I know it’s kind of a throwback, but I want to ask…How many of you have seen the film “Freaky Friday?” If you haven’t seen it, it’s the story of a mother and daughter who don’t understand or get along with each other at all. And then, one evening while they are eating dinner at a Chinese restaurant, they open a magic fortune cookie that sets off an earthquake and causes them to switch bodies. For the rest of the film the mother and daughter have to live each other’s lives, with all of the hilarity and heartache that comes with this forced compassion.
Imagine what would happen if you had to trade places with one of your parents or guardians. Students, imagine what it would be like if you had to trade places with one of your teachers. Teachers, what would happen if you had to trade places with one of your students. Some teachers have actually done this recently, and they were horrified at how difficult the school day was! Of course, this wouldn’t shock any of you. You know what you have to go through on a daily basis.
This Freaky Friday experience helps me to understand the Christian story. Just as the mother and daughter needed to trade places in order to deepen their relationship, so does God have to trade places with us. Today we are celebrating the season of advent, which is the season of waiting for Christmas, the birth of Jesus, the person who Christians experience as the incarnation of God on earth. It is as if there was a magic fortune cookie that allowed God to switch bodies with one of us, so that God would know what we go through on a daily basis. The Christian story tells us that God came to us, became one of us. That is what the hymn we sang today is referring to. It is based on the words of the Jewish prophet Isaiah, who called Jesus “Emmanuel,” a Hebrew name which means “God with us.”
No matter what you have experienced in your life, I can almost guarantee there is a story of Jesus experiencing that same thing. The Bible tells stories of God becoming a baby, of God as a 12 year old who disobeys his parents because he thinks he knows better than they do, stories of God as a young adult who changes water into wine so that his friend’s wedding won’t be a disaster. There is a story of God anxiously waiting for a big decision to come in. One of my favorites is a story of God cooking breakfast for his friends. There are stories of God healing people, teaching people, fighting for social justice. There are stories of God suffering. Yes, the Christian story tells us, God suffers. The Christian Story, for me, is a story about how God makes the effort to reach out, to be with us, to be our ally, to suffer what we suffer and to enjoy what we enjoy. This God desperately wants to be in a relationship with us.
The story then puts the ball in our court. God has come to us, but how often do we go to God? If we’re going to have a relationship with God, it has to go both ways.
The philosopher Ken Wilber says we are stunted in our relationship with God. We have an idea of God as this being we can pray to when we need something and he will help us. Christian Smith called this the idea of God as a “divine butler.” Wilber calls this the toddler’s conception of God. Sigmund Freud saw this too: Our idea of God is like our vision of our parents when we were three years old: a parental figure who lays down the law and if we are good we will get rewarded and protected. Freud, like many atheists, rejected this conception of God. And if that is the idea of God that atheists are rejecting, then I am an atheist too. There has to be something more to God than this toddler’s idea.
How many of us have progressed past the books we read as a toddler? How many of us have progressed past the math we learned then? And the science? Is it because those books and that math and that science are wrong? No, not exactly. They’re not wrong, but they are incomplete. Thinking the sun rises and sets isn’t wrong—we see it happen every day—but we know there’s more. We see the sun rise but we also know the earth turns on its axis. The same with math. 1 +1 = 2 isn’t wrong, but there’s more. 2×2=4 isn’t wrong, but there’s more. “X equals negative-B plus-or-minus the square root of B-squared minus 4-a-c, all divided by 2a” isn’t wrong, but there’s more…
As a culture, we have progressed in our understanding of math and science and social studies and literature from our toddler days to our elementary school days to our lower and middle and upper school days, and beyond. But when it comes to God, many of us remain in that toddler stage. How are we to progress?
Fr. Thomas Keating says that we need to get past our ideas about God and have a relationship with God instead. And just like any relationship, we need to put the time in.
Many of us come to cathedral or chapel or church or synagogue or mosque every week and we say “Hi” to God. “Hi God.” The Next week: “Hi God.” And the next week: “Hi God.” But we all know what happens when we meet someone and we see them in the hall every day and we say, “Hi.” At first it’s nice. And then it becomes a little awkward. And then we just smile. And finally we stop saying “Hi” at all. This is what Keating calls an acquaintance. We need to move past the acquaintanceship stage and into a true friendship.
I have a teacher (and now friend) who used to tell me he would make a hot date with God. Think about that: When you have a hot date, you don’t miss it, for anything. And you look forward to it. You might even be a little bit nervous, but also excited. This is a relationship with God that I don’t think many of us can imagine, but it’s possible
So I would like us to use this Christmas to renew or deepen our relationship with God, or whatever is our ultimate concern. Whether your God is Jesus, or Adonai, or Allah, or Brahman, or the Bodhisattva of Compassion, or the Buddha within, or simply humanity itself, this can be a chance to connect more deeply with this person.
The question is, “How do we take this relationship with God to the next level? How do we become friends with God?” Well, the same way we become friends with anyone. We have to say “Hi,” but we also have to invite God over for dinner. To the gym. To jam with us on the drums. To go for a walk. We have to talk to God, more than just saying “Hi.” And we also have to listen. How do we do that? It’s really about making a hot date with your spiritual practice. Make a hot date with your prayer mat, your meditation cushion, your Shabbat table, your chanting beads, your community service, your chapel and cathedral services.
And this is where I think the gospel is not only a story about how God came to us; it’s a story about how we can go to God.
We can meet God by doing any of the things Jesus did:
By praying, by meditating, by chanting scriptures,
By serving each other,
Healing each other,
Listening to each other,
By protesting in righteous anger together
By celebrating weddings and funerals together
By breaking bread with our friends
And with our enemies, together.
I am thankful we get to do that spiritual practice together here, today.