The True Story

The True Story:  a sermon preached at St. Luke’s Church, San Francisco, on the First Sunday after Christmas, December 28, 2014, by Christopher L. Webber.

I’ve been ordained a long time and I think I have never before preached my own sermon on the Sunday after Christmas. You see, sometimes the Sunday after Christmas is December 26 or 27  or 28 and there isn’t much time to think about what happened next so I used to preach my Christmas sermon and then find a Christmas sermon by someone else: John Donne or Launcelot Andrewes or Phillips Brooks or some other great preacher of the past and cut it down to contemporary size.

I had to cut those sermons down because people in their day took preaching seriously and would listen for a lot longer than most people do now. (And that’s at least as much the fault of the preachers as the listeners.)

At any rate, what I used to do on this Sunday was find a great sermon out of the past and read that. But this year I find myself with no excuse because I didn’t have to preach on Christmas Day and I’ve had a month to think about today’s readings — and I wish I could duck, because if you really think carefully about these readings you get into trouble.

I mean, here’s a nice story about how right after Jesus’ birth his parents went up to Jerusalem to make the proper offerings in thanksgiving for a newborn child.  And then, says St. Luke, they went home to Nazareth. Well, but wait a minute!  What about the wise men? What about the presentationTwoflight into Egypt? St. Matthew tells us that the wise men came and found the holy family in a house in Bethlehem not a manger, so it sounds as if they stayed around a while. Herod told his soldiers to kill any child two years old and under. So the wise men must have told him that they first saw the star two years earlier. So Mary and Joseph could have gone up to Jerusalem to make the sacrifice and come back to Bethlehem for a year or two and found a house to stay in. But why would they do that if they lived in Nazareth? Luke says they went right back to Nazareth as you might expect.

Tradition tells us that Luke did his research and talked to Mary about her memories so did she forget the wise men and fail to remember the trip down to Egypt until Matthew came along? But then why didn’t she tell Matthew about the shepherds? Luke says she pondered them in her heart – – and then forgot them?

So here’s my problem: I guess when you hear these stories told end to end from as far back as you can remember you don’t stop to think that they don’t fit together until they ask you to preach about it and you don’t have an excuse anymore.  So what IS going on here?  The central figures are the same: Joseph and Mary and Jesus and the birthplace is the same: Bethlehem. But everything else is different. In Matthew’s story the angel appears to Joseph.  In Luke’s story the angel appears to Mary. Matthew has wise men.  Luke has shepherds. Matthew has a sojourn in Egypt.  Luke doesn’t. How come?

Well, there was a time when a preacher who was asked these question would have made excuses: There was plenty of time for all these events to happen and it’s just that Luke was more interested in the woman’s viewpoint and the Jewish worshipers and Matthew didn’t talk to Mary and was more interested in the Gentiles.  Maybe.  But maybe also they went at the subject with a whole different agenda and view point than we would have and are telling the story out of a whole different perspective and world view.

I mean, if you and I were there and decided to write up these events wouldn’t we go to Bethlehem and track down the inn keeper and shepherds and ask them what they remembered?  You don’t have to have any experience as a reporter to assume that’s the way to do it. But they didn’t have reporters in those days and I don’t think Matthew and Luke had any notion of taking that approach. I don’t think they were concerned about what we like to call literal facts.  I think they had other concerns and told a story to express them.

Now, if you are starting to get uncomfortable, so am I.  If you are thinking, “Is he questioning the Bible and about to tell us it isn’t true?”, I have to admit it begins to sound that way.  But we are dealing with a culture and mindset so different, we can hardly imagine it. And the fact is, that they didn’t ask the questions we would ask or give the kind of answers we would want.

Let me tell you a story.  I published a book this fall about great American speakers and speeches and one of the greatest American speakers was Daniel Webster and I tell the story of some of his great speeches. But the story that impresses me most isn’t – you might say – true at all but I tell it all the same because it’s truer than the true stories. It tells the truth about Daniel Webster more effectively than the facts.

When I’m doing an author event about the book I like to ask, How many of you know thewebster-hayne-debate-painting_medium short story by Stephen Vincent Benet called “The Devil and Daniel Webster.” And quite a few people do know it but when I ask how many of you know the story of Webster’s Reply to Hayne nobody does. Now Webster’‘s reply to Hayne may have been the greatest American speech up to that time. Generations of schoolboys memorized it. Abraham Lincoln probably memorized it and he rephrased it in his Gettysburg Address. But we are likelier to know the fictional story than the historical event.

Stephen Vincent Benet wanted to say that Webster was a great orator and he could have said that and no one would have noticed or remembered. But he made up a story about a poor New Hampshire farmer who made a pact with the devil in desperation, sold his soul to the devil in return for a few good crops from his stony New Hampshire soil. And the good crops came but eventually, of course, the devil came by to collect.  And Jabez Stone then called on Daniel Webster to defend him and Webster got the devil to agree to a jury trial.  The devil could pick anyone he wanted to serve on that jury as long as they were Americans. And Webster agreed and the devil packed the jury with Americans like Benedict Arnold, the very worst traitors and black guards straight up from hell and Webster set out to persuade them that the devil had no claim on an American.

“He could play on the harps of the blessed if he chose,” wrote Benet. “There were thousands that trusted in him right next to God Almighty, and they told stories about him . . . that were like the stories of patriarchs and such. They said, when he stood up to speak, stars and stripes came right out in the sky . . . . They said, when he walked the woods with his fishing rod . . . the trout would jump out of the streams right into his pockets, for they knew it was no use putting up a fight against him; and, when he argued a case, he could turn on the harps of the blessed and the shaking of the earth underground.  That was the kind of man he was.” And when it came to persuading the devil’s jury “His voice got like a big bell” says Benet and it “rang like an organ” “And to one, his voice was like the forest and its secrecy, and to another like the sea and the storms of the sea; and one heard the cry of his lost nation in it, and another saw a little harmless scene he hadn’t remembered for years. But each saw something.”  And when the time came for a verdict the foreman of the jury said, “We find for the defendant, Jabez Stone.” “Perhaps ’tis not strictly in accordance with the evidence,” he said, “but even the damned may salute the eloquence of Mr. Webster.”

Now is that true?  Well, I don’t think it happened in a literal sense but in a larger sense it’s truer than true.  You couldn’t explain Webster’s eloquence in terms of logic and facts but at the very deepest level what the story says is true. Stephen Vincent Benet had a point to make and he made up a story to make that point effectively. He could have written about Webster’s great Senate speech, the reply to Hayne, and that would have been closer to historical fact but not nearly as memorable and in an important sense a less accurate description of Daniel Webster.

Now, Matthew and Luke in their gospels had points to make as well and to ask about the literal truth of the stories they told is to miss the point. I think they would have been surprised to hear you ask. In the deepest sense, Matthew’s story is true. Isaiah had said it 500 years earlier: “the Gentiles shall come to thy light  and kings to the brightness of thy rising.” Exactly so.  What is the point, the true fact, if not that in Jesus Gentiles are drawn to worship Isaiah’s God. It was happening every day and all around him when Matthew wrote.  The Gentiles were coming to the light of Christ, more and more every day, and they still are coming. And that’s what Matthew wants you to see and remember.  And there are camels on half the Christmas cards in the mail because that is what we remember. Surely it’s the meaning that matters but it’s the story that captures the meaning.

When the prophet said “Out of Egypt have I called my son” he was recalling what had happened in the past and Matthew tells us that what happened in the past was completed, made perfect, in Jesus.  He’s telling stories that we’ll remember because the whole history of the Jewish people as he sees it comes to completion in Jesus and it’s easier to tell it as a story and likelier that we’ll remember it and understand.

But all this is just the fancy wrapping on the story and last minute additions. Mark and John wrote gospels that say nothing about any of that because to them it’s not important. For years and years the usual gospel reading at Christmas was the first 14 verses of John and John never tells the story of Jesus’ birth. He tells us what it means: “En arche ain ho logos kai ho logos ain pros ton theon.”  Well, that’s what John wrote but that doesn’t work for most of us any more so we translate it into English: “In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God . . .  And the word became flesh and dwelt among us.”

That’s the fact, that’s what you need to know, but you don’t often see that in Christmas cards. What you see is the manger scene because even plain English theology still needs translating for lots of people.  Luke tells us a story and we can picture it, as we say, and that’s how we come to understand.

So if you go home today and say the preacher said the Bible stories aren’t true, you missed the point.  But blame me.  I should have put it more clearly. I should have told another couple of stories to make sure you got it. But I never said it’s not true.  The stories may be exactly how it happened but that’s not really important one way or another.  What I said was that the stories are truer than true, so true the mere facts aren’t enough; you need a story that wraps it all together in a way that the smallest child can understand and the oldest adult will never forget. And the smallest child will understand and the oldest adult will never forget what no theologian can ever fully understand or express because we have a story.

The very first gospel, Mark, tells no stories about Jesus’ birth but eight out of sixteen chapters about his death. He doesn’t tell us what that story means because he doesn’t need to. All he needs to do is tell the story.  Dying is always full of meaning. Birth has potential meaning but let someone live out their life and die and then stories will be told about what their life means. I don’t think eulogies belong at a Christian funeral but eulogies need to be shared, stories about the deceased need to be shared and that’s best done after the funeral service. We don’t sit down to a memorial meal after a funeral without telling stories.  “Do you remember how Mary used to . . .  Do you remember the way John always . . .”   Do we talk about the fact that John was 6 foot two and a bit overweight, that he had a degree from USF or UCB and earned $100,00 in his best years? No, we talk about the way he always found time to play ball with the neighborhood kids We talk about the way Mary would come around with a casserole when someone was sick. Stuff that never went into a resume – no, we remember the stories because the meaning of the life is in the stories.

Do you want factual stories about Jesus’ life?  Well, they’re there – last supper, crucifixion, resurrection.  Without those a hundred magi and a host of shepherds and a double angelic chorus would make no difference at all. True or not, it would make no difference and would have been long forgotten. But those stories were told to explain in a way we would always remember what happened when Jesus was born.  What happened was that the prophesies came true aangelsnd the whole history of the Jewish people came to a climax. What happened was that the eternal God, creator of all that is, source of all life, center of all, has come to us, come here, to share our lives to give our lives meaning and purpose, to change all life forever. And if that doesn’t bring down the angelic chorus and bring shepherds from their flocks and kings from their palaces, nothing ever will.

So Matthew and Luke tell us the truth in stories that we can understand and remember because that’s what we need.  Yes, we need the theologians also and people like me might read them, but the Hallmark people know how to get the message out and they will always be grateful to Matthew and Luke for giving us the pictures we need to help us understand and remember – and especially to understand.

The true meaning is in the stories.  We are after all searching for words, searching for language, to say things impossible to say. On the one hand we have Michangelo’s God sitting on a cloud and stretching out a finger to give life to the limp figure of Adam – and that’s very impressive  and a God we can at least imagine but not a God who can shape galaxies and carve out black holes and wait patiently for amoebas to evolve into dinosaurs and for dinosaurs to give way to the primitive human beings who can create an internet but are not yet evolved enough to live together in peace. I try to think about the God who can stretch the universe out across 93 billion light years of space through 13 billion years of time and I try to understand the Creator of a universe composed almost entirely of dark energy and dark matter of which we know nothing first hand and I find myself telling stories about a young woman and the birth of a child. What else can we do?  What else are we capable of understanding?

If I were smart,  I would just have just told you some stories this morning and you might have remembered better and understood better but once in a while maybe it’s useful to stop to think about what the stories mean and why we tell them. So that’s what I’ve been doing.  But first, as always, we heard the gospel because that’s the story, and that’s what matters. If you really heard it, whatever I’ve said just now will not be remembered and doesn’t need to be but maybe the story will be better understood. But one way or another, what I said just now is pretty unimportant because you know the story.

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