Belief: A Matter of Choice

A sermon from the Rev. Mark Sutherland, 9 pm Christmas Eve, 2018

Increasingly, I have come to understand that stories are all we have and that human beings create meaning from the stories they construct. Contrary to popular perception, meaning is not something lying around waiting to be discovered. It’s only through the construction of stories, that we bring meaning and purpose to life.

Each one of us creates or constructs individual stories to explain our experience of the world. Together, as cultures, faith traditions, communities, and nations, we construct our collective stories- stories that tell us about our origins, who we presently are, and why we are here. Both as individuals and as communities our stories mold and shape our perceptions of self and the world. Our stories once brought to life, make claims upon us.

Christmas is a story about how God becomes known not through timeless mystery but within the flow of events that forms our shared human history.

There is always more than one way to tell a story. I can tell my own life story as a story of a glass half full. Or I can reframe this story to take account of my actual experience of abundant grace and generosity – a story of a glass overflowing. This second way of telling makes the quality of my experience ever more fruitful.

As we all have multiple stories from among which to make choices, so we discover that Christmas is not one story, but multiple stories.

Matthew’s birth of Jesus story is really about Jesus and Joseph and the fulfillment of Israel’s long dream of a new Moses. In Matthew it’s the kings of the earth who come to pay homage to Israel’s infant king. Like Moses, Matthew has Jesus taken down into Egypt, but not as prince but infant refugee in the company of his parents, who are in flight to protect the young boy-king’s life. In 2018, we identify with this story of forced migration and flight to safety as the world is rocked by the largest global movement of peoples, now on course to exceed that in the aftermath of the Second World War. Choosing to believe in response to Matthew’s version of the story might help us to clarify what are the priorities for us in the current immigration debate that conflicts us as a society.

Luke’s birth story is about Jesus and Mary. In Mary, an adolescent girl, pregnant out of wedlock and scared out of her wits by the dangerous predicament she finds herself in becomes an image of courage born of vulnerability. On Advent 4, in Truth: Stranger than Fiction, I wrote about how in 2018, Mary’s story evokes powerful resonances to the #me too movement. Luke’s story is about the role we human beings play as the essential agents who collaborate with God’s dream of putting the world to rights. Luke’s Jesus is a universal savior, born in utter obscurity, witnessed not by kings but by illiterate peasant shepherds and field hands. Luke’s Jesus is born among the outcast and excluded, those of us who are of little account in this world.

John’s story offers a further take on the birth of Jesus. There is no Joseph, no Mary, no wise men, and no shepherds or angels. In contrast, John constructs a narrative in which Jesus’ birth is reframed as a new Genesis event  – that harkens back to the very origins of the creation, itself.

John’s opening words are: In the beginning —–. In the beginning, when God created the heaven and earth, the Word already was. Logos, translated in English as Word, points to the action of God in creation. Jesus is the Word -that is, God in action communicating outwards through the energies of light and love. In the birth of Jesus, God the creator of heaven and earth now self-reveals in the contours of a human face and in the unfolding events of a human life.

From his opening words, John quickly sketches out his plot line. God’s self-giving as the Word, has come into the world, but the world is not ready for this and fails to recognize what God is doing. Because the world remains interested in pursuing its status quo, when we make the choice to believe under the influence of John’s story we become the change we long to see.

Each Evangelist constructs a story that makes sense of Jesus birth in the context of their own time and place. Each of these stories poses for us a challenge of particular choices, accepted or refused.

We modern Westerners like to know if something is true or not. We tend to treat the birth narratives in the Gospels as fairy stories, which for many of us places them in the not true category and consequently of no value to us. But the question – is this story true or not true is the wrong question because it doesn’t get us to where we need to be in relation to story. The real question is: what implications flow from believing or not believing in this story? Essentially, these are questions about choice. We choose whether to find value or not in these large faith stories.

The choice of story is always ours. The enchanted magical-realism of the Matthew and Luke stories of Jesus’ birth among angels, shepherds, and wise men may no longer speak to us as it once did in previous generations. Yet, buried in these stories lie a set of tensions: between safety versus risk; between invulnerability and vulnerability; between collaboration and resistance; insiders or outsiders.

In its cosmic expansiveness, John’s narrative might better speak to those of us with science-fiction rich, post-modern imaginations as once Matthew and Luke’s enchanted birth stories functioned for the pre-modern mindset. For me, John’s more cosmic and expansive reframing of the Creator’s entry into the heart of the creation fits better with my sci-fi – Quantum field influenced imagination. Picture

in the beginning, was the Word, the Word was with God  ….. the light shining in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it  ….. and Word became flesh and lived among us  …..and we have seen his glory …..God’s only son full of grace and truth.

John 1

scrolling across the wide screen of a new Star Wars postquel epic.

I believe in the power of these gospel stories to change lives. I believe in these stories, not because I mistake them for literal descriptions of true events, but because to not believe in their message impoverishes and limits my imagination, reframing my own self-limiting life story. I choose these stories to live by because they are large stories that challenge the forces that resist the transformation of our world into a better place from what it currently is.

Good stories break the power of the illusion that we have no choice – as if there are no other stories to draw from – or no other ways to reframe the stories we have. Viewed in this way, the Christmas story might be worthy of our closer consideration?

A Christmas Blessing

May the stories we choose to live by – enliven us to the invisible geography that invites us to new frontiers, breaking the dead shell of yesterdays, risking being disturbed and changed, giving us courage to live the lives we long to love, and to postpone no longer the life we came here to live and waste our hearts on fear no more.

My paraphrasing from John O’donohue A Morning Offering

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