© Jeremy D. Nickel 2010. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
November 28, 2010
Listen to Audio Version of Whole Service (mp3)
Listen to Audio Version of Sermon (mp3)
About a month ago I flew across the country to perform a wedding. I was quite excited to discover that the airplane I would be flying in was equipped with wireless internet. This meant that while working diligently on my next sermon on the plane I could continue checking in with all of the online resources that I like to peruse as I get my mind moving on the topic at hand. I might google a few news articles on the subject, take a look at a few entries on Wikipedia, check dictionary.com and thesaurus.com if I found myself struggling to express an idea. Basically, with access to the internet, the possibilities, even at 30,000 feet, are unlimited.
And then the inevitable occurred. About 30 minutes into the flight, just as we were beginning to take advantage of this newfound web freedom, and before I could even post a witty Facebook status update - the system crashed.
The interesting thing was what came next. People were very upset. A man in front of me dressed down the flight attendant at a decibel level usually reserved for sporting events; another gentlemen a few rows behind me began loudly bemoaning the state of technology these days; and, I kid you not, a woman towards the back of the plane began circulating a petition for the rest of her fellow air travelers to sign demanding that the airline refund a portion of our ticket due to the wireless internet breakdown.
Now, I will fully admit that I was likewise frustrated. I had already gotten used to this new possibility and was disappointed to let it go. But I sat there even more shocked by how quickly we as a people begin to feel like the world owes us something. One hour before boarding that plane I had absolutely zero expectations of accessing the web as I flew across the country, and I am sure the vast majority of my fellow travelers were equally unaware that this new service would be available to us. But it had taken all of 30 minutes for all of us to be outraged that we could not access the internet while traveling several hundred miles an hour through the sky.
And it was that thought that signaled the true level of absurdity of this moment for me, that we were surrounded by so much incredible and truly awe inspiring technology, we were doing things that even two generations ago would have sounded miraculous - flying through the sky in metal chairs, eating food, having casual conversation, and now even communicating instantly in real-time streaming text, sound and graphics with those below. And yet people were all outraged. As I was describing this event a few day later to a friend, he directed me to a comedian named Louis CK who has a bit on this exact phenomenon.
He begins by saying that the bizarre thing about the time we live in is that it is the most amazing time of our species history in terms of technology and the things we have been enabled to do, yet no one is happy. He actually cites a scenario eerily similar to mine on an airplane wherein everyone becomes enraged due to the loss of the wireless internet they only minutes before discovered existed. He goes on to describe the way most people, myself included, usually talk about the flight they were just on. We whine about the 20-minute delay in boarding, we get downright angry when we are forced to sit on the runway for a half hour. These stories always come served with a side order of cramped seating conditions, the rude people and screaming babies we were penned in with, and a seat that would not fully recline, oh the horrors! All the while, we forget that we just traveled from New York to Los Angeles in five hours. As the comedian said, two hundred years ago that same trip would have taken two years, people would die and be born on the journey, and so the group would literally be composed of different people when it finally arrived!
I think our modern air travel horror stories do a wonderful job of illustrating just how bad we have gotten at waiting. We are now so trained by Twitter and Facebook, by cheap and efficient airline travel, by highways and byways, cell phones and email, instant sports scores, instant messenges, texts, Skype, and all that this connected world delivers to us on an instant basis that our waiting muscles have for the most part completely atrophied. We are just horrible at waiting, and in case you hadn't noticed, the youngest amongst us are continuing this trend at a truly breathtaking rate. An article in the New York Times this past Sunday about texting teens claimed that the average American teen sends and receives almost 2500 texts a month. That is around 80 a day or one every ten minutes of waking life.
Around the world this week, many western Christians will begin then what amounts to quite the counter-culture activity as they once again embark on a holy waiting game that stretches back over thousands of years. This is the season of Advent, a word which translated from Latin means: coming, as this is a time to remember both that their messiah has come in Jesus, but also that they are waiting for his return. That is, this is a time in which many Christians are asked to reflect on that odd, almost mutually exclusive idea that the kingdom of heaven is upon them, while at the same time they are still waiting for it to arrive.
Now at this point in history, two-thousand years after Jesus was supposed to have walked the earth, it is clear that if he ever is coming back, it's no time soon. But those early Christians had a different set of expectations; they truly did think that his return was just around the corner, weeks if not months away.
And what do you do when you think that your messiah will be returning any day now to clean house and to usher in the kingdom of heaven? Well you better believe that you stay ever vigilant, that your every breathe is easily trained towards being ready, which means living right, being the good person your messiah expects you to be. It is kind of like how many of your children will act for the weeks between now and Christmas. They know what is coming, they know what the stakes are, and who can't bend their will a little more towards being good for a few weeks if the reward is big and just around the corner? Those early Christians had it easy, the motivation was right there for them because of their historical closeness to the original story and passion.
But as the decades rolled along, as the calendar flipped through the centuries and Jesus had not come back yet, well, let's just say that, in this case, distance did not help. It became harder and harder to motivate people with the idea that if they weren't ever-vigilant, if they were not careful to always be living up to their highest of standards, that Jesus would be back any day now and they would regret it.
And so, as the more formal institution of the Catholic Church coalesced and began creating rituals and liturgical calendars meant to help do what immediacy to the event once did - that is, create those emotions that inspired one to live as their messiah had, the Advent season was one of the first created. We don't know the exact date that Advent was first observed, but we can find records of liturgies dating from as far back as the 4th century. And a council in 590 CE officially established the four weeks prior to Christmas as the Advent season.
So Advent then is intended to help Christians reconnect with the power of their narrative. It is a period of time devoted to this beautiful paradox about their messiah, that he has come and yet that they are still waiting for his arrival.
I believe that paradox can be a very effective technology for helping us along spiritual growth because when the human mind is forced to accept an impossible collision of ideas, the discomfort of this illogical notion can force us to accept new insight as a possibility. Our minds do an incredible job of resisting new insight, which is why finding any effective technology to spur on this process is something to celebrate. And that is what Advent is - it is a juicy theological paradox. The messiah has come, yet they are still waiting for the messiah to come. At first it just looks like a mismatched pair of socks - how can both of these ideas be related? But when one lets those ideas bounce around in their mind for a while, they collide in a fascinating way. The early Catholic Church got this one right, as this Advent tension has proven to be a particularly fruitful theological paradox.
The messiah has come, and yet the messiah has not yet come. He is here, but he has yet to arrive. When I ponder this particular paradox within my UU lens which has been so influenced by Process Thought, I hear this message: that it has arrived insomuch as we, the created, actualize it by making the most beautiful choices, by co-creating with the divine the most perfect outcomes in any one given moment. And at the same time it has not yet arrived insomuch as we, the created, fail to actualize it by not making the most beautiful choices, and thus not co-creating with the divine the most perfect outcomes in any given moment. So that it is ultimately up to us, in all the choices we make - and I am talking about those little moments that happen all day, every day, whether or not the kingdom of heaven is upon us, or in more UU language - whether we are living in right relations with the world or not. It's not some pie-in-the-sky view of heaven, but about creating beauty right here, right now.
In some ways this is a very counter-intuitive message for the religious liberal to hear - we whose bumper stickers boldly identify such lofty goals as world peace, an end to hunger, the planet-wide reversal of climate change, and the end of discrimination, to name but a few. And now I am standing here telling you that the real difference you can make is in the mundane details of life, in how you respond to the messy moments of every day.
I certainly don't mean that these lofty goals are not important. Quite to the contrary, as you will get tired of hearing me say, I believe that we must dream as big as possible. But I think there is much wisdom in this Christian message as well. We may never completely achieve world peace, we may never figure out how to equitably distribute our abundance of food, but we sure as heck better keep trying. And this Advent paradox reveals an understanding of waiting that enables us to do both - to work for large, lofty goals, but to also create a better world in every mundane moment of life. It really transforms the idea of holy patience, of this Christian waiting game, from the classic passive waiting that we normally think of, to an active, dynamic waiting where we realize our true power as created beings to help the most perfect world unfold right now, not at some far-off time that has yet to come. It is really not waiting at all - it is really an invitation into a much more empowered relationship with the world around us.
Instead of passively sitting around, waiting for the ushering in of a better time, the call is to be actively engaged in creating that world right now, with every little decision we make.
And it is certainly more wise than ever to have us thinking about patience and waiting and our response to it at this time of the year when we wait in ever longer lines at the super market, at the toy store, on the phone and internet. We are doing a lot of waiting right now and our patience is easily tested. And so this message is so well-timed for us. As we wait in all those lines, and as we interact with an ever frustrated, over-worked, under-paid and stressed-out work force we must find it in ourselves to be the moment of beauty amidst all of that. To be the person that lets the car merge in front of you rather than speeding up, to hold the elevator, to open the door, or at the very least to be the calm presence amongst it all, to thank the cashier whose register runs out of tape rather than giving them attitude, to empathize for a moment with the besieged stock clerk when you can't find the right size, color or fabric; to actualize all the beauty you can in those moments, because if you don't, the odds are that no one else will either.
Because it is so easy to get swept up in the bad energy of holiday madness. We have children and family members to please, we have our ridiculous standards of perfection we must live up to and put on display through the adorning of our houses, our family rooms, and our wardrobes. We have lists of food to purchase and meals to prepare, gifts to find, wrap and send. Holiday cards to create, travel plans to make, weather gods to pray to! And for many of us, most of us, myself included, despite our values and intentions of simplicity and anti-consumerism, we will get swept up in this fever to some degree. It is almost inescapable at this point.
But the choice you can make is how to move through it. Will you be the chaos or the beauty? Will you be just another part of the holiday madness, wedged into the middle seat on a red-eye flight bemoaning the broken down WiFi, or will you be the holy patient one, creating all the beauty you can in that one messy and very real moment? The choice is up to you.
May it be so. Ashe.
Back to Top