Published by Ronald Steed,
Sermon for Sunday, December 2, 2018 (1 Advent Year C)
St. James Poquetanuck, Grace Church, Yantic, CT
For me the holidays are difficult. I react badly to the artificial joy and commercialism that I perceive in this season, and I get on my high horse often enough by noting that it is still Advent and not yet Christmas. As far as I am concerned, Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Giving Tuesday are just made-up excuses that our culture provides to separate us from our money, and we in the church would be so much wiser to follow the Advent themes of the church calendar by waiting quietly for the return of our savior. My dominant feelings in the face of all this commercialism are disgust and revulsion and just hate. They are sharp emotions. When I am really honest with myself, and I’ve tried to be exactly that on many levels recently, I have come to realize that emotional reactions like disgust, revulsion, and hate are a sign. A sign that my shadow-self is at work… the part of me that I don’t want to claim… the part of me I keep locked away in a cupboard because I really don’t want others to see what’s there. The truth is, my reaction to the holidays has a lot more to do with revolt against my parents, for whom the American Christmas Season was a source of great joy, than it is about any special or holy insight on my part. As a young adult, I decided that I didn’t want to be like my parents, and my internal revolution against the Christmas Season was underway. There were other fronts in that war, Christmas was just one of them.
I think this bit of insight into my shadow cupboard is important to understand, because it might be helpful to you as well. Just like my own war against American Christmas, it is ridiculously easy to wrap something up in religious garb and call it holy, but that doesn’t make it so. Emotions like disgust, revulsion, and hate are shadow signs, not holy signs. That is not to say that these emotions are sinful or evil, they are not. In fact, they are perfectly normal human expressions of something that we need to have the courage to turn toward and understand. And if we do, we just might find that God will be there to help us with that work… God is with us after all, even in our shadows; maybe especially there. That is certainly what I am finding. As gut wrenching as it is sometimes to do shadow-work on the parts my life I keep in the dark, God seems to be in the middle of that work.
And what I’m finding in the middle of that work is another sign. A sign and a practice that I want to teach you this Advent morning. It is the simplest thing, and I am finding that it is helping me to get through all kinds of difficult things, including American Christmas.
Here’s what you do. First, you tilt your head a little to one side (right or left, it doesn’t matter). Then you draw in a little breath and make an audible sigh like this; "hmmmm". That’s it. One more time. Head tilt, a little intake, "hmmm". Let’s try it together, "hmmm". It’s that easy.
This is the practice that you use when you see, hear, smell, feel, or remember something that touches you heart. And it is the sign that God gives us… a grace that God gives us… that God is there with you… that your heart and God’s heart are intertwined for a moment. "Thin places" are what the Irish call those places where heaven and Earth seem to be interlocked and intertwined. But the thin places of this practice are more than locations… they can happen anywhere and at any time.
In the morning as I pour hot water over coffee grinds and feel the rising warmth of the steam on my face and that most delicious coffee smell … hmmm… that’s a thin moment. This week, as I have glanced out the kitchen window at the first bit of sun coming over the horizon… hmmm… that’s a thin moment. Sitting in a chair by the front window, a coffee cup in my hand, watching as a neighbor walks by with their dog… my mind takes in the moment… the neighbor, the dog, the warm rose-colored morning light on a frosty landscape… hmmm… God is in that. Sitting on the steps of the homeless shelter near the smoking area, I see a young woman chatting with another. I know her story and it is not a pretty one… I’ve never seen her smile, but she is now. I smile too as I watch her chatting… hmmm… God is with her in this moment and with me. Standing beside Kim at a funeral on Wednesday looking and listening to the family gathered there. They were so beautiful in their grief and their love… hmmm… and then a couple seconds later I hear Kim go "hmmm"… our hearts were being touched by the Spirit at the same time… hmmm.
Maybe you have had moments like this. Pink clouds at sunset… listening to snow crunch under your feet on a woodland path… watching your dog scamper ahead on a walk…catching a glimpse of your beloved as they pass by. All of these are thin moments. Just tilt your head, take a little breath; "hmmm"… savor that moment… be present in it… God is there, present with you. In the Mohegan Casino, there is the Krispy Kreme doughnut shop… that fantastic doughnut machine making those little hoops of heavenly bliss… I watch intently as the sugary glaze dribbles off them and I am swept back right to my childhood in Atlanta… I’m 7 years old in an instant, standing there with my parents, watching this incredible machine. Hmmm… who knew that Krispy Kreme was a thin place? Writing this sermon, remembering that day with my parents… missing them… the tears well up and spill over. I sit in that moment for a while and hold it… suffer in it… feeling the tears on my cheeks… reconciling with them… hmmm. God is in that.
You see, God is with us all the time. We can catch him at work on our hearts at any moment if we’re alert to the moment. I think this is what Jesus might be telling us. "There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near." Has there ever been a time since Jesus first walked the Earth when this hasn’t been so? When there hasn’t been distress among the nations? The themes and practices of Advent are to stand up and raise your head, to be alert and to stay awake… to wait patiently… to look for God in the thin moments. So try this practice… live into these Advent themes even while the nations are confused and people are fainting from fear. You may find, as I have, that God is always there ready to whisk you away to your 7 year old self… ready to kindle your heart with crunching snow, or morning rain, or the touch of your beloved. Even during the American Christmas season, there are moments in the most commercial settings, holy moments that will catch you if you are alert and awake to them. A child’s smile… a couple squeezing hands in front of you… strangers lending a hand to one another. And we know these ARE holy moments because they heal, they rebuild, they reconcile. Jesus will come to us in clouds of coffee steam… in the cloud of the Internet when you get an email from a dear friend… in the clouds of a beautiful sunset. Now when you see these things begin to take place, tilt your head to the side and heave a little sigh… hmmm…. because your redemption is drawing near. Amen.