Rev. Amy Morgan
January 25, 2015
Genesis 3:1-7, Mark 1:21-28
Word counts, fact checking, emotive graphing – all these methods and more have been applied in the last few days to the President’s State of the Union Address on Tuesday evening. One Washington think tank even developed a State of the Union Address machine where you could mash up parts of previous addresses by the current and past presidents.
But in the midst of the media frenzy surrounding this event, the Washington Post dared to ask, “Do we even need a State of the Union Address anymore?” There are more effective means for the President to communicate is policy priorities. His approval ratings tend to droop following the address. The President’s political opponents on Capitol Hill have already crafted their rebuttals before the speech begins. Effectively, the speech accomplishes nothing. They are just words.
And while we may have come to expect impotency from the words of politicians, we know that some words carry power. Some people speak with authority. Some words mean action. When a military commander speaks, soldiers attack or retreat, orders are carried out. When a mortgage lender speaks, a loan is granted or denied. When a hiring employer speaks, someone has an offer or a rejection. Some people speak with authority because their words result in something actually happening.
That’s how we see God’s Word in scripture. God’s Word has authority because it actually accomplishes something. God’s voice is indistinguishable from God’s activity. In the creation story, God speaks, and the universe comes into being. In the book of Revelation, God speaks, and heaven and earth collide.
God’s Word has power and authority. God’s words mean action.
But we don’t always recognize that power and authority. We don’t always trust that what God speaks will come to be.
Our story from Genesis begins with God’s words being twisted by the serpent – “Did God say you shall not eat from any tree in the garden?” The serpent’s words are meant to make the woman suspicious of God, distrustful, resentful even. Did God put all this life-giving food all around us and then forbid us to enjoy it? Did God create us just to starve us to death? Are we just part of some cruel joke?
Wait a minute! Is that what God said?
The woman has the wherewithal to remember God’s actual words - "We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, 'You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.'"
But now that the seed of mistrust has been planted, the serpent can contradict God. “You will not die.” And God’s motives are questioned. “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
And with that, the balance is tipped in favor of sin. Greed, cupidity, and pride drown out the Word of God.
But the power and authority of God’s Word is not diminished. God’s Word is action. So when God says, “Eat of this tree, and you will die,” it is so. Twisting, doubting, and ignoring God’s Word leads to sin and death, to the disruption of the goodness of creation.
But God’s Word continues to speak, guiding and directing the world back toward that ultimate goodness. God makes a covenant with Abraham and gives the Law through Moses. God sends prophets to help people hear and understand, believe and live out the Word.
And finally, God gives the Word a human voice. The voice of an ordinary man from a no-where town. A man with no earthly power or authority.
And this man walks into a synagogue, and people are amazed at his teaching because he teaches with authority. We don’t know what he says or how he says it. But people somehow immediately recognize that his words mean action.
And then, he proves it. In the midst of the synagogue, unnoticed, is a man suffering from an unclean spirit.
Now, understand that there is no judgment implied by this term “unclean spirit.” This simply referred to a spirit contrary to God’s spirit, something unholy, and these spirits could reside in anyone for any reason.
Some people believe an “unclean spirit” would equate to modern-day mental illness, and that may be so. But I think that misses part of the point of this story. This is understood to be the first of Jesus’ healing miracles in the Gospel of Mark. And it is clear that a man who was suffering and broken is made whole.
But we cannot dismiss the central notion here that something contrary to God is able to recognize and obey the voice of God in Jesus Christ. Jesus speaks God’s Word, and the spirit obeys. And the voice of Jesus, the authoritative voice of God, disrupts the evil that has plagued this man.
Ignoring or denying the authority of God’s word leads to the disruption of goodness. Obedience to God’s word, recognition of God’s authority, leads to the disruption of evil.
Now, all of this can live safely in our imaginations, in a fantasy realm of talking serpents and magical trees, or in the genre of horror films about demon possession and spiritual healings.
But God’s voice is speaking still today. And we can deny it, ignore it. Or we can recognize it and obey it.
We hear the powerful Word of God in the disruption of evil and the disruption of suffering and oppression – when a child who has been placed in the care of the state is given a safe and loving home and a wraparound family of faith; when a child who has no educational support at home is given the time and attention of a tutor who helps them learn and grow; when folks respond generously and enthusiastically to pleas for resources for people in need; when the lonely are visited; when children who are excluded from many social circles are embraced and loved by peers – we hear and obey the Word of God. The authority of this Word, this teaching, is the activity it causes.
But we also hear the Word of God twisted. We choose to ignore, deny, or disobey the voice of God – when self-righteousness keeps us from hearing another point of view; when self-importance keeps us too busy to be present to God and one another; when self-interest allows us to hoard our gifts rather than use them for God; when self-consciousness causes us to exclude those who make us uncomfortable – yes, we deny and disobey the Word of God and disrupt God’s goodness.
And in so doing, we undermine our authority as Christians who claim to follow in the ministry of Jesus, and we diminish the authority of the church, the body of Christ, in the world. Studies show that younger Americans who have given up on the church have primarily done so because they don’t see the church doing the things Jesus did. They see the church twisting God’s word, using scripture to support what they want to believe rather than challenging the status quo. They see the church denying God’s authority in order to protect and preserve the institutional authority of the church. They see the church ignoring God’s call to care for the suffering and the marginalized, choosing instead to cater to the comfortable, reinforcing the values of achievement, accomplishment, and accumulation.
To people outside, and even inside, the church, we look more like the serpent and the scribes than like the body of Christ.
But, friends, I am here to tell you that I believe the word of God is spoken here. I believe the authority of God’s word is recognized, understood, and obeyed here. Perhaps imperfectly and inconsistently. We have our inherited and accumulated sin. Our ignorance and selfishness and faithlessness.
But the real beauty of this story from Mark, is that the one who recognizes and obeys the authoritative voice of God is the unclean spirit, the one who is unholy, the one who is broken. Wholeness, goodness, and holiness are not requirements for hearing and doing the Word of God.
I’m not enough of a political pundit to know if we need a State of the Union Address. But I do know that we need the Word of God. I know that evil can be disrupted and goodness can be restored. Because the word of God is the activity of God. And God in Jesus Christ has said, “This is my body, broken for you. This is my blood, poured out for you for the forgiveness of sin.” God in Jesus Christ has said, “Come to me you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” God in Jesus Christ has said, “I will be with you always.”
And so it is that God is with us in temptation and doubt, in greed and despair. God is with us to disrupt whatever evil inhabits our lives. The scribes were amazed at his teaching. My friends, prepare to be amazed.
Rev. Dr. John Judson
January 18, 2015
Genesis 2:15-25, Mark 1:14-20
It was the job she liked least among all of the jobs that she has had. My daughter Katie who is now 27 has had, like many of us, a wide spectrum of jobs. She has worked in a book store. She has stood on street corners raising funds for a variety of causes, she has been a Peace Corps Volunteer and there have been others. But the one she liked the least was being wait-staff at a TGI Fridays. What she liked least about it was not the hours, she had worked longer. It was not the working conditions, she had worse. It was not the fact that people walked the check and she had to cough up the money out of her pay, it was the fact that she was often treated like someone’s personal servant to be criticized and abused. Katie would approach every table with a smile and a friendly, positive and helpful attitude. On a regular basis what she received in return was condescension and criticism…even when everything on the order she brought was correct. It was as if, from my parental perspective, she was seen as staff to be ordered about by her superiors.
We might think that this is an exception rather than the rule in restaurants, but studies have shown that huge numbers of dedicated wait-staff are treated in similar fashion. But all in all this should not surprise us. It should not surprise us because the world has always been divided between master and servant, superiors and inferiors and those who expect to be waited up and those who wait upon them. In fact this book (the Bible) is filled with almost unending examples. Abraham, the great patriarch had servants and slaves. Joseph, the guy with the multi-colored coat, was sold into slavery in Egypt, from which God later freed his descendants. Those people made slaves and servants of the people they conquered. Paul even writes one of his letters to a slave owner named Philemon discussing his treatment of a slave…without mentioning the possibility of Philemon letting his slave go free. No, the image of servant and master was one firmly entrenched in scripture.
What is even more interesting for me however, is how the church has used the scriptures not only to defend institutions such as slavery, but that they used whatever passages they could to make sure that certain people were seen as superior and to be served and others were seen as inferior and were to do the serving. Our Genesis story is one of the go-to texts used for this purpose. This story is the second account of how we ended up with both male and female. The other account in Genesis 1, has them being created in the same moment. In this story, God realizes that it is not good for Adam to be alone, meaning human beings were created for community and not isolation. God creates all sorts of animals…most without opposable thumbs, and they don’t fit the bill. Finally God takes one of Adam’s ribs and fashions woman as a helpmate. The direction much of ancient Judaism and Christianity took with this story, and the word for helper, was that Eve was the helper, the staff to Adam. One serving and the other being served.
The gift that we have been given as Presbyterians living in the 21st Century is that Biblical scholars did some good work not only with this text but with other texts that appeared to create superior and inferior groups within society and within the church. What they discovered was that the scriptures point not in that direction but in the direction of mutuality, of partnership between all persons regardless of gender, race, ability or sexual orientation. And by the way, our Genesis text was one of the go-to texts for this point of view. This is so because the word for “helper” or “helpmate” in the Hebrew was focused on someone being a partner in a larger endeavor than a servant to the other. In other words Eve was intended, as another human being, to partner with Adam in the work of caring for creation. The intimacy of this partnership was expressed in the fact that Eve was “bone of Adam’s bone, and flesh of his flesh.” And just to be clear, this intimate relationship is supposed to be at the heart of every human relationship and not just that of men and women. It is a human thing. Thus the Presbyterian Church has strived to insure that there is equality in membership and leadership irrespective of any worldly condition. And so it would seem that we have moved beyond the practice of those who serve and those who are to be served. Except in one almost unnoticed way we have not…and that is between paid church workers and the members who pay them.
I realize that the statement I just made is a loaded one. So let me unpack it. One of the great realizations of the Reformation and the early years of the Presbyterian Church was this realization that there was partnership, and parity between clergy and laity. The only difference was that clergy were seminary trained and the laity were not. The task of the clergy then was to train church members to become theologians and Biblical scholars in their own right. In the 19th Century it was said that if you scratch a Presbyterian you find a theologian. The task of laity then was to become partners with clergy such that laity became ministers in their homes, their places of business and in the larger community. Laity were to be ministers where the minister might not be able to go. But a funny thing happened on the way to the 20th Century. This partnership began to unravel as ministers and other church workers began to be seen as professionals. At the turn of the last century there was a rise in the differentiation of work between amateurs or generalists and professionals. With the rise of professionals, people began to rely more and more on them for leadership, advice and expertise. People in essence seceded over to them large portions of what they used to do.
The church was not immune to this. Clergy became the professional religious people. Christian Educators became the professional religious teachers. Music directors became…well you get my point. And so the concept of partnership, true partnership between paid staff and church members began to vanish…and there came to be a differentiation between membership and staff. And the larger the church, the greater the differentiation became. The problem with this is twofold. First it is not Biblical. As I said a moment ago, the Biblical model of community is that there is true partnership in which everyone shares fully in the life and work of God’s kingdom bringing community. We see this in Jesus’ calling and training of the disciples. Jesus wanted them to be full partners with him in his work and he commanded them to train all others to be the same. The second is that it robs you, the membership, of the opportunity to discover and use the spiritual gifts that you have been given. In fact it almost implies that whatever gifts you have are not quite as good as the gifts given to the religious pros. And by not letting you discover and use your gifts, the church itself is diminished. So how do we change this? How do we once again become a place where there is true partnership between laity and clergy?
The answer I believe is by using a new image, or a new lens, through which we see ourselves…and that image is that we are a Christian Co-op. My daughter Katie, is part of a bicycle co-op in Oakland, California, called Spokeland. Interestingly enough there are many similarities between Spokeland and a church. First they are centered around their passion for cycling. We are centered around our passion for Jesus Christ. They are governed by a group of core members. We are governed by our session…which is composed of core members. You become a member of Spokeland by giving money or volunteer time. Same with us. They have programs about cycling and we have programs about faithful living. But there is one way in which we are different. At Spokeland no one does anything for you. It is a DIY/DIT community. In other words it is a Do It Yourself or a Do It Together community. It is not a bike shop where a professional fixes bikes. If your bike needs work you can either use the tools present to do it yourself or one of the volunteer/members will teach you how to fix it. In this way every member grows in their knowledge of and connection to cycling.
What would happen then if we saw ourselves as being part of this kind of a co-op? What if we saw ourselves as a community in which the paid staff taught skills to members, who then shared those skills with others, and this continued to repeat itself? What if we saw ourselves as a place where there were no professional staff, but paid partners in this creative endeavor? What would happen? I believe what would happen is that it would allow each of us to use our gifts and talents to the fullest and would make First Presbyterian a truly amazing Christ centered co-op.
My challenge to you then for this week is to ask yourselves, how am I being a partner in this Christ centered co-op such that I fully develop my gifts and then share them with others?
The Voice - Our Choice: Will We Listen?
Rev. Dr. John Judson
January 11, 2015
Genesis 1:15, Mark 1:1-13
The flight attendant was very clear. We were all to stay in our seats until they had counted the thru-passengers, then we could move to any seats we wanted. Cindy and I were headed home on Christmas day, but the only way we could get there was to go through the other Birmingham on Southwest Airlines. During the stop the flight attendants made their plea…not once but several times while passengers were deplaning. As soon as the last local passenger was off, the announcement was made again, just as the three people in the row ahead of us got out of their seats and began to move about the cabin arguing about which seats were best. The announcement was made again, “Please stay in your seats until you are counted so that we can board the next group of passengers.” The people in front of us continued to argue and moved row to row trying to find the perfect seats. As I watched them, a bit irritated I must add, the only thing I could think of was this was a perfect illustration of the difference between hearing and listening.
Hearing is what we guys do while we are watching sports. A female voice says something. The sound waves created by that voice carry through the air and reach our ears. The ears and all of their wonderful connections to the brain do their thing acknowledging that something has been transmitted yet it never registers. In a sense it might have just as well not been said at all. Listening on the other hand occurs when the same process is followed; speech, sound waves, reception, interpretation. Yet this time what is spoken not only receives a reply other than, “Huh?” but new possibilities and opportunities are created. What I mean by this is that listening is the act in which we become open to the speaker and their speech changing us; changing our attitudes, our actions, and if you will, our realities. One of the best examples I have of this is the president’s State of the Union message. The people in the party of opposition hear, meaning it impacts them not at all. The people in the party of the president listen, meaning they are open to the new ideas being put forward.
Why does this John Judson differentiation between hearing and listening matter this morning? It matters because God asks us to listen and not just to hear. God asks us to listen because in listening to God new possibilities for our lives and for the world are made possible. We see this in both of our lessons this morning. In our opening lesson we have God speaking to creation and creation responding. I realize that this may appear to be a strange statement, that God speaks to creation and creation responds. But this is one of the great themes of the scriptures, that creation is more than a composition of electrons, protons and neutrons but that it is somehow alive. And so when God speaks, creation does the appropriate thing and listens and it is transformed. A new reality occurs and there is day and night. Let me be clear, I am not a Creationist, meaning that the universe is only 10,000 years old, but I believe that the Biblical writers are trying to show us that this reality in which live was not created by God wrestling with matter, but that it is what it is because things happen when God speaks and someone, or something listens. And by the way, creation, in the end, seems to be the only something that consistently listens to God.
Our second story concerns a bunch of people who listen. John the Baptist is the one who comes in from the wilderness, which is a place of listening. The Wilderness is the place to which one goes to listen carefully to God. Recall it is the place where Moses listened and received the Law. It is the place to which Jesus will be sent to be tested, to see if he can listen. John then arrives on the scene and begins to preach a baptism of repentance for sin. Please note that Judaism already had ritual in place through which one could find forgiveness. Yet John arrived with a message from God to the people. As three out of the four Gospels tell us, people from all over listened and came to be baptized. They came because in this word of God arriving in the words of John they seemed to sense that there was the possibility of a new reality for themselves and for their nation. Finally we have Jesus listening. Jesus hears God calling him to baptism, blessing him as God’s own Son, and then sending him out into the aforementioned wilderness. This listening was critical because it set up all of Jesus’ ministry. It set the stage for the complete transformation of creation; a second beginning.
The choice that confronts us is twofold, first will we listen and then to whom will we listen. The first question is whether or not we will listen. I say this because most of what we do day by day is hearing and not listening. We tune in to our favorite newscasts, listen to our favorite radio personalities and read our favorite newspapers and magazines. And we do so because they reinforce the view of the world that we want to maintain. By reinforcing this viewpoint we are never opened up to new possibilities in the world. We are never opened up to the fact that our perceptions of the world might not be accurate; that our choices might not be the right ones. We hear what is being said, but unlike creation or those people going to see and be baptized by John, nothing changes. There is no new creation within us or without of us. So the question is will we truly listen? Will we be open to what is being said that might challenge us and our assumptions?
The second choice that confronts us is whether or not we will listen to God. Our world is filled with those who claim to be offering new realities for ourselves and for the world in which we live. We buy their books. We pay to hear them live. We will in fact, go anywhere and pay any price to hear the latest guru of change and success. Yet, for all of their insights they cannot offer us the life transforming, world changing Good News of God in Jesus Christ. My friends, the reality of life is that God continues speaking. God speaks through people. God speaks through scriptures. God speaks through experiences. God speaks in the midst of prayer, worship and service. This is what God does. God’s love for us and for the world is so great and amazing that God cannot stay silent. God desires that each of us along with this world in which we live be made fresh and new. God desires it to be a place to love, grace, forgiveness and compassion. God desires that it be a place in which all persons are welcomed and accepted. This can only happen when we consciously choose to listen; to listen to the love of God poured forth in Jesus of Nazareth and to the new possibilities that Jesus offers.
One last note, and that is that this morning we ordain and install the leadership of this church community. These people have been called by God and chosen by you the members to lead us. What this calls them to do is to be our lead listeners. While all of us are called to listen, the elders and deacons of our church are called even more to do so. Elders are called to listen because they are tasked with discerning God’s plans for this faith community. They are tasked with discerning where we ought to go, how we ought to get there and what path we are to take. The deacons are to do so because they are tasked with hearing the cries of the least and the lonely; the hungry and the homeless. And listening is at the heart of both of these offices.
My challenge then for all of us this week is to ask ourselves, how am I intentionally listening to God? How am I taking the time and space to hear what God is telling me through prayer, worship, scripture, meditation and the voices of others in order that God’s new reality might be created in me and through me?
Our True Identity
Rev. Dr. John Judson
January 4, 2015
Jeremiah 31:7-14, Ephesians 1:3-13
Francesco Fiordilino is not a name most of you have heard before and that may be because you don’t keep up with the mob. He began his crime career as a runner for the Bonano mob syndicate. Slowly over time he worked his way up to becoming one of their most feared enforcers, murdering several people along the way. At some point however he began to realize that his life might be on the line, so when he was contacted by the Feds he agreed to testify against the syndicate and in so doing sent several people to prison for long stretches. Francesco understood clearly the risks involved with his testifying and so entered the witness protection program. He was given a new name, a new identity and a new life. He was promised a life time of income and security. But during his time in the witness protection program, something happened…or I suppose didn’t happen…he went right back to his old ways. Francesco got involved with illegal gambling, both as a participant and a strong armed collector of debts, and then when it appeared that he was going to killed he once again turned himself into the feds. In a sense his new identity could not change him. He was the same guy before and after.
This struggle with a new identity is not one that only shows up in the witness protection program. It was one that was at the heart of the early Christian church…especially in a place like Ephesus. For you see, the Ephesians knew who they were. They clearly understood their identity as Roman citizens of Ephesus. It is hard for us as 21st Century Americans to fully appreciate the power of their identity. To be a Roman in Ephesus meant that one participated in all of the political and religious rituals that defined that society. There was no separation of church and state. There was no, “I will choose whether or not to go to the Temple.” To be a good Roman citizen…to be a loyal Roman citizen meant one did what everyone else did. In Ephesus this meant attending to rituals around the city’s goddess Artimus. One gave offerings. One had statues of Artimus in one’s home. It also meant giving honor to the Emperor in one’s home and in public…as if he too were a god. Anyone who did not do these things was immediately suspect as a traitor and an atheist; both of which could land you in jail or worse.
Into this city then came the Apostle Paul, proclaiming that God, in and through God’s son Jesus, had come to give the Ephesians a new identity. Paul tells the Ephesians that they are not first and foremost Romans, but that they are children of God through Jesus Christ. He tells them that they have been redeemed and forgiven. He reminds them that they are part of a plan for the recreation of the world through Jesus Christ. He tells them that they were marked with the seal of the Holy Spirit. All of these concepts were ones that said to the Christians that in order to be a follower of Jesus they could no longer be a good Roman. They could no longer go to the Temples. They could no longer worship Caesar as god. They could no longer be the kind of citizens they had once been. In addition their personal lives were to be marked by acts of sacrificial living in which all persons, regardless of status in the Roman Empire were seen as being equal. In other words, to take on the Christian identity meant to consciously choose to be a different kind of person regardless of the risk.
The issue for all of us here is that the contrast between our civic identity and our religious identity is not that stark. Ever since Christianity became the official religion of the west about 1700 years ago, there has been this underlying assumption that being a good citizen and being a good Christian were one in the same. The upside of this is that over time Christianity has helped to shape our nations laws in terms of equality and freedom. The downside is that we as main-stream Protestants have seldom had to seriously consider what it means for us to take on a Christian identity which may be at odds with the identity given to us by our culture. For more conservative denominations they have seen their identity as being one that stands against the moral laxness of society. For more liberal denominations they have seen their identity as being one that stands against the economic powers in society. For those of us in the middle, it has been easy to simply ride the wave of culture and never stake out a clear cut Christian identity.
Fortunately for us, the Session, our board of elders, has decided that discovering this Christian identity is important, and so at their last retreat they discussed three questions. What kind of disciples ought we to be making? What kind of a church ought we to be in order to make those kind of disciples? What kind of leadership ought the church have in order to be the kind of church that makes the kind of disciples we ought to be making. In other words they are struggling with the issue of Christian identity; namely what ought that identity as disciples look like in the 21st Century. Right now there is a writing team that is taking the results of those discussions and is putting them in a useable form. What I would ask of you though, is that you participate in this process; that you too think about what kind of disciples we ought to be making, or what our Christian identity ought to look like, then commit your thoughts to paper and send them to me so that I can send them on to the writing team.
That is my challenge to you for this week; to participate in the process of helping us discern what it means to have a Christian identity in this every changing culture in which we live; and then share those ideas with the rest of us that we might see more clearly who God desires us to be in Jesus Christ.
Family and Faith
Rev. Amy Morgan
December 28, 2014
Isaiah 62:1-3, Luke 2:22-40
Congregational poll: How many of you went to church as a child or a teenager where someone in the church other than your parents knew your name, knew about your life, took an interest in you?
I had a lot of those people in my life growing up in the church. A retired couple, Bob and Vicki Brown, took every opportunity to shower me with affirmation. Parents of other kids in my youth group treated me like one of their own. Kathy, a newly-married young woman who helped out with youth group, was the first to predict my call to ministry. I was celebrated into this faith by a community of faithful people. I recognize how fortunate I was.
Jesus had those people in his life as well. In today’s scripture, we encounter Simeon and Anna - faithful, righteous, older folks in the Jewish faith community. They showered Jesus with affirmation. Simeon took Jesus in his arms as though he belonged to him. They predicted his ministry of salvation and redemption. Jesus was celebrated into his faith by a community of faithful people.
Now that I’m on the adult side of this equation, I see the many challenges that prevent some of us from experiencing the gift of the family of faith. I realize that some kids are more difficult to celebrate than others. I understand that we can feel so overwhelmed with our own lives and families that we don’t have the time or energy to invest in a child that isn’t our own. I get that some people really don’t know how to relate to children. I see parents who place barriers between their children and the church community for a variety of reasons. Some don’t want others meddling in their parenting for fear of judgment or loss of control. Some simply overschedule their children in an attempt to give them “the very best.” Some don’t have or desire a faith commitment that costs too much for themselves or their children.
But the real barrier, I think, is that deep down, we all know that this Jesus community is dangerous business. In this Christmas season, we revel in the adorable baby Jesus, cooing in his mother’s arms. But as soon as the shepherds and angels and wise men have cleared out, Jesus is on the road to the cross. The ritual sacrifice Mary and Joseph bring to the temple foreshadows the sacrifice Jesus will make for us all. Simeon ominously reveals to Mary that a sword will pierce her soul because of this child.
Commentators point out how righteous Mary and Joseph are in making the trek to Jerusalem for the ritual sacrifice, by finishing everything required by the law of the Lord. They weren’t the sort to drop in for the high holy days and check out for the rest of the year. They were the sort that, were they Christian, they’d be here in the pews this Sunday after Christmas.
But I think the true nature of their devotion to God is in their willingness to put their child in God’s hands. Maybe they didn’t really know what they were getting themselves into or fully understand Simeon’s cryptic message. But they came to the temple not just for the purification rite, for the ritual sacrifice. They came to dedicate their firstborn son to the Lord.
Now, this might seem like no big deal, just doing what was customary. But consider what happens to those who are claimed by God, who do God’s will in the world. Abraham is called to leave his homeland forever and journey to a place he’s never been. Moses is called to stand up to Pharaoh, to turn against his adoptive family, and to wander with God’s people as they complain and disobey God in the wilderness for 40 years. David goes up against Goliath. Daniel is thrown into a lion’s den. Several of the prophets were killed for speaking the word of God.
As we read these stories from the safety of our sanctuary and Sunday school rooms, we can celebrate these heroes of the faith and be filled with a desire to emulate them.
But we live in a time and place where parents are deemed unfit for not keeping kids in booster seats until they start driver’s training. We are not the kind of society that would accept dedicating our children to a God who might call them to fight giants, to travel where we can’t reach them, or to so radically disrupt the status quo that their lives are endangered.
That is what is so remarkable about Mary and Joseph. They dedicate Jesus to God. They place him in the arms of an elderly stranger. They allow another stranger to publicly announce their son’s secret purpose. They trust not only in God but in the community of God.
Perhaps this trust wasn’t easy for Mary and Joseph. They came to Jerusalem. They brought their sacrifice. They intended to do what God asked of them. But they likely had some misgivings. They may have, in fact, been filled with dread.
And into this space steps Simeon. Simeon, so full of trust that God would keep God’s promise. So full of hope, waiting patiently into his old age for his eyes to behold God’s Messiah. So full of joy in finally encountering that long-awaited salvation, that light of the world.
The scripture doesn’t tell us that Simeon was particularly fond of children. We don’t know if he had children of his own. We don’t know how busy he was, or if he was feeling up to a visit from Jesus on the day he visited the temple.
What we do know is that Simeon had a great deal of patience and a heart attentive to the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit “rested” on Simeon and had revealed to him that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. The Spirit then led him into the temple to encounter Jesus. Regardless of what barriers might have prevented Simeon from cradling the Holy Infant, Simeon’s trust in God, hope in God’s redemptive plan, and joy in seeing God’s Messiah with his own eyes empowered him to be one of those adults that celebrated Jesus into his faith.
Mary and Joseph are amazed. Amazed at Simeon’s trust, hope, and joy. Amazed at one who would take such an interest in their child, who would affirm the truth about him, who would perceive his future.
As we read the story of Christ’s birth this past week, I was struck by the last few sentences of Luke’s version of this story. When the shepherds come to visit the holy family and share with Mary and Joseph what they have heard and seen, it says that all who heard them were amazed – but not Mary. No, Mary treasured their words and pondered them in her heart, but she was not amazed.
Angels appearing in the sky and directing shepherds to her child’s bedside? Interesting. Deeply meaningful, even. But a strange old man talking about her child being a light to the Gentiles and glory to Israel – now that’s amazing. Maybe Mary was beginning to wrap her head around the idea that she had given birth to the Jewish Messiah. But the thought that he would somehow enlighten the Gentiles – foreigners who knew nothing of the God of Israel – was an amazing thought indeed. Simeon amazed Mary and Joseph by revealing something to them about their child that they could not see themselves.
Simeon also taught them what real trust is. He tells Mary that her child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed-- and a sword will pierce her own soul too. It is interesting that Simeon says “falling and rising” rather than rising and falling. This is not a reference to the mighty being brought low. This is a revelation of the nature of life in Christ – we must fall in order to rise, die in order to live. And that falling and rising will be a sword that pierces the soul of Mary as she must watch the fall of her son before she sees him rise. Simeon, in a way, confirms Mary’s worst fears: this faith in God is dangerous business. In order to give her child the very best, she must give him up to the very worst. There is a fall before the rise.
At that moment – as Mary is contemplating the fall that is coming, as she begins to consider how to protect her child, how to shield them both from this prophesy – Anna begins to make a public pronouncement about Jesus, praising God, because he will redeem Israel. Mary’s opportunity to quietly shrink away into the shadows, taking Jesus with her, is gone. Jesus and his fate are in the hands of God. He is part of the community of God’s people, thanks to those who celebrated him into this faith, for better or worse.
We are the descendants of this family of faith. The family of Mary and Joseph who, though they may have had their fears and challenges, chose to take on the ritual as well as physical responsibility of parenting, an act that allowed Jesus to be claimed by God, affirmed by the community, and called into his future. We are descended from the family of Simeon and Anna, who let nothing stand in their way as they celebrated the Christ child into the faith. This is our family tradition.
Kyle Jones told me a story this week, an episode I’d entirely forgotten because, truthfully, it was a pretty common occurrence. He remembered a meeting at church where I was leading a program or discussion, and I’d had to bring a very young Dean along with me. Dean needed “corralling,” as Kyle put it, so Kyle took it upon himself to corral Dean into one of the alcoves in Calvin Hall so I could complete my responsibilities. Each and every time someone has done this for me, I have been grateful – for me and for Dean. Obviously, it has been an enormous help to be supported by so many people in this congregation who have stepped in and helped out with my son. But I am even more grateful that so many people have been involved in celebrating my child into the faith.
And I am even more grateful that my child is not the only one who receives such treatment in this community. At choir practice on Wednesdays, I marvel at how many families are sharing the responsibility of transporting other people’s children to and from the church. At our Wednesday dinners, I see older folks checking in with teenagers and children giving hugs to random adults. Our adult ushers have taken on the responsibility of mentoring junior ushers on Sunday mornings. The teens who serve as Elders and Deacons are always encouraged and affirmed by the adults they serve with.
And I’m not sure we talk enough about just how exceptional our church is in this regard. There are many barriers to celebrating children into the faith. But we work hard to overcome them. Courageous and faithful parents bring their children to be baptized – to be claimed by God. They bring their children to be cared for, and taught, and loved by people they would never speak to outside the church.
And this congregation fulfills the promises it makes when we baptize those children. Even when we don’t feel up to it, even if it makes us uncomfortable, even if it sometimes feels awkward - we affirm our children, we know their names and we name their gifts.
Is there more we could do? Of course. Are there those who fall through the cracks? Without a doubt. Do we sometimes say or do the wrong thing or say or do nothing at all? For certain.
But this Sunday after Christmas, I know I am preaching to the choir. I know I am preaching to those who are doing well and want to do better. Otherwise, you’d be at home in your pajamas.
But you are here today because you know the importance of being together as the family of faith. You know what it means to be loved and recognized as someone special in God’s eyes. So I mainly want to say, “Thank you, and keep up the good work.”
At the end of this story, the holy family returns home. As far as we know, they don’t do much of anything out of the ordinary for the next thirty years or so. Teens will often ask about Jesus’ childhood, and this is one of the very few references I can point them to. And all it tells us is that Jesus “grew, became strong, filled with wisdom, and God’s favor was upon him.” The completely ordinary childhood of growing, developing, learning. And the special recognition of God’s favor. What an appropriate childhood for one who is both human and divine. Entirely ordinary and entirely exceptional. Perfectly human and perfectly God.
Our children are not Jesus, but they are made in God’s image, which makes them both ordinary and exceptional. We celebrate them, not because they have good posture or sit quietly or use good manners or make good grades. We celebrate them because, no matter how ordinary or unexceptional they might seem, God has a purpose for their lives. No matter how exceptionally special they might be, they are no more or less beloved in God’s eyes than anyone else. As the family of faith, let us continue to celebrate children into the faith, for the sake of the extraordinary One who comes to us in the most ordinary form, so that we might know the greatness of God’s love for us.