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Christmas, Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood of Make Believe, and Lake Wobegon
This sermon by Jerry Stinson invites us to us revel in the truth of the Christmas myths, the wonder and the wisdom that flows from nativity stories.
The Rev. Jerry Stinson delivered the sermon below on December 24, 2004, at First Congregational Church in Long Beach, California, where he is the pastor. He speaks of the Jesus Seminar of the Westar Institute headed by Robert W. Funk. This sermon is an example of how the research results of the Jesus Seminar can be used in preaching, in this case, about Christmas.
Bob Jones, a Jesus Seminar scholar, recently made reference to two of his favorite imaginary settings. The first was television’s Mr. Rogers. Each day during the many years that show ran, Mr. Rogers would walk through the door of a pretend home, smiling, singing “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood.” He would pull off his sports jacket, put on a sweater, remove his shoes, replacing them with canvas tennis shoes, still singing about it being a “neighborly day.” Then he would open the door to childhood and walk inside, gently navigating his young television neighbors through life’s experiences.
Part of the way he did that navigating, was by inviting viewers to enter the Neighborhood of Make Believe. A little trolley would take the viewers from the everyday world to King Friday’s castle. There, in Bob Jones’ words, “issues would arise, conflicts would be faced and there was always something to be learned.” Then the trolley would return to the real world. Mr. Rogers made it clear to his young friends that what happened at King Friday’s castle was not objective, factual reality – it was make-believe, but it also could be true; the stories conveyed wisdom and spoke to life experiences.
The second imaginary setting is Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon. For 30 years on radio’s A Prairie Home Companion, Keillor has told people about happenings in an imaginary Minnesota farm town of 500 people. It is a town “time forgot and the decades cannot improve.” Each week, Keillor’s monologue begins: “Well, it’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon, my hometown.” Then comes a chronicle of commonplace happenings to the Norwegian Lutheran and German Catholic residents. It’s a quiet place, where much of the day you can stand in the middle of main street and not be in anyone’s way. It’s a town where churches are important – there’s Father Emil over at the Catholic Church and Pastor Inquist at the Lutheran Church. In Lake Wobegon, the little things count most. Once Keillor said, “Left to our own devices, we Lake Wobegonians go straight for the small potatoes. Majestic just doesn’t appeal to us; we like the Grand Canyon better with Clarence and Arlene parked in front of it, smiling. We feel uneasy at momentous events.” Each week, the monologue ends the same way: “That’s the news from Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking and all the children are above average.”
Over the years, many of us have built up affection for the people of Lake Wobegon. We care about the Whippets softball team or the events of the Sons of Kanute. It’s real – but it’s not real. We know there is no actual Lake Wobegon on the maps of Minnesota. But there are 61,000 links to it on the google search engine – not bad for something that’s not real. Literally real, no. But clearly, truth and wisdom can emerge from a town that isn’t literally there.
And so it is with the stories of Christmas. Was the historical Jesus really born in Bethlehem? Probably not – probably in Nazareth. Was his mother really a virgin? No, I don’t think so. Were there actually angels present? Not in a literal sense. What about the shepherds and the magi? Literally true? I don’t think so. Great stories rather than factual accounts.
Paul, whose letters are the earliest writings we have from the movement created in memory of Jesus – Paul never talked about Jesus’ birth. It wasn’t that important to him. He focused on the meaning of Jesus’ life.
The five gospels, vessels holding the stories of Jesus, what do they say? Well, the earliest is probably Thomas, who like Paul makes no mention of a special birth. The next gospel Mark begins with Jesus’ baptism. No birth story. The same is true for John, the last gospel to be written.
You see, the nativity stories all come from Matthew and Luke. They were probably composed late in the first century or early in the second century, maybe a hundred years or more after the events they describe. And the stories in Matthew and Luke differ from one another. What Libby read and what we are used to hearing, is an amalgamation of the two clusters of stories. Luke wrote his joyful stories for a Greco-Roman audience. Matthew’s stories, rather emotionless and somber were for a Jewish audience in the Gentile world.
Now, except for the nativity stories, Matthew and Luke offer many similar if not identical accounts of Jesus’ life. But the two infancy gospels have not one single scene in common. In Luke, Mary and Joseph live in Nazareth and travel to Bethlehem to register in a census. Jesus is born in a stable, the angels send shepherds to celebrate the birth, and forty days later the family goes to the temple before returning to Nazareth. In Matthew, Mary and Joseph appear to reside in Bethlehem and the magi arrive, guided by star, perhaps several months later, and then because of Herod’s cruelty, the holy family flees to Egypt. Two very different stories – and the scholars for whom I have the most respect are convinced for many reasons that neither story reflects reality.
I think the Christmas stories were attempts by the early church to use myth to capture the “meaning” of Jesus’ life. They are about meaning, not fact. I think there is truth to be found in those myths, just as there is truth to be found in the Neighborhood of Make Believe and Lake Wobegon.
Many of us in the western world have a hard time with myth and stories. We tend to think that only that which is verifiable, empirical, can be true. And thus we often miss the wisdom, the truth, the power of myth, metaphor and poetry.
For me, the Christmas stories are mythic, but saying that, I value Joseph Campbell’s definition of myth as a tale told to tell a truth. We can be guided in life by fiction that is true, even if not factual. Thomas Mann once said that “a myth is a story about the way things never were, but always are.” There can truth in stories of what didn’t happen just as much as in stories of what did happen. And reflecting on a story from his own tradition, a Native American storyteller said, “I don’t know if it happened this way, but I know the story is true.”
So what then are some of the truths that cry out from the myths of Christmas? What are the ways these stories bring to life, the essence of who Jesus must have been?
Well, for one thing, the stories were created to show people in the Greco-Roman world just how important the early Christians felt Jesus was. As another Jesus Seminar scholar, Robert Miller, has made clear in his newest book, in Hellenistic cultures, great leaders are often depicted as having special births or childhoods in which people could perceive that greatness lay ahead. In some ways we do the same today. When someone becomes a powerful leader, immediately reporters interview elementary school teachers seeking a quote that says, “Ah, yes, I could see greatness in him or her back in second grade.” The teacher remembers history in a new way once the student gains fame.
The earliest stories about Jesus focused on what he did and said as an adult. But if the new Christian faith was to thrive in the Hellenistic world, some birth stories were needed – stories that would give an inkling as to how special Jesus would become. That’s what we have in Matthew and Luke.
The Hellenistic world was full of wondrous birth and childhood stories. Bob Miller’s new book gives several examples. Theagenes, an Olympic champion with 1,400 gold medals, must be more than just human – or so the Greek culture assumed. So his birth story says a Greek god appeared in the form of his father to impregnate his mother. A bolt of lightening struck Alexander the Great’s mother and she became pregnant with a very special son. Augustus Caesar mother was Attia, but the god Apollo was his father. Plato, Hercules and Pythagoras all had special birth stories tied to their greatness.
Now if these Hellenistic figures had both divine and human parents, how could Jesus be a great figure unless he had a similar birth? His followers wanted Greco-Roman people to admire Jesus, thus the stories of a virgin mother impregnated by God. It is a myth, created because Jesus was so important in the lives of the early Christians.
But you would think if they were going to create a birth story to honor Jesus, they could have done better than a stable in an obscure village. The Jesus story is so different from that of other great leaders. The Buddha, for instance, was born a prince and lived in three wondrous palaces. Jesus is the child of a teenage peasant, Mary, and Joseph a carpenter which may have meant a day laborer. Jesus’ parents are ordinary, hard working peasant people. That part of the myth probably reflects some historical reality, and for the early church, it meant this birth, tied to God’s love, came in the midst of the ordinary, the common, the poor. Jesus would grow up to be one of the poor, to be an expendable peasant in Rome’s empire.
And there was scandal to his birth – shame attached to Mary because she was pregnant by one other than Joseph to whom she was engaged. My guess is the storytellers would have left that part out were it not based on reality. So I think it is likely that Mary was indeed a young peasant, pregnant out of wedlock. In previous Christmas sermons I have shocked people by speculating that Mary might have been raped by Roman soldiers garrisoned at Sepphoris, a few miles from Nazareth. Those soldiers turned local women into objects for degradation – as some soldiers still do in our world today. Now does that diminish and tarnish the stories? On the contrary, it shows God’s love present even in the ugliest of experiences, God’s love in the midst of scandal, shame and victimization. The stories affirm that this child, perhaps degraded and abused by others because of the scandal of his birth, was filled with God’s love. That’s a message we can proclaim!
Now who came to the stable in the myths? Well, Luke has the shepherds. And we know shepherds were near the bottom of the social ladder in ancient agrarian societies. They were often ritually unclean because of their work. They would have been outcasts from proper society. Yet they were welcome at the manger. So as we retell the myth, those who have felt cast out of our society should be warmed by the sense that Luke put outcasts at the heart of his story. Those looked down upon and judged by our society – whether it is gay and lesbian folks forbidden to celebrate their loving relationships in marriage, or people of color still the first to be assumed guilty, or people in wheelchairs or the homeless – they would all be welcome at that manger.
Now Matthew puts the Magi there – astrologers from afar, perhaps Zoroastrian priests. In a sense, Matthew’s myth makes the first Christmas an interfaith event. And then, Matthew pictures the holy family fleeing tyranny, seeking asylum in neighboring Egypt – just as folks seek asylum in our nation.
The nativity myths portray the manger scene as one open to all and safe for all. The Bethlehem stable can become for us a symbol of the radically inclusive community that we are called to be today.
These now-familiar myths were created by the early church to help those in the Greek world see that Jesus could become for them, as he had become for the early Christians, a window into God’s love. And the historical Jesus can become such a window for us today. Bishop Jack Spong says that Jesus is for him a doorway into the holy. And one of the earliest Jesus Seminar scholars, Bill Nelson, says these are stories “of one in whom others encountered a transparency to the divine, revealing to them a deeper reality. Evidently,” he wrote, “there were those who insisted, ‘When I met Jesus, I met God.’” That’s why they created the myths.
Now I think we can still meet God through the stories of Jesus. For me, God is not a being out there somewhere but is rather the very Ground of All Being. God includes and penetrates the universe in such a way that every part of it exists in God, but God is more than the universe itself. We are in God. God is that presence beneath and within our everyday lives.
And the metaphors we can use to describe God are ones coming from Jesus’ life. God is love, just as Jesus’ life overflowed with love. God is unconditionally forgiving, just as Jesus seemed unconditionally forgiving. It is God’s intent, as the Ground of all Being, that we learn to live in community and that we tear down barriers folks would erect to separate one from one another; we know that because Jesus constantly tore down the barriers of his day while drawing people into the circle of his love. He always made the circle wider.
So let us celebrate Christmas. Let us affirm the mythology that underlies this event. Let us revel in the truth of those myths, the wonder and the wisdom that flows from nativity stories created to honor one who as an adult was incredibly loving, kind, forgiving and accepting of others. And let us truly honor, not only his birth, but his whole life by seeking to reflect that love, kindness, forgiveness and acceptance in our lives. May the legends live on, may the stories never die, of a manger open to all. Amen
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