16913 Germantown Road
Germantown, Maryland 20875-0320
The Art of Waiting
Presenter:Rev. Megan Foley
Sermon Date:Sun, 12/06/2009
One theme on which you’re likely to hear a lot from me over the course of our time together is the curious habit that Unitarian Universalists have of sort-of celebrating major Christian holidays, while at the same time steadfastly and accurately locating the whole UU religion outside of Christianity, and often vociferously rejecting Christian faith at the individual level.
By this I mean that while truly Christian UUs are somewhat uncommon (although present), and UU atheists are pretty widespread (although not ubiquitous), many if not most UU churches have Christmas eve services – clearly a straight-out Christian celebration. And, even more strangely, many UUs show up at their congregations on Easter Sunday with their extended family in tow and with big pretty hats on to hear sermons that roundly and routinely reject the idea of the resurrection of Jesus.
And although we might have a special program to celebrate Passover, or have a RE lesson on Diwali, most of an entire UU congregation will show up to a Christmas eve service in numbers that suggest that perhaps we haven’t left our parental religions quite as far behind as we may have thought.
So either we’re just culturally Christian, and haven’t fallen out of step with the ebbs and flows of the Christian calendar – and that makes sense, when American society also ebbs and flows with the Christian calendar in many ways – or, (and this is more my opinion), we UUs are actually practicing a form of Christianity, the form that Jesus himself preached but which the mainstream Christian church has moved away from.
Our Unitarian and Universalist religion, born out of Christianity, takes Jesus’ message to love thy neighbor so seriously that we have systematically attempted to break down every wall that separates us from our neighbor. Do we stop trying to love each other because of what gender or race we are? No. Do we stop trying to love each other because of differences in sexual preference? No. We don’t even stop trying to love each other because of what our religious beliefs are. No matter what your religious beliefs, sort-of Christian or not, you are welcome in our congregations so long as you extend that same courtesy to others, because we put people, not beliefs, first. This is what makes us a humanist religion, a human-centered religion – and this is also the very quality that has separated us from our Christian ancestry. Even though the notion of loving thy neighbor no matter what is the core of the Christian faith, it is the Christians, generally speaking, who cannot quite cross the bridge into loving their neighbors even if they don’t share their faith. We, Unitarian Universalists, are the ones who do that.
So this is all to say that there are often really good reasons why our UU cultural calendar is more attuned to the rhythms of the Christian calendar than mere social pressure or cultural remnants. We are in our own way acting out our own understanding of the Christian message all the time. And so I’d like us to take a moment today to talk about – not a major Christian holiday like Christmas or Easter – but a more minor one: the Christian observance of Advent. It’s a practice that also has much to teach us Unitarian Universalists.
Advent, as you may well already know, is celebrated during the period of four Sundays before Christmas. Today is the second Sunday of Advent. Advent is generally marked by the lighting of candles for each of the four Sundays prior to Christmas, and then often a fifth candle is lit on Christmas day.
In the Christian world, Advent’s focus varies. Some Christians use the time to rejoice that Jesus came into the world. Some Christians use the time for reflection on their shortcomings and need for improvement. And some Christians use the time to reflect on the qualities of hope, love, joy, and peace that Jesus preached about in spades. But this morning I would like to introduce another way of thinking about Advent. I would like to use this celebration time to talk about the importance and value of waiting.
Because at the heart of it, Advent is a celebration of waiting, waiting for the birth of Jesus on Christmas day. It is a marked, prolonged, reflective time where we actively wait for a future event that already happened. What? I hear you ask.
I’ll say it again: Advent is a time where we reverently wait for something that already happened, the birth of Jesus in that fabled stable of long ago.
Interesting, isn’t it? I mean, if you’re like me and like most Americans, you don’t like waiting for anything at all. I took up knitting just because I didn’t want to wait through television commercials. (It’s cheaper than TiVo.) If you’ve ever seen a line at the CVS pharmacy, or watched people on the Metro, you’ve seen a bunch of people on cell phones or on PDAs or generally doing whatever they can to not have to Just Wait. Think of all the road rage in the Washington area caused by people not wanting to wait in traffic.
There was an article in the Post recently about how the layaway option at stores is coming back into style, thanks to the recession – and by layaway, in case you aren’t familiar with the term, I mean the process by which the store holds something for you while you pay a little bit at a time until you can take it home. We’ve replaced layaway, in recent decades, with instant credit and instant gratification, and that ought to tell you something about us – that instead of saving up money so that we can buy something when we can afford it, we get it as soon as we can, and worry about the paying later on. It’s a classic example of how much we don’t like to wait, and most Americans are great perpetrators of the no-wait philosophy.
So why don’t we like to wait? Is it because the waiting process is boring? Or, more telling, is it because we’re afraid we won’t get the thing we’re waiting for?
Well, the celebration of Advent helps us answer both those fears in a deep way. During Advent, we practice waiting for something that we know is going to come, because it is a symbolic waiting for an event from history. It’s going to happen, guaranteed, because it already did, if you know what I mean. So the risk involved in the waiting is completely removed.
And the waiting process itself, during Advent, is designed to be rich with meaning in and of itself. Anybody who has given an eager small child an advent calendar knows what I mean. Advent calendars come in many configurations, but almost always involve opening a little door every day from December 1st until the 25th. It’s a great way to direct a child’s energy away from pestering his or her parents about gifts into a small daily practice, with its own small daily delights. Every day a little picture, a little surprise. Every day, a little act that leads up to the bigger one. Every day, a focus. Every day, a little attention paid to the art of waiting.
In traditional observances of Advent, of course, we wait for the birth of the baby Jesus. Why is this baby’s birth such a big deal? Because the birth of the baby Jesus is the beginning of what Jesus eventually brought to the world, a supreme example of the human ability to love each other even in the face of difference and threat.
To me, this time of year also gets tangled up with my intense desire to see the earth travel closer to the sun again, to have my days filled with sunlight and warmth rather than the cold and the dark.
So these two events – the return of the sun, and the birth of Jesus, conflate in my personal belief system into one hope, that even in times of great darkness there is the possibility of the light. Literally, it is darkest when the hope of summer is first born. And metaphorically, in a world that doesn’t seem so great at times, when the baby Jesus is born I remember that it is love that saves us, it is love that we can rest on, it is love that heals and redeems us. Even in the darkest hour – especially in the darkest hour – we find the dawn, and that dawn is love.
So at Advent, and at the winter solstice, we wait for saving things, like Jesus and the sun, that we are certain will come, either because they already did – Jesus - or because they always do – the sun.
What can we learn from this practice? Because the sort of waiting that we do at Advent is not like sitting alone in the dark abstractly wishing that life could be different. The sort of waiting that we do at Advent is knowing that the change is going to come, and preparing the way for the transition.
We aren’t wishing for the baby Jesus, hoping that there is some model in the world that might show us how to make sense of our troubled lives. No, in Advent, we already KNOW the baby Jesus is coming, and we prepare through our contemplation and our candle lighting and our calendars and so on.
And we aren’t WISHING for the light to return to our skies, but rather we KNOW the light is on its way, and we are biding our time with fire and evergreen, and warm clothes, walks out in the bright of a cold day, and maybe some hot buttered rum.
What if we waited for other changes in our lives the way we wait at Advent? What if, instead of wishing for better, we believed in better, and simply prepared the way for it to emerge? How would our lives change, internally and externally, if we believed in things the way we do at Christmastime? What sort of peace would reside in our hearts, if we knew that the changes that would save us would certainly come soon?
And how would our response to the world be altered, if we believed wholeheartedly that something WOULD happen, and it was only the WAY in which it would happen that was not quite so clear? Wouldn’t we keep our eyes open for opportunity, in a way we hadn’t before? If we knew the change was meant to be, wouldn’t we be compelled to do what we could to make it happen? Would we look for a visible path, lend a hand to creating the roads to the new reality, the reality which must be coming? Do we do the small things we can, because it’s gotta happen somehow?
At Advent, we practice waiting for that which is we know is to be. And whether you are particularly waiting for Christmas this year, or not, I invite you to reconsider the benefit of the act of waiting, and ask yourself how your waiting might change depending on your faith in the thing you’re waiting for. There is room in all our lives for the waiting that leads to steady, determined action, and the peace that comes from knowing that the sun is just around the corner, and it’s gotta get here one of these days even if the time waiting for it is really long and really cold and really hard.
I encourage you to find the thing that you are waiting for, the thing that you know is meant to be, and to do the hard and deliberate work of waiting for the change which is bound to come with your steady attention and your unwavering faith.
And we will practice that right now.