Sermons That Work

Stories, Christmas Day (I) – 2004

December 25, 2004

The indigenous peoples of Hawaii are peoples of oral tradition, at least that’s what some Hawaiian people say today—perhaps as an excuse or, jokingly, to get away from too much paperwork. Today, the indigenous peoples of Hawaii are literate because of the great work done by missionaries who brought Christianity, the Bible, and formal education to the islands. Indigenous Hawaiians have had over 100 years experience producing their own newspapers, creative writing, legal documents, and laws, but like most indigenous minorities, many native Hawaiians have almost lost their own language. However, even with a 200-year history of literacy, indigenous Hawaiians remain a people of oral tradition. Hawaiians are storytellers or, as the local idiom says it, “we talk story.”

Telling stories is the indigenous Hawaiian’s primary form of a kind of communication that bridges and links generation to generation. It builds and maintains relationships by sharing personal events and insights, and makes the stranger become a friend. It passes down memories of events and people who might soon have been forgotten. It teaches—not just the past—but immediate experience; and not just the history—but wisdom. It is the truth disguised in grandeur, mystery, hyperbole, metaphor, and bigger-than-life drama. It is, as an anthropologist has termed it, “mythical realities and historical metaphors.”

There are, in the formal sense, no legends, folk tales, and myths in the Hawaiian tradition. There are stories about things that happened and are understood as real history. There are also stories we know are based on real events and people, but should be understood to be more like fiction. Even when the stories are to be considered as true history, you would have to wonder if it were really possible for there to have been a chief who could lift a boulder weighing a ton as a sign of his strength, and to be told that you could go and look at the boulder in question! In the storytelling of indigenous people, the story itself is one thing and the underlying meaning of the story, why it is being told, is something else.

Hawaiians are not literalists nor are they absolute in their telling of a story. Indigenous Hawaiians listen carefully and reflect upon what is being said: both the ordinary things that are said and the extraordinary things. What Hawaiians anticipate from a sacred story, as we discover in Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus, is not only the story’s teaching and wisdom, but the way in which it can speak to our own lives and experience. It is our story.

We can all recognize that Joseph is one of us. He is a man who believes in the traditions of his people and follows their ways in the way we do—as best he can. He is in love with his wife to be, Mary, and demonstrates it by not leaving her to be a single parent of the child she is bearing. Mary’s love of her firstborn is demonstrated by her singular desire to find shelter for him. We are empathic to their introduction to parenthood over cultural traditions because they are based upon a love that transcends cultural traditions. Joseph and Mary make decisions that speak from the heart.

Then we are told the amazing story of the shepherds which dominates today’s Gospel reading, a story so well known that its image is an icon of the season, and celebrated in many a hymn and anthem. We can get so lost in the incredibility of the event that we may miss what it is trying to tell us: extraordinary things happen, and are revealed to, ordinary people. So far in Luke’s Gospel we have encountered an elderly couple, a simple carpenter and his fiancée, and now some people who tend animals in the field: no high priests, no kings, no chiefs, no superstars—yet!

As ordinary people who are not accustomed to the extraordinary, our cast-of- characters are naturally taken aback by what they have seen, and it takes the extraordinary to reassure them. The shepherds, too, are surprised by what they see and they, too, need to be reassured—but they are different. They are people who live in open country under the vastness of the sky. Ultimately, they do not doubt but trust and move on. Their discovery of the scene in the manger assured them that they were not crazy or misled, and freed from that possibility, they spread the news to others. In the end they “gave glory and praise to God. Everything they had seen and heard was just as they had been told.”

Matthew’s Gospel has a similar visitation, but those visitors are wise men who, “bow down and worship the newborn infant and who have brought valuable gifts of gold, incense, and myrrh. (Matthew 2:11) And in today’s re-enactments, storytellers have both ordinary and extraordinary visitors appearing together.

But tucked away in all of the excitement of Luke’s Gospel is a most intriguing passage about Mary. Do you recall it? “But Mary kept all these things like a secret treasure in her heart. She thought about them over and over.” (Luke 2:19) It is like a Shakespearean aside, a commentary of the storyteller and, therefore we know, if we are good storytellers ourselves, that this is something important to remember, for it will return later when more stories are to be told of the relationship of mother and son.

It is something worth remembering and recalling, for today we begin this story anew, until we repeat it a year from now. No matter how many times we are told and hear this story, we can be better listeners, to seek out the details, to be amazed, and to feel the drama and passion so that our eyes may be open to things we may not have seen before and our ears to hear things we have not heard before.

Whether literalist, a seeker of the historical, a listener to stories we, like Zechariah, Elizabeth, Joseph, and Mary, will come to a conclusion of our own. It is the same conclusion each person came to in this unfolding story of the birth of Jesus, named “God is with us,” that this is our own story. It is the story of the hope, the liberation, the healing and redemption of our world through God’s loving intervention and presence. Amen.

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Christopher Sikkema


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