As I pondered what message to share at Jerome UMC on Christmas Eve in a December that felt much darker than most, I remembered a couple of wonderful stories that spoke to me, and I hope will to you also. As I thought about the struggle between good and evil in human nature, the first story that came to me is a Native American legend about a young child asking a grandparent why some people are kind and loving and others seem so cruel and violent. The grandparent responded that there is a constant struggle in every person between two wolves, one that is compassionate and nurturing, and another that is selfish and mean. “But which wolf wins that struggle?” asked the child. “The one we feed and nurture,” came the reply.
The image of the wolf reminded me of the second story, one that I had not told or thought about in years. It is in a collection of short stories by Martin Bell, and the book is called, The Way of the Wolf, where the wolf is a metaphor for God. When I looked for the story on line I was blessed to find an excellent introduction and conclusion to this story which I adapted slightly, but want to give credit to stjohns-online.org for setting the context. Here’s the message I shared at the 11 pm Christmas Eve service at my church, Jerome UMC near Dublin, Ohio:
Christmas is a time for telling stories. Some are ancient stories: about shepherds and angels and a baby born in a barn. Some of them are stories from our childhood – stories of elves and flying red-nosed reindeer, of snowmen who come to life under the spell of Christmas magic, and of Santa Claus. Each season brings new stories, stories that capture in a new way some of the miracle of the first story, the story of God’s love for us – a love so deep and marvelous that it came alive one night – it became “Emmanuel,” “God with us.”
We tell stories because they touch our hearts and not just our minds. They help us enter into the mystery of Truth that is larger than our reason and logic can explain. Stories reveal different levels of truth that reach us wherever we are ready to receive them on any given day. Christmas is a time for telling stories.
So often the story of Jesus is portrayed as a kind of romantic, sentimental tale – not unlike the decorations and secular stories and carols we hear this time of the year. Christmas is seen as a time of fellowship and fine food, a time to put aside just for a while, the things that divide us, at least until the After-Christmas sales. It is forgotten how marvelous and how expensive a gift Christmas really is, that the manger and the cross are both made of the same wood; that this small child, this enfleshment of God’s love, was sent not just to be a gift, another trinket for us to wear around our necks for a season, but came to show us what God’s love is all about – a love that is willing to die for us, a love that came as the angels told the shepherds that is to save us from all fear and give us eternal peace.
That is where Christmas really begins. That is why we tell the Christmas story again tonight – because of who Jesus became, what he taught, how he lived, and how he died but lives eternally. Tonight we celebrate the greatness of the Christmas gift. And we remember the cost. To do that, I’d like to share the story of God’s love for us, even as Jesus often did, through the telling of another story – a kind of parable by Martin Bell, “The Tale of Barrington Bunny.”
Barrington Bunny: A Christmas Story
|ONCE upon a time in a large forest there lived a very furry bunny. He had one lop ear, a tiny black nose, and unusually shiny eyes. His name was Barrington.
Barrington was not really a very handsome bunny. He was brown and speckled and his ears didn’t stand up right. But he could hop, and he was, as I have said, very furry.
In a way, winter is fun for bunnies. After all, it gives them a opportunity to hop in the snow and then turn around to see where they have hoped. So, in a way, winter was fun for Barrington.
But in another way winter made Barrington sad. For, you see, winter marked the time when all of the animal families got together in their cozy homes to celebrate Christmas. He could hop, and he was very furry. But as far as Barrington knew, he was the only bunny in the forest.
When Christmas Eve finally came, Barrington did not feel like going home all by himself. So he decided that he would hop for a while in the clearing in the center of the forest. Hop. Hop. Hippity-hop. Then he cocked his head and looked back at the wonderful designs he had made.
“Bunnies,” he thought to himself, “can hop.” And they are very warm, too, because of how furry they are.” (But Barrington didn’t really know whether or not his was true of all bunnies, since he had never met another bunny.) When it got to dark to see the tracks he was making, Barrington made up his mind to go home. On his way, however, he passed a large oak tree. High in the branches there was a great deal of excited chattering going on. Barrington looked up. It was a squirrel family! What a marvelous time they seemed to be having.
“Hello, up there,” called Barrington.
“Hello, down there,” came the reply.
“Having a Christmas party?” asked Barrington.
“Oh, yes!” answered the squirrels. “It is Christmas Eve. Everybody is having a Christmas party!”
“May I come to your party?” said Barrington softly.
“Are you a squirrel?”
“What are you, then?”
“Well, how can you come to the party if you’re a bunny? Bunnies can’t climb trees.”
“That’s true,” said Barrington thoughtfully. “But I can hop and I’m very furry and warm.” “We’re sorry,” called the squirrels. “We don’t know anything about hopping and being furry, but we do know that in order to come to our house you have to be able to climb trees.” “Oh, well,” said Barrington. “Merry Christmas.” “Merry Christmas,” chattered the squirrels. And the unfortunate bunny hopped off toward his tiny house.
It was beginning to snow when Barrington reached the river. Near the river bank was wonderfully constructed house of sticks and mud. Inside there was singing.
“It’s the beavers,” thought Barrington. “Maybe they will let me come to their Party.” And so he knocked on the door.
“Who’s out there?” called a voice.
“Barrington Bunny,” he replied.
There was a long pause and then a shiny beaver head broke the water.
“Hello, Barrington,” said the beaver.
“May I come to your Christmas party?” asked Barrington.
The beaver thought for awhile and then he said, “I suppose so. Do you know how to swim?”
“No,” said Barrington, “but I can hop and I am very furry and warm.”
“Sorry,” said the beaver. “I don’t know anything about hopping and being furry, but I do know that in order to come to our house you have to be able to swim.”
“Oh, well,” Barrington muttered, his eyes filling with tears. “I suppose that’s true–Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas,” called the beaver. And he disappeared beneath the surface of the water. Even being as furry as he was, Barrington was beginning to get cold. And the snow was falling so hard that his tiny, bunny eyes could scarcely see what was ahead of him.
He was almost home, however, when he heard the excited squeaking of field mice beneath the ground.
“It’s a party,” thought Barrington. And suddenly he blurted out through his tears, “Hello, field mice. This is Barrington Bunny. May I come to your party?” But the wind was howling so loudly and Barrington was sobbing so much that no on heard him.
And when there was no response at all, Barrington just sat down in the snow and began to cry with all his might.
“Bunnies,” he thought, “aren’t any good to anyone. What good is it to be furry and to be able to hop if you don’t have any family on Christmas Eve?”
Barrington cried and cried. When he stopped crying he began to bite on his bunny’s foot, but he did not move from where he was sitting in the snow.
Suddenly, Barrington was aware that he was not alone. He looked up and strained his shiny eyes to see who was there.
To his surprise he saw a great silver wolf. The wolf was large and strong and his eyes flashed fire. He was the most beautiful animal Barrington had ever seen. For a long time the silver wolf didn’t say anything at all. He just stood there and looked at Barrington with those terrible eyes.
Barrington replied, “Because it is Christmas Eve and I don’t have any family and bunnies aren’t any good.”
“Bunnies are good,” said the wolf. “Bunnies can hop and they are very warm.”
“What good is that ?” Barrington sniffed.
“It is very good indeed,” the wolf went on, “because it is a gift that bunnies are given, a free gift with no strings attached. And every gift that is given to anyone is given for a reason. Someday you will see why it is good to hop and to be warm and furry.”
“But it’s Christmas,” moaned Barrington, “and I’m all alone. I don’t have any family at all.”
“Of course you do,” replied the great silver wolf. “All of the animals in the forest are your family.” And then the wolf disappeared. He simply wasn’t there.
Barrington had only blinked his eyes, and when he looked– the wolf was gone.
“All of the animals in the forest are my family,” thought Barrington. “It’s good to be a bunny. Bunnies can hop. That’s a gift. A free gift.”
On into the night Barrington worked. First he found the best sticks that he could. (and that was difficult because of the snow.) Then hop. Hop. Hippity-hop. To beaver’s house. He left the sticks just outside the door. With a note on them that read: A free gift. No strings attached. Signed, a member of your family.”
“It is a good thing that I can hop,” he thought, “because the snow is very deep.”
Then Barrington dug and dug. Soon he had gathered together enough dead leaves and grass to make the squirrels nest warmer. Hop. Hop. Hippity-hop. He laid the grass and the leaves just under the large oak tree and attached this message: “A gift. A free gift. From a member of your family.”
It was late when Barrington finally started home. And what made things worse was that he knew a blizzard was beginning.
Hop. Hop. Hippity-hop. Soon poor Barrington was lost. The wind howled furiously, and it was very, very cold. “It certainly is cold,” he said out loud. “It’s a good thing I’m so furry. But if I don’t find my way home pretty soon even I might freeze!”
And then he saw it– a baby field mouse lost in the snow. and the little mouse was crying.
“Hello, little mouse,” Barrington called.
“Don’t cry. I’ll be right there.” Hippity-hop, and Barrington was beside the tiny mouse.
“I’m lost,: sobbed the little fellow. “I’ll never find my way home, and I know I’m going to freeze.”
“You won’t freeze,” said Barrington. “I’m a bunny and bunnies are very furry and warm. You stay right where you are and I’ll cover you up.”
Barrington had only two thoughts that long, cold night. First he thought, “It’s good to be a bunny. Bunnies are very furry and warm.” And then, when he felt the heart of the tiny mouse beneath him beating regularly, he thought, “All of the animals in the forest are my family.”
Next morning, the field mice found their little baby, asleep in the snow, warm and snug beneath the furry carcass of a dead bunny. Their relief and excitement was so great that they didn’t even think to question where the bunny had come from.
And as for the beavers and the squirrels, they still wonder which member of their family left the little gifts for them that Christmas Eve.
After the field mice had left, Barrington’s frozen body simply lay in the snow. There was no sound except that of the howling wind. and no one any where in the forest noticed the great silver wolf who came to stand beside that brown, lop-eared carcass.
But the wolf did come.
And then he disappeared into the forest.
(at the conclusion)
This cold winter night, we are again given a gift, you and I. A free gift, with no strings attached. A small baby, a person like you and me, who came to be a gift, and to tell us that we are also gifts, and members of the same family – the family of Our God. He showed us that life is truly a gift. To be human is a gift, because it means that God’s own heart can beat within us. We can love as Jesus loves, and we can rejoice in being members – all of us – of the same family. That is truly a great gift. But Jesus showed us that it is also a costly gift – it will cost us our very lives, all that we are, to be the kind of gift Jesus is. Because Jesus showed us the truth of that paradox, by loving us totally, enough to die for us. And that is what Christmas is really all about.
Let us, then, praise God for that gift. Let us receive it, and through its magic, allow ourselves to be transformed into gifts – gifts to one another. As we receive the bread and the wine, the body and the blood of our Lord, let us become aware of His real presence which transforms us, and makes of us living gifts to one another. Free gifts. With no strings attached. Amen.