Living in God’s Economy

December 3, 2017

Norwalk First United Methodist Church

The Redemption of Scrooge

First Sunday of Advent

Living in God’s Economy

Matthew 20:1-16

          This Advent Season, the beginning of the new church year, we are going to explore in the next four messages “The Redemption of Scrooge,” from a book of the same name by Pastor Matt Rawle of Asbury United Methodist Church in Bossier City, Louisiana. Today’s message, “Living in God’s Economy,” will hopefully show us that God’s way of things is often not the same as the one we embrace, as evidenced in the life of Scrooge. But if Scrooge can be redeemed, so can we! We need to learn how we can love and value what God loves and values.

As we continue through the series, we will look at the remembrance of Christmas Past as we focus on Jesus, the Redeemer of Our Past. Then move forward to the greatest gift, the life of Christmas present, and lastly look to the hope of Christmas future as we accept Christ’s invitation.

Now sometime in our lives, I think we have all known someone who could be described as a “Scrooge” when it comes to the Christmas season. It is someone who just doesn’t see the joy and celebration in this time of year. They don’t have the Christmas Spirit.

Pastor Matt Rawle tells of a friend in his church, Stacy, for whom Christmas was not a happy time. “Stacy wouldn’t sing the Christmas carols on Sunday, and she would apathetically sit in worship, unmoved even when the children dressed up in period costumes, fumbled to recite Scripture, and pulled a wooden donkey to a makeshift manger.”

Pastor Rawle asked Stacy after worship one Sunday why she seemed to be so down at Christmas time. “At first, she shrugged and said, ‘This just isn’t a happy time for me,’ then walked away. Later that week, he said, she came back and told me her father had died many years ago on Christmas morning, and all the happiness, cheer, and glad tidings had drained from the holiday. Each year, experiencing Christmas again felt like reopening a wound she desperately wanted to heal.”

In Charles Dickens story, “A Christmas Carol,” we receive an intimate glimpse into Ebenezer Scrooge and discover why he is the way he is. Every Scrooge in our own lives has a story. Usually, though, we aren’t able to hear that story unless the person trusts us enough to share it, as Stacy did with Pastor Rawle. Maybe the next time you run across a Scrooge at Christmas, you can view “Bah! Humbug!” in a new way. Would you pray with me?

PRAYER

I think almost all of us know the classic Charles Dickens story, “A Christmas Carol,” which was first published in 1843. The story, which takes place on Christmas Eve, Ebenezer Scrooge’s least favorite time of the year, begins with those ominous words, “Marley was dead: to begin with.” Scrooge glares at carolers and scolds his employee, Bob Cratchit, before turning down his nephew’s invitation to Christmas dinner.

Arriving home, Scrooge is startled to find the ghostly face of Jacob Marley, his dead partner, staring at him from the door knocker. It disappears, but soon he hears sounds like chains dragging on the floor. They creep closer and closer, until Jacob Marley appears as a ghostly apparition. He warns Scrooge that he must change his ways and that three ghosts will visit Scrooge over the next three days, offering him a chance at redemption from his awful fate.

Scrooge settles into his bed, thinking it all a horrible dream, but soon a bright light disturbs him. It is the Ghost of Christmas Past. The spirit transports Scrooge to his childhood hometown, where he is reminded of childhood loneliness, adolescent joy, and the pain of unrequited love. Scrooge, upset, takes the extinguisher-cap and tries to eliminate the ghost’s light. He ends up back in his room and falls into a deep sleep.

Scrooge is awakened when the clock strikes one. He ventures to the adjacent room to see the Ghost of Christmas Present, who transports Scrooge to a dingy corner of London where, despite their surroundings, the people are filled with Christmas cheer. The ghost brings him to the home of his clerk, Bob Cratchit, where Bob’s son Tiny Tim tugs at Scrooge’s heartstrings. Scrooge’s journey continues to the home of his nephew, Fred, who proclaims that he will continue to invite the bad-tempered Scrooge to Christmas dinner every year. As they leave the scene, Scrooge notices that the ghost is aging rapidly. The ghost’s life will end that night, but not before Scrooge notices two children hidden beneath the ghost’s robes – a boy and a girl, dirty, with hands like claws. When Scrooge asks where their shelter is, the ghost repeats Scrooge’s earlier words: “Are there no prisons…Are there no workhouses?”

With that, the bell strikes twelve, and the Ghost of Christmas Present is gone, replaced by a draped phantom moving toward Scrooge. This ghost is silent and only responds with a pointed skeletal finger when asked if he is the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Scrooge is transported to depressing scenes foreshadowing his own demise. The scene moves to the Cratchits’ home, where the once jolly family is now morose. Tim has died, and Bob has just returned from his grave, telling his wife how lovely and green a place it is.

Scrooge, distraught from seeing his own grave, exclaims that he will change his ways and live with the spirit of Christmas in his heart in order to change his future. The ghost shrinks away, and Scrooge finds himself back in his familiar bedroom.

After these visits, Scrooge wakes the next morning full of the Christmas spirit. He runs from the house, filled with the joy of the season, and is surprised and grateful to discover that he hasn’t missed Christmas Day. It was said thereafter that Scrooge “knew how to keep Christmas well.”

Folks, Scrooge is an iconic figure who represents stinginess, greed, and generally being in a terrible mood. Scrooge does have one great love, though – money. Galatians 6:7 says this: Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. Scrooge lives according to this principle but takes it to the extreme.

For Scrooge, everything seems quantifiable. After all, he stares at a spreadsheet all day, making sure there is a zero balance at the end of the day. That is his view on life. Dickens even describes Scrooge in the beginning of the story with a desolate, apathetic slant. He writes: “No warmth could warm, no wintry weather chill him. No wind that blew was bitterer than he.” You see, Scrooge isn’t completely unfeeling, he certainly cares about money. But Scrooge’s sole foundation for his understanding of God is that salvation is the reward for ending life “in the black.” Folks, salvation is not a savings account in which we can put good things we have done in order to cover the sins we have accrued. Rather, salvation is a healing process that transforms who we are and conforms us into the image of Christ. Salvation is not a transaction.

So many times, we, too, often identify with Scrooge’s perspective, but what does God say about the economy he values? That’s where our scripture today comes in. It is the parable of the vineyard we read in Matthew 20. This parable describes God’s economy of free grace over that which can be earned. So many times, it is shocking to our ears.

In our parable, the landowner went out to hire workers in his field, and he hired workers throughout the day. When the working day was finished, he paid the last who arrived first. When those who worked least in the field received a full day’s wage, those who had served all day were expecting to get at least time-and-a-half. When the first received the same wage as those who barely worked, they became angry and upset.

The landowner responded saying, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” That’s the thing about God’s grace. It is an amazing gift when it is offered to you, but when it is granted to someone you don’t think deserves it, it is the toughest pill in all of creation to swallow. God’s economy doesn’t follow the same rules as the world.

Now, you could argue that all the workers received their agreed-upon pay; therefore, the payment at the end of the day is fair, but God’s justice isn’t about fairness. If the foundation of our relationship with God is “you reap what you sow,” then Jesus’ parable of the vineyard makes little sense. Those who worked for only an hour received a much greater return for their time that those who labored all day. It almost seems foolish to say “yes” to the landowner so early in the day.

But God’s grace would be out of reach. It cannot be earned. It can only be the source of our response. That’s the mystery of the parable. Everyone in the field receives the agreed-upon wage. The wage is not the reward; rather it is the work itself. The work in the field is our response to God’s invitation. It is the work of hospitality and welcome. It is the work of lifting up the lowly and denying the self. It is the work of loving the unlovable and welcoming the stranger.

The reward found within God’s grace is God’s selfless invitation to incorporate us into the kind of work that transforms the individual and the world. This is why Scrooge struggles – because he begins to realize that the work is not the point. A hard day’s work is the means to receiving the reward of wealth, but in the kingdom of God that Jesus came to bring into the world, the work itself is the reward.

When Mary was pregnant with Jesus, she traveled to visit her cousin Elizabeth. When they met, Mary offered a great vision of what God’s kingdom looks like in the world, which we find in the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 1:

Mary said, “With all my heart I glorify the Lord! In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior…. He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed. He has come to the aid of his servant Israel, remembering his mercy, just as he promised to our ancestors, to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever.”

During Advent, we remember Mary’s vision of God’s new creation coming into the world through Christ. It is a graceful world in which the proud are scattered, the hungry are filled, the lowly are lifted, and the hopeless are offered a new life.

So, do you know any Scrooges around your Christmas tree or in your church pew? It’s easy to dismiss them or conveniently forget to mail their invitations to the ugly sweater contest. A curmudgeon can quickly ruin a party or make things awkward during the gift exchange. Many of us might react to Scrooge the way Bob Cratchit’s wife did: “I wish I had him here. I’d give him a piece of my mind to feast upon, and I hope he’d have a good appetite for it.”

One of the things you have to love about Dickens’s story is that we receive an intimate glimpse into Scrooge and discover why he is the way he is. Every Scrooge in our own lives has a story. Usually, though, we aren’t able to hear that story unless the person trusts us enough to share it.

Remember Stacy from the beginning of this message? Pastor Rawle says this: “After hearing Stacy’s story, I invited Stacy to our staff Christmas gathering, and she was thankful to celebrate the season with her church family. The following Christmas, I noticed a small change in the way she sat in the pew. When we sang “Silent Night, Holy Night” I looked at Stacy’s face and saw tears instead of indifference. For those who struggle with depression,” Rawle says, “tears can be a hopeful sign.”

Brothers and sisters in Christ, remember, we cannot earn God’s grace, but when we learn to accept and share that free gift of grace, we begin to understand that Christ is living with us, that we are here on earth to serve our Father and to share that grace with one another.

So, the next time you run across a Scrooge at Christmas, maybe you can view “Bah! Humbug!” in a new way. Maybe the first step toward a merry Christmas is to look at those who are suffering and, quite simply, to see.

 

Prayer: Gracious God, give us eyes to see the unhappy and the misunderstood, and the ears to hear their story. Help us to share Christ through humble invitation, especially with those who are in need of healing. May Christ’s welcoming Spirit live within us. Amen.

 

Previous post:

Next post: