Exhaling at Christmas

A sermon based on Luke 2:1-20
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on December 20, 2015
by Rev. Scott Elliott

The little coastal town in Oregon where we raised our children did not have any Christmas events to speak of in the mid-1990s and, well, you know I love Christmas, so I decided I had to do something about it. As a theatre person I naturally gravitated toward a stage production. I would loved to have put on The Nutcraker but, well, see, I can’t dance a lick. So that left one option, a production of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. And I was able to convince our awesome UCC church to sponsor the event

There was only one actor within a hundred miles of our town that I was aware of who was talented and gifted – and I felt attractive– enough to play Ebenezer Scrooge (this actor was in a word, great). Since then most of you by now have even heard of him . . . Scott Elliott . . . that’s right, it was me.

For the first two years I played the role of Scrooge in that community holiday tradition our church created. I directed it later on, but like most actors, I want to discuss my brilliant on stage performance.

A Christmas Carol is a story about a man who has had many, many blessings in his life, but we find him one Christmas season late in his life creating darkness by not providing blessings himself. For years he’s been just taking and making material wealth, a blessing, but only if it is used at least in part for betterment, for good . . . for God.

Scrooge’s greed of inhaling blessings and NOT exhaling them– if you will– imposed darkness not just on those he didn’t bless with kindness and compassion, but actually most of the darkness was imposed upon himself. He takes in what could be goodness, but at the start of the story he’s doing nothing with it, providing NO goodness back, and the result is he is metaphorically blind and living in darkness.

Ebenezer Scrooge is a very, very rich-in-money kinda man. But his life is by no means rich and neither does he enrichen the lives of those he has any sort of relationship with. Scrooge underpays and overworks his employees. He berates and disinherits his more compassionate relatives. He ignores and belittles those much less fortunate than he. He even short changes himself, working and living in squaller. The result of all this is that with all the blessings he has in his life, all the potential goodness Scrooge takes in, is for naught. In short, while Scrooge imposes some darkness on those around him, he is living in complete darkness himself. His greed deprives him 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 is generated by love, love from God, love in the Holy family, and love in the community. The source of darkness is those who live lack-love lives and threatened others on their ungodly quest for just more earthly things like power and money– the bringers of dark take and take and take and do not give. The bringers of Light in our lesson take in blessings, but also give them out.

There is Jewish midrash –a theological story– that I may have mentioned before which explains 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 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 also 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) .

Now back to me in A Christmas Carol. My portrayal of Scrooge, by my reckoning, was in a word, masterful. But I came to realize later that I made an ironic error when I played the role. It was a mistake I’d never made before or since when giving one of my usual incredible acting performances. In order to control the long sentences Dickens has Scrooge utter, I would draw in a huge breath and then let it out in a very controlled manner as I spoke. Dickens did not write as we tend to speak, so I knew I needed to bring in enough air to pull it off as I spoke his words.

The audio and emotional effect was exactly what I wanted, but by the time The Ghost of Christmas Past arrived on stage in every single performance 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 wouldn’t black out. We thought it was a reaction to a new flame retardant curtain the venue had installed, but later, talking to a nurse it dawned on me that I was taking in air but not letting it out properly. I was basically hyperventilating, my blood was too rich. Pretty silly of me especially for a masterful 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” and “Weh” in our breathing. Blessings we take in are wonderful, but we also have to give blessings out, otherwise there is darkness, a fainting sort of existence.

There is darkness when we only take in blessings, take in goodness or God-ness and do not in turn not exhale goodness and God. 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 for themselves; 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– must travel for the sole purpose of providing more revenue to the haves.

Like many have-nots Mary and Joseph must do what the dark forces of the earthly power of Rome demand of them – or suffer even greater hardships. Mary – with Joseph’s help– carries Light in a dark womb in a dark time, 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 room at an inn. 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 exists 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, welcome the Light. It is only the great greedy powerful who selfishly shut out the Light and continue to live in and create darkness.

Ebenezer Scrooge is not unlike Rome when we first encounter him in A Christmas Carol. He even considers the caring ways of his youth the baser way of being . . . at least at the start. But that baser self Scrooge – the caring compassionate side– is what finally bursts out shining a great and wondrous Light at the end of A Christmas Carol.

After Ebenezer Scrooge’s shown who he was; and what he now is; and what he will become if he continues in darkness, he finally, finally chooses to strive for the Light. He lets out the breath of the blessings of God he’s been holding and it makes all the difference in so many lives, not the least of which is his own. Breathing God outward, exhaling the Divine, Scrooge generates the Light of love at the end of the story. He becomes rich not only in the blessings of earthly wealth, but in the blessings of heavenly wealth.

Christmas arrives this week, the week of the winter solstice, literally the darkest time of the year. We don’t really know when– what time of year– Jesus was born, but it is a great idea that we celebrate his birth in the days immediately after darkness begins its annual retreat and light begins to fill our days more and more. Christ’s bright Light generated by love (and make no mistake about it God is love), that bright 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 this year 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 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 his life and his world. 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 will 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. Love will abound.