Friday, December 24, 2021
“What Right Have You To Be Merry?”: A Sermon on Luke 2: 1-20 Delivered at St. Bartholomew’s Church, NYC, December 24, 2021
What Right Have We to be Merry?; A Sermon on Luke 2: 1-20 St. Bartholomew’s Church, December 24, 2021 What right have you to be merry? What reason have you to be merry? So asked Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, 178 years ago tonight, and maybe, just maybe, it’s about time we took that question seriously. After all, the story was published in 1843, and we’ve pretty much just assumed that it was bad-tempered spite on the part of old Ebenezer to ask it. And maybe that’s true. He is, after all, the villain of the story as well as its protagonist, and his salvation requires some pretty heavy lifting on the part of the three spirits of Christmas. On the other hand, villains often are the dark mirrors of ourselves, the part of us we reject as unworthy, the parts of our true selves that we repress because we can’t bear to acknowledge them. We all want to be our best selves, kind, brave, generous but prudent. We act the parts of the people we want to be, and mostly we try to live up to that image. But that image—the “Glittering Image” as Susan Howatch called it—isn’t our real self either, because it’s only a part of the whole that comprises each and every one of us. This darker half of ourselves, the unacknowledged fears, desires, and thoughts, can have a kind of wisdom that we shut out of our minds. After all, what reason does Scrooge’s nephew Fred have to be merry? As Scrooge points out, every Christmas for Fred is “but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, and not an hour richer; a time for balancing your books and having every item in 'em through a round dozen of months presented dead against” poor Fred. For that matter, what reason does Scrooge’s clerk, Bob Cratchit, who applauds Fred’s defense of Christmas have to be merry? What reason do Cratchit’s wife and six children have to be merry? They are desperately poor, living on the slender salary Scrooge provides Bob. Mrs. Cratchit struggles to provide decent meals, sometimes even with meat, for her husband and her children, who are already becoming introduced to the life of the working poor in early Victorian London. Their lives are dirty, laborious, and their surroundings ramshackle. And her youngest son, Tiny Tim, is visibly failing, and very likely to die. What right do Fred or the Cratchits have to be merry? What are they celebrating? Isn’t Scrooge right, when he caustically suggests that Fred’s celebration is simply driving him deeper in debt, allowing him to postpone the moment when he is forced to confront his failures and, at long last, set his house in order? Today’s reading from Luke makes it immediately clear that Joseph’s house is not remotely in order; although he is a descendant of King David, the carpenter hasn’t even been able to find a room at the inn for his wife to give birth to her mysterious child—a child that Joseph knows is not his, and yet, trusting in God, gives his name to. Mary’s house isn’t in order, either—She’s alive be cause Joseph chose not to seek to enforce the Law against her, shows mercy to her, and, then, later responding to the Spirit, goes even further, and accepts her as his wife.(Matt 1:18-25) And now Mary places her newborn son in a manger, and the only thing that hasn’t gone wrong with their plans is some kid trying to cheer her up by playing a drum at her, and waking up the newborn son who has just gone to sleep. Cause that’s just what she needs right now. No, fortunately, the Little Drummer Boy has no place in our story, and Mary is at least spared that ordeal. But what happens next is an astonishing, sudden shift of perspective. We leave the exhausted couple and the newborn Jesus, only to find shepherds astonished by the sudden appearance of an angel, announcing the birth of the Messiah, good news of great joy for all the people. The shepherds make their way to Bethlehem, and find the little family, just as the Angel told them—even to the detail of the child in the manger. Our reading ends with Mary, having heard the shepherds’ tale of what they saw and heard, and how it led them to her. She “treasures all these words and ponders them in her heart.” She knows that the words of the angel Gabriel to her have resounded again, in an even more spectacular form. And so she has confirmation that the world has changed somehow—that the barriers between heaven and earth have thinned, that something extraordinary is happening because of the infant lying in the manger. But what is the nature of the change? Or as I used to ask at the end of a theological reflection in our EFM group, “So what? Why do we care?” Rome fell, but here we are in a national landmark that is in fact a sanctuary raised to honor the child borne by Mary, and I am speaking these words under a beautiful painting of her and her child. Yes, evil still exists. Yes, discord and strife tear at the world. But they are not normative, not what we consider the measure of right conduct. Nobody reveres Herod, Pontius Pilate, Annas or Caiaphas. They are only known at all by most people because of their roles in the story that begins tonight. The old brutal dreams of might makes right, of tribe and power defining what we call the good has been on the run ever since Jesus showed us a better way, since God so loved the world that She offered her only begotten Son to be with us, not to lead our tribe to supremacy, but to lead us all to the deeper wisdom of love. Not just a wishy-washy ethic of sentimentality, but a way of life. That Way, as the disciples and their direct successors called what the world terms Christianity, involves a commitment to seeing, every day, the beauty of a Child of God, in every person, even when we are divided from them. That Way has survived empires, wars, corruption of its so-called leaders, and still is going strong. It doesn’t need an army. It never has. It has you, each and every one of you, who is here, not out of compulsion or social pressure, but because you want to be. Because the Way speaks to your heart. Scrooge had a kind of wisdom, but it was of the lower kind—pragmatic wisdom, how to survive in a hostile world. Fred and the Cratchits refused to accept that the world was by its nature hostile. Their wisdom was deeper than his. What right have you be merry? The best right in the world, that of a child of God, in the world created by God. What reason have you to merry? Here we are in a dark time of our own, strife, cruelty, and division broadcast throughout the 24 hour news cycle, world without end. We’re still in the midst of a global pandemic still raging, the numbers mounting in the wrong direction. How does the light of the Christmas star reach us? What reason do we have to be merry? The best reason in the world: that we are here again together, celebrating the end of those old, dark ways, and to repel the dark with the Light of the World. Just by being here, we refuse to let cynicism, despair, and disease have the last word. We refuse division, we turn away anger. The Light of the World is coming, and we are ready for it to dawn. And, if your heart isn't ready, that's all right. We can repurpose those wonderful lines of Hamlet's: If it be now, ‘tis not to come – if it be not to come, it will be now – if it be not now, yet it will come – the readiness is all. Let yourself be ready when you can, and embrace the readiness for joy. In our hearts, let us choose now. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.