Dangerous Stories

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We all know the story; we tell it every year.

We tell it through economic depressions and global pandemics. We tell it in homes and in cathedrals. We tell it on ships at sea and around campfires on long trails. We tell it in the high language of our greatest poets and in the simple songs of a children’s pageant.

And, if we’re very lucky, we tell the story, and step into the night, and watch the snow fall gently in the moonlight, and wonder at all that God has wrought.

We know the story; we tell it every year: the story of a census and a journey, of an inn and a manger, of shepherds and angels; the story of a king and a plot, of wise men and warnings, of slaughter and daring escapes.

We know that Jesus was born…in Bethlehem…

It is true that Jesus was from Nazareth. That’s where he learned the words of the Torah and worked in his father’s shop. That’s where he made his first friends and had his first awkward teenage moments. Jesus was from Nazareth; but he was born in Bethlehem.

Because that’s what the story says. Because that’s where messiahs are made.

But…

In our reading today, Jesus is preaching in Jerusalem, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’”

And there are people who are saying, “Here is the Messiah!”

And there are people who are saying, “This cannot be the Messiah! This is Jesus, the son of Jospeh, from Nazareth, in Galilee. And messiahs do not come from Galilee; messiahs are made in Bethlehem. Not even prophets come from Galilee!”

And there are people who are saying, “We need to arrest this guy—we need to get rid of this guy—he is… dangerous.”

It is February. It is Black History Month. So let us turn our thoughts today to Martin Luther King.

There are two stories about the Reverend Doctor. There is the story that we tell; and there is the story that we do not.

The story that we tell is about a hero of the Civil Rights Movement, who built on the work of leaders before him, and who led a movement of nonviolent civil disobedience against segregation and Jim Crow. It is about the movement that led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It is about a man who changed the nation.

The story that we do not tell is about a preacher who was absolutely reviled

In 1964, Gallup asked Americans which of their fellow citizens they had the least respect for, King came in second, just behind George Wallace, the governor of Alabama who declared, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”

Two years later—after King had turned his attention from the formal segregation of the South to the informal segregation of the North—sixty-three percent of Americans had an unfavorable view of him.

And even after he was assassinated, about a third of Americans said that it was his own fault; and fewer than half said that they felt sad about it.

And the thing is that both of these stories are true. Martin Luther King was absolutely a hero of a movement that changed America… and Martin Luther King was absolutely a reviled figure who led a movement that many Americans resisted with all of their strength.

And there is the story that we tell; and there is the story that we do not.

History is a collection of stories that the present tells about the past. And right now, we are in the middle of a big national conversation about whose stories we will tell, and which stories we will tell, and how we will tell those stories. And that is an important conversation…

Because there is a difference between a world where racism is mostly a thing of the past… and a world where is it still a potent force in the lives of countless people.

Because there is a difference between a world where the fight for civil rights is a thing that happened through nonviolent demonstrations, and a speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and a call to judge one another by the content of our character instead of the color of our skin…

…and a world where the fight for civil rights is a thing that is happening… and that includes the slurs and accusations of communism, the fire hoses and police dogs, the beatings and arrests… the shot that rang out in the Memphis sky all those years ago and the shots that ring out in cities across our nation today.

Because there is a difference between a world where we have reached the promised land… and a world where there are still mountains left to climb.

In our reading today, the Pharisees know…

Centuries before them, the prophet Micah told the people, “O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me, one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.” (Micah 5:2)

And so the Pharisees know that the Messiah will come from Bethlehem. Because that’s what the prophecy says. Because that’s where messiahs are made.

So when this man starts preaching in Jerusalem… and they learn that he is Jesus, the son of Jospeh, from Nazareth, in Galilee… they cannot hear him. Because the Messiah does not come from Galilee; not even prophets come from Galilee.

The Pharisees know their story. And they cannot hear Jesus because, as far as they can tell, he does not fit into it. They cannot accept this offer of living water because it is an unexpected story.

And in the face of this story, they are not curious, they are judgmental. It is an unacceptable story; it is a deceptive story; it is a dangerous story. And dangerous stories must be silenced.

And I want to be fair to the Pharisees. Because I do not think that the Pharisees in this story are evil; I think that they’re afraid. Because they know how things are and how things are supposed to go… and it’s not perfect, it’s not even great, but it works, y’know? 

And here’s this guy, preaching on the street and riling up the people, offering them living water and giving them hope for something different… something better… something that looks good on paper, but that is so wild and dangerous and… it could all fall apart so easily.

So the way things are now, the way things are tomorrow, the way things are…

And I get that. Because sometimes danger leads to death; and it’s safer to stick with the stories that we know.

But what if…

What if the stories that we know are wrong? What if Micah meant something else? What if the Messiah could come from Galilee? 

Or what if the stories that we know are incomplete? What if someone who is from Nazareth could have been born in Bethlehem? What if this Jesus was the Messiah?

What if the stories that we know… the stories that we are comfortable with… the stories that we are so sure of… are holding us back? What if we are sitting here in the valley of the shadow, ignoring the voices that are calling us over the mountain and into the promised land? What if the only way out is through?

What if danger, sometimes, leads to life?

We all know the story; we tell it every year.

We tell it through economic depressions and global pandemics. We tell it in homes and in cathedrals. We tell it on ships at sea and around campfires on long trails. We tell it in the high language of our greatest poets and in the simple songs of a children’s pageant.

And, if we’re very lucky… if we’re very lucky…

…we have the courage to stop telling our story and start listening to other voices tell theirs…

…stories from shepherds who have good news for all people… stories from wise men who can point us toward glory… stories from angels who can tell us what is threatening our very lives…

…stories on stories on stories… until the whole truth is revealed… and we step into life.

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