Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Sermon: "All I Want for Christmas..." (Delivered 12-21-08)

Desire. Yearning. To wish or to want. To pant or to pine. To hanker. When desire is misdirected we call it “coveting.” Coveting, by the way, is a violation of the tenth commandment. It is related to feelings that can become the dark side of desire: jealousy, envy, and greed.

Desire, wanting, craving: these feelings are often so tied up with the Holidays. Often, desire is expressed in ways that are cute and whimsical and harmless. One novelty record of old declares, “All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth.” In another recording, Alvin of Alvin and the Chipmunks sings, “Want a plane that loops the loop. I still want a hula hoop.”

Of course, this is not just a Christmas thing. Having grown up in a town with as many synagogues as Catholic churches, my gentile peers and I were sometimes gently teased about how getting presents on eight days was much better than getting presents on one day. Of course, that may reflect a Protestant-ized version of Hanukkah. And, these expressions of desire for stuff are not purely the outgrowth of industrialization and modern materialism. Marking the shortest day of the year and sparsest season with celebrations of excess and overindulgence is a tradition that far predates Black Friday. Thinking back to Roman celebrations like Saturnalia, these celebrations likely predate monotheism itself.

And, if this mixture of Christmas and Hanukkah and Solstice were not enough, just throw in the New Year as well and with it the ritual acts of taking stock of our lives and rededicating ourselves to changes, improvements, resolutions, and so on.

Though I am speaking about wanting and desire, this will not be a sermon about materialism, per se. Dispensing commentary on materialism often seems to me to be too obvious, too trite. But the subject of materialism may be more interesting this year as we live in a nation where, on one hand, an increasing many want for the bare essentials, where anxiety grips large numbers of people, and where, on the other hand, the prices of things seem to be free falling all around us. (Have you seen all those sales?) Our individual patterns of consumption may change, perhaps drastically, over the coming months and years. It will be interesting to observe whether the nature of our desires changes as well.

And though I don’t want to get all hung up on stuff and things, material items often provide us with a good lens for understanding the nature of desire. The second noble truth, as taught by the Buddha, is that desire is the root of all suffering. The third noble truth of Buddhism teaches that the way to end suffering is to stop desiring, to practice detachment from worldly things. This principle, by the way, is illustrated in that classic treatment of Buddhist philosophy. I am referring to the movie, A Christmas Story.

Follow me here. All through the movie the character of Ralphie wants nothing more than a Red Ryder BB gun. He is warned that desire is the root of all suffering; “you’ll shoot your eye out kid.” Still, he persists in this craving, subjecting himself to all manner of suffering and humiliation until, finally, he receives the longed for gift, proceeds to break his glasses, and, in the commotion that ensues, the Christmas dinner is devoured by a pack of neighborhood dogs. In the last scene, the family detaches from their desire for a picture perfect Christmas and, instead, goes to a Chinese restaurant. In doing this they symbolically renounce Western materialism in favor of an enlightened state of non-being as taught in Eastern religious traditions. (This is why it is no fun to watch movies with me.)

All kidding aside, this morning I want to talk about desire. This will not be a morality play. I will not condemn all desires as dangerous temptations. I will say that desire, when it takes the form of envy, jealousy, greed, or covetousness, can have harmful effects on us. This morning, I want to examine desire through the lens of contemporary theology, Biblical stories, and in light of recent developments in our society. Finally, I want to speak to you forthrightly about my desires as they relate to this religious community, what I desire for each person who takes part in this church.

In his newest book, Love and Death, the Unitarian Universalist minister Forrest Church speaks of how to live well, which is to live in such a way that your life proves worth dying for. Although he is a minister blessed with tremendous skills in writing and oratory, Church’s instructions on how to live well prove quite simple. He summarizes these instructions in three sentences which amount to just twelve words: “Be who you are. Want what you have. Do what you can.”

“Be who you are. Want what you have. Do what you can.” I want to propose to you that all three of these are, in fact, hard to achieve. They are all intense challenges. But, two out of the three don’t sound that hard on the surface. “Be who you are.” Oh, that isn’t too challenging. Obviously I am who I am. “Do what you can.” We can all point to things we do and declare, “See. Look at this thing I am doing. I am doing what I can.” I think Forrest Church has something more significant in mind here. But that middle instruction sounds difficult: “Want what you have.”

“Want what you have.” Excuse me! Are you talking to me?

And for those of you who are wondering exactly who the guy is who is telling us to want what he have, Forrest Church did not write these words as the leading voice of a historic, albeit small, religious movement, or as the minister of one of its most prestigious churches. No, in Love and Death, he writes as a 59 year old man who has suffered a recurrence of esophageal cancer, was given a terminal diagnosis, and was told that chances were not great that he would live to celebrate his 60th birthday or to see his daughter’s wedding which was scheduled for the month after he was to turn 60. In fact, he did live to see both, is still alive, but these things were not likely when he wrote the following,
Did I want cancer? Of course not, but to obsess on the bad things that befall us squeezes out a just appreciation for the good. The time we waste on wishful thinking or regret detracts from the time we might devote to being grateful for all that is ours, here and now, to savor and embrace. When I was sick I remembered to want nothing more than the caring affection of those who loved me. Wanting what I had, my prayers were answered.
And I wonder: how many of us can actually claim, truly and honestly, to want what we have. The words may roll easily from our lips. But our lips do not always speak the truth that lies in our heart. And that truth is that we often do not want what we have. How often do we say, or think, “I want my back to stop hurting.” “I want this loneliness to go away.” “I want to find love again.” “I wish I had a house like theirs.” “I want to have children.” “I want to get that raise or that promotion.” “I want my finances to look like they were back in July.” How often do we stew? Fantasize? Compare ourselves with others? If we were really determined to want what we have, we might find that actually wanting what we have is a lot harder than we think.

Dr. Seuss, who some consider a theologian in his own right, offered the famous couplet that, “Christmas isn’t something that you buy at the store / Christmas, it seems, means a little bit more.” One of the great paradoxes is that so much of the modern observance of Christmas in our culture is so centered on desire when “desire” is a feeling that is difficult to locate within the birth narrative of Jesus of Nazareth.

If you were directing this play the motivation you would give to your actors would be fear and awe and loyalty and wonder, peace and hope and joy and love. Desire doesn’t really enter the picture until much later. Decades pass between the second chapter of Matthew when the magi leave and the fourth chapter of Matthew when Jesus is tempted in the desert. It is striking to me just how far removed desire is from Jesus’ birth narrative.

Turning from the Biblical tradition to the present day, I find myself thinking of these ideas of temptation, desire, and longing in light of current events, in light of the economy, and in light of the kinds of impact those of us here this morning may be feeling.

It is so hard to challenge aspects of the culture in which we live. It is especially hard to challenge the things that are convenient, pleasant, and enjoyable. The life to which some of us may have become accustomed may have been just a temporary illusion. Our own expectations for what our lives would be like may not materialize.

So I return to my original questions: How is our relationship with our own desires? What role does desire play in our lives? For those of us who have had to radically readjust what we imagined our lives would look like, how does that feel? How many of us can honestly stand here today and say, “I want what I have”?

Coming to Kansas City from Massachusetts one of my earliest moments of adjustment was to the way shop clerks normally speak to people. I literally stood dumbfounded the first time a person at a bakery or coffee shop asked me what I needed. I was used to, “May I help you?” I was used to, “What would you like?” And, I stepped in front of the counter about to order a coffee and a cookie and was asked, “What do you need?” It was like I had been asked what the meaning of life was. It was like being asked if I had proof of God’s existence. I walked in through the door of the shop wanting a cookie and a small coffee, a feel good pick-me-up of sugar and caffeine in the afternoon, and then I was asked, “What do you need?” Was I being accused? Was I being judged? I was tempted to reply, “You know, I don’t actually need either the cookie or the coffee. These are not things I need. In fact, this is a moment of simple luxury. I desire that cookie. I covet that coffee. I yearn and pine and hanker, but by no means do I need them.” Of course, I didn’t say any of this. “May I please have a cup of coffee and one of those cookies?” I said.

I am not an enlightened bodhisattva. In my life there are things that I desire. That I want. I like to think that all my desires are only for things that are good, that my desires are enlightened, and that I want only things that are good for me and for others. But I know that self-deception rides shotgun to desire.

Near the turning of the New Year all of the members of this church community will receive a letter from me. Part of the letter will include a list of things that I desire not from you, but for you.

I desire for each person here a regular spiritual practice for sustenance and renewal [to borrow language from one of my colleagues] and that leads to a grateful heart and an expansive capacity for compassion and love.

I desire for each person here to develop a sense of their own ministry, and the ability to say, “In my life I feel called to do and to be. I feel empowered and equipped and supported by my church to live this calling.”

I desire that each person comes to feel that participation in this church community assists them in discovering their own spiritual practice and their own ministry.

Finally, I desire that each person here makes good use of the greatest gift this church has to offer. That gift is each other. I desire that we stretch in our sense of connectedness and that we find in one another abundant blessings and gifts. I actually propose that we act out this reality by speaking with those who we do not know, by calling people in our directory with whom we are unfamiliar and saying, “We are of the same church and I don’t know you. I would like to know you.”

I believe these desires are well-intentioned, reasonable, and benevolent. And this leads me to my final point. While introspection, seeking to fully understand and grasp the nature of our desire, is an exercise that can lead us to insight and wisdom, we also need to live. Our living is circumscribed by our desires. As we examine what it is we want, let us not forget also to be who we are… or to do what we can. Amen.