Sermon, 12/24/23: A Lifetime Warranty

Posted on ; Filed under News

Christmas Eve

Readings for Advent IV

Readings for Christmas I

Recently, I read a book.  Given my previous profession, as well as my current one, it would not surprise me if you were to think: “So, what’s so noteworthy about that.  You have devoted your entire life to reading books.  That’s what professors and priests do.  They read books.”  Should you have thought this you are absolutely correct, which is why I made my confession up front, before you called me out. 

The book which I read took a mere 10 minutes to complete, in part because I had read it before, many years ago; yet I was not tempted to glide over paragraphs.  The book was “A Christmas Carol,” which Charles Dickens published 17 December 1843.  The historic background of the short story is the Industrial Revolution which began ca. 1760 in Great Britain and had reached maturity (1820 – 1840).  On this side of the Atlantic, in the United States of America, the ignominious institution of slavery was to continue another 20 years. However, these were not the topics being explored, at least not explicitly, in Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.”

Hear that paragraph which I read twice in this recent re-read and which caused me to rethink Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol.”

“You are about to show me shadows of the things that have not happened, but will happen in the time before us,” Scrooge pursued.”

“’Ghost of the Future! He exclaimed, “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.  Will you not speak to me?’  It gave him no reply.  The hand was pointed straight before them.  ‘Lead on!’ exclaims Scrooge.  The night is waning fast, and it is precious time to me, I know.  Lead on, Spirit.

My second read-through produced the proverbial “lightbulb going on.”  My God, I thought!  Ebeneezer Scrooge has just received a renewal of “A Lifetime Warranty!” 

After the second reading [of] the episode between Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Future, I thought of the many parables which Jesus the Messiah told in order to illustrate his message of reconciliation between God and humankind.  The short story, “A Christmas Carol,” because of its “late in time” production, obviously did not make it into the Canon which is our Book of Records, the Bible, so I cannot define it as a parable, but in secular jargon, I believe that I may classify it as an allegory.  Business tycoon Ebeneezer Scrooge, whose last name is familiar to us almost some 200 years later both as a noun and an adjective, is our central figure and is visited by three ghosts or spirits.  Films have depicted these spirits as dragging chains and as ominous, frightful creatures, each with a distinct role to play and tale to tell.  Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Future they were, who visited Ebeneezer Scrooge, after he had retired to his chamber to take his nightly rest.  A businessman was Scrooge, who demanded allegiance and a work ethics that had none other than himself as its executor.  And as a shrewd businessman, he maintained a bottom line that never ventured into the red.

The exchange between Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Future is not accurately described as a conversation or dialogue, as the Ghost of Christmas Future utters nary a word.  Christmas Future, depicted in most films as a figure completely shrouded in black, only points with a bony finger.  Businessman Ebeneezer Scrooge, however, cannot refrain from questions and comments.  After this syllogistic monologue, Scrooge and his ghostly companion set out on a whirlwind journey, in which Ebeneezer, possessing himself the attributes of a spirit, i.e. being able to see and to hear, while not being seen or heard, encounters fellow businessmen, townspeople enroute to church, inhabitants in a part of town who earn their daily bread by whatever means possible, some of which are morally and ethically questionable. These latter are folks whom Scrooge would never encounter.  Yet, Scrooge has to see them if he is to be eligible for a renewal of his Lifetime Warranty.   

By what measure was Ebeneezer Scrooge to be found worthy of a renewal of a Lifetime Warranty, the same warranty which has been offered to you and to me, to each of us individually?  Ebeneezer Scrooge, despite his brusque manner, had surely heard from the lectern of his local parish church the following admonition how to live into the future.  From the book of the Prophet Micah, Scrooge had heard, but still did not hear, or as our Book of Common Prayer urges, to “inwardly digest”:

What shall I bring when I come before the Lord, when I bow before God on high? Am I to come before him with burnt-offerings, with yearling calves?  Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams or ten thousand rivers of oil?  Shall I offer my eldest son for my wrongdoings, my child for the sin I have committed?  The Lord has told you, o mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.  (Micah 6:6 – 9)

Like Ebeneezer Scrooge, we come, you and I, this Holy Night to petition for a renewal of our Lifetime Warranty.  What brings us here, is a story which we express in songs, songs sung only once a year, but songs that are so expressive of that inner longing to be at one with God, as St. Augustine has written in his Confessions, that we could, if required, sing them without holding lyrics in front of us.  The tale of a baby born millennia ago is what brings us hither, because that story expresses in words that Something which lodges deep within our being.  That something is an invisible, hence intangible, element essential to what makes us human, something that is overwhelming, unique to our individual selves, but yet that is shared throughout all humankind, despite our tribal or national identity, with the millions, nay billions on this globe.

Our Book of Records teaches us that each of us is made in the image of God.  Thus, embedded in our deepest selves is that attribute, that element that lies beyond our reach, as well as beyond that of the most sensitive microscope, found in the best outfitted scientific laboratory.  It is something which connects us to a God who declared that the Creation is good.  And we, with all our pluses and minuses, are an integral part in that Creation.  Like Scrooge, now that we know the future, now that we know the truth, the question is: what will we do with this apocalyptic information?  We long, each of us, to belong, because we recognize intuitively within our core that we, like that babe in a manger, are vulnerable, that our existence could not be sustained without the aid of The Other.  To live into the future is to place us squarely in the present.  If we, like the babe in the manger, are dependent on The Other, we must ask ourselves a further pressing question: “And who is this Other?”  How and when do I encounter The Other?

There are often in our lives those individuals who are well-meaning, protective of clan, but whose desire to protect us often obscures God’s creative truth.  I share with you a personal account from my own life, which members of my family have heard many times, as I encourage them always to engage in critical thinking.  My wife and I lived during the early years of marriage several years in a medieval university town in what was then West Germany.  There the streets in that section—The Old Town “die Altstadt,” it was called where our university apartment was located—were too narrow for American-built automobiles, called by the locals “Strassenkreuzer” or “streethogs.”  The German VW could navigate, but passing or overtaking another auto was out of the question.  So, everyone walked. 

During our years there, it was fashionable on Sunday afternoons to stroll through the Old Town and engage in window shopping.  On one occasion as we walked, ahead of us went a grandmother and grandson.  Having never met them before, we knew of their relationship, because the boy addressed the woman as Oma, the German equivalent of Grandma.

As Oma and grandson walked slowly up that rather steep incline, they passed a shop window where the owners had not dressed a naked female mannequin.  Oma spotted the naked female mannequin.  She grabbed her grandson by the hand and rushed to move along.  The 6 or so year-old little boy would have none of that.  He resisted, and Oma was required to stop.  The boy, looking at the naked female statue turned to his Oma and asked simply: Omi, why does she have no arms?

Sometimes, something within us causes [us] to be restrictive, protective, antagonistic even.  Yet the voice of a child can force us to see a deeper truth.  Sometimes the innocence of a child forces us not to judge The Other by religion or nation or clan, or by surface appearances that would blind us to that inner core which The Other shares with us.  The Christ Child, so we sing, was ‘born a child but yet a king,’ but what kind of king is born in a barn?  If we are to understand and believe this tale, as recorded in our Book of Records and recited each year as a breaking news alert, consider the following, if you will.

Each of us is born a king or queen incognito.  It is not the location, the site of our birth, even as we hear “location, location, location!” proclaimed in the world of mercantile.  As Tiny Tim and the Cratchits prove, love exists in some of the most unlikely of places.  Wealth and pedigree do not determine our royal status.  Rather, it is that divine element bestowed on us by God which—and I repeat—not even the most sensitive microscope can ever detect or display.  Each of us carries that indelible divine stamp, which shows whose we are.   

Christ’s lowly birth and Dicken’s Ghost of the Future are not, in my mind, there to frighten us, to make us stockpile cans of edibles and batteries and [hunker] down in bunkers.  Rather, that lowly birth of the Prince of Peace and Ghost of the Future are in a way a prophetic apocalypse, for they reassure us of God’s presence in each of us.  Sharing with Ebeneezer Scrooge and his ghostly companion, we are positioned, you and I, to learn from the future before it happens.  We are told to live.  For if God is within us, loving neighbor is loving God, neglecting neighbor is neglecting God, no matter the beauty of our liturgy.  We come each Christmas, and indeed each time that we assemble before this altar, to be reminded of what treasure, of what priceless gem we carry within our individual selves, a gem that needs continuously to be polished, and above all to be shared, while we still have our being.