Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Gain the World, Losing?


Gain the World, Losing?
A Lenten Sermon by Brent J. Eelman
Preached at Wyoming Valley Presbyterian Church (Wilkes Barre, PA)
February 18, 2018

Philippians 3: 4b-16
If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: 5circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
7 Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. 8More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ,* the righteousness from God based on faith. 10I want to know Christ* and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, 11if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
12 Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal;* but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13Beloved,* I do not consider that I have made it my own;* but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly* call of God in Christ Jesus. 15Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you. 16Only let us hold fast to what we have attained.

Mark 8:31-38
Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’

34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’   The word of the Lord…..

One of the tasks that I undertook, as I prepared to retire, was divesting myself of a rather large professional library.  I realized that I could not be hauling a few thousand books around the country with me, and they would not fit in the smaller home we currently live in.  Consequently, I made the decision that over a period of two years, I would half my books twice, leaving me with about a ¼ of my library, (the “necessary” volumes needed for preaching).  The task was not easy, but it was a very satisfying one, because I made sure that my library went to newly ordained pastors, (many who I ordained when I served as the moderator of Philadelphia Presbytery).  The remainder went to seminaries and libraries. 
As I was sorting the books, I paged through them and read some of the notes that I made in the margins.  Some of the books had papers and parts of sermons folded into them.  One book had a most intriguing paper folded into it.  It was from the 4th or 5th year of my ministry.  It was hand typed, (there were no word processors then). It was done for a young pastor’s workshop of some type. 
 The paper contained a list of accomplishments that I hoped to attain in my future ministry.  I was almost thirty years old.  I was newly married and our daughter was not yet on the scene.  The list contained professional as well as personal accomplishments that I hoped to realize during my career.  I listed the types of churches I wanted to serve.  I described the home that I wanted to live in with my wife.  I wrote about the type of dog I wanted.  I even mentioned the car I thought I should drive.  But most of it was professional, focusing on accomplishments that I hoped for in my career as a pastor.  It was interesting to read this list over 30 years after the fact.  Why?
Because as I went down the list, I realized I had accomplished most of those things.  One would think that there would be a great sense of satisfaction from reading my list, but there wasn’t.  Instead, there was a kind of inner pathos that came over me.  The list seemed so meaningless and superficial as I held it in my hands.  In the twilight of my career it occurred to me that yes, I had a pretty good resume…. 
But a verse from scripture haunted me as I held that paper:
  For what will it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” 
This was not a harsh self-judgment, but rather a realization that all those things that I thought were so important; those accomplishments into which I put a great deal of time, energy, sweat and tears; all those things were ultimately superfluous. 
The words of Isaac Watts’ hymn echoed in my soul: 
All the vain things that charm me most…. 
A lot of luck and a bit of hard work had given me a wonderful career. I had indeed “gained the world” that I wanted.  But was this the most important thing or mere vanity?
One of the messages of the Bible, indeed of Jesus, is that we often spend our lives, our time and our energy devoted to things that ultimately do not matter.  It is an equal opportunity sin, and clergy, too, are seduced by it.  In the words of Jesus to Peter, “we tend to set our minds on human things and not God.” 
It is also a temptation for churches too.  We go to workshops and learn about “effective churches.”  We tend to measure our congregations by the number of members, the size of our programs, the attendance, the buildings, and the reputation that congregations enjoy.  Congregations, too, seek to gain the whole world… wanting respect, honor, and presence in a community. 
This phenomenon is not without irony.  A few years ago, I read about a congregation that decided to remove the cross from its sanctuary and its buildings.  Why?  The minister explained that it was a “turnoff”.  From focus groups he discovered that people did not want to hear about sacrifice and crosses.  The cross was an impediment to church growth. Ironically, they put a large globe, the world, where the cross once stood.  They had the world…. And lost their soul. 
(http://www.mlive.com/news/muskegon/index.ssf/2010/06/spring_lakes_christ_community.html)
  “What profits (a church) to gain the whole world, and lose its soul.” 
The soul of a congregation, indeed the soul of the individual Christian is the cross.   
 We are in the business of “soul-making” not church development.   
How do we gain our soul in a world that glorifies that which is ultimately empty and meaningless?  We gain our soul by taking up the cross!  This is the message of Jesus, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  We are not about winning and accomplishing.  
 We are all about losing…. Losing our lives and gaining our souls. 
How do we find our own cross?  How do we carry it and follow Christ?  Congregations I have served have taught me a great deal about this.  I am reminded of a woman who at one time had the world by the tail….  Her husband owned a high-tech manufacturing company.  They lived in a spacious home in the right neighborhood.  They had everything one could want in life… and then lost it all.  The high-tech bubble burst, and her husband embezzled funds to keep his company going.  He ended up in federal prison. They lost their home, and she had to move to an apartment with her children. She went back to work as a nurse. 
At that time our congregation was involved with a health care facility in Guatemala.  This woman went on one of our work trips there, serving as a health care screener with some of the physicians from our congregation.  Something happened on that trip. She went back again on her own, at her own expense, (which she really did not have.)  She went back again, and again.  2 and 3 times a year.  In an email to me she remarked, “I have never been happier. I have found peace.” 
She lost the world… and yet by giving of herself… she gained her soul.  She discovered her cross, and the peace of Christ which passes all understanding.
What is your cross?  What is the cross that Christ is calling you to take up?  Christ is concerned about your soul and mine… and so he calls us to a life of sacrifice.  A life where we give all… and paradoxically discover more.   
Christ is also calling Wyoming Valley Presbyterian Church to discover its true cross… The soul of this congregation is found, not in its numbers, its wealth, its beautiful building, nor its influence. No. It is found in its willingness to sacrifice, to help, to minister to others in the name of Christ. 
Let me conclude with a final story about my experience sorting books. On the day when I was going through my books, sorting and reminiscing, I came across another book with something that I tucked inside of it.  It was a card containing a letter. A member sent this card to me following my departure from my first congregation.  The letter recalled an evening when I came to the house of the family.
I was right out of seminary, 25 years old, and serving as an associate pastor.   It was a Sunday evening and I was with the youth group when I received a call that an elderly woman in the congregation died.  I went to the home to be with the family.  This was my first encounter with raw grief.  The body was still present.  The family was gathered around the table, hurt, bewildered, in sorrow and pain.  I joined them at the table… and just sat there.  I was hoping for the right words to say… but they didn’t come.  And so I sat there in silence for what seemed to be hours.  I concluded my visit there with a mumbled prayer, and departed feeling like I had done nothing.. and perhaps this was not my calling.  Empty.  A failure.  A loser. 
The thank-you note in the good-bye card recalled that evening with the family, and the daughter wrote, how important and meaningful my presence was that night. Being there was enough. Honest to goodness, I cried when I got the card… and cried again when I read it.  Because that is what the cross is all about. 
The cross is about giving when you feel you have nothing to give. 
The cross is about being with those who are in pain, and feeling the pain and shortcomings of your own humanity. 
The cross is about silence… being still when you have nothing to say… and when nothing needs to be said because “the comforter” the spirit Christ promised is present.  
I have a nice resume. I accomplished what I wanted in ministry, but in the words of Paul, ”All these things are loss.”  But my soul grew in moments like that evening when I entered into the pain of others…  It grew when I struggled not knowing the answers nor the words to say.  It grew in the silence that allowed the Spirit to speak.    
The good news that Jesus proclaims is that these moments, these times, when we are intimate with the cross, are the moments when we are closest to him. 
They are the times when our souls are formed and re-formed.
They are times when we experience eternity, but for a moment….
They are the times when the paradox of losing life and gaining it make sense and become the foundation of wisdom.
 It is the wisdom of the cross.  It is the Good News.  Amen.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Ash Wednesday 2018


Yesterday, as I left my home to lead an Ash Wednesday service, I briefly heard of another school shooting in Florida.  At that time there was very little information about it, but it was another tragedy.  I hoped that the carnage was not too extensive.  My focus soon became the service that I was about to lead.  I thought about my sermon and the process of imposing the ashes and all the aspects of that service. 

On the way home, I learned that 17 children and teachers lost their lives in this shooting.  Karen and I drove home in silence.  The sermon, which I intended to post here seemed so inadequate to the moment. 

I had troubled sleep.  I believe that God troubles our sleep when we need to be troubled. This morning when I woke up, the newspaper had this soon to become iconic picture on the front page.  The picture moved me to write down my thoughts. 

Ash Wednesday



Children cowering in classroom corners
            Teachers protecting vulnerable lives
                        Mothers waiting for news
                                    Armed with crosses of ash. 

Daughters and sons hiding in closets
            Valentine cards never seeing the light of day
                        The ashen cross covered with blood
                                    Cheeks stained with tears. 

Cowards cowering in congress’ corners
            Lobbyists protecting their vulnerable seats.
                        Spin doctors waiting to control the news
                                    Armed with alternative facts. 

Leaders hiding in D.C. corners
            Protective laws never seeing the light of day
                        Public pronouncements of piety covered with blood
                                    A broken nation stained with tears.

We offer our thoughts and prayers…..
            Think
            Think
            Think about the massacre of innocents
                        Think about Rachel weeping for her children because they are no more*
                        Think about bloodstained classrooms—the stains of horror never removed
Think about the years of tears each bullet brings
Think about the young voices that will never be heard—voices that echo in the souls of weeping parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters. 
Think about the future that lives lifeless on the school floors
Think
            Think
                        Think and pray.

Pray for moral courage to say “no” to the merchants and brokers of death who profit from each bullet bought.
            And each drop of blood. 
Pray for the moral courage to say “enough”
            Enough lies
            Enough death
            Enough small coffins filled with lifeless victims.
            Enough

Think and pray
            And pray
                        And pray

And act 

Ash Wednesday—
            The lives of our children in ashes.
                        Sacrifices offered on the altar of our values.
                                    We have been anointed with the blood of innocents

The soul of a nation returning to dust. 

“You are dust and to dust you shall return.” 

*Matthew 2:18

Monday, February 12, 2018

Climb Every Mountain--A Sermon on the Transfiguration of the Lord


Climb Every Mountain
A Sermon by Brent J. Eelman
February 11, 2018 (Transfiguration of the Lord)
Wyoming Valley Presbyterian Church


Mark 9:2-9
  Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one* on earth could bleach them. 4And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings,* one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ 6He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved;* listen to him!’ 8Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
9 As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

Mountain climbing is growing in popularity.   An estimated 4-6 million Americans participate in this adventurous sport in some way or another.  Some pursue it in a manner that involves intensive training, including physical and technical training in ropes, safety, and other techniques.  Others just enjoy ascending mountains using well-worn trails.  Some pursue it as a solitary activity, practiced alone or with one or two other individuals. For others it is a social occasion.   The goal is to get to the top, and if not to the top, at least to a higher geographical plane.   Why? Because one gets a broader view of the world—an exhilarating vision of God’s creation. 

The story of the Transfiguration of Jesus is a mountain climbing adventure.
·      It is the context for a pivotal event in God’s relationship with God’s people.
·      It is the story of the Transfiguration is the dramatic turning point in the gospel. 
·      This event confirmed Jesus as the son of God: “This is my son, my chosen, listen to him!”  
·      Last, it affirmed Christ’s calling as a suffering servant: “The Son of Man must go to Jerusalem and suffer”.  

This morning, I want to examine the transfiguration in terms of the human desire to climb mountains.  First: why do we climb mountains?  Second: what do we discover when we get to the top?  Third: Christ invites us to climb a mountain with him. 
I
Why do we climb mountains?  Why do we spend time, money and effort to get to the top of geographical structures? 
·      There are more civilized choices!
·      You can’t live up there.
·      You can’t drive up there. 
·      There is no cell phone reception there. 
·      You won’t find a Starbucks there. 

Maybe this is why we climb mountains.  Our soul desires solitude.  We need to be away from the beeps, buzzes, voices and other noise that is part of daily life.  We need interior time: time inside our selves: time with our souls.  We desire a Sabbath: a rest or respite from the usual.  We need to be alone with God.  We need the nurture of silence.  We need a healing view of the world.  We are so caught up in the rocks, pebbles and bumps of everyday life, we need to see life from the mountaintop. 

This is the primary reason why we climb mountains.  The view is awesome!  Climbing a mountain gives us a panoramic view.  We are able to see the larger picture.  Things that loomed so large when we were near them, now appear as minuscule specks, (if we can see them at all).  We climb mountains, because we desire a better view.   We need these panoramic views of life and reality.  We need to see the bigger picture. 

This is why the generals of past generations would send scouts to the mountains.  They needed a larger view of the battlefield terrain.   We, too, need a larger view because life has a way of ensnarling us in gummy details and sticky webs.  Perceiving and understanding the bigger picture affords us a moment of transcendence from the tyranny of the superflous and unimportant. 
II
What do we discover when we get to the top?  If we knew what we were going to see when we climbed mountains, it would not be a compelling pursuit.  We have an idea of what we are going to see.  We have an idea of what we are going to experience, but climbing to the top of a mountain always holds an element of surprise, a moment of sudden insight, an experience we did not expect. Did James, John, and Peter know?  I suspect they had an idea that something important awaited, but what? 

What do we discover when we get to the top? It may be a moment of self-discovery.  “I did it!”   The program Outward Bound, is an outdoors experience intended for adolescents who are troubled or having a difficult time in life.  They are challenged by tasks related to mountaineering that push them physically, but more importantly the tasks challenge them to discover themselves, their gifts, and also their shortcomings. 

What do we discover when we get to the top? It may be an experience that cannot be replicated, (the transfiguration was such an experience).  Peter thought that he should build a monument to capture the experience forever, but there are some experiences that can only reside in our memory.

I remember climbing a mountain with Karen at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico.  We took an intermediate trail and there were times when I was a bit frightened, wondering if we bit off more than we could chew.  We eventually got to the top, exhausted.  I remember sitting there, catching my breath and looking around.  I was moved by the intensity of the silence.  I could hear myself breath, and then I heard this strange pumping sound in the air…. It was an eagle flying overhead…. I could hear the air move as it flapped its wings.   An amazing moment!  But it was not a “Kodak moment”.  But no photograph could ever fully capture our experience, and yet it is burned into my very being.  We climb mountains because we are not exactly sure what awaits us at the top, but we know it could be awesome and life changing.

III
Jesus invites us to climb a mountain with the other disciples, Peter, James, and John.  It is curious that Mark never tells us the name of the mountain they ascended.  I am sure that there was a mountain, but I also believe that Mark had an additional intent. This was also a figurative mountain, a mountain that exists in the human spirit, a challenging mountain that holds a promise for each of us who summon the moral courage to ascend it.   Mark was challenging his readers to climb with Christ. 

On Wednesday, we enter the season of Lent.  Traditionally this is a time of introspection: a time to look at ourselves, who we are and what we need to change in our lives.  It is a time for recommitment to discipline, (which is the same word as disciple).  It is a time for journeying with Christ. 

One of the songs that we sing during this season is “Jesus Walked that Lonesome Valley.”  It is an African-American spiritual that profoundly addresses the journey of the soul.  But before we walk that valley, Christ invites us to the mountaintop.  He invites to climb the mountain with Peter, James and John and see what they saw; experience what they experienced.  He invites us into a more intimate relationship with God.  Moses experienced this.  Elijah experienced this.  Jesus invited his disciples to experience this.  Jesus invites us. 
·      He invites us to experience the presence of God as we enter the cloud that brings clarity. 
·      He invites us to experience life in its larger context, a panoramic mountain top view of reality. 
·      He invites us to experience the exhilaration and the exhaustion of the mountain of spirit. 
·      He invites us to understand and to share his suffering as he turns his head and journeys to Jerusalem and the cross. 
·      He invites us to join his disciples and climb the mountain.  
·      He invites us to discover that there are other mountains to climb in our lives.
·      He invites us to broaden our vision and to cast our blinders to the wind. 

Jesus walked the valleys of life… but those valleys exist only because there are mountains.  Christ also invites his disciples, (you and me), to climb the mountain with him and experience with him, the awesome presence of God.  This is the Good News.  Amen.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

"Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid!" A Meditation on the Message of Angels


“Be Afraid.  Be Very Afraid!” 
A Meditation on the Message of Angels
Brent J Eelman

The title of this essay is drawn from the 1980’s movie “The Fly,” but it could very well be a paraphrase of much of the contemporary social and political rhetoric that dominates our landscape.  Be afraid of refugees.  Be afraid of terrorism. Be afraid of crime.  Be afraid of the future.  The emotion of fear is a useful response that protects us against real dangers.  But fear is often stoked by principalities and powers to manipulate, abuse, and control humanity.  Fear is contagious.  We sense it in others and it raises our own anxiety and worries.  We talk about our fears and it multiplies not only in our own soul but in the collective soul of our community. 

Fear is also addictive and the visual media, by means of its news and entertainment outlets, feeds this addiction through exaggeration and misrepresentation supported by visual stimuli.   Consequently, we believe that the murder rate is the highest it’s been in 47 years. (PolitiFact reports that the murder rate is down 42 percent during this period in spite of a 25% uptick in population.  There has been a slight increase from 2014-15).   We are afraid of international terrorists.  (PolitiFact reports that between 2005 and 2015 there were 71 deaths caused by international terrorists in the United States while there were 301,797 gun deaths during that same period.)  

Out of fear we build walls, whether around our property or our nation.  Out of fear we buy guns; handguns, assault guns, and stun guns. Out of fear, we vote. 

“People react to fear, not love,” Richard Nixon once said.  He continued, “They don’t teach that in Sunday school. But it’s true.”

But our concern should be what we teach in Sunday School.  The heart of the Christmas message addresses the reality of fear.  The words, “Do not be afraid” appear throughout the Christmas narrative.  The angel speaks to Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist who was overcome with fear, “Do not be afraid…” (Luke 1:13).  The angel speaks to Mary, the mother of Jesus, “Do not be afraid…” (Luke 1:30).  The angel speaks to Joseph, afraid of the public scandal that might entail from Mary’s pregnancy, “do not be afraid…”  (Matthew 1:20).  The angel speaks to shepherds, Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy…” (Luke 2:10). 

The announcement of the birth of Jesus is accompanied by the angelic message, “Do not be afraid.”  We echo these words in our Christmas Carols:  “No more let fears and sorrows grow…”  “Now, you need not fear the grave…”   “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” declares that this message is proclaimed against a backdrop of fear, naming it “Babel.”  “And ever o’er its Babel sounds the blessed angels sing.”   The Christmas story and the carols we sing are an invitation to respond, not to the fears that enslave and control, but to the hope of the world that frees, restores, heals, and loves. 

But there is a dark side to the Christmas story that we encounter in Matthew.  It is the story of the Magi. In that story we encounter the politician, Herod, who responds not to this hope, but rather to his fears.  “When King Herod heard this, he was frightened…” (Matthew 2:3).  Matthew exposes Herod as a duplicitous ruler who feigns religious devotion to achieve political ends that enhance his power.  “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”  (Matthew 2: 8).  His true nature is revealed in the massacre of infants. “When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under.”  The end product of fear is violence and death.  This was the outcome of Herod’s politics of fear: violence and death visited upon the innocents. 

In the ancient Christmas story, we encounter a carpenter, Joseph, a teenage mother, Mary, shepherds in the fields and Magi (astrologers) in the east, responding to their hopes: the prophetic hope of peace on earth, the hope that peace can exist in a diverse community, (Isaiah 11:1-9), and the hope of justice for the poor, the outcast, and the weak (Isaiah 61:1-4). 

Does this message, the negation of fear, still ring out during our Christmas celebration?  Do we respond to the Gospel message of hope or to our modern Herods and their political message of fear?  I believe this is the choice that is before us this Christmas.    Rick Wilson, a political ad creator stated:  Fear is easy.  Fear is the simplest emotion to tweak in a campaign ad. You associate your opponent with terror, with fear, with crime, with causing pain and uncertainty.”  He continued, “ When people are under stress, the hind brain takes over.”  In other words, we lose our God given rational selves, the ability to use good judgment.  In short, we abandon the gift and calling of being creatures made in the image of God.   We can journey down this road of fear and follow it to its destination of violence, war, destruction and death.

Or we can choose the other road.  It is one of moral courage, economic justice, and healing.  This is the journey, marked by a star that leads to Bethlehem.  It is the fearless journey of hope. 

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Dickens' Christmas Carol and the Challenge of the Christmas Proclamation


 
Dickens' Christmas Carol and the Challenge of the Christmas Proclamation

The movie, The Man Who Invented Christmas, is an enjoyable, albeit different, Christmas movie.  It is the story of Charles Dickens inner struggle to create the beloved A Christmas Carol.  I had a number of different reactions to this movie and thought that I would collect them in this short essay. 

1.     This is essentially a Christmas movie about the creation of the story, A Christmas Carol, which ultimately became the archetype for all Christmas stories and movies. It tells us that a core of goodness still exists in the heart of humanity and that the heart of even the most miserable human beings can be changed.  This story is one of the triumph of hope over despair, of goodness over evil, and of purpose over meaninglessness.  It is the essential story of most Christmas movies from The Bishop’s Wife to It’s a Wonderful Life.

What makes these movies “Christmas stories” as opposed to ordinary happy tales, is the intervention of an external power or force, be it angels or ghosts.   Human despair and misery cannot be reversed by humanity alone, a power from beyond is needed. 

2.    A Christmas Carol is a Christmas story without a Christ.  Dickens’ delightful story is about human transformation without a religious dimension.  There is no mention of the Jesus, no crèche, and no Mary and Joseph.  The story is entirely secular.  In this respect, the title The Man Who Invented Christmas is spot on.  This story provides the foundation for the modern celebration of Christmas as a secular holiday.  The “Christmas Spirit” is the spirit of generosity and hope, not the Holy Spirit that comes upon Mary in the Magnificat, (Luke 1:46-55).  Dickens distilled the hope of the biblical story of the incarnation in a form that enables all to celebrate the “season” apart from the theological dogma surrounding the incarnation.  Ironically, Dickens, “the man who invented Christmas” removed Christ from Christmas. 

3.    I was struck by the coincidental timing of this story, given what is happening in the halls of Congress.  A driving sentiment in A Christmas Carol is the hope that Tiny Tim will live.  He is ill, probably with rickets from the poor nutrition that results from poverty.  He needs medical care.  Our country is filled with “Tiny Tims” suffering from all types of childhood diseases, but the Children’s Health Insurance Program, (CHIP), has been unfunded since September 30, 2017.  Tiny Tim survives because of the generosity of the transformed Scrooge.  How many children will die in the richest nation in the world because of the hardened hearts of the representatives who are sitting on this bill? 

We should not forget that Dickens’ novels were critical of the disparities of wealth that existed in Great Britain during his day.  This included the exploitation of children to the benefit of the wealthy.  His character, Scrooge, is the archetype of the greed that allows those in power to continue to exploit workers, deny healthcare, and justify poverty using arguments of economic expediency.   The modern reader of A Christmas Carol cannot help but hear echoes of Scrooge’s rhetoric in the pseudo-philosophy of Ayn Rand, social Darwinism and its modern political proponents.  

As a pastor, Christmas was always a difficult season for me.  Part of it was due to the “busy-ness” and the tyranny of minutia that are so much of a clergy’s experience of Christmas.  But there was a deeper, theological, and existential issue for me.  It is the fact that Christmas is a very minor part of the Biblical story.  It occupies 2 chapters of the Gospel of Luke, (really only the 2nd chapter).  Matthew devotes 30 verses of his Gospel to the story of the incarnation.  Neither Mark nor John mention it.  The Apostle Paul does not write about it in any of his letters, with the exception of Galatians 4:4-5, (with no mention of Mary and Joseph).  The focus of the New Testament is on the Resurrection of Jesus and the victory ushered into the world by this event.  I felt as though contemporary Christianity had been overtaken by the secular celebration of Christmas.  From my conversations with colleagues, I knew that I was not alone in this sentiment.

It was only in the latter years of my ministry that I began to change my feelings about Christmas and its religious and secular dimensions.  It began to dawn on me that Christmas stories, particularly A Christmas Carol provided a “point of contact” for me to address my congregation with the message of the incarnation.  The words of the Advent hymn, “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus” were embodied in these secular Christmas stories and movies.
Israel’s strength and consolation,
Hope of all the earth Thou art’
Dear desire of every nation,
Joy of every longing heart.

The Christ-less Christmas stories expressed this longing, this desire; this hope to hope again.  Preaching, indeed ministry, during the Christmas season needed to speak to this ancient longing.  There is indeed a hole, an emptiness in our collective soul that cannot be filled by kings and leaders from Herod to Trump.  There is a longing and thirst for a better world where generosity, love, justice, and healing prevail.  There is also a cynicism, a wound of the spirit that tells us that we, of our own volition, cannot usher in this era.  Our Christmas proclamation needs to speak to this wound that will not heal; this wound that is articulated in the Christmas stories we read and watch. 

Dickens also had a social conscience.  His novels, from Bleak House to Oliver Twist do not ignore the plight of the underclass and the poor.  He brings their story to light and tells of their struggles and their shortcomings.  They are not the “noble poor” but rather human beings with hopes that are mired in the mud of despair.   Our proclamation needs to embody the realism of Dickens.  In the words of Isaiah, (and later Jesus) we need to declare “good news to the poor.”  If our Christmas message does not include this, then we too are captives to consumerist Christmas. 

The existential question for the preacher is: Can a world that is captivated and charmed by ghosts of Christmas past, present and future, be touched by the spirit of Christ?   

Karl Barth wrote that the preacher should have the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.  He believed that preaching, if it was to be a “living Word” would have to be proclaimed in the living world.  It needed to address the context of its listener.  I fully concur with this sentiment and would extend it to say that during Christmas, we preachers should have the Bible in one hand and A Christmas Carol in the other.