“This is a sermon about second chances, a lesson based on Ebenezer Scrooge,” said the Rev. Susan Sparks at the 9:15 a.m. Thursday Ecumenical Service in the Amphitheater.
Her sermon title was “Healing the Humbug,” and the Scripture text was Luke 2:9-14. The Advent theme was “joy.”
Sparks’ favorite movie version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is the 1970 “Scrooge,” which stars Albert Finney as Scrooge, and features Alec Guinness as the ghost of Jacob Marley, Scrooge’s deceased business partner.
“My favorite character is Marley,” she said. “Scrooge is sitting in his living room, eating three-day-old porridge, and he hears chains coming up the stairs.”
She rattled a chain fashion belt, and Jared Jacobson, Chautauqua’s organist and coordinator of worship and sacred music, joined in with ominous music from the Massey Memorial Organ.
“Marley flings the door open and says, ‘I wear the chains I forged in life, link by link, yard by yard,’ ” Sparks said.
Again, she rattled the belt and the organ sounded.
“It is a brilliant image, but not enough to scare Scrooge,” she said. “Three ghosts visit him to help him take a raw, painful inventory of his life. I just can’t walk away from this story; I am haunted by its implications.”
Sparks said everyone can feel a little “draggy” wearing 700 yards of heavy chains. Those chains could be the sore muscles of an aging body, self doubt, guilt, worry, greed, selfishness, depression, anger or fear.
“When we start forging those chains, we begin to change our personalities,” she said. “We look at all things good and true and say ‘humbug.’ Dickens was right about Scrooge, and about us.”
Sparks proposed a “Marley test” for the congregation to take immediately.
“What if you were visited by three ghosts — past, present and future — what would you see?” she asked. “Where would your path end up? If you were given a second chance, how would you change?”
The Ghost of Christmas Past helps Scrooge look at his early life and the choices he had made. He chose greed over love, and station over family.
“What choices have you made that you regret?” Sparks asked. “It is tragic when we do. As columnist Erma Bombeck said, ‘Think about the women on the Titanic who said no to dessert.’ It is easy to forget dessert, it is easy to postpone joy. Time is ticking. There are years you will never get back while you are waiting for the right time. The Book of Proverbs says don’t boast about tomorrow because you don’t know what pain tomorrow will bring.”
The Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge how his poor choices changed his character and made him indifferent to the suffering around him, and so resentful of the happiness of others he could not feel joy.
“How do we spend our time?” Sparks asked. “A survey shows that we spend 11 years watching TV, 26 years sleeping and 20 weeks on hold. That is five months listening to Barry Manilow, Kenny G and Lionel Richie.”
She continued, “As you carry chains of anger, indifference, do you resent happiness? Are you still able to feel joy? Our habits create the trajectory of our lives. Ralph Waldo Emerson said that what we worship, we become.”
The chains and organ sounded.
The Ghost of Christmas Future was the scariest of all. The Ghost shows Scrooge the consequences of his life — among them, Tiny Tim dies and Scrooge is buried in an isolated grave with a cheap headstone while people laugh at him.
“He had a chain longer than Marley’s,” Sparks said. “If we continue, where will we end up? How will our lives play out? What will people say at our funeral?”
Sparks then told a story about St. Peter.
Three men stood in front of St. Peter, in the orientation class for getting into heaven. St. Peter asked each of them what they wanted to be said at their funeral. The first man said, “I want them to say I was a great doctor and a loving family man.” The second man said, “I want them to say I was a caring husband,” The third one said, “I want them to say ‘Look, he’s moving.’ ”
The good news is, Sparks told the congregation, “there is still a chance to heal the humbug. There is still a second chance.”
Scrooge begs the Ghost of Christmas Future for a second chance, and when he wakes up, he lives differently, he sees the world in a different light. Many laughed at him, but the people said that if anyone knew how to keep Christmas well, it was Scrooge.
The angel who sang to the shepherds brought good tidings and great joy for all.
“Brothers and sisters, that is good news,” Sparks said. “All our choices should drive us toward what lifts our hearts and everyone up. Light, love and good tidings are our call to live our few precious years. Take the Marley test before it is too late, because it is never too late to change.”
It is never too late to make amends, to find a new path, to ask for help. It is never too late to find love and joy.
“The Talmud says that when we are called before our Maker, we will be held responsible for all the opportunities for joy we had that we ignored,” Sparks said. “This is the power of one simple kind act or choice.”
The sign outside New York City’s Madison Avenue Baptist Church this week has a saying from Buddah. It reads, “One moment can change a day. One day can change a life. One life can change the world.”
Sparks urged the congregation to take an honest look at their choices.
“If you don’t like what you see, it is not the end of the story,” she said. “If you change a life, you can change the world. Heal the humbug. Feel the joy of Christmas every day of your life. And the people of God said, Amen.”
The Rev. Natalie Hanson presided. Maggie Brockman, who serves as co-host at the Hall of Missions with her husband Bill Brockman and first came to Chautauqua from South Dakota to study voice, read the Scriptures. The prelude was “Caprice on Danish and Russian Airs,” by Camille Saint-Saëns. Barbara Hois, flute, Rebecca Scarnati, oboe, Debbie Grohman, clarinet and Willie LaFavor, piano, performed the prelude. The Motet Choir sang “Noël Nouvelet,” arranged by Stephen Jackson, as the introit and “Love Came Down at Christmas,” arranged by Matthew Oltman, with text by Christina Rossetti, for the anthem. Jared Jacobsen, organist and coordinator of worship and sacred music, directed the choir. The Harold F. Reed Sr. Chaplaincy and the J. Everett Hall Memorial Chaplaincy provide support for this week’s services.