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The League of Miraculous Children – 12/22/2013

As most of you are already well aware, I am a fan of comic books. The stories of costumed crime fighters and strange visitors from distant planets are sometimes referred to as our modern mythology: our answers to the stories of ancient heroes like Hercules or Sundiata. The stories that we tell and retell speak to what we hope and what we fear and who we are. You can tell a lot about a people by the stories they keep.

On this day each year, our young people work together to tell us one particular story about the early life of the teacher Jesus. In comic book terms, it is an origin story: some people are bitten by radioactive spiders, others are born in barns. I do not say that to be flip: Our tradition as Unitarian Universalists counsels us to take seriously the ideas and messages of a story – any story – whether or not we believe it to be an exact literal account of historical fact. And just as comic book superheroes have certain themes and

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ideas that occur again and again in their stories – wearing a cape or a mask, training for years in a far-off land, or gaining strange powers through an industrial accident – themes also recur in the stories of the world’s religions. So that the miraculous qualities of Jesus’ origin story puts him into a prestigious club with many other great figures of human faith.

Some of the other stories of strange and wondrous nativity include Sarah, the first matriarch of the Hebrew Bible. When she heard the prediction that she would have a child, she laughed. It was a very reasonable reaction: she had lived 90 years without ever conceiving a child. But then she had her son, Isaac. Just as Jesus’ mother Mary was said to be a virgin at the time of his birth, the same is reported of Devaki, the birth mother of Krishna, the 8th incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu. The three wise men who attended Jesus’ birth have a parallel in the Buddhist tradition. It is said that eight sages were consulted when Siddhartha Gautama was born, and predicted that he would either become a great king or a great religious leader – only one of the eight was certain that he was destined to become the Buddha.

Japanese folklore contains a character named Momotaro, who is said to have been cut free from a giant peach by a childless couple grateful to have found an adoptive son. And there is an even quirkier story about Lao-tse, the mythical founder of Daoism. The tradition is that he never was a child, but was born an old man, already profoundly wise and experienced. Unlike F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Benjamin Button, however, Lao-tse did not age backwards – he just stayed old.

The roster of religious figures with spectacular nativity stories is so impressive that it would make for quite a team-up issue – to further extend the comic book analogy. Especially because so many of these teachers and prophets are reported to have had spectacular childhoods as well. The story goes that young Krishna started an argument with the storm god Indra, who was abusing his power over humans. Indra hurled a torrent of wind and lightning at the boy and his neighbors, but Krishna just picked up a nearby hill, and held it over them all like an umbrella. In the Gospel According to Luke, a tweenage Jesus manages to lose his parents on a family trip to the temple in Jerusalem, and spends his time schooling the priests and sages he encounters there. And in some of the Apocrypha – the books that never made it into the canonical bible – the boy Jesus tosses around miracles left and right, sometimes giving life: animating a clay bird, resurrecting a dried fish; and sometimes taking life away.

We human beings tell a lot of stories about the births and beginnings of great and inspiring people

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and characters. This makes sense for reasons of drama and suspense: we are never more vulnerable than at the very beginnings of our lives. But more than this, I believe we tell these stories, like the one we are about to hear, because we recognize the phenomenal promise contained in new life. Each child unfolds and develops without possibility of prediction or certainty. At the beginning, nothing is fixed. No one could have said, at the hour of our birth, that we would never grow up to be prophets or heroes. But remember one more thing, friends: no matter the age we wear, no one can say that of us now, either. No person’s future is fixed. The promise that entered the world when each of us was born, is always with us. We were all of us miraculous children, and we remain miraculous children still.

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First Parish Church

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