Saturday, December 26, 2015

Become Who You Are: Scrooge, the Christ Child and the Church (27 December 2015)

Become Who You Are:
Scrooge, the Christ Child and the Church

Reflections on Luke 2.41-52
27 December 2015

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church

            When Paula and I moved to South Bend, Indiana, in the summer of 1984, one of our priorities was finding work for both of us.  Paula quickly found work in the mortgage loan office of a local bank, work that she had done earlier in her life.  I had a small first-year fellowship, but it was not enough.  So, I contacted the bishops of Northern Indiana and Western Michigan for permission to officiate.  My own bishop greased the wheels with a telephone call or two.  Permission came quickly and I found myself in regular demand to cover services on Sundays.

            One Sunday I remember well.  As you know, I love words and some of my sermons rely on exploring the meaning of a word.  I was in a small congregation in southwestern Michigan on the shores of Lake Michigan.  That Sunday I illustrated my sermon by pointing out the difference between the words ‘English’ and ‘British’.  ‘English’, I pointed out, relates to that area we know as ‘England’.  On the other hand, ‘British’ relates to that area we know as the island of Great Britain and includes Scotland, England and Wales.  I pointed out that my mixed Welsh and English heritage led me to describe myself as ‘British’ rather than ‘English’.  I then went on to the biblical word I wanted to explore with them.

            I thought that I had done a good job, but my ego was quickly deflated.  A lovely older woman shook my hand at the door.  ‘I know exactly what you mean’, she said, ‘I’m English too.’  I learned that day that even the best-planned sermon illustrations can go widely astray.

            Perhaps this experience is why I love ‘A Christmas Carol’ by Charles Dickens.  I often wonder when I hear someone describe another person as ‘Scrooge’ whether Dickens felt the same way I did after my sermon:  You can do the best you can and people will still fail to get your point.  In telling his story about a miser who discovers the meaning of Christmas, Dickens was writing to an audience of readers living in an industrial society that had forgotten the meaning of Christmas.  During Dickens’ lifetime the number of unemployed, of homeless and of hungry people increased in the Britain of Victoria.  There were no government social programmes other than workhouses or paupers’ prisons or poorly-staffed mental hospitals.  Charities existed, but they often treated those they helped as less than human.

            So, Scrooge, the archetypical capitalist of Dickens’ day, becomes the figure of a man discovering who he is truly meant to be.  He has allowed the disappointments of his life --- the death of his mother in childbirth, his distant and uncaring father, the loss of the love of his life and the death of his beloved sister in childbirth --- to define who he thinks he is.  But the Ghosts of Christmas Past, of Christmas Present and of Christmas to Come offer Scrooge the opportunity to look at his life and the lives of those around him in a new light.  And this new light enables Scrooge to become who he truly is:  a man with a generous heart, a man with a joyful heart, a man with a compassionate heart.  Instead of an image of miserliness, Scrooge is actually an image of conversion and discovery of one’s true identity.

            Becoming who we truly are is the vocation to which each one of us is called.  Today’s gospel story of Jesus in the Temple has always been one of my favourites.  Here we see Jesus as a pre-teen who is both precocious and cruel.  His precociousness is obvious:  sitting in the Temple he has captured the attention of the leading teachers and priests.  His answers astound him, a surprise no doubt increased because his accent would have betrayed him as a northerner, people who were not well-respected in the south.

            But Jesus is also cruel.  He has allowed Mary and Joseph to spend days searching for him and worrying about him.  And then, when they finally find him, he utters words that must have cut deeply into the heart of Joseph:  “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” [1]  Joseph has suffered ridicule for marrying a woman who is carrying a child not his own.  He has raised that child as his own.  And now, frantic with worry, concerned for his wife, this twelve-year-old prodigy reminds him that he is not Jesus’ father.  So, hurt as they must be, Mary and Joseph collect the boy.  But Luke concludes the story with words of hope:  “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favour.” [2]

            Who Jesus is there, sitting in the Temple, is not who Jesus is to become.  The cruel prodigy will mature into a wiser, more mature and compassionate teacher who is worth calling ‘Lord’.  Jesus’ vocation is the same as ours:  Become who you are.  Do not remain confined in who you are in this minute nor trapped by a counterfeit identity others may try to pin upon you.

            The writer of the First Letter of John puts this more elegantly and simply than I.  He writes, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this:  when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.” [3] 

            Yesterday, as I was walking Seren in the park, I met a woman walking her two black Labradors.  ‘How was your Christmas?’ she asked.  ‘It was quiet,’ I said.  ‘Well,’ she said, ‘I’m glad it’s over.  I’m going home now to take down the tree.’  Off she went, her dogs with her, satisfied to remain where she was, not where she is meant to go.

            We celebrate the feast of Christmas not to find solace in a fixed event in the past.  We celebrate the feast of Christmas because it is a time to renew our commitment to become who we are rather than be satisfied with the present.  We are right to give thanks for what we have learned about ourselves in the year past, both the good and the not-so-good.  But we, the Church, are called to join Scrooge and the Christ Child on their journey to maturity.  For Scrooge and for us, it is a life-long journey.  No one, regardless of their age, their station in life or their accomplishments, reach the end of this journey in the years given to us.  There is always the opportunity to discover more about the mystery of who we are as God’s children and to live out that mystery in our daily lives.

            So, keep the tree up as long as you want.  Let it remind you of God’s evergreen love summoning us on.  Surprise someone by calling them a true ‘Scrooge’ when they experience a revelation that changes their lives for the better.  Give thanks that even the Christ Child had to grow up despite the best of parents.  Become who we are --- that is the only gift worth offering to God and to our world.

[1] Luke 2.49

[2] Luke 2.52

[3] 1 John 3.1-3

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