today. Is there one GOODNESS?

Is there one GOODNESS, or are there many competing, clashing goodnesses? Is wrongdoing a matter of opinion – your opinion and my opinion and their opinions? Are there just your wants and my wants? Your preferences and my preferences? Or is there one Goodness deep down at the center of things?

In Meeting for Business we seek UNITY. We may begin with different points of view, different perspectives, but we seek unity together through worship. Why do we believe such unity is possible? How can there be a common, shared, joyful unity unless there is a oneness deep down at the center of things? Do we believe there is both truthfulness and goodness in that unity?

This question is posed for us today. Even though we are each BROKEN, even though we are each given to making mistakes, do we believe there is a wholeness to God’s creation? A Oneness?

This question is posed for us today. Do we LIVE like there is oneness? Do we strive for unity with one another? For harmony?

What does this ask of us, to live as if there is oneness? What is the wholeness and unity we are seeking. How do we see it? How do we work for it? Is that oneness PEACE? Do we seek it through PRAYER? Do we seek it through LOVE?

Oneness may not be easy to see. Oneness may not be easy to grasp. It may seem blurry or out of focus. It may seem partially obscured for all we can see of it. Nevertheless, do we believe there is oneness?

Is the fuzziness, the divergent perspectives, the double vision all there is? Or do we believe we can see the oneness whole, together?

Close your eyes. Take a deep breath, take another, and then another.

What does Oneness feel like? Where do you encounter it, and how? Do you trust that oneness? Is the oneness a thing of WONDER?

Do we believe there is oneness deep down at the center of things, whatever we call that oneness: God or Allah, Logos or Light?

Do we believe that in the ONENESS is both TRUTH and GOODNESS?

Do we trust that oneness? Can we trust it more when we find unity together?

What are we prepared to do because we have trust in that ONENESS?

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Brunswick Falls, Brunswick Maine, ca 1912

Screen Shot 2018-01-11 at 1.06.42 PM

Brunswick Falls, Brunswick, Maine. At left is the Cabot Manufacturing Company, established in 1857, using water power from the Androscoggin River to produce cotton textiles.

By an unknown photographer – Reproduced from an original postcard published by Mason Brothers, Boston, Massachusetts

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What Were We Expecting from Christmas?

Message given at Durham Friends Meeting,  January 7, 2017

Did you have a good Christmas? Were there any surprises?

The first Christmas must have come as a surprise to nearly everyone. It was surely a surprise to Mary and Joseph, and then to those who knew them to discover that Mary was pregnant, and then to others who came to Bethlehem to celebrate the birth: kings and shepherds. I don’t suppose many of those people knew quite what to expect. What new era was being ushered in? What would be asked of us?

And ever since Christmas comes round each year. We have a little more forewarning; we know it’s coming. What do we expect? What will be asked of us in this new era? How will we keep Christmas in our hearts? To what purpose will we use the annual celebration of Christmas?

This past Christmas season, I found myself very struck by the passages in Isaiah where the birth of the Messiah is foretold. We heard these words at the opening of the Lessons and Carols service we held on December 24. These passages in Isaiah are presented to us as if we should not have been so surprised by the birth of Jesus. It was all foretold by the prophet Isaiah.

Here are the familiar words of Isaiah, from Chapter 9, verses 6 & 7:

For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.  Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this.

That sounds like the coming of a king doesn’t it, a mighty ruler who will bring peace and prosperity. And then there are these words from Chapter 11, verses 1-3, then a bit from 4:

11 And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots:  And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord;  And shall make him of quick understanding in the fear of the Lord: … But with righteousness shall he judge the poor, and reprove with equity for the meek of the earth.

All this suggests a wise and just ruler. And then there are verses 6 to 9 we read, too:

The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.  And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together: and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.  And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice’ den.  They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.

My goodness, what a promise. Lie back and enjoy it because here come the good times. Those good times, those peaceful and just times have been promised to us.

Wisdom and justice and a remarkable peace – “the wolf shall dwell with the lamb.” And “the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.” What a promise! Is that what you expected? Is that the promise of Christmas?

Is that what you got for Christmas? I didn’t.

I woke up with the same President, I woke up with the same Congress, I woke up with the same war in Afghanistan we’ve been fighting for more than 16 years. I woke up with troops still fighting in Iraq as they have since 2003. I woke up with the world still on the brink of nuclear war with North Korea, and perhaps Iran. I woke up with rising inequality and falling life expectancy in the U.S.. I woke up with mass shootings a common occurrence. I woke up with widespread anger and cynicism.

This is not “the leopard lying down with the kid.” This is not “the cow and the bear” feeding together; “their young ones lying down together.” This is not “the lion” eating “straw like the ox.” This is not “righteousness.” This is not “equity for the meek.”

What’s going on here? Did we not receive what we were promised? Were we cheated on Christmas day?

One possibility, of course, is that Isaiah (whoever he was) just doesn’t know what he’s talking about. It’s just the ramblings of a fool — or maybe fake news. But if that’s so, we shouldn’t pay those passages any mind. We shouldn’t read them at Christmastime or give them any weight at all. That’s one possibility.

A second possibility is that we’re the fools. We just don’t understand. Isaiah is faithfully reporting the absolutely truthful, inerrant word of God, and we just don’t get it. I don’t know about you, but I surely know I may be a fool. But if I’m a fool on this, it really doesn’t help me at all. If what he’s saying is the whole and literal truth, I simply don’t understand what Isaiah is saying, and no amount of head scratching or prayer is going to help me. So that isn’t a helpful possibility.

There’s a third possibility that I like better than either of these first two. Maybe Isaiah is on to something. He sees the possibility and he tries to tell us about it in a prophecy, but it’s so new and so surprising that he really doesn’t quite understand it. So what he says isn’t exactly right. It’s important, and we should hear it, but what he says isn’t the whole of the matter, the last and complete word.

I want to add here that I think this is more or less what happens in our worship together. Someone rises to speak out of the silence. What they say is important and truthful, but it isn’t perfect and whole. It’s a message we all need to hear, and yet it needs something added – more to be added, or greater clarity. One message adds to another.

And so it is with the Isaiah passage, I think. It tells us something, but there’s more to be heard. It isn’t the last word on what to expect of Christmas.

The Gospel stories of Jesus’s birth, the ones in Matthew and Luke, add something of that something more. But even added to the Isaiah prophecy they don’t tell us the whole truth – or even the half of it. Like Isaiah, Matthew and Luke’s accounts of Jesus’s birth make us think a new, more-powerful-than-ever, completely just ruler has been born. And with that new all-powerful, all just ruler we’ll all be on easy street, easy-peasy, peace and justice for all without our even having to get up off the couch and stop eating Christmas cookies.

What happens after Christmas is the real jaw-dropping part of the story. We all know that. Jesus doesn’t turn out to be what we think of when we think of all-powerful, all-just rulers. He’s a carpenter’s son, an itinerant preacher/story-teller. He hangs out with low-lifes of all kinds, living off of handouts and who-knows-what.  He enrages the authorities, both the Jewish and the Roman authorities. And he ends up being put to death in a most shaming way.

Who expected that? Not Isaiah. Not the Magi, I don’t expect. Not the shepherds. .

Even at this late date I think it’s difficult for us to take in what a surprise is marked by the birth of this person Jesus.

In this person Jesus, God asks to live a completely different life than what people had thought was proper.

  • We are asked to be humble, not proud.
  • We are asked to turn the other cheek, not insist on an eye for an eye.
  • We are asked to be generous.
  • We are asked to love our neighbors – and our neighbors stretch to the ends of the earth.
  • We are asked to forgive, and forgive and forgive.

Jesus taught us all this through parables and odd sermons, but mostly through example. He taught it through an example that led to his crucifixion even though he knew well in advance that this was where the road led.

So what does that mean for the Isaiah prophecy – the puzzling Isaiah prophecy?

Simply this. If we are to celebrate the Prince of Peace, we must keep His memory alive and live by His example

If we are to have righteousness and peace and justice, now and forevermore, WE will have to make it so. We will have to live by this new way of living that Jesus taught.

Isaiah didn’t see that coming, I think that’s clear). He saw a beautiful possibility, but he didn’t quite see it right. But two millennia later it’s been shown to be abundantly clear.

We have to do it ourselves. As people say, “God has no hands but ours.” If we don’t like the world we find the day after Christmas, it’s up to us to fix it.

God has no other hands but ours. And for this we should be grateful.

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What to Make of the Christmas Story

Message given at Durham Friends Meeting, November 26, 2017

We had a lovely Thanksgiving at our house. Robbie is home from Westtown for the week, and Ellen’s Mom is with us for two months. On Thursday, we gathered with family and friends and gave thanks. I hope you did, too. But you know what? Suddenly it’s the Christmas season.

One strict rule we have at our house: no Christmas music until after Thanksgiving. But after the big meal, after the dishes are washed, it’s Christmastime. Out goes the orange and brown; in comes the green and red.   There’s a rapid change in the decorations. And there’s Christmas music for several weeks.

We love the Christmas story, and it seems like everyone does. For several weeks already, the two Hallmark TV channels have been playing nothing but feel-good Christmas movies. All over town, all over America people are festooning their streets, their stores, their homes with reminders of Christmas and the Christmas story. What should we make this? Of all the stories in the Bible, we pay the most attention to the Christmas story. We hardly pay attention to any others, isn’t that right? What’s going on here? Maybe we love the beginning but not the end.

The Bible as Stories. I‘ve come to look at the Bible as largely a collection of stories for spiritual reflection. The Bible isn’t book of do’s and don’t’s. (No it is not.) It’s a book of spiritually charged stories to puzzle over. Few of them are easy. Almost none of them have simple morals. Nearly all of the Hebrew Testament consists of stories about the Israelites trying and failing to be faithful, what God does about that, and how the Israelites try to get back into God’s good graces. Then the New Testament has four parallel stories about the life, ministry and death of a man called Jesus. He doesn’t live to be very old, he invites controversy by telling parables (little stories) that are provocative and hard to understand, and then he dies a disturbing death.

In our minds, those four parallel stories begin with the Christmas story, the story of Jesus’s miracle birth. We remember it as a big celebration that starts out with a few things going wrong and ends with everything going right.

At the beginning we have the unplanned, unwed pregnancy, angels whispering strange things to people, the prospect of shame, then the traveling for days, the hard time finding a place to give stay, and finally the indignity of having to give birth in a dirty, drafty stable. Then at the end we have a gigantic star, a successful birth, a huge party with angels and shepherds and sheep and cows and goats and chickens and mysterious robed kings, gifts that insure wealth, and hosannas and hallelujahs. It’s a story of a triumphant beginning of a life that promises no end of glory and good things. Isn’t that how we remember and celebrate it? It’s how it’s lodged in my mind, but I also know that’s not quite right.

Contradictions in the Christmas Story. For one thing, only two of the Gospels have any Christmas story at all. The gospels of Mark and John both begin the story with John the Baptist baptizing Jesus as an adult. There is no Christmas story, not like the one we are about to celebrate for a month. We’re told nothing of Jesus’s birth or childhood.

For another thing, the two Christmas stories (the one on Matthew and the one in Luke) are superficially similar but they really don’t agree with one another in the details. We smush them together to make them agree. For example,

  • In Matthew, the angels whisper to Joseph; In Luke they whisper to Mary. Said to him, said to her: this would never hold up in court.
  • In Matthew, Mary and Joseph are Bethlehem-ites. They never travel looking for a place for the birth. It’s in Luke they start out in Nazareth and have to travel for a grand census of the Roman Empire.
  • In Matthew, it’s the Magi who come to celebrate: No shepherds, no angels. In Luke, it’s shepherds and angels: No kings.
  • Matthew is a darker story. It is one where King Herod kills all the young boys trying to kill the baby Jesus. The story about the flight to Egypt, the hiding out there for several years, then the stealth move to Nazareth where they’ve never lived before: none of that is in Luke. Luke is a rosier Christmas tale.

Well, there are lots of contradictions in Bible stories. Do these inconsistent details matter? Maybe, maybe not, but that depends on what we take from the Christmas story.

Born-of-a-God Stories. One of our difficulties making sense of the Christmas story is that this is the only born-of-a-God story we know. We think it’s unique, this Mary-made-pregnant-by-the-Holy-Ghost bit. We don’t realize that born-of-a-God stories were quite common in Jesus’s time. Not among the Israelites (they didn’t tell stories like that). But among the Egyptians, among the Greeks, among the Romans, and among all the other religious groups that populated the fertile land between Persia and Egypt born-of-a-God stories were quite common.

Remember that Achilles, one of the heroes of the Iliad, had Thetis as his mother, a goddess. (She had fallen in love with a mortal.) The Greek god Zeus had any number of children by mortal women, Perseus and Heracles and Dionysus. Alexander the Great claimed he was descended from a god. Augustus Caesar, ruler of Rome while Jesus lived, claimed to be the son of a God. So did the Caesars who followed. So just think how upsetting it might be to the powers-that-be for the followers of Jesus to claim he was the true Son of God. That was a direct challenge to the Roman Empire: that’s one thing to notice.

Strange Silence. Here’s something else. After the Christmas stories in Matthew and Luke, there is never any mention of the Jesus’s birth in the Gospels or in the rest of the New Testament for that matter. It’s as if everyone forgot about that miracle birth. No one ever says to Jesus, “Aren’t you that guy that was born under a gigantic star?” Or “aren’t you the one the Magi came and showered gifts on? Whatever became of all that gold? Do you have a trust fund?” Or even, “wow, you must be the real deal! I remember what a fuss the angels made about your birth. That was amazing!”

Not a word. If no one in the Bible remembers, why do we make such a deal out of it? The collective amnesia is all the more surprising when we remember that the Gospels are full of hints and suggestions and confusions about whether Jesus really is the Son of God. Wouldn’t this have clinched it, if someone had just said: “Remember the amazing birth, the Magi and the angels and all that?”

Family and Gifts. So what’s the message? If we take the Christmas story all by itself, one thing we find in it is the importance of family. After all, it’s one of the few genuine family stories in the Bible, parents and children together. We tend to think of the Christmas story as being about generosity and gift giving. Joseph did make a family with Mary, the innkeeper did find room in a stable however humble, and the Magi did travel long distances to offer gifts. So we gather as families and give gifts in celebration.

Charles Dickens artful telling of A Christmas Carol perfectly captures these family and giving threads. But Jesus doesn’t make an appearance in A Christmas Carol. We can take Christmas as a family and gift giving celebration if we want and many do. But if we do we’ve pulled it completely out of the Bible and made it a standalone story.

After their Christmas stories, both the Gospels of Matthew and Luke tell the story of Jesus’s baptism by John the Baptist. And remember that’s where the Gospels of Mark and John both begin. Maybe that’s the true beginning of the stories of Jesus. Who knows where this man comes from, but John the Baptist, a special person, sees him as special. And so begins Jesus’s ministry with its ending both tragic and triumphant.

So why these two added Christmas stories? Maybe the Christmas stories in Matthew and Luke were added later to foreshadow what was to come. Starting a gospel with Jesus’s miracle birth makes the story one that begins in glory and ends in glory, even if there are painful moments at both ends along the way. If other important people had child-of-a-God aspects to their biography, then the Christian hero would as well. Is that it? Is that why it seems so tacked on?

Now Comes Something Different. For me here are some other takeaways from the Christmas story — beyond family and gifts.

  • God often surprises us, and rarely when we expect it. That’s one.
  • Every birth of a child has the promise of something special. That’s another.
  • Now comes something different. That’s the one I want to lift up.

This Jesus that is born in glory turns out to be completely different from anyone else who has a “born-of-a-God” beginning. Those others were garden-variety heroes, strong warriors, born to rule and to dominate others. Those others (Achilles, Alexander, Augustus) become powerful. They dominated others. They had the ‘right stuff’. Now in Jesus we have something completely different. Strength is turning the other cheek. Love, not power is the major chord. Peace seeking, humility and simplicity are the order of the day.

For me, it’s not possible to understand the Christmas story without thinking about the other stories about Jesus that the Gospels tell, the stories after the Christmas story. These are stories that challenge us to live a different life.

Every so often you read a story about a guy who seemed to have everything: smarts and charm and wealth, and then it all goes bad. Everything sours. He ends up without friends, in prison, and finally he’s executed. Maybe he was guilty of something, maybe he wasn’t. But he’s forgotten soon after the news story. So sad, we say.

Jesus’s story is like that. It starts in glory and ends in execution. Only we’re not supposed to think ‘so sad’. When Jesus dies, he is ushering in something completely different; he triumphs. But he triumphs only if we follow the new way: the way of love and forgiveness. We certainly won’t see that surprising triumph if we only remember the first part of the story, the part in which he is born having it all, a good family, wealth and adoration. It’s what happens next that really matters. So stay tuned. Can we make the new way triumph?

And Merry Christmas everyone.

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