Breathing God In and Breathing God Out
A sermon based on Luke 2:1-20
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on December 22, 2019 *
by Rev. Scott Elliott
Four years ago on the Sunday before Christmas I stood up here and mentioned that in the little coastal town in Oregon where we raised our children I worked with another Congregational Church to put on a production of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. My hope back then was to create a Christmas show tradition in a town that did not have one.
I stand before you today twenty years after my first A Christmas Carol production exhausted but exuberant and very pleased to say that this church and this community yesterday completed a production of A Christmas Carol that outdid the first effort in Oregon by an Ohio country mile. Not only did we put on a wonderful production of the play for the community, and connect youth to the community through the performing arts like we did in Oregon, but through the grace of God and the generosity of this community we raised a fair amount of money for the Winter Sanctuary (the final numbers and costs are not tallied but we appear to have taken in something in the neighborhood of thirty five or forty thousand dollars!). The least among us benefitted from this project beyond what I ever imagined. That is such a wonderful thing. Thank you – and God– for making it possible!
Since I have been immersed in the story for hours and hours and hours I thought I’d close out this glorious production weekend this morning by preaching on A Christmas Carol. We probably all know the story, but I want to again explore theological meanings in it. They are very Biblical, very Christian and very Christmas oriented. Not just in our production, but as Dickens meant it to be.
A Christmas Carol is a story about a person, Scrooge, who has had many, many blessings in life, but we find Scrooge during a Christmas season late in life having created darkness by not providing blessings to any one . . . even himself. For many years Scrooge had been taking in and making material wealth . Which is a blessing, but only if it is used for betterment and for God. Scrooge’s sin was inhaling blessings but not exhaling them. The consequence, we learn, is that sin imposes darkness not just on those Scrooge didn’t bless with kindness and compassion, but actually most of the darkness was imposed upon “himself” in the original story – and “herself” in our production.
Scrooge takes in what could be goodness, but at the start of the story she’s doing nothing with it, providing NO goodness back, and the result is she is metaphorically blind and living in great darkness. Scrooge is a very, very rich-in-money kinda person, but her life is by no means rich and neither does she enrich the lives of those she has any sort of relationship with. Scrooge underpays and overworks her employee. Scrooge berates and disinherits her more compassionate relatives. She ignores and belittles those much less fortunate than she. She even short changes herself, working and living in squalor. The result of all this is that with all the blessings she has in her life, all the potential goodness Scrooge takes in– it is for naught. In short, while Scrooge imposes some darkness on those around her, she is living in complete darkness. Greed has overshadowed and deprived her of the Light of love in life.
The Christmas stories in the Bible are about that Light coming in the dark. About a vulnerable baby and his family being the source of Light in the lives of those who listen to God, no matter their socio-economic or cultural status. The source of Light in the Gospel accounts is generated by love, love from God, love in the Holy family, and love in the community. The source of darkness in the Gospels are those who lived lack-love lives and threatened others on their ungodly quest for more earthly things like power and money– the bringers of dark take and take and take and do not give any meaningful measure back. In stark contrast the bringers of Light in our Bible lesson take in blessings, but also give them out in good measure.
There is Jewish midrash –a theological story– that I have mentioned a few times here before and the newspaper earlier this Advent quoted me on it. The midrash explains that the Hebrew name for God is “Yahweh” because THAT is the sound of our breath; that we take in “Yah” (YAH) and breathe out “Weh,” (WEH) and that is God – Yah-weh– giving us life. Our life is bookended by God. “Yah” is the intake we first have at birth and “Weh” is the out take we last have at death . . . and Yahweh is God present in between throughout our life as we live and breathe.
I love that image. God is with and in our first breath and every other one we take, until we breathe no more. This is true all the time whether we acknowledge it or not. “Yah” can be understood as the God part we consciously take in. And it IS important that we breathe in God and let the Sacred fill our being. But it is equally important that we breathe God out, and that giving-off-God becomes our “Weh.” (Pun intended) . . .
I mentioned when I stood up here four years ago how in the first production of a Christmas Carol in Oregon that I played Scrooge, and that I came to realize I made an ironic error when I performed the role, an error Cate who brilliantly played Scrooge this weekend did not make. What I did was that in order to control the long sentences Dickens wrote for Scrooge to utter, I would draw in a huge breath and then let it out in a very controlled manner as I spoke. What I did not count on was that by the time The Ghost of Christmas Past arrived on stage I felt faint and would go off stage at the end of the scene and put my head down and carefully breathe fresh air in and out so I as to not faint. At first I thought it was chemicals used in a new stage curtain. Eventually it dawned on me that I was hyperventilating, my blood was too rich with oxygen. Pretty silly of me especially for a seasoned actor who should have known better! But see, had I done it right I wouldn’t have this lovely metaphor for us today. We have to have balance to our intake and out take of “Yah” . . . “Weh.” Blessings we take in are wonderful, but we also have to give blessings out, otherwise there is darkness, a fainting sort of existence (if you will). There is darkness when we only take in blessings and do not in turn exhale blessings back out.
In the famous Christmas reading from Luke there is much darkness. Caesar Augustus and his cronies have ruled the Roman empire taking in blessing after blessing for themselves. Scrooge-like they cannot get enough and they horde it. Recklessly living in wanton disregard of others, they are consumed with greed for power and wealth. They want more and more and more. So we are told, all in Palestine – regardless of health or wealth or disabilities or circumstances– had to travel for the sole purpose of providing more revenue to the haves.
Like many have-nots Mary and Joseph had to do what the dark forces of the earthly power of Rome demanded– or they’d suffer even greater hardships. Mary – with Joseph’s help– carries Light in a dark womb in a dark time. It was so dark a time that even a very vulnerable woman great with child is forced to walk for days and at the end of the journey is unable to find a proper room to give birth in. Earthly power’s dark ways of taking and taking, of only breathing in and rarely breathing out blessings, cast a pall over the world the Holy family existed in. It’s so dark that a pregnant woman is not provided basic care or comfort when she goes into labor. Nor is her infant. It’s so dark that the Son of God is not properly provided for and welcomed by the powerful and mighty. Yet the purported baser beings, the animals, share their space and their eating trough. And even the purported baser humans of the time, like Shepherds who were the ruffians of first century Palestine, welcomed the Light. But the great greedy powerful selfishly shut out the Light and continue to live in and create darkness.
The character Scrooge is not unlike Rome when Dickens has us first encounter Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. Scrooge at the start even considers the caring ways of younger days as a baser way of being. But that baser self Scrooge – the caring compassionate side– is what finally bursts back out shining a great and wondrous Light at the end of A Christmas Carol. After Scrooge has been shown who she was; and what she now is; and what she will become if she continues in darkness, Scrooge finally, finally, chooses to strive for the Light by letting out the breath of the blessings of God held back for so long. And it makes all the difference in so many lives when the blessings get shared, not the least of which is Scrooge’s own life. Breathing God outward, exhaling the Divine, Scrooge generates the Light of love at the end of the story. Scrooge becomes rich not only in the blessings of earthly wealth, but in the blessings of heavenly wealth . . . love abounds.
Christmas arrives during the week of the winter solstice, literally the darkest time of the year. It is the perfect time for Jesus’s birth to be celebrated in the days immediately after darkness begins its annual retreat and light begins to fill our days more and more. Christ’s bright Light is generated by love. That bright loving Light out shines whatever darkness we are in alone or together. Love transforms the dark. With love we can get through anything– any darkness– and we can help others get through their darknesses.
Scrooge’s deepest darkness was filled by three lights, spirits of the past, present and future. The very same reference to time I have suggested before that the Trinity can be heard to represent. Creator as the past, the part of God reverberating in the universe when it was set in motion. Christ as the present, the incarnation of God here and now in this moment. Holy Spirit as the future, the hope and the aim toward betterment which God sends us toward in each new moment to the next. If we let those three personas of God speak to us as Scrooge finally does, we will not just breathe blessings and God in, but breathe blessings and God out. And whatever darkness or faintness we might feel will be flooded with Light and so will those we breathe it out around. Eyes will open and see the Light. And the light is God in creation, God in the moment and God in the promise of the future.
And the source of the Light can be us and we can generate that Light by breathing God in “Yah” and breathing God out, “Weh.” And most of us do this especially well in Advent and Christmas. And the story of A Christmas Carol suggests it is never too late to get our breath of God going properly in both directions – taking blessings in and giving blessings out . . . The result for Scrooge is complete transformation of life. It makes all the difference and matters much.
The story of Christmas in the Bible . . . suggests that no matter how rough or dark or dank or stable-floor-like things in life might seem love can bring Light into such places. . . . Anywhere, anytime we exhale goodness and love, God-ness shines. The Advent and Christmas lesson is this: breathe God in and breathe God out and there will be peace on earth good will to all.
AMEN … AND MERRY CHRISTMAS
* based in part on a sermon I wrote in 2015
COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2019 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED