Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Getting Beyond the Santa Claus God

Sermon Nov.29, 2009

Last week I was at one of our local establishments on 4th St. with my friend, the Buddhist Unitarian pastor. I was quite pleased to find beers on sale there that are named after Christian theological concepts: Redemption, Salvation, Consecration Temptation, even Perdition.

I said to my friend, “Aha! This proves that my religion is better than yours! My religion is so great, they named their best beers after our central concepts.”

He replied, “No, this proves the opposite - that my religion is better.”

“How’s that? Nothing of your religion is represented here.”

“Exactly.” he said. “It’s a Zen thing.”

So anyway I was happy to learn there was plenty of Redemption on hand and that it was reasonably priced. Hoping he’d take the hint, I bought my Unitarian Buddhist friend a pint of Perdition. He drank it down with alarming equanimity.

So this is the first Sunday of Advent – the season that teaches us all about the discipline of spiritual waiting. Henri Nouwen called it “active waiting” – the kind of waiting that involves paying attention, especially to what is changing in us, to what is being born, and to what is becoming possible.

This is the kind of waiting that pregnant women know so well. During Advent, this sanctuary becomes a kind of womb; we pay attention to the terrifying mystery of all that is changing within us and around us. We sense that there’s something big happening. God is looming somewhere – or is he lurking? We dare to trust the possibility that as terrifying as life may seem, God is in the change.

In the Bible readings during Advent, there’s a lot of talk about apocalypse – like our reading from Luke this morning.

I hope it isn’t absolutely necessary for me to say this, but I suppose it is important that periodically I remind us that Episcopalians do not tend to think of the apocalypse as a real historical event that is going to happen on some date certain. Not that there’s anything wrong with believing that, of course, and there are perfectly faithful Episcopalians who do hold that belief. But it’s safe to say that for most of us, the apocalypse makes more sense as a metaphor for how we experience God breaking through.

This morning we hear the story of Jesus telling his disciples about the day of apocalypse:
People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. (Luke 21:26)

Most of us know something about “fear and foreboding.” Cancer diagnoses, financial catastrophes, teenagers – we all have had our own little apocalypses, our moments of divine catastrophe, when the veil is lifted; those moments that find us on our knees, begging for a miracle, asking “Where is God in this?”

And sometimes we get an answer: Wait.

And then, in a prayer, in a dream, out of the corner of our eye, we sense it coming. There’s ozone in the air; a flash of lightning on the horizon. We sense the possibility that there might be blessing in what we were sure could only be catastrophe. On that day, Jesus says, “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” (Luke 21:28)

And just to be clear now, I’m not talking about beer anymore.

I’m talking about active waiting.

Our children learn the discipline of active waiting very well during Advent - because there is no event more actively waited upon than Christmas. Our children are living in keen anticipation, counting every day ‘til he comes “in a cloud (well, okay, in a sleigh) with power and great glory.” (Luke 21:27)

When I was a child during Advent the first thing I would do every morning was go to my Advent Calendar and peel off the little door for the day. Inside there would be a little chocolate surprise – this is why I love Belgian chocolate so much - and there would be a little picture and a Bible saying, and then, stepping back, you could take in the whole calendar and see the progress you were making toward the day of his coming.

And for four solid weeks we would be singing that song of Active Waiting: "Oh, you better watch out, you better not cry, you better not shout I'm telling you why...."
Thanks to Santa Claus, Advent and Christmas has become a little religion unto itself, complete with its own sacred scriptures, scrupulous rituals, moral codes, and pantheon of deities (Santa Claus, Mrs. Claus, all those elves and reindeer).

In fact, I think that if Santa Claus didn't exist, we would definitely have to invent him. Now, I know some people complain that Santa Claus has become more important to our children than Jesus – and I agree that’s troubling. But on the other hand, any religious cult that inspires a 5-year old to make his bed is not all bad.

But at some point we grow up and find other reasons for making our beds. In my case, it’s my marriage - which I wish to preserve.

I heard Karen Armstrong the other day, talking about her new book called The Case for God. She said that Christianity’s problem is that so many people learned about God around the same time they learned about Santa Claus. When we’re children, God is just the big Santa Claus in the sky; and then we grow up, our ideas about Santa mature, but our ideas about God don’t.

I think she’s absolutely right; I see this all the time: as long as our lives are going well and we’re getting our little gifts under the tree, we think God likes us and we like God. And then one day we wake up and we’ve got a lump in our breast and it feels like a lump of coal in our stocking. And we say “Hey! What’s the deal! I’ve been good! Where are my gifts?” And when we don’t get a satisfying answer we blame our Santa Claus God, and we blame our religion for having lied to us.

This is perfectly normal. The truth is that we all cling to the god of our childhood as long as we possibly can; we can spend our entire lives listening to grown up sermons and reading the gospels, the pages of which are packed with stories of a grown-up God, and we will nonetheless continue to believe in a Santa Claus god until we have our little apocalypse, and we are forced to find a God that is appropriate for grown-ups.

Most of us are here because this is where we’ve found that grown-up God.

Many of you have been asking about my brother, who has been enduring his own little apocalypse recently in the form of some rather aggressive brain tumors. I want to thank you again for all the prayers and cards and inquiries about him. Just to give you an update, he survived the surgery well, which removed one tumor; there’s another one that they couldn’t operate on; thankfully it hasn’t grown since he began chemo and radiation treatments. But we were sorry to learn that two more lesions showed up in the last brain scan.

This is my brother’s apocalypse; and because we are connected to him by our love, it is ours as well. By our love, we all share in one another’s apocalypses; and collectively, globally, through hundreds and millions of individual apocalypses shared in love, the great cosmic revealing occurs. The entirety of human experience stands before God as if on the plains of Megido; the trumpet sounds; the veil lifts; we hold hands and lift our heads; and our God bears down upon us like the seven horsemen. Our illusions disintegrate; and what we find on the other side depends on our ability to express our love; hold fast to one another and to the blessings we find here, and to trust.

And so we stand with all of humanity: we raise our heads; we pay attention to the good; we honor our relationships; we find our redemption.

By so doing, our post-apocalyptic God – suitable for grown-ups - is born.

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