Telling Old Stories

Christmas Eve 2015, Luke 2:1-20

They say you are what you eat, and chemically, biologically that’s true. But in another sense, we ARE the stories we tell. Especially the stories we tell about ourselves.

And Christmas is the best time to tell—and hear—old stories, because we are surrounded by family members and friends, people who have heard our stories over and over. People who help us tell these familiar stories that make us who we are.

For more than 70 years, for example, my family has eaten Chinese food on Christmas Eve—and if not on Christmas Eve, at least some time in the week before Christmas. The story goes that back in the ‘40s, my grandmother was responsible for feeding three, big, festive meals to both sides of my mother’s family every Christmas. So she went on strike, and put my grandfather in charge of feeding the family on Christmas Eve. He was a physician, and he would go into the office of Christmas Eve, a busy day because people wanted to be be healthy for the holiday—and he would promptly forget his responsibility. On his way home from the office he would remember and stop at one of the very few restaurants in Peoria, Illinois, that was open on Christmas Eve, a Chinese place called Ho Toy Lo. A tradition was born. Even after he retired, Gramps would take us on our annual pilgrimage for egg rolls and sweet and sour chicken. This story tells you a lot about my family. My grandfather could be forgetful, but not totally; my grandmother knew when and where to draw a line. And the rest of us know a good deal when we see it, especially if it involves crab rangoons!

One of my favorite things to do in ministry is to visit families that have had babies. I got into this habit 25 years ago and I’ll never forget the first time I made one of these visits. The whole family was talking about the new baby—how big he was, how long, how well he was sleeping…and the four year old big brother was feeling left out. And then his grandmother picked him up a put him on her lap and told him about when he was born, and what his grandpa had said when he heard the news and how proud his father was and how she couldn’t wait to get in the car and drive to see her brand new, special grandson. And the four year old loved it! He’d heard this story, his story, exactly this way, almost wordforword, from his grandmother all his life. But it never got old. This was his story, not his baby brother’s!

This year is the 50th anniversary of a holiday tradition—the Charlie Brown Christmas Special. It’s been in the news. 15 years ago, on its 35th anniversary, I heard an interview with Charles Schultz. He remembered that the network didn’t think it would play more than one time. The executive producer of the special, Lee Mendelson, remembers a visit from an ad executive looking at the early rough designs for the special he said, “This isn’t very good. I don’t know what I’m going to tell the agency. If I tell them what I think, they’re going to cancel the show.” [USA Today, 11/30/15, p. 2D]

“CBS was similarly disapproving when producers brought the finished product to the network…they thought that having jazz music on a Christmas show didn’t make much sense.” [Ibid.] The opening song, “Christmas Time is Here” was recorded by a children’s choir only four days before the special aired.

Schultz and his crew took a couple other chances with the special. They didn’t have much time, so the quality of the animation was fairly shoddy, even for 50 years ago. And they decided to use real children to voice the characters, rather than adult voice actors.

And the special ends, famously, with Linus reciting the story of the birth of Jesus from the gospel of Luke on a bare stage. This is after the special which has spent twenty minutes lamenting that Christmas has become too commercial. Some argued that the tone of the special was preachy, and let me tell you, people do not like preachy! Producer Mendelson remembers Charles Schultz saying, “If we’re going to do a Christmas special, we’ve really got to do it the right way and talk about what Christmas is all about.” [Ibid.] Schultz was quoted saying, “We cannot do this show without the passage from St. Luke. I don’t care what CBS thinks.” He resigned himself to never being able to do another animated special. CBS was under time pressure and decided to air the special…once, they said, “You made a nice try. We’ll put it on the air, obviously, but it just doesn’t work.”

Charles Schultz and CBS were more than surprised. The Charlie Brown Christmas Special won an Emmy. No one noticed the animation because the dialogue was so interesting. Over the years almost a million people have bought copies of the jazzy soundtrack. In fact, that jazz music has become Christmas music. And every year more people find the true meaning of Christmas in Linus’s simple retelling of the familiar old story and the Charlie Brown gang’s redemption of a bare, scrawny tree than anything else on TV. Why?

Because their story is our story. We all struggle with finding Christmas and living in a world where the message of the news of the Messiah’s birth is overwhelmed by all the obligations and traditional merry-making that have through the years turned our Holy Day into a holiday.

But if we go back to the story and strip it as bare as Charlie Brown’s tree, I think we’ll find what our souls hunger for. The happy news of a baby born to a poor family, wrapped in bands of cloth and laid in a manger. The glorious news being reported to the shepherds who were afraid at first--who wouldn’t be afraid of an angel appearing in the middle of the night, then being surrounded by an army of other angels? But by the end of our story the shepherds are praising God, singing God’s praises wherever they go. That’s one approach, and that’s the one we all notice, it’s loud and earthy.

But our story tells us there’s another way that we can respond to this good news. Mary, the baby’s mother, treasured all these things and pondered them I her heart. It’s hard to imagine, isn’t it? That Mary, the one who had THE front row seat at the dawning of the new age, the on whom we heard sing, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,” just four days ago, needs more time to take it all in. She’s a good example for us. She’s the one person who knew what God was up to and saw it coming for nine months, but when it finally happened, she still needed more time to ponder.

And that, my friends, is my invitation to you. If you’re like a shepherd and are moved to sing God’s praises at the news of Christ’s birth, you’ve come to the right place. But if you’re like Mary, give yourself some more time, think about your own story of faith, and ponder in your heart, this good news of great joy for all the earth. It is our story. It tells us how deeply God loves us and how desperately God wants to bring us home. Thanks be to God for the stories of faith. Amen.