A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, February 12, 2012
Isaiah 58:3-12 GNT; Selection from A Christmas Carol
A young man in London aspired to be a writer. But everything in life seemed to be against him. With only four years of school to his credit, his father in jail because he couldn’t pay his debts, the young man often went to bed hungry. At the tender age of 12, he was able to secure a job pasting labels on bottles in a rat-infested shoe polish factory warehouse. He slept in a dismal attic room with two rough boys from the slums. The young man had so little confidence in his ability to write, that he sneaked out and mailed his first manuscript in the middle of the night so nobody would laugh at him. Story after story was rejected. Finally, the day came when one of his stories was accepted for publication. He wasn’t paid anything for the story, but the editor praised his work. One editor had given him recognition, showed appreciation. The young man was so thrilled that he wandered aimlessly around the streets of London with tears rolling down his cheeks. That one bit of expressed appreciation changed the young man’s whole life and career. The story just goes to show how words of recognition and appreciation that we might show to others, especially to young people, might serve to change the whole course of their lives. So let us not withhold words of appreciation and recognition. We have the power to changes lives! But back to the story. You have already guessed the name of the young man in the story, I am sure. It was Charles Dickens, one of the world’s most beloved writers.
In case you missed it, the world celebrated (February 7) Charles Dickens’ birthday this past week. Or the 200th anniversary of his birthday, at least. Now, I need to disclose that I am not a Dickens expert. I have read some of his 15 major novels, but certainly not all of them. My favorite Dickens work is A Christmas Carol, a story that helped change the way the Christmas holiday is celebrated yet today. But A Christmas Carol, as we shall see momentarily, is not really about Christmas customs; it is about something much deeper and much more important. As an aside, Dickens wrote that as A Christmas Carol unfolded as he wrote it, “he wept and laughed, and wept again” as he “walked the black streets of London fifteen or twenty miles many a night when all sober folks had gone to bed.”
There is some more interesting trivia about Charles Dickens that you might be interested in knowing as I lay the foundation for what it was about him (in my opinion, at least) that makes him such an important literary figure. No other writer has inspired more movie, TV, and stage adaptations of his works. More than 320 movies—dramas, musicals and cartoons—have been inspired by Dickens’ novels. All of Dickens’ work was adapted for the stage during his own lifetime, and often he was in the cast himself. When Dickens came to America for his first reading tour in 1842, he drew huge crowds. Ticket scalpers worked his appearances like they do today at rock concerts and Super Bowl games. People flocked around Dickens like he was an idol. His second American tour attracted more than 100,000 people at his 76 public readings, earning him $95,000, which is equivalent to about $1.5 million in today’s money. Dickens’ works continue to be reprinted and reprinted, selling in the millions of copies. In 2010, Oprah Winfrey chose his A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations for her book club.1
But what was it about Dickens the man and his novels that make him sermon worthy? That is really the question you are asking, isn’t it? In a nutshell, Dickens was a social reformer in the spirit of the 8th century BCE Hebrew prophets (Amos and Hosea), Isaiah, and in the spirit of Jesus. As a biblical aside, the 8th century BCE Hebrew prophets preached during troubling times. There was political unrest, religious idolatry, the wealthy taking advantage of the poor, and so on. And whoever wrote the passage that I read from Isaiah 58 was also a social reformer who prophesied after the Babylonian captivity and exile and the Jews were allowed to return to Jerusalem. Isaiah believed that his people would be blessed for being careful to see to the needs of the poor, oppressed and downtrodden. And I suspect he believed that the reverse was just as true: any nation or people that condones or blatantly allows gross oppression or injustice to continue cannot long be blessed. Eventually that nation will reap the fruits of its injustices. If nothing else, the downtrodden and oppressed masses will eventually rise up in rebellion and overthrow the government, as has been happening recently in various countries around the world. So the prophet advocated for the downtrodden and the poor, and spoke out against injustice and oppression. He was tired of empty religiosity; repeating nice religious words and going through the motions of religion such as prayer and fasting, when at the same time the actions of daily life took no regard of, and even inflicted suffering upon, fellow humans. Isaiah’s phrase, “you pursue your own interests and oppress your workers” could just as easily have come right out of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
Which leads me back to Dickens. Dickens sympathized with and advocated for the poor and oppressed. He never lost his interest in and never stopped advocating for those in prisons (remember, his father had been in debtors’ prison), orphanages, and institutions for the insane. When traveling through the southern United States, Dickens was appalled at the sight of southern slavery and became an outspoken voice for abolition. And Dickens’ advocacy and efforts to change social injustices and inequities come through in the novels he wrote.
For instance, as I hinted earlier, A Christmas Carol at the core is not really about Christmas customs. It is about something much deeper. A Christmas Carol was a call for society to consider the plight and working conditions of the poor and unlearned. One of the key passages in A Christmas Carol is early in the work when the ghost of Scrooge’s deceased business partner appears to him. Scrooge says to Jacob Marley’s ghost, “But you were always a good man of business, Jacob. . .” To which Marley’s ghost replies, “Business! Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were all my business.”
And then when the Ghost of Christmas Present prepares to leave him, two children, a boy and a girl, are revealed from underneath the Ghost’s robe. The children are wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. “Spirit! Are they yours?” Scrooge asks. “They are Man’s,” said the Spirit. “This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both.” In other words, the passage is a call to social reform to see to the needs of the world’s children who are victims of ignorance and want.
And then the concluding message of A Christmas Carol is a call for the reader to examine his or her own life and make sure that Christmas is being celebrated in the heart and demonstrated through acts of charity and benevolence to the poor. In the concluding paragraph, Dickens writes, “it was always said of him [Scrooge] that he knew how to keep Christmas well . . . May that be truly said of us, and all of us!” Two of Dickens’ other famous quotes are “A day wasted on others is not wasted on one’s self,” and “Charity begins at home, and justice begins next door.”
Well, what can we learn from the life and writings of Charles Dickens? Could it be that he can serve as an inspiration for all of us to be an advocate for the poor and oppressed wherever we see them? As Dickens observed the plight of the American slaves in the pre-Civil War South and became an outspoken opponent of slavery and supporter of Abolition, how might we speak out in the spirit of Dickens, and of the prophet Isaiah, today?
I think that one of the tasks of the church and of religious people is to be able to see social injustices and keep pushing for needed reform until the ideal becomes reality. That is one of the beauties of the separation of Church and State in our country. While it is important for the Church to distance itself so that it does not get so enmeshed in the government, the Church can (and often has) push the government to make needed social reforms. A good example is how churches pushed for needed civil rights change in the 1950’s and 1960’s. (By the way, as another aside, I often refer to New England Congregationalists, since my ministerial standing comes from within that tradition. One of the things I appreciate about the Congregational tradition is that the American Congregational Churches have a history of being on the cutting edge of needed social reform—the abolition of slavery, equal education for women and minorities [they founded many colleges to that end], welcoming women into the ordained Christian ministry, equal rights regardless of sexual orientation, and so on.)
But what the question boils down to for us is how can we as one congregation, and how can we as individuals, be inspired by and live out the social reforming vision of Isaiah, Charles Dickens, and most importantly, Jesus? There are no easy answers. And I don’t intend to give you any easy answers today. But that is the question I would like to leave with us to take home and ponder. In what places are injustice and oppression most obvious, and where is social reform most needed in our own day? Amen.
1Some information gleaned from USA Today, Jan. 31, 2012.