A sermon by Rev. Robin Bartlett
Delivered December 4, 2016
at The First Church in Sterling, MA
Sermons are better heard than read. Listen here.
[I often listen to my sermons from the week before because it helps me improve my preaching. I listened to last week’s on Tuesday. Last Sunday, I had had a long Thanksgiving weekend. I had two parties that I hosted at the parsonage—one for family on Thursday, and one for friends on Saturday. And I had apparently eaten so much turkey and had so much fun last weekend that on Sunday morning, I got into this pulpit and called Jacob Marley “Bob Marley.” And none of you so much as flinched. You didn’t laugh, you didn’t call me on it in the receiving line. My own husband noticed and didn’t say anything until I asked him about it on Tuesday. If I had been sitting in the pews, I would have started singing “One love.” But you just sat there quietly. Maybe you weren’t listening. But anyway, that’s how I define grace. Ignoring your minister’s reference to Bob Marley in the story of A Christmas Carol..]
Please won’t you pray with me.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts together find their way into the heart of God this morning. Amen.
We are taking a journey with Ebenezer Scrooge this advent, and today we are going to explore the ghosts of our Christmas past, and how they facilitate our transformation and redemption. We are going to talk about how the ghosts of our past give us hope for healing ourselves and this broken world.
We start with scripture.
Our scripture text from Isaiah talks about what the upside down, mixed up, topsy turvy kingdom of God will look like—the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid. The calf and the lion and the fatling together. (What’s a fatling?) The cow and the bear will graze together. I’m guessing the Davises will confirm that these scenarios are rather unlikely. In this world, anyway.
But we are told this is what God’s world will look like—a peaceable kingdom.
Where they will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
Our text from the Gospel according to Matthew is rather harsh, demanding that we repent because this upside down peaceable kingdom has come near. And frankly, John the Baptist isn’t very peaceable in talking about what it’s gonna take to make this happen. He talks about a person coming after him who will baptize us with the holy spirit. And no one ever promised us that the holy spirit would bring us comfort. In fact, apparently there’s unquenchable fire involved.
(I frankly feel like the whole world’s on fire right now, so if repenting is what it takes to quench the fire, sign me up.)
Repent, John the Baptist says. The kingdom of God has come near. I know the thought of “repenting” has rather negative connotations for some of us. I always think of that guy in the subway who has a “repent or BURN” sign. But re-penting means simply to re-think, and return to God. Repenting requires us to re-member, re-think and re-turn.
So today we are going to consider how we might start that process of returning to ourselves and to God by examining our past; remembering.
How many of you are on Facebook? How many of you have been on Facebook for more than 5 years? I joined Facebook in 2007. And it is almost 2017, so that’s almost 10 years of Facebook for me. A quarter of my life, and half of my adult life. And Facebook has this nifty little feature. It’s called “on this day.” Every single morning at about 8 am, Facebook prompts me to look at all of my posts “on this day” in my history for all of the years that I have been on Facebook. “Look upon me!” Facebook says. “I am the Ghost of Christmas past.”
If you post a lot of pictures and other kinds of posts on Facebook like I do, this tool can be both heartwarming and exceedingly painful, especially at this time of year. For those of us like me who are divorced with children from a previous marriage, Facebook is a daily reminder of every Christmas spent as an intact family. For those of us who have lost loved ones, it is a reminder of every Christmas spent with our friends and family now gone. For those of us who are currently depressed or in mourning, it’s a painful reminder of happier times when we didn’t need therapists and grief groups and lexapro. For those of us who are sober, it’s a painful reminder of a time when we weren’t. For those of us who are currently happy, it’s a painful reminder of times when we were pretending for others that we were. For those of us who have recently been diagnosed, it’s a reminder of how carefree we were before the diagnosis. For those of us who are parents, it is a daily reminder of how little our sweet babies once were, or what our home was like before they left for college. And so on.
Facebook gives us an invasive daily dose of the Ghosts of Christmas past, and those ghosts can haunt.
And yet, I don’t know about you, but every single experience of pain, adversity and suffering in my life has helped to soften and open my heart to those who suffer. My suffering has made me a better pastor. It has the potential to make me a better friend, a better wife and parent, a better neighbor. When I am more in tune with my own suffering, I am more attuned to the suffering of the world. And so when I’m in the mood, I try to let the daily practice of examining the Facebook Ghosts of my Christmas past break my heart again. I look at the photos of my differently configured family with my little beautiful babies, and I let myself feel the sadness again. I allow my heart to break open, so my own suffering might inform my love for others. Compassion starts with heartbreak.
This experience was also part of Scrooge’s redemption.
You know that there are a thousand adaptations of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” because it is so universally, multi-generationally, timelessly beloved. Multiple movies and plays and TV Shows. Everyone from the Muppets to Albert Finney has depicted Scrooge.
And my favorite of all time is Mr. Magoo’s “A Christmas Carol.”
We watch it every year. The saddest scene that makes me cry every time is when Mr. Magoo, who plays Scrooge, visits his childhood self. He is alone, friendless, and at a home for orphaned boys. He is washing the chalkboards after school, and he sings the song “Alone in the World.”
“A hand for each hand was planned for the world, why don’t my fingers reach? Millions of grains of sand in the world, why such a lonely beach? Where is a voice who’ll answer mine back? Where are two shoes who’ll click to my clack? I’m all alone in the world.”
Mr. Magoo watches himself singing this song as a boy, and a single tear slides down his cheek. He looks back on his childhood self—his childhood suffering, his childhood loneliness—the God-sized hole he cannot fill.
And his adult heart begins to thaw.
Perhaps repenting means letting our hearts soften first for ourselves. Maybe this is what repentance by fire looks like.
Remembering, rethinking, returning again.
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
Perhaps the peaceable kingdom comes to this earth when we let our childhood selves lead us.
Our friend Mary Pat sent me an email this week inspired by last week’s sermon on Bob Marley (Just seeing if you were paying attention…) I mean, last week’s sermon on the Scrooge inside of each of us. Her story is about the heartbreak of Christmas past informing the faith of her Christmas present. It blessed me, so I asked if I could share it with all of you. I’m only sharing parts of it with you here.
“Dear Robin: I have to tell you that I believed in Santa Claus until I was 13. (Shocking, I know). My family just couldn't bring themselves to tell me, so ardent was my belief. I was an innocent, and they mistook that for being “emotionally-delicate” as my (wryly, bi-polar) Mother would put it. But my younger sister, Sarah, was of the age (the normal age) of the unbeliever, and had begun to ask questions that the rest of my family was having difficulty answering unless they first addressed the issue with me. So my parents sat me down in the living room; a room that outside of Christmas morning, was only ever used for guests and important family “discussions” about how much trouble we were in.
It was after Mass, on Christmas Eve. As my parents began telling me their truth of the story of Santa, I could feel the room spinning. Before they could finish, I was running out of the room wailing, up the stairs, slamming and locking the door to the bathroom. I sat on the edge of the tub and sobbed. My poor family. I was inconsolable. I am sure they were worried that there was something terribly wrong with my mental state of health (truth be told, the jury is still out...) For although they knew me – and often made fun of me – for being naive, it was truly beyond their comprehension that I could still “at my age” be a believer.
For me, the notion absolutely rocked my world. But my tears were not that of disappointment. My tears flowed out of fear... of a gut wrenching, heart-breaking fear that if there was no Santa Claus, then maybe there was no God...and if there was no God, then this being that I had known so intimately all my life, that I'd known longer than I'd known anyone in my family or even my own self...if this relationship was not God, then I truly was crazy...and I knew I would never survive my kind of crazy without God. The thought of living in a world without God was incomprehensible to me and there was no way I wanted to live in this world without Him.”
Mary Pat’s Ghost of Christmas past was encountering a world without wonder, and worse, a world without God. “I’m all alone in the world.”
She didn’t know then that it would take a child to lead her back home; to help her remember, rethink and return.
When Mary Pat’s daughter Giorgia asked her mom the question Mary Pat most dreaded as a parent, she was 6, “Is Santa real?” She asked.
Mary Pat did that parent thing that all kids hate, she answered the question with more questions. And then she concluded: “it's all about what you believe.”
“And that Christmas morning,” Mary Pat writes “opposite the side of the room where Santa had left a stocking filled for Giorgia, to my complete and utter surprise and delight, lay the stocking from my childhood (long forgotten and left behind in the otherwise empty boxes of decorations) filled with clementines and walnuts, ...a can of corn (one had gone missing from the cupboard a few days earlier), ...a Kit-Kat bar (her favorite, bought on the way home from school, but, curiously, “saved for later”) ...bits of ribbon for my hair, a bead necklace, and pictures that “Santa” had drawn just for me...... I was in Awe, and Giorgia was completely giddy. It was a perfectly exquisite moment of Joy… Santa still fills my stocking every year.”
She says: “to this day my family, unaware of how horrid that moment was for me, still teases me about how old I was when I finally stopped believing in Santa Claus. They don't know that I have a secret. To this day I am still the first one up on Christmas morning—the only parent I know to wake up before her child. You see, I never stopped believing, and 20 years later my Faith was rewarded with my most treasured of Christmas Gifts.”
…and a little child shall lead them.
Our faith is rewarded every year, if we let it. Because the miracle of Christmas is not in the stars or the magi or the angels heralding God’s presence on earth. The miracle is in the way we are God’s presence to each other. It is in the ways in which we build God’s peaceable kingdom here on earth. This kingdom starts inside of each of us. Because our hearts have been softened by our own suffering. Because we have woken up again to the suffering of all people. Because it is so dark, and we still have audacious hope for the return of the light.
Beloved, the kingdom of God is so very near. Re-member, re-think, and re-turn. Let the children lead.
The miracle has just begun in you, God bless us everyone!
Reverend Robin Bartlett is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, with dual standing in the United Church of Christ. She is the Senior Pastor at The First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts.