Sermons That Work

A Tall Tale, Feast of the Epiphany – 2006

January 06, 2006

I want to give a personal two thumbs up to the movie “Big Fish.” “Big Fish” is the story of a father and a son that begins and ends at a river. The father, Edward Bloom, is larger than life. On the day of his son William’s birth, he catches the biggest catfish in Alabama’s Blue River. The catfish is so big that … Well, it’s so big that it furnishes the material for stories that Edward tells for the rest of his life, including the night of William’s engagement party, when he makes himself the center of attention rather than his son and his son’s fiancee.

William comes to believe that his father’s life has just been one big fish story, and when Edward lies dying, William becomes determined to know what his father was “really like.” But whenever William asks his father a question — about his childhood in tiny Ashland, Alabama; his college days; how he met his wife, William’s mother; how he got his start in business — his father responds with another tall tale.

In a sense, the gospels are also the story of a father and a son that begins at a river. The gospels tell us that Jesus went down to the river along with the crowds drawn by the preaching of John the Baptist. And at the river, something happened. Something happened that sounds a bit like one of Edward Bloom’s tall tales. Some say that the Holy Spirit took the form of a dove and descended upon Jesus and that a heavenly voice spoke, saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

The Bible might be regarded as a tall tale, and indeed some scholars look at it that way. Water into wine? A handful of loaves and fish multiplied to feed five thousand? Sight restored to the blind? The lame leaping and walking? The dead raised? Impossible, they say. The products of naive, unsophisticated, and primitive people, or else willful distortions of the truth.

Perhaps they are right. What would we have seen and heard if we had been present at the baptism of Jesus? Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record that there was a dove that descended upon Jesus and a heavenly voice that announced that he was God’s Son, the beloved one.

What if we had been there and had seen and heard nothing? What if years later someone told us this story of the Spirit taking the form of a dove and God’s voice resounding like thunder? Would we be like the son in Big Fish? Would we dismiss the impossible story and say, “No, tell me what REALLY happened”? Or would we understand that sometimes a tall tale conveys the truth more effectively than the who, what, when, and where of a so-called factual account?

A scene in the novel Big Fish (but not in the movie) tells of the day when people heard that Edward Bloom was dying and began to gather in front of his house. First just a few came, and then more and more, until dozens of people were in the front yard — treading on the shrubbery, trampling on the monkey grass. Finally, William’s mother tells him to ask them all to leave. As they leave, one man says to William, “We all have stories, just as you do. Ways in which he touched us, helped us, gave us jobs, lent us money, sold it to us wholesale. Lots of stories, big and small. They all add up. Over a lifetime it all adds up. That’s why we’re here, William. We’re a part of him, of who he is, just as he is a part of us.”

Like the friends of Edward who gathered on the lawn when he was dying, we, too, have stories to tell about One who helped us. “Ways in which he touched us. … Over a lifetime it all adds up. … We’re a part of him, of who he is, just as he is a part of us.”

We have been incorporated into a story that sounds an awful lot like a tall tale. A father blessed his son and sent him out on a great quest. He had adventure after adventure along the way: the angels sang at his birth; mighty kings brought rich gifts to him; a wicked ruler tried to slay him; at his word plain water became rich wine; his touch brought sight to the blind and raised the dead to life; although he was a simple man the wise and learned marveled at his words. He undertook great trials and surpassed all expectations. Finally, a close friend betrayed him, he was given a mock trial, and executed. But then the greatest marvel of all happened. He outwitted even death itself. He returned to the father, having completed the quest, and his father and all his household rejoiced once again over the beloved Son with whom he was well pleased.

In a sense, our stories, too, are about a Father and a Son, and they begin at a river, or at least they begin with water. As children or as adults we were brought to the water, and just as the Spirit descended upon Jesus, so the Spirit descended upon us. And just as the Father announced that Jesus was his beloved Son with whom he was well pleased, so the Father announced that we were his beloved daughter or son and that he was well pleased with us, too. Does that sound like a tall tale to you?

Is it easier to believe that your parents dressed you in a christening gown that had been handed down from great-great-great-great Aunt So-and-So and brought you to church where a doddery old man held you over a stone basin, mumbled a few words, and splashed water on your head? So be it. But personally, I prefer the Bible’s tall tale and believe that there’s more truth in it than in a “just-the-facts-ma’am” account of what happened.

The Bible’s tall tale is our story. You are the Father’s beloved daughter or son; he loves you and is well pleased with you. And he has sent you out to have marvelous adventures and accomplish great tasks: to love your enemies, to return good for evil, to bring wholeness to the sick, to stand up and speak out for those ignored and despised by others, the poor, hungry, and homeless. And at the end of the quest you will have such stories to tell. “You’re not going to believe this, but let me tell you about the time …”

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Christopher Sikkema