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. 

Sunday, December 08, 2019

Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent, "The Redemption of Scrooge: Remembering Christmas Past," Revelation 21:3-5, Luke 5:1-11

Sermon 12/8/19
Revelation 21:3-5, Luke 5:1-11

Remembering Christmas Past

This Advent we’re journeying with Ebenezer Scrooge as he is visited by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. Last week we learned about how cut off Scrooge had become from everyone around him. He’s mean and crotchety, and doesn’t do much of anything that doesn’t serve his own interests. But his former business partner comes to him as a ghost, telling him he’ll get three ghostly visitors who will give Scrooge a chance for redemption. 
The next night, the first ghost arrives: the Ghost of Christmas Past. The Ghost’s appearance is unusual - an inner light gives the ghost an appearance like a candle, lit up from the inside. The Ghost takes Scrooge on several visits to his past. First, Scrooge sees himself as a young, lonely, sickly boy. Something about seeing himself as he used to be starts to stir Scrooge’s heart. He remembers the caroler that had come to his door the day before and Scrooge dismissed in his usual, angry way. We read, “A lonely boy was reading near a feeble fire; and Scrooge sat down upon a form, and wept to see his poor forgotten self as he used to be. Then, with a rapidity of transition very foreign to his usual character, he said, in pity for his former self, “Poor boy!” and cried again. “I wish,” Scrooge muttered, putting his hand in his pocket, and looking about him, after drying his eyes with his cuff: “but it’s too late now.” “What is the matter?” asked the Spirit. “Nothing,” said Scrooge. “Nothing. There was a boy singing a Christmas Carol at my door last night. I should like to have given him something: that’s all.””
With the Ghost, Scrooge then visits his former workplace, remembering fondly his boss, Mr. Fezziwig, and his fellow apprentice, Dick. There’s a joyous Christmas party, with lots of dancing. Everyone is happy. Dickens tells us, “During the whole of this time, Scrooge had acted like a man out of his wits. His heart and soul were in the scene, and with his former self. He corroborated everything, remembered everything, enjoyed everything, and underwent the strangest agitation. “A small matter,” said the Ghost, “to make these silly folks so full of gratitude.” “Small!” echoed Scrooge. “Why! Is it not? He has spent but a few pounds of your mortal money: three or four perhaps. Is that so much that he deserves this praise?” “It isn’t that,” said Scrooge, heated by the remark, and speaking unconsciously like his former, not his latter, self. “It isn’t that, Spirit. He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count ’em up: what then? The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.” Again, Scrooge’s visit to his past causes him to think about what he could do differently now. He thinks about how he might be able to say a kind word to his own clerk, Bob Cratchit. 
Next, the Ghost takes Scrooge to see the moment when his financĂ©e, Belle, breaks of their engagement. She tells Scrooge: “Another idol has displaced me; and if it can cheer and comfort you in time to come, as I would have tried to do, I have no just cause to grieve.” “What Idol has displaced you?” [Scrooge] rejoined. “A golden one … All your other hopes have merged into the hope of being beyond the chance of its sordid reproach. I have seen your nobler aspirations fall off one by one, until the master-passion, Gain, engrosses you. Have I not?” She tells Scrooge she knows that if he met her for the first time now, he would never choose her, a poor woman without a dowry. “I release you,” she says, “With a full heart, for the love of him you once were.” And finally, the Ghost takes Scrooge to see Belle years later, happily married with children. Scrooge is unable to take the pain of witnessing what he missed out on. He tries to “extinguish” the Ghost of Christmas past, putting a cap over the glowing light of the Ghost, and the Ghost leaves him at last, his mind swirling with all he has seen of his past. 
I wonder, if the Ghost of Christmas Past was to visit us, where would the Ghost take us? What parts of your past have you forgotten? What joys, what simple pleasures have you forgotten, that, if you could remember, would fill your heart with gratitude and thanksgiving? And what in your past still causes you heartbreak? What shapes you now from your past, making it harder for you to love or trust or give or grow, because of the pain or hurt or brokenness you once experienced? 
Our gospel lesson for today seems to me to have some of these wonderings underneath the text, as we find Simon Peter responding to Jesus’ call to discipleship. We’ve read this text from Luke any number of times in worship, and it is always powerful. Jesus sees some fishermen on the shore, washing their nets. Without invitation, he gets into one of the boats, one belonging to a man named Simon Peter, and asks to go out into the water a bit. From that place in the boat, Jesus teaches the crowds on the shore. And when Jesus is done teaching, he asks Simon to take them out into the deep water, and let down the nets to catch some fish. Simon explains to this man who is a rabbi, a teacher, not a fishermen, that they’ve been trying all night to catch fish, but caught nothing. But perhaps because he’d just heard this man teach with authority, he agrees to do what Jesus says. And indeed, this time, Simon and company catch so many fish that the nets begin to break, and the boat and the one that came to help - they both start to sink. 
I find Simon Peter’s response to all this fascinating. I think I’d have a million questions for Jesus about what I just saw take place. But what’s on Simon Peter’s mind is how unworthy he is to witness such a miracle. He’s not fit to be in the presence of this teacher. It’s like he doesn’t think he can be in the presence of such goodness and power as Jesus has. “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” We don’t get to know what sins Simon Peter has on his mind. We don’t ever learn much about his past before he started following Jesus. But clearly, something is weighing on his heart. Whatever his life has been like up until now, he doesn’t think it measures up in a way that would please this rabbi who is clearly from God. 
How about you? When God comes to you - asking you to respond to God’s call - whatever form that takes - do you think of all the reasons why God shouldn’t pick you? When God offers you the gift of unconditional love, grace, God’s favor, without cost, do you feel like Peter? Like you can’t even be in the presence of something as good as God? When we wrestle with our pasts, I think we often conclude that we’ve messed up too much to be lovable. Or we can’t let go of hurt and pain enough to love others with our whole hearts.  
Of course, Jesus doesn’t say to Peter: “Oh, I didn’t realize you were so sinful! Nevermind, let me find someone else.” It sounds absurd, doesn’t it? It’s so out of character with the Jesus we know to even imagine. And of course, it is out of character with the witness of the whole of the scriptures about how God works in the world. Jesus responds to Peter with comfort and challenge: Don’t be afraid - that’s the comfort. Again and again, God reminds us that when we’re with God, we don’t need to be afraid. And, “from now on you will be catching people.” That’s the challenge. God reassures us as often as we need it: we’re loved. God loves us without condition, without measure. And, God has work for us to do. Just because we think we’re unworthy of God’s love doesn’t let us off the hook from answering God’s call to be Jesus-followers. Rather, it means that God will find a way to use the very things that seem to hold us back and turn them into assets for sharing the good news of God’s grace with a waiting world. 
Although we’re zooming in on the calling of the first disciples today, we could be focusing on any number of other passages in the scriptures where a person with a past that is - colorful, painful, sinful, broken, mistake-ridden - is called by God, is called to discipleship, is called by Jesus to serve. In John’s gospel, when Jesus calls Philip and Nathanael, he makes it clear that he knows about Nathanael’s “before” life, even though they’ve just met. Being known by Jesus causes Nathanael’s confession of faith: “You are the son of God, the ruler of Israel!” In his conversation with the woman at the well, he makes it clear he knows her story - and she still becomes the messenger of the good news to her community. She’s not even upset that he knows her painful history. Rather, she wonders at it, saying to others, “He told me everything I have ever done.” She thinks it is good that Jesus knows her, inside and out. The apostle Paul is called to be a disciple both in spite of and because of his history as a persecutor of Jesus-followers. Follows of Jesus were put to death at Paul’s direction. That’s his past, and it makes him all the more fervent in preaching the good news once Jesus calls him on the road to Damascus. The Bible is full of stories like this - cover to cover. 
Scrooge is still wrestling, still becoming the person God has created him to be. After all, he has two visits from Ghosts yet to take place. But after his journey with the Ghost of Christmas Past, there’s some softening happening in Scrooge’s heart. In his past, he begins to see anew both the joy and pain he’s experienced - and here’s the key - he starts to connect those experiences to his present, seeing himself in the people in his life now, which allows him to grow in his ability to have compassion and love for others. He could bring joy to others now, just as others had given joy to him in simple gestures long ago. The hardest losses of his past, what he lost when he let his sins, his greed rule his life - he can’t change the past. But he can change the now, letting that pain help him carve a new path going forward. Scrooge is a sinful man - just like Simon Peter said of himself - but when he lets his heart be opened, his past can be made into a blessing, helping him to love and serve others. 
Simon Peter is a sinful man, even if we don’t know what past was weighing on his heart. But Jesus can and does use every part of who Peter is, so that Peter can love and serve God and others. And friends, hear this: We are sinful too. Sometimes, we don’t want to look very closely at the more painful parts of our past, especially the parts where we could have loved better, behaved better, treated others better. But God knows every part of you, every bit of your story. God knows your past, was with you in your past. And God, who makes all things new, redeems your past. Nothing in your past - nothing - can prevent your present-day discipleship, your present day “yes” to God. Our pasts, even the painful parts: God can take the broken pieces and make of that a gift and a blessing, something that helps us serve God and others today. We are sinners! We’re broken. We carry with us hurts and pain and anger and grief. But God says to us: “Do not be afraid.” And then God takes our pasts, makes all things new, and sets us on a world that needs messengers of good news. Thanks be to God. Amen.