This may not seem like a Christmas sermon at first,
but wait for it.
When we were small the world was liquid
and grown-ups poured it into us,
sometimes in small doses,
sometimes in big gulps.
Back when we were young,
we swallowed everything:
How to tell time,
how to tie our shoes,
who not to hit – or who we could hit,
why we have to eat our broccoli,
and the proposition that MacDonald’s French fries
are better than Wendy’s.
They said Uncle Joe was funny
but Aunt Nina was mean.
Some were told they could trust the priest
but not the car salesman – others, vis versa.
The liquid world they fed us
went down easy when we were little.
We swallowed it
because we didn’t know any better –
we were drinking information without knowledge.
It never occurred to us to say “no”
or spit it out.
When we were little,
three or four or five years old,
what to believe,
the colors with which the world is painted,
who knows the truth and who doesn’t,
who is good and who is bad –
all of it was given to us
like the milk we drank.
When we were little like that,
the computer in our brain was set on download
and the default settings had no capacity for discernment or analysis.
We just drank it all in.
And so they filled us up:
the ones who loved us
and the ones who thought
it was for our own good;
the ones who felt responsible for us
and the ones who knew exactly
what we should be drinking.
They gave us everything we needed to be safe
so we knew exactly where the boundaries were
and could judge right from wrong.
But then something happened.
Somewhere about age six
a switch turned on automatically in our brain.
It just clicked as if it was pre-set,
and then the downloading slowed down
and the analyzing sped up.
Suddenly we started crunching numbers
instead of just cataloguing them.
Very slowly at first but then distinctly,
the analysis sped up.
We started making colors
instead of just seeing them.
We started liking people
we weren’t supposed to like,
and sometimes feeling uncomfortable
around people we were supposed to trust.
We started wanting things
we knew we weren’t supposed to want.
We started to realize that the people who loved us
said things and did things
they said no one was supposed to say or do.
We started to feel confused
because this was that,
and that was this,
and black was white,
and white was black.
The oppositeof what they told us
turned out to be the way it really was,
and that peaceful, easy feeling
when everything made sense,
started to get all mixed up.
Then we decided
that something they told us
wasn’t just a mistake,
it may have actually been a lie.
Something said by those who loved us
turned out to be untrue,
and we started to see
they didn’t believe what they told us either.
All we could figure out was that they
made it up to keep us ignorant,
or make us happy,
or just to keep us quiet.
So then we started wondering: “What else” isn’t true?
It was a scary thought
and suddenly we had a decision to make.
Either we followed that question
wherever it led
or we just trusted whatever they told us
and ignore the agitating discontent.
It was an unresolvable conundrum.
If we delved too far into what else wasn’t true,
we might never find our way back
But if we ignored it,
something bad might happen
that could have been prevented.
Whenever we came to that moment of decision,
we may have hovered over the dread
for a very long time,
or we may have just taken a leap – forward or backward.
Some people follow that voice of discontent
and wander off into a search
through all that stuff downloaded in our brains
to see what was true
and what was false
and to understand what actually makes sense
from their own experiences
instead of from what someone told them.
Other people go back into the fold.
Even though something they were told
was contradicted by their actual experience,
the prospect of having to figure out truth from myth
and fact from fiction,
just seems like more than they want to handle.
In fact, all of us have done both:
we have boldly stepped off into the search
as well as quietly snuck back
into the shelter of the herd.
No one has the energy
to live out on the edge all of the time
and very few of us
have the endurance to hide within
the shelter of the untrue forever.
So we pick and choose.
Now, being deeply spiritual people,
raised in a religious family perhaps –
whether mildly religious or wildly fanatic –
we were taught some core religious truths
that were later contradicted
by those who taught us about the “real” world.
An obvious example is the scientific method.
We have been thoroughly indoctrinated
into the core principles of science
whether or not we ever enjoyed
the subject in school.
We have been nursed on the assumptions
of a scientific worldview
and it is impossible for us
to live in denial of those assumptions.
One of the things we believe about life –
because of what we have been taught –
is that analysiscan resolve
most any problem or difficulty.
This is actually a pretty new idea
in human history.
We now believe that complex matters
are only compounds of simple elements,
such as in chemistry and biology.
The way we find out the truth
or solve a problem
or fix something,
is to break it down into its constituent parts.
What appears to be a complex organism,
machine, or problem
is really a combination of component parts
and processes connected to each other.
By breaking down the organism
or machine into its parts,
we can see what it really is
and therefore what makes it tick.
We apply this idea to computers,
to space and time,
and to the human body.
It is now second nature to us –
so utterly obvious and natural
that we have forgotten
what a new idea it is
in the history of the world.
Religion on the other hand,
has its origins in a way of thinking
that does not fit into the scientific paradigm.
Biology, genetics, and physics
believe that we can reduce all matter
to its constituent parts and analyze it,
and therefore the only real mysteries
are those that live in the gaps of our knowledge.
The assumption is that those gaps
will sooner or later be filled.
But the Christmas story
contradicts our modern scientific worldview.
The tension is not around any particular miracle
or stunning event – not so much about angels,
or cattle lowing.
at the core of the Christmas story
and of Christianity itself,
is a belief that cannot be embraced
by the scientific worldview.
Namely, that God is present.
In the manger, God is present.
In the manger of your heart and mine,
God is present.
Not only is God present
but God is indivisible
and therefore, beyond analysis…
indivisible, and so incapable of analysis.
God is non-material,
and an intangible force
that is nonetheless influential
in the actual blood, sweat and tears
of ‘real’ life.
God is an actual,
both immaterial and beyond analysis.
Now we should note
that not all beliefs and ideas between
the scientific the spiritual worldviews
are at odds with one another.
But these two core principals
do not ride well together.
I mention it because it is an obvious tension
this time of year,
and diving into it rather than avoiding it
because of embarrassment, takes us to our core.
What we were taught about the world
with its atoms, molecules, and bytes
is at odds with our experience
of a God that is present
and around us –
yet neither visible nor quantifiable.
What we have been taught
about how the world ‘really’ is
does not jibe with some of our weird,
of God in our midst – of the actual presence of God.
I am not trying to say
that the events of the Bible story
happened exactly the way they were written.
And I am not disrespecting
the scientific worldview either.
Rather, I am saying the Christmas story
tells a truth
whether or not it happened exactly that way.
It is the same as in our own experiences –
the truth of our lives
does not always line up with pure reason,
and cannot always be understood
with linear, material, measurable explanations.
Wisdom knows the difference.
I dare say that most, if not all of us here,
know darn well there are events
or circumstances within our own experience,
that should not have unfolded
the way they did.
We have relationships with people
with whom we could just as easily
have never connected.
We have done things,
been places, learned stuff,
that by all rights, should have been missed
or lost, or by-passed.
We have had experiences
that we could never have gotten through
if not for something or someone
arriving at just exactly the right moment.
I am not superstitious,
and I don’t believe all such unexplained
gaps in our understanding
are moments of holiness.
But I also know, as you do too,
that there is knowledge we have been given,
and experiences through which
we have been guided,
and grace we have received
that is not and will never be
analyzed, measured, explained.
The simple presence of God,
whether it arrives in the most quiet and subtle
of nudges, or a more stunning
and emphatic encounter,
is that kind of moment.
It is Christmas,
no matter what time of year it arrives.
The simple presence of God –
incarnate in our ordinary, small lives –
is Christmas too.
we celebrate the Christmas we all share,
the one with Jesus at the center,
but we also have in mind
all the Christmases
we have lived.
And tonight, we give thanks for all of it.