Advent – Past, Present and Future
Advent 1, November 27, 2016
The United Churches
Our theme for the advent season is The Redemption of Scrooge, based somewhat on a book by the same name written by Matt Rawle. Most of you are familiar with the story about Ebenezer Scrooge written by Charles Dickens entitled: A Christmas Carol.
The tale begins on a “cold, bleak, biting” Christmas Eve in London, exactly seven years after the death of Scrooge’s business partner: Jacob Marley. We know immediately that Scrooge is “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!” He hates Christmas, calling it “humbug” and he refuses his nephew Fred’s Christmas dinner invitation. He sarcastically turns away two gentlemen who seek a donation from him to provide a Christmas dinner for the poor and needy. His only “Christmas gift” is allowing his overworked, underpaid clerk Bob Cratchit, Christmas Day off with pay – which he does only to keep with social custom. Scrooge, himself considered it “a poor excuse for picking a man’s pocket every 25th of December!”
When he arrived home on Christmas Eve, Scrooge was visited by his former business partner, Marley in the form of a ghost who is forever cursed to wander the earth dragging a network of heavy chains, forged during a lifetime of greed and selfishness. Dickens describes the ghost this way “Marley’s face … had a dismal light about it, like a bad lobster in a dark cellar.” Marley had a bandage under his chin, tied at the top of his head; “… how much greater was Scrooge’s horror, when the ghost took the bandage off his head, and his lower jaw dropped down upon his chest!”
Marley told Scrooge that he has one chance to avoid the same fate. He would be visited by three spirits, one on each successive evening and he must listen to them or be cursed to carry chains of his own making that would be much longer than Marley’s chains. As Marley departs, Scrooge then sees other restless spirits who now wish they could help those still living, but are powerless to do so. Beginning that night, Scrooge is visited by the three spirits Marley spoke of – The ghost of Christmas Past, the ghost of Christmas Present and the ghost of Christmas future– who accompany him on visits to various Christmas scenes, past, present and future.
We will continue to reflect on this story in the coming weeks. Advent is about the collision of the past, the present and the future. The advent season plays with our notion of time. During Advent, we sing songs like O Come, O Come Emmanuel and Come Thou Long Expected Jesus. We sing these songs in anticipation of the coming of the Christ Child. Our children open Advent Calendars counting down the days until the Christ Child is born, waiting in great anticipation of Christmas, waiting for something that is already here, and yet not. Waiting between the now and the not yet.
In the story of A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge gets what our unnamed rich man from scripture does not get. Someone coming back from the dead to provide warning.
During his life, the rich man did not even see the poor man who was at his gate every day. Now, in the afterlife, he finally sees Lazarus — but it’s too late. The parable shows a permanent chasm fixed between the rich man and poor Lazarus, with no way to cross over the chasm. The story is what we call an apocalyptic story: there is a vivid journey to the afterlife, there is exaggerated imagery of contrast. The story functions as a wakeup call, pulling back to curtain to open our eyes to something that we urgently need to see before it is too late.
The contrasts are many: A rich man dressed in purple and fine linen feasting sumptuously every day on lavish meals contrasting with his unquenchable thirst after death. The immense poverty of Lazarus, starving and covered with sores, being licked by dogs contrasting with his rest in the bosom of Abraham.
From his place in the underworld the rich man sees something far away. He is quite bewildered seeing the beggar resting in the bosom of Abraham. Convinced that his power and status will go on forever and ever, he assumes that even in the next world Lazarus would serve him: ‘So he called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in these flames.” Abraham tells him, “Child, remember that in your lifetime you received good things and Lazarus received evil things, now he is comforted here and you are in agony.”
The rich man then begs for what Ebenezer Scrooge received, someone to come back from the dead and warn his siblings, but Abraham says no. Tenderly but firmly, Abraham refuses each of the rich man’s requests. For the rich man, it is too late. Abraham will not send Lazarus to help the rich man after death, nor will he send Lazarus to warn the rich man’s siblings. He is told that he and his siblings already had all of the information that they needed to change their hearts and their lives. They had Moses, and they had the prophets.
Apocalyptic stories with their exaggerated imagery offer a wake-up call, a warning, like the dream sequences of Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. If this parable is an apocalypse, then Luke is inviting us, the audience, not to see ourselves as Lazarus or as the rich man, but instead in the role of the five siblings who are still alive. The five siblings who are still alive have time to open their eyes.
What is the chasm that that was fixed between the rich man and Lazarus? What was the crevasse that was too deep to cross? We can answer this question on many levels. It can be a simple as wealth and poverty. It can be between the rich and powerful and the homeless poor. It can be between the Sioux Nation and the Energy Transfer Partners. It can be between invisible White privilege and people of color. What the great chasm boils down to at a basic level is ignorance. Ignorance. Sometime we just don’t see what is going on. We don’t see it, we don’t want to see it, we can’t see it. If we see it, we might have to change.
I think you all pretty much see the chasm between the rich and the poor, the housed and the homeless, and the Sioux nation and the Energy Transfer Partners, so I’m not going to spend much time on that. Now that many of us have just spent time over the thanksgiving holidays with family, let’s look at the chasm’s there. Is there a chasm between you and a sibling? Between you and parent or a child?
When I was doing my clinical pastoral education, I was reminded again about the Johari Window, a technique to help people better understand their relationship with themselves and others. It was created by psychologists Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingram. Picture a house with four rooms. Room 1 is the part of ourselves that we see and everyone else sees. We can call this room the arena. Everyone sees what is going on. Room 2 are the aspects that others can see about us but we are not aware of. We can call this room “blind spot.” Room 3 is our private space, which we know, but hide from others. We can call this room “façade.” This is the part of ourselves that we show off for others, while hiding our stuff that we are perhaps ashamed of. Room 4 is the most mysterious room in that the unconscious or subconscious part of us is not seen by ourselves nor others. We will call this room “unknown.”
I believe where the chasm widens in our family and intimate friendships are in the areas of our blind spots, the things we hide from others, and the things that are not yet known. If the chasm is ignorance and we want to bridge the chasm, then we have to be willing to know ourselves and be known. We think we know ourselves, but then there are those pesky blind spots. Here is how to tell if you have a blind spot: Someone gives you a little feedback about yourself and you feel really, really angry or sad, or you are immediately tempted to cut off the relationship. If this happens, you might be given a clue about one of your blind spots. If you are brave, and seek more information about your blind spot, chances are you are building a bridge over a chasm. Conversely, if you start feeling brave enough to share something that you are hiding about yourself with someone close, you are building a bridge over a chasm.
The rich man was told by Abraham that he and his siblings already had everything that they needed in their life time to overcome ignorance and see what needed to be changed. They had everything they needed to bridge the chasm. We do as well. We don’t need to have a ghost come back and show us, we have family members and friends who are trying to help us see. So, when you have a strong emotional response to a family member, take a breath, and open your heart and listen.
Bridges are being built over chasms when you are brave.