Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Sermon for Baptism of the Lord, Year A, "Everyday Jesus Spirituality: The Discipline of Being Grounded," Matthew 3:1-17

Sermon 1/12/2020
Matthew 3:1-17

Everyday Jesus Spirituality: The Discipline of Being Grounded

As I think most of you know, I just returned from a long-planned vacation to Florida, where my family and I visited Disney World and Universal Studios. We had a great time, and after a week of living in one house together, everyone in the family is still speaking to each other, so I count that as a win! Seriously, it was a wonderful trip. I was particularly proud of my mom. Not all of you know this, but she’s a bionic woman. She’s had rotator cuff surgery, and both knees replaced, and twice had her ankle fused, all remnants of her physically demanding nursing career. Before her surgeries, she was walking with a cane, and we feared she was headed for a wheelchair. Things were better after the surgeries, but she still wasn’t great with long-distances. When I first started planning our vacation, I assumed we’d have to rent her a scooter. I knew she’d never be able to do all that walking. But she’s worked so hard this year, and lost a significant amount of weight, and she walked all over those parks with ease. A scooter would have just slowed her down! But even though she can walk everywhere, some things are still challenging for her. She doesn’t do well on ground that isn’t level - inclines are very uncomfortable on her fused ankle. And she struggles with things that require a little extra balance. The people movers at universal were like an adventurous ride for her, and especially challenging were a couple rides where you’re standing on solid ground, and step onto a moving platform to get into the ride vehicle, but then when you get off, it looks like the part you’re standing on is the solid ground, and the part that’s really not moving at all looks like it is the part that’s in motion. Does that make sense? Everytime we got on one of those rides, she needed a little extra help finding the solid ground. 
I’ve been thinking a lot about solid ground this week, about being grounded, sure of the earth beneath our feet. Have you ever been in an earthquake? The only earthquake I’ve ever felt was back in 2011, when an earthquake hit Washington, DC. You could feel it in Syracuse, very mildly. But I remember that I was in my office at my church in East Syracuse, and everything just started feeling weird. My first thought was not that I was experiencing an earthquake, but rather that I was ill. I got up and walked carefully down to the secretary’s office, where she was speaking with the custodian, and only when I realized that they’d felt it too did I realize that we’d felt an earthquake. This mild experience left me feeling very unsettled. The ground is not supposed to move beneath your feet. What do you do when the ground - something that is supposed to be solid and steady and supporting you when nothing else does - is moving? I can only imagine, then, what it feels like to endure a truly catastrophic earthquake. The people of Puerto Rico, still recovering from Hurricane Maria, have been dealing with a series of strong earthquakes this week. I can’t imagine the anxiety of wondering whether the ground will stay where it is supposed to, much less the literal and figurative upheaval of life again. Over and over, the ground is moving beneath their feet. 
Aside from these devastating earthquakes, I think a lot in our world right now makes us feel ungrounded, like the world isn’t steady beneath our feet. We’ve been anxiously watching things unfold in our relationship with Iran - an assassination, the downing of a commercial airplane, and a lot of rhetoric that makes us fear war and violence. We have on our hearts Fort Drum soldiers deploying to the Middle East. We’re wading through the impeachment of the president. Wildfires of enormous magnitude are devastating the continent of Australia. And that doesn’t touch on any personal losses we’re experiencing, upheaval in our personal lives. We desperately need some solid ground on which to stand. How do we find it? 
Today we’re starting a new sermon series, focusing on some creative spiritual disciplines. Spiritual disciplines are repeatable practices that we engage in that help us grow in our faith and stay close to God through the good times and the struggles of life. Traditional spiritual disciplines are things like prayer, reading the Bible, meditation, and fasting. But for the next several weeks, we’ll be exploring some less traditional spiritual disciplines. Peter Schurrman, author of an article in Reformed Worship magazine, the source for our sermon series, writes, “Spiritual disciplines … are not just about doing the right things. The Pharisees read their Bible and prayed every day, but it drove many of them deeper into pride and prejudice. Jesus called the Pharisees religious fibbers and spiritual graveyards. Spiritual disciplines are not defined by what you do, but by the desired goal of the activity, and the key desire for Christians is to become more like Jesus. Anything can be a spiritual discipline if it gets you to become more like Jesus. You could say that spiritual disciplines are defined by this Christian motive and intentional repetition.” (“Everyday Jesus Spirituality: Customized Spiritual Disciplines,” Reformed Worship, December 2108, 5.) 
That’s what we want: to be more and more like Jesus. And to help us do that, become more like Jesus, we’re starting by exploring the discipline of being grounded. Schurrman writes, “Practicing being grounded means when worry creeps up on you or distractions call on you, you focus on God’s presence in the here and now. You listen and attend, neither dwelling in the past or rushing headlong into the future. Your vocation, your mission, is clear. Your mandate is the healing of the world.” (6) Being grounded means we keep our focus on God’s presence, right now, and that we draw strength from God’s presence. How do we do that? 
Today is Baptism of the Lord Sunday, a day when we remember Jesus’ baptism by John, and a day when we also remember our own baptisms, or anticipate the time when we will be baptized. Our text from Matthew’s gospel begins with John the Baptist’s ministry, where he appears in the wilderness, preaching about the need for people to repent, to turn their hearts and lives back to God. Matthew tells us that John is embodying the words of the prophet Isaiah who wrote, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” In that passage from Isaiah, the prophet talks about the valleys being filled and the mountains being brought low in anticipating of the coming Messiah. The ground before the Messiah’s arrival seems awfully unsteady. Indeed, John’s message to the religious leaders who come to see him as he baptizes the crowds implies that they are not as grounded in their relationship with God as they like to think themselves. He tells them that they can’t just rely on the faith of their ancestors. They need faith - and repentance - of their own. 
And then, Jesus comes to be baptized. John doesn’t understand why Jesus wants to be baptized, a sign of repentance, which Jesus doesn’t need in the same way we do. Jesus responds, “Let it be so for now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” His answer is a little confusing, isn’t it? But by being baptized along with us, Jesus joins in our human experience. He joins the community. He throws his lot in with ours. (see Chris Haslam’s notes: http://montreal.anglican.org/comments/apr01m.shtml) But it isn’t just for us, I don’t think. The baptism is for Jesus, too. It gets him grounded in preparation for the ministry that he’s about to begin. When Jesus is baptized, the heavens are opened to him, God’s Holy Spirit rests on him like a dove, and God’s voice says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” He can always come back to this reminder of his identity and task. When he’s tempted in the wilderness a chapter later, he can remember this grounding moment. When he’s transfigured on the mountain, joined by Elijah and Moses, words like this will come from God again. When he takes some time alone to pray, he can immerse himself in the truth of these words. When he’s wrestling with his impending death, and when he’s suffering on the cross, these words remind him of his commitment to God’s path. This moment, these words, this baptism, this affirmation from God comes before he preaches and heals and travels and calls disciples and dies and rises. This is where Jesus can get grounded. “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Grounded in the truth of who he is. 
What truth grounds us? How do we stay grounded? I really love dance. I took ballet and tap on and off as a child, although never regularly enough to become really good at it. But I loved every minute of it. My mom and I would see the Nutcracker every Christmas, and just as my niece did when my mom took her this year, I’d leave the theatre twirling and pointing my toes in the aisles. I still love to watch dance of any kind. It’s amazing what dancers can do. And all those spins - pirouettes and others turns - they can do so many in a row without falling over from dizziness. Impressive, isn’t it? 
Well, dancers are able to spin like that because of a technique called spotting. A dancer focuses on a certain point on the horizon, and they keep their eyes on that mark as long as they possibly can while turning. They have to look away for a second, of course, but as soon as they make the turn, the first thing their eyes find is that spot again. And by coming back to that spot over and over, they can turn and turn and turn without losing their balance. It takes a lot of practice, of course. But it is one of the first things dancers learn to do when they’re ready to learn any kind of turns. 
How do we stay grounded? I think being grounded is a bit like spotting for dancers. To stay grounded in our relationship with God, we make sure that no matter where else our attention needs to focus, our eyes are fixed on God as much as possible. God is that “spot” on the horizon that is the center of our equilibrium, the balance, the home to which we return again and again, and as quickly as possible. In Luke’s gospel, when Jesus starts heading relentlessly toward the place that will result in his death on a cross, Luke tells us that Jesus “sets his face to Jerusalem.” He’s got his focus, and it is ever on God and God’s hope for the world. Where is our face set? Let’s fix our sight on God, and keep it there. 
How do we stay grounded? We do our part, and thankfully, God does God’s part. God’s part of us staying grounded is this: God loves us - adores us! God is well pleased with us, delighted in our very existence. We are God’s beloved children. And God tells us that over and over again, in a million different ways. God tells us that in the gift of Jesus to the world. God tells us that in the baptismal waters. God tells us that in the love we share between each other. God tells us that in the gifts of creation. God tells us that in the voice we hear deep in our souls, urging us toward our best selves. And God uses us to tell that to each other. God can use you to remind someone else that they are beloved. We can’t hear it enough. We can’t be too grounded in that knowledge. So make sure you let someone know who needs to hear it: God loves you. God thinks you’re great! God hopes for your best future. 
Our part of staying grounded is making sure we remind ourselves of God’s message as often as possible, in as many ways as possible. Our part is making sure that whatever else turns our head, we fix our eyes back on God at the first possible opportunity. Our part is remembering our baptism, remembering our invitation to a life walking alongside Jesus, and being thankful for the promise of God’s love and grace. Some days, our world shakes us to the core, and we can’t seem to stay on our feet. Remember. Stay grounded in God. Come back to God again and again, and you’ll find the balance of deep faith, and unwavering love. Amen.  

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Sermon for Christmas Eve, "Keep Christmas Well," Luke 2:1-20

Sermon 12/24/19
Luke 2:1-20/9pm version

Keep Christmas Well

This Advent, I’ve been reading a book called Almost Christmas: A Wesleyan Advent Experience, which opens like this: “In a particular episode of the classic comic strip Dennis the Menace, Dennis is standing in the living room on Christmas morning, brightly decorated tree in the corner, with stacks of empty boxes and shreds of wrapping paper all around him. Having opened up his mountains of Christmas gifts, he stands there, arms outstretched and yelling at the top of his lungs for all in the house to hear: ‘Is that all?’ 
“Of course, we want to tell Dennis that he missed the point. We prefer to remember that Christmas is not about receiving presents, checking off your wish lists, and getting everything you want. Despite what holiday retailers would want us to believe, Black Friday does not define Christmas Day. 
“Yet, if we are honest, we do find ourselves resonating at a certain level with dear Dennis. As we go through a December filled with the frenzy of gift-buying, party planning, house cleaning, home decorating, and one-social-gathering-after-another, we can see ourselves stepping back from the madness of it and saying to ourselves, ‘Is that all?’ Is this all there is to Christmas? Isn't there something more that should define our observance of this season?” (5-6) 
Dennis, of course, is supposed to be a bit ridiculous. An immature child, always getting into trouble. But I’ll admit that I relate to his sentiment, to this book’s introduction. It’s not that I’m longing for more presents, more stuff. Generosity abounds, and by the end of the season, I can barely keep track of all the thoughtful things that folks have done for me, have given me. Rather, somehow, by the time Christmas evening rolls around, I sometimes feel a little like a deflated balloon. Tomorrow is actually the first day of the twelve days of Christmas, but sometimes I already feel like Christmas is done and I am too. I know some of that is just the unwinding that comes for those of us who are part of planning and leading worship services. Christmas Day usually involves some kind of nap - and I hope it does for you too! But it’s more than that, I think. Sometimes, I feel like I miss the “all that” of Christmas. Maybe you do too. Maybe we all relate to Dennis a little bit. 
All through the season of Advent here we’ve been following the story of Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. You’re probably familiar with the story. Scrooge is a rich, greedy, stingy, cranky man who stores up all his riches, who generally doesn’t share, and who, because of his attitude, his priorities, finds himself quite alone. He’s visited by the Ghost of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come, and they lead him to repent of his sins and vow to lead a new life. 
When Scrooge awakens, and finds he hasn’t missed Christmas yet, he’s overjoyed, eager to begin the work of making amends. He says, “I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future! … Heaven, and the Christmas Time be praised for this! I say it on my knees!” His face is wet with tears, and he’s also full of laughter for the first time in a long time. He starts out his day by purchasing the biggest prize Turkey and having it sent anonymously to his poor clerk Bob Cratchit’s for dinner. As he heads out, he smiles at everyone in the street, and returns their Christmas greetings warmly. He pays down the debts of some who owed him money with his own funds. He goes to dinner with his nephew Fred, who has been trying to build a relationship with Scrooge, but til now Scrooge hadn’t been willing. And the next morning, he teases Bob for being 18 minutes late to work, but instead of seriously reprimanding him as he once would have done, he raises Bob’s salary, and commits to assisting Bob’s family. And he does just that. He becomes like a second father to Tiny Tim, who doesn’t die, as the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Be had warned was possible. Dickens tells us that Scrooge “became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew.” Some people laugh at how changed Scrooge is, but he doesn’t care. We read, “he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.” Finally, Dickens writes, “It was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!
What about us? Do we know how to keep Christmas well? Would people say of you that you know how to keep Christmas well? Scrooge is so transformed by his journey of repentance that people laugh to see it, they’re so amazed. I wonder: Does the impact of Christmas - of Christ being born, of God dwelling with us in the world - does it show on our faces? Does it show in our lives? How are we doing at keeping Christmas? 
As we wrestle with those questions, we can dig a little deeper. What exactly does it mean to “keep” something? It’s a pretty simple word, maybe even a simple concept, but there are some nuances. Often, “keep” means “possess.” “Can I have that toy you’re playing with?” “No, I’m keeping it.” Sometimes “keep” means to continue doing something, to persist in a certain action. “She’s been keeping up with her piano lessons.” We also use the word “keep” to mean guard or protect. “The parents wanted to keep their children from harm.” When we think about “Keeping Christmas,” do we know exactly what we’re supposed to be doing, given those nuances? Sometimes, I think we’ve gotten mixed up.  
If we turn to our Christmas story from Luke’s gospel, we can search for the theme of keeping there. Matt Rawle writes, “The scene begins at the palace and ends with no place. It begins with Caesar, who was named emperor of the world, and ends with a baby placed in a feeding trough. It begins with the seat of human power and ends with those who live in powerless poverty. It begins with everyone being counted and ends with a baby revealing that everyone counts. God is beginning to turn the world upside down for all of the right reasons.” (The Redemption of Scrooge, 129) So, as our text opens, the emperor is doing some keeping. He’s keeping count. He’s counting up all the people, because he wants to make sure he’s getting taxes from everyone to support his government, his lifestyle, his empire. The emperor’s kind of “keeping” is the “possessing” kind. He’s not sharing toys with anyone! 
The only place we see the actual word “keep” in our translation is when we read about the shepherds. “In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. The shepherds are “keeping watch.” The word here has the sense of “keeping” that means guard or protect. That’s just what the Greek words means. It also means “to defend” or even “to cherish.” So, the shepherds are doing some keeping - they’re guarding what’s been entrusted to them, protecting the sheep from harm. 
But “keep” is actually implied in another place in our text. When Mary and Joseph receive the shepherds who visit their new baby Jesus, the shepherds are amazed and exuberant. Mary, though, is reflective. We read, “but Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” The word we read as “treasured” is actually something like the word “keep.” It means literally “to protect.” Mary is treasuring everything that’s happening, and she’s protecting her experience in her heart. In both these cases from Luke, the “keeping” of the Christmas story isn’t about possessing, keeping as in having something so that others don’t. Rather, both the shepherds and Mary are doing some protecting, some guarding, some cherishing. What do you cherish? What do you guard with your heart because it is invaluable? 
This Christmas, as we welcome Jesus, ever-God-with-us, into our hearts and lives anew, we decide what we will keep and how we will keep it this Christmas. I suggest we take our cue from the gospel, and do the kind of keeping that leads more toward cherishing and protecting than possessing. We can laugh at Dennis the Menace, but sometimes we find ourselves after the peacefulness of Silent Night lost in the torn wrapping paper on Christmas Day, clutching at stuff, or feeling empty, and wondering how we missed Christmas. Instead, let’s keep our hearts open for Christ to dwell within us. Let’s treasure God’s word, God’s child, God-made-flesh, which, in the way of God, we do best by sharing, letting the light of Christ shine out from our hearts. Matt Rawle writes, “We should keep Peace...keep Hope...keep Love...keep Joy … We do not have to keep the same level of gift-giving debt … We do not have to keep the fear and anxiety of creating the perfect Christmas. We do not have to keep the same invitation list to the white elephant party, which excluded the family member with whom you were fighting. We are called to keep the Scriptures and the truth within them.” (The Redemption of Scrooge, 135) Friends, everything else we’re trying to keep? Everything else we’re clutching so tightly? We can give all that to God, who knows the number of hairs on our heads, who knows each lily of field and bird of the air. 
Tomorrow or the day after or sometime in the week or so to come, there might be a moment where we feel like we are done with Christmas. We can’t eat one more cookie. We can’t stand the sight of our decorations anymore. Every present has been unwrapped. But if we keep Christmas well, it isn’t a day or even twelve to cross off our calendars. It’s our transformed lives, because we’re keeping - cherishing - treasuring - the light of Christ in our hearts. Let us keep Christmas - treasure it, cherish it, share it - and let us keep it well. Amen.  

Monday, December 23, 2019

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, "The Redemption of Scrooge: The Hope of Christmas Future," Romans 8:18-31

Sermon 12/22/19
Romans 8:18-31, Luke 4:18-19, Matthew 11:29-30

The Hope of Christmas Future

This week we wrapped up our Advent study where we’ve been reading The Redemption of Scrooge by Matt Rawle, and digging deeper into the story of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol alongside our focus in worship. At the start of the class, I asked participants to think about the future - to think about a few hopeful things we see in our futures, and then to reflect on any ways in which we’re anxious, afraid, or maybe just feeling “angsty” about our future. I’m happy to report that we have a lot of hope, and one of the first things that came to mind as we thought about hope for the future was the children of our congregation, and the life and light they bring to us now, that we anticipate shining for years and years to come. But it was also pretty easy to think about ways the future looms with some anxiety, some worry or fear too. As we stand in the middle of a presidential impeachment process, we wondered about our future as a nation. We think of the threat of violence, stirrings of violence around the globe. We think of the planet, of waging wildfires and ecological devastation. Those are some big picture items we might worry about in our collective future. But I wonder about bringing it down to us as individuals, too. What does your future look like? Is it hopeful? Are there things in your own future you worry about? We talked about aging, and health, and death. Maybe there are some other things on your mind. Maybe, when you think about the path you’re on now, the future doesn’t always look welcoming. Are we - can we be - hopeful about our future? In this life, and in eternity - do we have hope? Or, when we look at the state of things now, have we gone too far off course, messed up too much, damaged and broken and hurt too much to look for a future with hope? 
Scrooge wrestles with some similar questions as he is visited by the third Spirit this week. Almost as soon as the Ghost of Christmas Present leaves Scrooge, another Ghost arrives. Dickens calls this Ghost a Phantom. The Phantom is draped and hooded, moves along the ground like a mist, and entirely silent, face concealed. Dickens writes that “in the very air through which this Spirit moved it seemed to scatter gloom and mystery.” Nothing of a body is visible except one outstretched hand. The Spirit fills Scrooge with dread and fear. He trembles so much he can hardly move. Scrooge  names the Spirit as the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Still, Scrooge is determined to learn from the Ghost. He says, “Ghost of the Future! I fear you more than any spectre I have seen. But as I know your purpose is to do me good, and as I hope to live to be another man from what I was, I am prepared to bear you company, and do it with a thankful heart.”
The Phantom brings Scrooge first upon a group of men talking about someone who has just died. They talk without affection, love, or grief. They try to figure out what will happen with the man’s money, but no one knows. Yet, even still, they agree to attend this man’s funeral, especially if a luncheon might be provided. Eventually the Phantom leads Scrooge away from the busy town into neighborhoods that are “foul and narrow.” They enter a beetling shop - a place where old rags would be made into fresh cloth, and more broadly, a kind of pawn shop. A housecleaner, a laundress, and the undertaker all arrive at the same time. After listening in on their conversation, we deduce that they are trying to sell items they have taken from the home of the recently deceased man. They talk about the man in scathing tones. He always took care of himself. He’s no worse off for the loss of a few things, since he’s dead. If he cared about keeping his things after death, he should have had better relationships in life. One of the women took the bed curtains and blankets off the bed to sell while the deceased was still lying dead. Scrooge is horrified at the whole scene. “The case of this unhappy man might be my own. My life tends that way, now.” Still, though, he’s not ready to connect the dots. In the next blink, the Phantom takes Scrooge to the bedroom, where the body of the dead man lies under a sheet, no blankets or curtains left on the bed. The corpse’s face is covered, and Scrooge both longs to and dreads peeking under the veil. Scrooge imagines that if this man was raised from the dead on the spot, the only things on his mind would be “avarice, hard-dealing, and griping cares.” 
Scrooge wants to know if anyone feels something because this man has died. “If there is any person in the town, who feels emotion caused by this man’s death … show that person to me, Spirit, I beseech you!” The Phantom takes Scrooge to a home where a man is arriving home to his wife and children. He shares that the yet-unnamed man has died - and the wife is immediately thankful, and then asks forgiveness for her gut reaction. Apparently, they owed this man a debt, and he had refused to give an extension. Now, even though their debt will go to a new creditor, they doubt anyone can be as merciless as this now-dead man was. Dickens tells us that this house “was a happier house for this man’s death.” 
So Scrooge says to the Phantom, “Let me see some tenderness connected with a death or that dark chamber, Spirit, which we left just now, will be for ever present to me.” (emphasis mine) And now Scrooge finds himself again at the home of the Bob Cratchit. It is very, very quiet in the once noisy home. From somewhere, Scrooge hears a voice, words we know from the gospels: “‘And He took a child, and set him in the midst of them.” Scrooge can’t place the words though. Bob arrives home - he’s just come from visiting the burial site for Tiny Tim, who has just died. He and his family are grieving, but strong. Bob relays that he ran into Mr. Scrooge’s nephew Fred, who was full of kind words for Bob and his family in their grieving. The family vows not to forget Tim, and they find joy and peace in supporting each other, even in their pain. Bob says, “I know, my dears, that when we recollect how patient and how mild he was; although he was a little, little child; we shall not quarrel easily among ourselves, and forget poor Tiny Tim in doing it.” 
Seeing this all unfold, Scrooge finally finds the courage to ask the Phantom: “Tell me what man that was whom we saw lying dead?” He’s ready to face what he perhaps suspects. So the Phantom takes Scrooge to the church yard, where at last the truth is revealed. The Phantom points to a grave. Before Scrooge will look at whose it is he asks, “Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only?” The Phantom stays silent, and Scrooge continues, ““Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead,” said Scrooge. “But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me!” Still, the Spirit is silent. At last, Scrooge sees his own name on a neglected grave: Ebenezer Scrooge. Scrooge falls to his knees, pleading. ““Spirit!” he cried, tight clutching at its robe, “hear me! I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been but for this intercourse. Why show me this, if I am past all hope! Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life!” The pointing hand of the Phantom seems to pause and tremble. Scrooge makes a final declaration: “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach. Oh, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this stone!” And with that, the Spirit vanishes. When Scrooge awakens, he’s full of joy to learn he hasn’t missed Christmas - and more importantly, he hasn’t missed a chance to make changes in his life. He can do as he said, and keep the Spirits of the three Ghosts with him, keep their lessons with him. But we’ll talk more about the end of Scrooge’s journey in a couple days!
I’m struck by the question Scrooge asks of the Phantom, and the conclusions he draws. “Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only?” Scrooge asks. And he concludes: “[Our] courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead. But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change.” In other words, Scrooge realizes that he’s seeing what could happen, what will happen if no changes take place in his life. But it isn’t what must happen. The future could still be different. What do you think the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come would show you if you changed nothing about your life right now? 
The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is like a biblical prophet. Biblical prophets weren’t fortune tellers, but they told people what the future would be like if they continued on the present path. “If you don’t change your course, this is the outcome.” “If you don’t start studying, you will fail the class.” “If you don’t take your medication, the disease will spiral out of control.” “If you don’t stop worshiping other gods, you will feel cut off from God’s love and care.” “If you don’t put God first in your life, you will feel an emptiness that your other priorities can’t fill.” That’s what the Phantom is doing for Scrooge: “If you don’t repent and treat people with care, Scrooge, you will be alone and unmourned when you die.” What is the message from the Ghost to you and me? 
Today we read part of Paul’s letter to the Romans. Paul’s letter to the church in Rome is his most deeply developed theology. It is his most complicated letter, rich in wisdom, and chapter 8 in itself is full of inspiring words. In the section we’re looking at, Paul is talking about hope. And he says, “The whole creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.” The whole creation is waiting for redemption. Paul says that things are hard now - there is suffering. Sin and death have a hold on us, and the creation suffers and groans right along with humanity. But, Paul says, the groaning we do, the groaning of creation, is like labor pains. It isn’t futile groaning. It is groaning with a purpose, groaning that leads to new life, the groaning of laboring that results in birth. (1) There’s hope in the midst of the groaning, because the promise of new life with God lies before us.
Even as Paul uses language of new birth, he also uses language of adoption. We’re in the process of being adopted by God, he says. We’re awaiting the completion of our adoption - our redemption. And when we’re adopted, that means life for us and freedom for the whole creation. And while we’re waiting, we’re called to live faithfully, patiently, expectantly, and called to be full of hope. (2) We’re at once God’s children already, and being born anew, and being adopted. We’re both saved by God’s grace already, and being saved, as we embrace God’s love. We’re both redeemed already in Christ, and being redeemed as we learn to live in Christ. 
Is the future full of hope? Paul answers a resounding “Yes!” He says, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” For me, that is the best news of hope. I love God, and God is good - so the future God hopes for me - it’s also good. “What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us?” Paul asks. And we can answer, “No one that should make us worry, not when God is with us.” (Rawle)  
It takes Scrooge a while before he can face himself. Before he can face the words on the tombstone, face the truth of his life so far, face the truth of the path he’s on. Sometimes we have a hard time facing ourselves, too, and when we can’t face ourselves, we start to feel pretty hopeless about our future, worrying it is too late for us, too late to fix what we’ve messed up beyond repair. But Scrooge realizes it isn’t too late. He can’t change his past. But he has every intention of changing the present, hopeful for a changed future too. I hope we come to the same realization. Let us claim our hopeful future with God, by welcoming God into our hearts and lives in the present, committing to God’s path today. 
Our futures are full of hope, because if God is for us - and God is SO for us! - who can be against us? Our future is full of hope, because God is working all things together for good, even when we’ve been less than careful with what and who God has entrusted to us. Our future is full of hope because God is with us, the promise we celebrate in Advent. Our future might be unknown to us. But we are known to God, and so our futures are full of hope. Thanks be to God. Amen. 

  1. Johnson, Elizabeth, “Romans 8:22-27 Commentary,” The Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=319
  2. West, Audrey, “Romans 8:22-27 Commentary,” The Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1306

Monday, December 16, 2019

Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent, "The Redemption of Scrooge: The Life of Christmas Present," Luke 15:1-7, Matthew 26:11, Deuteronomy 15:11

Sermon 12/15/19
Luke 15:1-7, Matthew 26:11, Deuteronomy 15:11

The Life of Christmas Present

Today, in our travels with Scrooge, we meet the Ghost of Christmas present. Dickens describes the spirit as, ““a jolly Giant, glorious to see; who bore a glowing torch, in shape not unlike Plenty’s horn.” When Scrooge first sees him, he’s sitting on a kind of throne of sorts, made out of rich and sumptuous foods, in Scrooge’s room which had been cold and bare, but is now decorated and boasts a blazing fire in the fireplace.  
Scrooge dreaded the visit from the Ghost of Christmas Past, but he’s ready to learn from the Spirit of Christmas Present. Upon reflection, he tells the spirit that the lesson from Christmas Past is “working [in him] now.” And so the Ghost takes Scrooge out into the town. Dickens describes the town: “There was nothing very cheerful in the climate or the town, and yet was there an air of cheerfulness abroad that the clearest summer air and brightest summer sun might have endeavoured to diffuse in vain.” That’s what Scrooge sees everywhere - people who might not be well off, or who are outright poor, but they are laughing and joking and smiling, throwing snowballs, and so on. Scrooge peers in the Grocers’ windows and sees abundance everywhere. The descriptions are lush with vivid imagery. Folks are going to and from church for Christmas. And everywhere, the Ghost of Christmas Present sprinkles some of his spirit on them from his torch. A touch of the spirit makes people forgive where they might have quarreled, brings good humor even when people are jostling each other in the busy streets.  
Scrooge and the Ghost make a visit to Bob Cratchit’s small house. Cratchit’s big family is happy, anxious to see each other, full of warm greetings. Bob and a sickly Tiny Tim arrive home from church, and Bob reports on Tim’s behavior: “[Tim] told me, coming home, that he hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see.” (emphasis mine) 
When they eat their Christmas goose for dinner, everyone is effusive in their thanksgiving for their meal. Dickens’ writes, “There never was such a goose. Bob said he didn’t believe there ever was such a goose cooked. Its tenderness and flavour, size and cheapness, were the themes of universal admiration.” “Everybody had something to say about it, but nobody said or thought it was at all a small pudding for a large family. It would have been flat heresy to do so. Any Cratchit would have blushed to hint at such a thing.” Mrs. Cratchit wants to give Scrooge a piece of her mind, but Bob won’t say a harsh word against his employer. 
Scrooge asks the Spirit: Will Tiny Tim live? The ghosts responds that unless something changes, the child will die. Scrooge is distressed: “No, no,” said Scrooge. “Oh, no, kind Spirit! say he will be spared.” The Spirit tosses Scrooge’s own words back at him: “If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.” And Scrooge is wracked with grief and regret at hearing how harsh he had been. 
Scrooge also visits the home of his nephew, Fred, with the Ghost. Again, he gets to listen in on people talking about him. Fred says, “He’s a comical old fellow, that’s the truth: and not so pleasant as he might be. However, his offences carry their own punishment. His wealth is of no use to him. He don’t do any good with it. He don’t make himself comfortable with it.” Nonetheless, Fred says, “I am sorry for him; I couldn’t be angry with him if I tried. Who suffers by his ill whims! Himself, always … He may rail at Christmas till he dies, but he can’t help thinking better of it—I defy him—if he finds me going there, in good temper, year after year, and saying Uncle Scrooge, how are you? If it only puts him in the vein to leave his poor clerk fifty pounds, that’s something; and I think I shook him yesterday.” Fred is sure that his persistence with his uncle might eventually do some good, and might soften his hard heart, even just a little. 
Finally, Scrooge notices that the Spirit is travelling with two small children - they both look sickly, dirty, poor. The Spirit tells Scrooge that they belong to all of humanity - and they are Ignorance and Want. “Have they no refuge or resource?” cries Scrooge. And just before the Spirit leaves Scrooge, he again turns Scrooge’s own words back on him. “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?” For the second time, Scrooge is shaken to the core by a Ghost’s visit. 
What the Ghost shows Scrooge - it’s just what is going on all around Scrooge every day, in the “now”, but Scrooge hasn’t been able to see it. The Ghost of Christmas Present is all about showing Scrooge abundance and plenty - but the Ghost’s focus is on the abundance of spirit, love, good will and compassion. Scrooge has only been focused on an abundance of coin, even that, as his nephew notes, he doesn’t really enjoy, because he’s more interested in having it than using it. And since Scrooge can’t even appreciate the kind of abundance he does have, he doesn’t see all the ways he could use his abundance to help others experience abundant life too. And since Scrooge can’t appreciate the abundance of Spirit and love others have, he can’t receive it when they try to share it with him.  
What kind of abundance and plenty do you see? If the Ghost of Christmas Present was visiting you, where would the Ghost take you? What or who are you neglecting to see clearly right now? In his book The Redemption of Scrooge, Matt Rawle writes that it is our sin that causes us to be afraid that we don’t have enough, to close our eyes to God’s abundance. And so, thinking we don’t have enough, we buy more food than we need, more clothing than we need, bigger homes than we need, more stuff than we could possibly ever need. He shares a message from a 4th century monk, Basil of Caesarea, who said, “This bread which you have set aside [for yourself] is the bread of the hungry; this garment you have locked away [for yourself] is the clothing of the naked; those shoes [of yours] which you let rot are the shoes of [one] who is barefoot; those riches you have hoarded [for yourself] are the riches of the poor.” (82-83)
Thankfully, Jesus, who is the Bread of Life himself: he shares his very self with us. Jesus clothes us in his very love and righteousness. And the kingdom over which Jesus reigns - he tells us it is ours, and it is here, now, among us. Every bit of abundance God has, God shares freely with us. Sin and fear make us worry that God’s going to run out of good stuff to give us. But that’s not how God works. Our parable today from the gospel of Luke is one of three in a set about losing and finding. The set of parables culminates with the parable of the prodigal son and the older brother, where we see a father welcome home his son who had been lost to him and remind his older child that he is beloved too. And before that, there’s a woman who has lost one of ten coins, and searches her home until she finds it. But we start out with a shepherd and some sheep - one hundred of them. Jesus asks: What shepherd who had one hundred sheep, wouldn’t, upon losing one of them, leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the lost one until they find it? And when the shepherd finds that one sheep, Jesus says, they’ll rejoice with friends and neighbors, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” 
Jesus doesn’t wait for an answer to his question, but we can fill in the blanks. What shepherd wouldn’t leave the ninety-nine sheep to find the one? None of them would do that! Who would leave ninety-nine sheep alone in the wilderness to find the one sheep that probably already had been eaten by a predator? No shepherd wanted to get paid would take such a risk! They’d just be thankful they still had ninety-nine sheep, and watch them all the more closely!
But, Jesus is telling us that God sees things differently. God’s sense of abundance doesn’t just mean that God has so many people to follow God that one of us doesn’t matter. God’s loving abundance means that each one of us is precious and beloved, and that God has such a lavish abundance of love and grace that God doesn’t have to take anything away from the ninety-nine to seek out the one. God’s abundant resources of compassion allow God to love and care for the ninety-nine and to seek after the one with God’s whole heart.    
God is Abundance and Plenty. But God isn’t storing up stuff, maintaining abundance by refusing to share. Rather, God is abundant in Spirit, in self-giving, in love. Simon Tugwell writes, “If we keep clamouring for things we want from God, we may often find ourselves disappointed, because we have forgotten the weakness of God and what we may call the poverty of God. We had thought of God as the dispenser of all the good things we would possibly desire; but in a very real sense, God has nothing to give at all except [God’s very self].” (From Prayer, as quoted in The Redemption of Scrooge, 105) And that, friends, is just what God gives us: God’s very self. In Jesus, we receive God’s very self, the most lavish gift of all.

Sometimes, like Scrooge, we’re so focused on holding tight to what we have, trying to create an abundance for ourselves, that we don’t realize and don’t have room in our lives to receive what God has already given us: God’s self, God’s love, God’s grace, God’s mercy and forgiveness. We can’t claim those gifts if we’re too busy trying to make sure we have enough of everything else. Jesus helps us make room, asking us to find a place in our hearts for a tiny babe in a manger - a small thing that will fill our hearts and lives completely. And when we let Jesus make room in our hearts and lives, when we embrace God’s abundance, God opens our eyes to the people around us with whom we can share our abundance without anxiety, without fear we’ll run out. We have to wait till the rest of our journey with Scrooge to find out how he opens his eyes to a new kind of abundance, but thankfully, we don’t have to wait to start seeing things differently ourselves. Even as we wait to welcome Christ again this Christmas, he’s already with us, ready to fill our hearts and lives and world. Thanks be to God. Amen.