Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Scrooge: a Christmas carol of ignorance and bliss

Text: Matthew 2:1-12 (the visit of the wise men)

I love the Christmas morning scene from the 1951 film version of  "A Christmas Carol," Charles' Dickens classic novel.

The lead character, Ebenezer Scrooge, is thrilled to be alive after spending the night with the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future. From their visions, Scrooge has gained painful insight into his past behaviour, which he now regrets.

Scrooge tells his housekeeper Mrs. Dilbur that he doesn't know how long he has been with the spirits. "In fact," he continues, "I don't know anything . . . I never did. But now I know that I don't know." Then he claps his hands together, slaps his thighs and prances about the room as he sings, "I don't know anything. But now I know that I don't know. I don't know anything, all on a Christmas morning," at which point, Mrs. Dilbur runs out of the room screaming.

This is one of my favourite movie scenes of all times, and, I think, a perfect depiction of a person having his life turned around.

Tonight, I hope that the spirit of Christmas will infect our hearts and minds as it did Scrooge and help us turn towards generosity, joy, and love.

This church service also has a shadow side. This will be the last time that I will preside at this pulpit as your settled minister. In fact, this may be the last worship service led by a minister settled in the Borderlands charge. In late January, the Central Board will make decisions that will help decide our future.

During two and half years here, I have failed to build up this congregation, which leaves me feeling exposed and ignorant. I can empathize with Scrooge on Christmas morning. As a Christian minister, I wonder what I really know. Perhaps nothing. Perhaps I never did know anything.

Waking up to the fact that he knows nothing comes at the cost of painful visions for Scrooge. But from this place of not-knowing, he changes his life completely.

Ignorance and powerlessness are not always seen as markers of healing and joy.  But when we look again at the Christmas story and the life of Jesus, we might agree that Dickens and Scrooge are on to something.

Like all newborns, Jesus on the first Christmas is full of promise. But like all newborns, he is also powerless, ignorant, and vulnerable. In the passage that follows the one we heard tonight, Matthew writes that King Herod searches for Jesus in an attempt to kill him. Joseph and Mary are forced to flee with Jesus to Egypt for the next few years.

Jesus begins his life as a humble baby, he ends his life in humiliation on a cross, and he calls those who follow him to take up our own cross. Just as with Scrooge's Christmas night with the Spirits, the cross carries the promise of new life. But this new life in Christ comes at the cost of pain, powerlessness, and ignorance.

It might seem odd for a Christian minister to uphold ignorance as a virtue. Churches seem to be overflowing with knowledge. In church, we study the Bible, how to behave, and God as Source, Saviour and Spirit. Why, then, should I uphold ignorance, especially someone like me who seems to know so much? You know, it is not uncommon after worship for people to remark on how knowledgeable I am. Some have even suggested that I might make a better teacher than a preacher!

It is true that I love learning. But I also pray that, like Scrooge, I have endured enough dark nights of the soul to realize that knowledge is of little value in our individual and collective journeys towards God's love and God's salvation.

There is never an end to what we can learn. But no matter how much we learn, it will never be more than a tiny sliver of all that humans know. Nor will it ever help us get beyond our need to trust our bodies, our fellow human beings, and the world. It will never free us from the need to place our trust in God.

Before that painful Christmas night, Scrooge thought that he had life figured out. He had learned to harden his heart against the untimely deaths of his mother and sister and against his inability to find love. He had become successful in business. He assumed that others could achieve his worldly success through hard work and ruthlessness.

Scrooge worshipped self-reliance, money, and lack of empathy. This was what he knew, and it seemed sufficient to him.

But the beginning of wisdom is awareness of our utter dependence on God. From a position of ignorance and powerlessness, we are freed to accept our mortal reality and the difficulties of the family, community and world in which we live. With the grace of humility we are free to give and accept love without limit.

During the years when Scrooge had everything figured out, he was a miserable sinner. But when he realized that he knew nothing, he became a joyous and giving friend.

All of us are holy fools. Like Jesus, we come into the world without power and knowledge and we leave this world in the same way. Since we will never "get it right" and since we are headed to our own cross, we can, with grace, leave behind addictions and preoccupations. We are freed to live fearlessly into our sacred values.

You know, it is possible to become addicted to almost anything: alcohol and painkillers, of course, but also nationalism, sports, food, wealth, power, even church and its traditions.

In the face of his mortality and the tough realities of a crazy world, Scrooge learns that none of his preoccupations matter. He gives up old certainties. He admits his ignorance and his dependence on others and on God. He relaxes into a painful awareness that he had wasted much of his life. He also relaxes into an joyous awareness that, in his powerlessness, he is saved.

The church represents this paradox of ignorance that leads to joy and powerlessness that leads to salvation by a humble Saviour born into poverty at Christmas, one who grows to become the Christ who is arrested, tortured and crucified during Holy Week. God in Christ graciously calls us to walk with him on this path. With faith and hope, we walk towards God's love as ignorant sinners guided by the light of salvation. On this path, God removes all of our worries.

Take church -- when we realize our limitations, we can stop worrying about it, which frees us to be the best possible church members we could ever be. Same with our families -- when we admit our dependence on God, we don't have to worry about family, which allows us to be the best parents or children we could ever be. We don't have to worry about wealth or power, which allow us to be better citizens. We don't have to worry about preserving our small lives, which allows us to be raised into new life in Christ, the best and brightest life imaginable.

When I came here to Rockglen, Fife Lake, and Coronach two and half years ago, I came as a holy fool with empty hands. I pray that I am leaving in much the same way.

I wish all the best for this church, town, and for you. May your lives continue to be filled with God's blessings, whether or not that involves church.

And if a United Church presence does continue in Borderlands, I pray that it will be a church that knows it doesn't know anything.

St. Paul said that all he knew was Christ and him crucified. He also wrote that while this seems like "foolishness to those who are perishing, it is the power of God to those who are being saved." God's strength lies in weakness, and our healing is guaranteed by a Saviour who dies on a cross.

On a dark Christmas Night, Ebenezer Scrooge learned the painful truth that his life had been wasted on idols and bitterness. Because he accepted the Spirit's help to acknowledge this painful truth, he was raised to joyful new life on Christmas morning in full awareness of his ignorance and foolishness.

May the light, joy and love of this Christmas grant us the humility of the child of Bethlehem who leads us as holy fools to the cross and then beyond to the limitless new life found in an empty tomb at Easter.

And on this, as on any Merry Christmas, may God Bless us, Everyone!

Amen.

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