Our two-year-old daughter, Alice, loves to play with the wooden nativity scene that sits on the kitchen table during the Advent season. Her moms arrange the pieces nicely and neatly and logically—baby Jesus laying tranquilly on his bed, Mary and Joseph hovering over him with hands folded in prayer, a shepherd kneeling to take in the wonder of it all, sheep and cows nosing their way into the manger, kings solemnly looking on from a corner of the stable. And then along comes Alice… With a defiant, determined look in her eye, she stands on a chair to reach the table. She grasps the figures and takes charge of the scene. First her play is quiet and gentle. She talks, softly, to herself, and to the figures, clearly lost in her imagination. Then, the play grows more intense. People and animals tumble and crash, onto the table, onto the floor. There is yelling. A cow and one of the magi take a swim in a glass of water. Everyone else ends up in a heap in the middle of the stable, with Mary laying on her back, off to the side, as if too exhausted to go on. Watching Alice prompts me to wonder what would it mean for the rest of us—particularly the grown up ones—to play with this ancient story in the same serious, tender, messy, irreverent and honest way our little ones do?
In our opening reading tonight, the poet, Robert Cording, raises his lament: his grief, his anger, his hardest question, to God, saying: “Are you merely a story told in the dark, a child’s drawing of barn and star? Each year, you are born again. It is no remedy for what we go on doing to each other, for history’s blind repetitions of hate and reprisal.” God, are you merely a story told in the dark? What good is a story? Where, in a story, is the remedy for all that ails us? Will a story soothe the losses, the betrayals, the diseases and disorders? Will a story bring war, poverty and hunger to an end? Will a story stop the madness of bullets, and beatings unleashed in schools? Will a story heal our planet’s climate?
I am taken with what my wise friend and colleague, Kiely Todd Roska, has to say about the Christmas story: She remarks:
I recently had a conversation with a friend of mine about refugees…. My friend believes that we should be more cautious about who we let into the country. At one point during the conversation, I said that I found meaning in the story of Jesus’ family’s experience as refugees during the time of his birth, and I thought that we should welcome people who need a home. Surprised, my friend said, “You would base policy decisions on a STORY?!” Knowing I have a degree in public policy, which emphasizes statistics and economics, my friend assumed I would value numbers and “hard facts” more than “stories.” I wasn’t able to articulate this clearly at the time, but I believe everyone makes decisions based on STORY. I do value research and numbers, but the purpose of numbers and “hard facts” is to help us understand the story of real people’s lives. All of the statistics we hear, media we consume, fiction we read, scripture we refer to, and relationships we have with real people help us to form stories about how we think the world works and how we believe it should work. So, yes, whether you believe it actually happened that way, I find meaning in the idea that when G-d became human, the conditions of G-d’s birth helped G-d to understand what it means to be an outsider, a refugee. And yes, that story helps shape the policy decisions I advocate for.
Our Christmas story has grown so familiar, so domesticated, so commercialized, that it’s easy to lose sight of just how surprising it is. The Word became flesh and lived among us…full of grace truth. God becomes flesh, and not just any flesh, but the flesh of a particular body living under particular conditions. God is flesh born without adequate shelter. There is no room for God in humanity’s inn. God is born into the body of yet one more brown-skinned peasant whose life did not matter to the ruling powers. He was, to the empire, not a person, but profit, a head to be taxed, labor to be exploited. We learn, later in the story, that Joseph and Mary and Jesus must flee to Egypt when Herod threatens them. God becomes a refugee.
I’m with my friend Kiely—story matters, perhaps most of all. There are many stories that compete for our attention, our loyalty. Stories lodged deep within our minds and hearts, stories swirling around us in media and political campaigns and in our families. We all live by narrative. The real question is, to which stories do we give authority? Will we live and breathe the stories that legitimize closing borders and demonizing people seeking solace and shelter? Will we buy into the stories, developed over centuries of racist history, and embedded deep in the psyches of white Americans (mine included), that say black and brown bodies are dangerous, a threat, that insist that police in riot gear are needed to respond to a peaceful protest? Will we be shaped by the stories that call for us to kill to stop the killing?
Or will we find the courage to play with a different story, to become like children, discovering life fresh, and learning the ways of the world and the ways of God, again for the first time? Will we choose to believe the stories rooted in fear, the stories that call for us to seek security through hatred, violence, and greed? Or will we let flow through us and out into the world the healing story of a God who is with us in our lament? Our story is one of a God who lives and breathes, who loves and hurts and dies, in this vulnerable flesh, this very flesh torn by the wounds of the world. This night, we receive the gift of a story about a God who is born among us, who shares our grief and our fear, and who still has the courage to say: “Do not be afraid.” Do not be afraid, for I am peace beyond all understanding. I bring good news of great joy. Do not be afraid.
I close with the words of a beautiful hymn penned by Royce Scherf:
The hills are bare at Bethlehem/No future for the world they show/Yet here new life begins to grow/From earth’s old dust a greenwood stem/The stars are cold at Bethlehem/No warmth for those beneath the sky/Yet here the radiant angels fly/And joy burns new, a fi’ry gem/The heart is tired at Bethlehem/No human dream unbroken stands/Yet here God comes to mortal hands/And hope renewed cries out: “Amen!”