“Teenager Mary waited. She waited to know the meaning of her pregnancy. …
Troubled Joseph waited… and he knew not why, for it was clear what was expected of him.…”
I am quoting from Rev. Burton Carley’s reflection on this religious season…a piece called “Waiting.”
“Mary and Joseph waited to arrive at Bethlehem on a journey they did not want to take…
In Bethlehem they waited for a place to stay. They waited while listening to the cry of their newborn, relieved and strangely joyful.
Mary and Joseph waited and watched as their child grew …
The couple waited as the spirit took their child away from home.
They waited, still wondering what they had done. They waited in hope and fear, as parents do, for him to find his place in the world.
And the child who was theirs and not theirs at the same time, could not wait.
He went into the world, seeing its wonder and its sorrow, and he urged those about him not to wait anymore for their place in it.”
In the Christian liturgical calendar, this is the first Sunday of Advent, the period of preparation and of waiting to celebrate the birth of hope in that child born long ago.
That child who, in the Christian story, was both human and more than human.
That child who grew into a preacher who urged those around him not to wait any more…
The Kingdom of God, he called it…the Beloved Community…is already here, can be here he preached…can be now…you do not need to wait…and all are welcome to come in.
He preached that word of hope…so long ago.
And yet, here we are…still…in a world where the Beloved Community seems more distant with each passing day…
Here we are…still…waiting…and wondering whether hope is justified, or justifiable.
And it would be ministerial malfeasance not to acknowledge how close we can come to despair.
And yet…we come here, to this sanctuary, to this sanctuary of the spirit, because we are not ready to give up, not ready to give in.
And so, let us begin where we must begin. Let us begin with what we have been given, compromised and complicated though it may be.
Our spiritual theme this month is “God.”
That word “God” has been weighted down with so many failed attempts to define and limit it…to define and thus attempt to control what is beyond our knowing.
Even Michelangelo’s famous image of God and adam on the cover of our OOS, those famous fingers almost touching…even Michelangelo painted God in human scale.
He shrank God to human size…leaving little space for mystery.
I have real sympathy for those who simply reject the word God…those who turn their backs on all those failed attempts.
I understand that impulse to turn away. Too many people want to take the mystery out of God, to make God literal and concrete. Even worse, they want to make God in an image that suits them, so that they can pretend that they know, in great detail, what God wants.
Even to use that language…”what God wants”…requires humanizing God and shrinking her to the size of human desires.
Does what you know as Holy, whatever name you use, …does what you know as Holy ”want” things?
Is desire an attribute of the God you know?
The concreteness and the certainty of those literal approaches are a sure sign of their inadequacy, at least for me.
Our doubts and our uncertainties about the reality in which we live our lives…our doubts do not reflect a lack of faith.
Our doubts reflect a taking seriously of what meaning our lives may have and what calling to love and justice we may hear as we walk in the ways of the world.
Some of us have moved away from God, and it can be argued that God has been moving away from us as well.
Hebrew scholar, Richard Freidman, in his book The Disappearance of God, chronicles God’s withdrawal in the scriptures. The god who walked in the garden, continued to be visible and to speak directly to the Jewish people until Moses brought those tablets down from Sinai. After that, God never speaks directly to the people again. He speaks through Moses and later through the Prophets and the very occasional angel.
But not directly.
The remembered words of God replace God’s voice. God’s presence at a distance.
In fact, the people wanted God’s silence. We forget this. They begged for it. Barbara Brown Taylor tells the story this way:
All of the people were there when Moses brought those tablets down from Sinai. “Not one of them missed it: God’s own voice, with thunder in it and lightning cracking all around; the sound of a trumpet…with notes that made their scalps crawl; the mountain itself, smoking like a kiln, shaking so violently that the ground slid beneath their feet.
It was an encounter,” she writes, “with the living God, and in about 5 seconds the people decided they had had enough. Turning to Moses, they said, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.” (Exodus 20:19).”
A single blast of even God’s exhaust was enough to put the “fear of God” into them.
This is metaphor, or course, but perhaps there is some truth that creation is too hot for us to handle…full on.
Perhaps we wanted God to withdraw…or to say that another way, perhaps we wanted the world to become more secular, less sacred, less infused with Holy possibilities. Perhaps we wanted to dream of control in human hands. Perhaps we thought we could handle that.
Perhaps our waiting now is the result that we went too far, that the price for our unchecked control was too high…that we have lost our bearings and our connection to that ground of being, to that given-ness, that presence of love that we used to mean when we said God.
Perhaps the distance between those two fingers has become so great that even love is having a hard time arcing across.
I understand those who turn away from God, or at least the language of God. I was in that camp for years.
And even now, for me, all those failed attempts to define and limit God make the work of theology, make our liberal religious enterprise, make my work as a minister so difficult.
But let me try.
A place to begin is with the many names that we use to describe that which transcends our individual lives.
Spirit of Life and of Love. Great Mystery at the Heart of Things. Dear God. You hear me use that short list of names almost every week. But there are so many others.
Nancy Schaffer in our reading this morning offered quite a list:
One My Mother Knew. Greatest Source. Closest Hope.
An Ocean of Compassion. Kindness. Stillness.
That Which Holds All.
The point is that the word, God, is only one attempt to name a mystery that we can sense but that we do not control…and did not create.
The place to start is remembering that we did not create the universe in which we live…
Or to say it another way, the first step in knowing God may be to remember that we are not God.
That there is a “given-ness” in which our lives take place and on which our lives rely. The canvas on which we paint, the book of life in which we inscribe our story is not ultimately of our own making. It is given. “This is the day we have been given…”
And therefore our power and our creativity, which are real, operate within the truth of nature and the reality of history on which we depend.
Here is slightly more formal language from theologian James Luther Adams:
“This reality that is dependable and in which we may place our confidence is, then, not humanity. Nor is it a mere projection of human wishes. It is a working reality that every person is destined to live with….We are free only to obstruct it or to conform to the conditions it demands for growth.”
That we have freedom is without question in our tradition. To quote Rebecca Parker: “Our gifts can be used to bless or to curse the world.” We have freedom, a wide latitude of choice, but our freedom is contained, it is held within the given-ness in which we live.
Our lives are deeply interdependent with the creation that sustains them…our lives are far more interwoven than a singular focus on self allows us to remember.
We are part of, we participate in the creation that sustains us.
But this can cut both ways.
Adams goes on: “through the abuse of freedom we [can] also pervert and frustrate [that freedom]. We distort or petrify the forms of creation …”
We are living through a time when there is a lot of abuse of our freedom and a great deal of perversion of creation going on. You know it as well as I do.
Adams concludes:…”We must depend upon a transforming reality that breaks through encrusted forms of life and thought to create new forms.
We put our faith in a creative reality that is re-creative.”
“A transforming reality that breaks through…” A reality that can move even a perverted creation toward love and justice.
This is the heart of the liberal religious Good News.
To put this in simpler language, we fall short of Beloved Community…over and over we fall short…but there is always a love waiting of us to try again…a love that has never broken faith with us, a love waiting to partner with us.
A love that can help us break through.
Call that love God, call it the power of human possibility, call it the ground of being, Spirit of Life. Spirit of Love.
What you call it makes so little difference.
But do not shrink that love, do not shrink God to merely human size.
To see ourselves at the center of creation, its reason for being, is the ultimate idolatry.
We are not God…whatever God may be.
What then is that mystery? What can we say about that given-ness on which we rely?
Glenn Thomas Rideout, Director of Worship and Music at the Ann Arbor UU church, writes:
“god is no noun
and certainly not an adjective.
god is at least a verb,
and even that shrinks her.
God is not so much a woman
As she resides in the improbable
Hope of brown mothers.
God is not so much a man
As he is at work in the memory
Of my grandfather’s laugh.
God is not trans.
God is not black; neither is he white
God is wading in the contradiction of songs
From slave shacks.
And I have seen god in the alabaster smiles
Of children at play.
We’re getting Michelangelo all wrong.
God is not the bearded one surrounded by angels,
Floating over the Sistine.
He is not adam with his muscled back pressing the earth.
God is the closing inch of space
Between their reaching fingers.”
The closing inch of space. Across which love can arc.
There is such truth in the Islamic prohibition against images of Allah, against pictures of God.
And such wisdom in the Jewish prohibition against writing God’s name.
Because the given-ness in which we find our lives is not portray-able as some bearded old white guy floating on a cloud.
Not describable in a word, not containable in words at all.
All our names for the Holy can only point to what we sense.
That God is what happens in the interplay of creatures, like each of us, and creation.
God is in the play of creatures and creation.
God between the fingertips. God as verb. God as process.
I use the language of God, but I do not insist that you use my language. I do ask you, and this church asks you to take your life seriously…both your independence, your freedom and your reliance on that given-ness which is not of your making.
We have been waiting…for God to come to us.
But both of those fingertips can move.
Again from Glenn Rideout:
God is not you. …
She will not have your answers.
She is too large for answers.
She dances too wildly to be fastened to them,
And answers are nouns anyway.
God is at least a verb, …
God is waiting in the space between fingers
That might connect.
He is waiting for us
To stop naming her.
She is waiting for us to
See all of him.
God is waiting
To be un-shrunk.”
Let me commend to you the idea of God as mystery. The mystery at the heart of things. That Which Holds All.
Let me commend to you a faith, not free of doubt, not a faith of certainty, but a faith that welcomes doubt. A faith big enough for awe and wonder.
Let me commend to you, let me commend to myself, a liberal religious faith that does not expect or require immediate optimism, a faith that can survive disappointment and withstand despair.
There has been in every age a love that waited to join with us, when we finally found the will and the courage to move toward it.
That love waits to join with us now. There is no need for us to wait.
Love is there, waiting for us to begin.
Will you pray with me now?
Spirit of Life. Spirit of Love.
Ancient Holy One.
Mystery We Will Not Ever Fully Know.
Great Living God.
One Who Made the Stars.
That Which Has Been Present Since Before the Beginning.
One Who Is An Entire Ocean of Compassion.
One My Mother Knew.
That Which Holds All.
Be with us. Be among us. Be within us.