Thursday, February 09, 2006

Sermon: "What is Paradise?" (Delivered February 5, 2006)

[I preached this sermon on "Hawaiian Sunday." Everyone was invited to come wearing Hawaiian shirts; tropical music played in the foyers; luau decorations adorned the sanctuary; and everyone was presented with a lei as they arrived. Keep this in mind as you read the sermon.]

Opening Words

Aloha! To get what this morning is about, you should know that it goes against my personality. After all, I originally come from uptight, Puritanical, New England – with all its Protestant work ethic and idle-hand-are-the-devils-playthings-thinking, with all its starkness, and all its austerity, and all its non-ostentatious-ness. None of you have this problem. Nobody here is self-conscious, or uptight. “Hang Loose” describes us!

And so I want to inspire us this morning, amidst the wind and chill of winter, amidst the brown of grass, the naked limbs of trees, the varying grays of the days… I want to inspire us to adjust our minds to a different latitude, and attitude. I want us to just for a moment close our eyes and feel the sun. To imagine the swaying palm trees, the granular sand, the fish swimming in the coral reef. Children: Imagine you are surfing the biggest wave!

I want for us to allow ourselves to step into this paradise, to create it with our songs, our spirits. To put aside our reservations, our hesitations, to create a little levity, a little warmth.

Hang loose, dude. Chill out, man. Put the lime in the coconut. Let’s do church!


In lieu of a reading this morning, I might offer the following anti-reading, which I’ve personally titled: “On the limits of ‘google-searching’ for a reading adequate for this morning”:

If you type some combination of “Unitarian”, “tropical”, “paradise”, and “reading”, into Google you get the following:

You get several sermons touting the folly of Utopia, and the certainty of paradise’s demise. Not a promising beginning.

You get numerous mentions of environmental degradation, disappearing Rain Forests, and extinction of tropical species – worth our awareness, but also not exactly what I had in mind this morning.

You get examples of Unitarians doing charity for the victims of hurricanes and tropical storms – worth our awareness, but also not exactly what I had in mind this morning.

You get the web-site of the UU congregation in Paradise Valley… Arizona.

You get actual quotations from John Milton’s Paradise Lost in sermons – who would do such a thing?

You get a horribly, graphic story told by a UU minister about his children learning about the cycle of life by watching tropical fish devour each other at the tropical-fish store.

And I am left to wonder whether this is evidence that this morning is original, or even misguided. It should come as no surprise to any of us that Paradise is difficult to find, difficult to describe. That it is maybe better left unnamed, just enjoyed.


There was an idea for this service that has been percolating for almost five years. I’m going to share with you this morning some ideas that are somewhat complex, but that I hope you will find valuable. And I have two stories from my own life that I want to use to frame and introduce these complex ideas:

The first story involves the time five years ago that I went to a worship service at an evangelical mega-church. I was living in Dallas, Texas at the time: "when in, do as" we might say. Right before the sermon the minister announced that we will now have the commercial. (He actually announced it as a liturgical element!) and the lights in the cavernous auditorium faded and on the jumbo video screens played a video of a tropical beach with pure blue water, golden sand, and lush palm trees. And then, walking into the camera shot is the minister, wearing shorts and a Hawaiian shirt… and he is announcing, “This is paradise. Do you know how to get to paradise? Come back next week when we’ll be beginning on sermon series on getting to paradise.”

After all those years, I still have two thoughts about this commercial. The first is to notice that he must have brought a cameraman with him all the way to Hawaii or wherever to film this thirty second piece – and what an ingenious business expense that is. If I were a little bit smarter, and a whole lot less scrupulous, I could have taken myself to some sort of tropical paradise and called it “research” and sermon preparation. And then I had my second thought, which was that maybe he didn’t go all the way to Hawaii to film this commercial. Maybe he just went to a film studio and stood in front of a blue screen. And am I cynical enough to even entertain the idea of a fabricated, contrived, made-up paradise – and the implications of that level of fakery and disingenuousness. I am left to wonder, did he fake his paradise?

Setting this paradise commercial aside for a second, I want to share another story that will help frame my sermon this morning. A little less than a decade ago, I had made friends with an evangelical missionary. My friendship with the M. involved going to various wonderful Asian restaurants and talking theology while we broke eggrolls together. He would tell me about C. S. Lewis, and I would tell him about Albert Camus. He would tell me about John 3:16 and I would tell him about the Seven Principles. And this went on for many months, and over our eating and talking there developed a communion, a fellowship. But I wanted to test him, so one day I asked him, putting our friendship into context, where he believed in his heart of hearts we would each be heading in the afterlife. And the M. replied, as I expected him to, that he was heading to a six letter place that began with an “H”. And I was heading to a four letter place that began with an “H”. I was prepared for such an answer. I was prepared for it theologically, because I wanted to try out something I had discovered, a bit of theology I called: the emotional-logical argument against Hell. (I was a theologically precocious eighteen year old…)

The “Emotional-Logical Argument Against Hell” goes like this: If you are my friend and you care for me, if there is between us what Christians would call Agape, (a kind of platonic love rooted in fellowship and service), if there is that bond between us, and then if our relationship is permanently torn, rent, by our being divided between different destinations, then what kind of heaven is really possible for you? Could heaven still be pleasurable and pleasant without me?

It seems like it could only under certain conditions. One condition is that heaven could be pleasurable for you if heaven made you ignorant and unaware of those who weren’t there with you. Another condition is that heaven could be so intensely pleasurable that it could distract you and cause you to forget about those who aren’t there with you – that is called hedonism, isn’t it? – a kind of pleasure that is self-centered and causes one to lose their sense of the moral context in which they exist. In this sense, heaven would have the effect of a powerful narcotic. Or, there’s a third option: heaven could be not a place of ignorance and unawareness, and not a place of hedonistic distraction, but it could be a place where part of the fun is knowing that others are excluded from it and denied it. That is called sadism: pleasure in the suffering of others.

The argument goes: if our friendship is real, and if we are divided, your heaven can’t be truly heavenly until we are reconciled, unless your heaven is a place of ignorance or hedonism or sadism. And so logically, there can be no true heaven until there is no Hell.

Or put another way, we would say, wouldn’t we, that what constitutes enlightenment / wisdom / saintliness / awakening is an enlarged capacity to understand the suffering and pain in the world and be a minister to its healing. Ignorance of, avoidance of, rationalizing of, despairing of, ambivalence towards the suffering and pain of the world is a sign of spiritual superficiality. And thus the question: Joining into the presence of the Divine in heaven involves which of the following: enlightenment or superficiality? The M. had no answer for me that could be grounded in morality and I was very proud of my teenage theology! [My minister at the time, Rev. Kimi Riegel, was extremely pastoral and shared with me the “Conscientious Objector Argument against Hell.”]

So, what does this all have to do with paradise? Good question. I have to let you know, in the interest of full disclosure, that I have never been to Hawaii, or any tropical Island for that matter. I don’t think I would mind… a vacation does not sound all that bad, but I’m not sure it would be altogether preach-able.

I do want to talk a little bit about Paradise though from a UU perspective, not literally, not in the sense of actual snorkels and surfboards, surf and sand, cabanas and luaus, little umbrellas inside of frosty non-alcoholic pina-colada beverages. I want to talk about paradise from a theological perspective, as a theological category, and I’m hoping that our vibrant costumes, our silly leis, our tacky decorations, and our wonderful coffee hour refreshments brought by the 30-somethings will put us in the mood to explore the theology of paradise.

In the Judeo-Christian tradition the world begins as an undisturbed paradise – Eden – which is then lost by some combination of (take your pick) disobedience, knowledge, original sin, gender conflict, ambition, curiosity, or bad things happening to good people – depending on your particular reading of that story. Every faith that has come from this tradition involves an ambition towards the (re)creating, achieving, or regaining of some kind of paradise or another. The fancy theological word for this is Eschatology. Some forms of religion, like Left Behind Christianity, stress that paradise will only come about through events like a cataclysmic and violent apocalypse, rapture, warfare, and the final establishment of God’s Dominion on Earth. Other religions stress an other-worldly paradise to be achieved after death. Unitarian Universalists tend to downplay our eschatology, but it might said that ours resembles Martin Luther King’s concept of “Beloved Community” – a paradise manifest by the creation of a world grounded in justice, fairness, equity, inclusiveness, respect, love, peace, and understanding.

King’s “Beloved Community” is based in Jesus’ teachings about the Kingdom of Heaven – that it is all around us, if we would only open our eyes and stop doing the things that keep us from experiencing it.

In simple words, that “Beloved Community” is our paradise, our eschatology: “We’ll build a land where we bind up the broken; we’ll build a land where the captives go free, where the oil of gladness dissolves all mourning, oh we’ll build a promised land that can be.”

But I want to offer a couple of thoughts about paradise that are related to my two stories above.

First, think back to the story about the mega-church minister and the tropical commercial. And more than the oddness of a “commercial” in church, more than the surprise of seeing the minister walking around on a beach in Hawaii, and more than the moral and video-graphical and eschatological questions it raised… more than any of these, I am interested in my reaction to the video. My reaction was a reaction of cynicism, of sophisticated disenchantment, and of observing all the manipulation present in the video.

[The next three paragraphs are deeply indebted to the essays “Up, Simba!” and "The View from Mrs. Thompson's" in David Foster Wallace’s new book, Consider the Lobster, which I recently read in its entirety, even the footnotes!]

We live in an age of marketing – of sales – that’s extremely sophisticated. Advertising has infiltrated every corner: witness – a commercial in church.

Our awareness of this – and the younger generations here have been advertised to and marketed to from the moment they flipped on their Saturday morning cartoons – cannot help but leave most of us cynical, suspicious, and questioning the motivations and the authenticity of every segment of our lives. And this doubt about what is real depends less on what is in anybody else’s heart, as what is in our own.

Let me see if I say this very plainly: in this day and age you can find a reason to be cynical about just about anything and everything. We can doubt the purity and the authenticity and the honesty of anything and everything, but this tells us as much about ourselves as it does about anything else. [Thanks, David Foster Wallace.] And so might paradise, I wonder, be a quality having to do with a trusting, or at least not overly-cynical, attitude. It is telling that the first Google-search result was a sermon about there being no such thing as paradise.

And then there is that second story: Asian eating with the M. and the emotional-logical argument against Hell. I want to suggest to you that all those arguments about how there can be heaven until there is no Hell – they are not arguments about the afterlife, so much as about this life. It is a story about the gymnastics we can go through to try to reconcile a world in which some live in paradise and others are expelled from the garden. Ignorance, hedonistic focus on this pleasure or that, mean satisfaction with having it better – these along with so many other rationalizations and justifications are what allows for us to reconcile ourselves with ideas of paradise and perdition co-existing in either the afterlife or this life.

This is not to say, and please do not get me wrong, that pleasure, enjoyment, fun and recreation are bad things – I am not a joy-kill like that. In fact, I might even go so far as to say that it was the ability of the seers and saints, the prophets and justice-makers to see paradise in the midst of perdition, heaven amidst the hells of our own design that was the most powerful element of their enlightenment. To see this, and then to also realize that paradise cannot truly be paradise until everyone can get in – such a paradise as has not yet been described, or seen… only believed.