“To tell the old, old story” Homily on Christmas 2019C

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From Rev. Clarence E. Butler

Unless you subscribe to The New Yorker and even if you subscribe or purchase it at a newsstand, unless you are able to get to the magazine before it is already four months old, it is highly likely that you missed “Shouts & Murmurs” written by Bob Odenkirk in the 4 November 2019 edition.  “Shouts and Murmurs” is contributed by different authors, and is meant almost always to amuse, to poke fun, to draw attention to serious thoughts via humor.  Odenkirk does not disappoint.  There, on page 25, he writes:

“Many do not know that the Bible was once a ‘living document,’ passed orally from person to person, and generation to generation, before finally being written down.  Even the most well-known Biblical passages went through countless iterations before arriving at the final, perfect, logical, cohesive, and treasured versions we now hold dear….Early written drafts of the Bible were the transcribed pontifications of traveling ‘storytellers…’”

I quarrel not with Odenkirk, as he informs us of what I, as a former professor of German literature, once taught my students: Oral tradition preceded the written one.  Anyone who has written a family history, or anyone who has read his or her family history as told through the lenses of an aunt or uncle, can attest, if honest, that things have been included that beg for greater explanation or that perhaps push the boundary of fact.  One can almost with certainty admit that something has been omitted which perhaps should have been included.  Oral history is important to continuing family tradition, as well as national consciousness, as nations such as Poland, buffeted for centuries by militarily stronger neighbors, have retained their identity through the transmission of oral history, even when they did not have a national flag.

What Odenkirk does not address in his essay, as that was not his intent, is the question “why.”  Why does one tell a story?  The answer is clear: Stories connect us to our past, to those who came before us, and help us to understand our present, even help us to imagine the future.  I hold in my hands two magnets, normally attached to the front of the refrigerator in my kitchen.  The one shows a computer with a frown, and the subscription reads: ‘Computers were invented to humiliate me.’  The other shows supposedly Mary and Joseph standing in front of the sign that reads “INN.”  On that one, Mary is saying to Joseph, “but I thought you made the reservation.”

These two little items tell each a story.  Each time that I open the refrigerator door and look at the computer magnet, often I smile, for that little thing, given me by my secretary upon my retirement from the Dean’s Office, reminds me of her firm, yet gentle order, which was that I was never to touch her typewriter, her computer, or the office printer, because whenever I did, the thing would break down and she would have to call IT.  She told me to do my job, which she could not and did not want to do.  And I was to let her do her job, which clearly I could not do.

The second magnet, I believe, was given me also by an administrative assistant after I had left academe and became active in the church.  That magnet captures with humor, why it is that we have assembled here this evening.  Poets have long captured history, or their interpretation of history in song.  This was the case of Kate Hankey (1866) and William G. Fischer (1869) in the hymn, sung in the Baptist and Methodist Churches, “I love to tell the story.”   It begins with the line: “I love to tell the story of unseen things above,” and continues in the refrain:

I love to tell the story
It will be my theme in glory
To tell the old, old story
Of Jesus and His love.

The old, old story before us this evening is familiar to us, so familiar in fact that I would wager that if I had begun the reading of the gospel appointed for this night and not completed it, you, in your mind, could have completed it almost verbatim, even as you perhaps wondered why I had shortened the story.  We need the whole story, not an abbreviated or altered version of the story, just as a child will correct a parent or grandparent when a beloved and familiar story, read at bedtime, is altered.

The familiar story of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth can be summarized thusly: Because of our human inclination to place ourselves into the center of things, we neglect to recognize ourselves in the person who stands opposite us; we refuse to share what we did not create on our own, but what was shared or loaned to us; we have ignored the environment, over which we have been placed as stewards.  In order to correct the arc of our behavior, we needed outside help.  And as Christians, it is our belief that God sent a special envoy to alert us to amend our behavior.  As Christians we believe that God became human and it is the birth in human form of the Divine that we tonight celebrate.  That, in essence, is the old, old story.

Even from where I stand, I can see from the glow on your faces that you are filled with such a warm fuzzy feeling, a feeling of enthusiasm, such an overwhelming feeling of joy, that you can hardly wait for me to finish my homily so that you can rush out into the cold and darkness of the evening and share that old, old story!  And you are probably asking yourselves, if he sees a glow or a smile on our face, he has surely had too many cups of treated egg nog, or he needs new glasses, or he is delusional.  How can he be so wrong, so mistaken?

That is, though, the old, old story, in its essentials, as I have just told it.  However, there is for us so much that is missing, lots that would make us sit up and take notice of this very important story.  As I summarized that story of Christ’s birth, what is lacking are the things that draw on our imagination and excite our enthusiasm.  Biblical record tells us that this story was so important that, as Handel’s Messiah sings out, “… suddenly there were with the angels a heavenly chorus praising God and saying ‘Glory to God! Glory to God!  Glory to God in the highest.’”  If the story be true and exciting, we might even want to dance, as did a deliveryman for UPS shown in a news clip on TV, when he discovered a note and cookies on the front porch that wished him a Happy Christmas.  But we are Anglicans, and so we will not dance, but we will sing “O little town of Bethlehem,” “The Angel Gabriel came down from heaven,” “Away in a manger,” “The First Noel the angels did say,” and many other carols because they tell the same old, old story, and in a way that helps us to remember to be glad, to take us outside of ourselves to a wonderment of what is possible, when we lay aside our egos.

Through this celebration of the Mass of Christ’s birth, we express our belief in a Creator God and in the belief that we are born onto this earth to care for each other and the resources that sustain us, and to share those resources with one another.  And my wish for us all at this Christmas season is that we never tire, that we never cease to tell the old, old story with scripture and in song of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, the Proclaimer of that Good News.