God is Counting on Us – February 3, 2019
Sermon preached by the Reverend Louise Kalemkerian
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Feast of the Presentation (Observed)
In God’s most holy name, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.
If you read my sermon preview in yesterday’s eNews, you know that today is still part of the Christmas season, the 40th day, and therefore one needn’t feel guilty if one’s decorations are still up. In the interest of full disclosure, I confess that I still haven’t taken the wreath off my door, nor recycled the cards we received or put away the ones I bought for 2019. I figure, what’s the hurry? It’s still Christmas all day.
While the title of today’s feast is the Presentation of Christ in the Temple – it could also be called the feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary – or Candlemas, a reference to the procession with candles – or in the Orthodox tradition the feast of The Meeting of the Lord with Simeon. In an earlier time, the focus was on the “purification” of Mary, the rite which allowed a woman back into society after childbirth with the payment of a sacrificial offering. I won’t go there because the idea makes me crazy.
The Presentation is a story about hope realized in and through institutional religion, of all places, a story about how the spiritual journey for Simeon and Anna unfolds in the tradition of their community, a story about unwavering expectation that God will act, so in the end it’s a story about hope.
This is an ancient feast and is one of my favorites. It is the ultimate “church” story. The Holy Family came with their newborn, just 40 days old, as was required by the law, to offer him to God as their firstborn son. Forty-day-old babies are pretty cute, watching others with their eyes and smiling a bit—and Jesus was probably the cutest baby ever seen in the Temple. His parents were fulfilling the Levitical law that first sons were offered to God, though there was a way around actually giving them over to God. There was a five-shekel fee, but Jesus’ family was too poor to pay it. Instead, they were allowed the option for the poor as their sacrifice: a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.
Though Mary and Joseph are faithful and true, the story of the Presentation has always seemed to me to belong to the other named characters, Simeon and Anna. When the child arrives in their midst, they are ecstatic.
We’re told that they were both old, both in the Temple day after day, year after year, prayer being the center of their lives. They waited, faithfully, for a long time, never surrendering expectation. I wonder if they were surprised that their spiritual search led them to an infant presented at the temple, the child of folks neither wealthy nor influential. All we know of each is found in this 2nd chapter of Luke, the primary source of narrative about Jesus’ infancy.
Simeon was a righteous and devout man who gave his life to praying for the expectation and hope of Israel. We can’t know what made him so, but we can appreciate that he prayed fervently for the coming of the Messiah, Israel’s ultimate salvation, its final comfort and consolation.
Think of it, both these persons had waited for the Messiah. And waited and waited and waited. Days became weeks, became months, became years. Became decades. A long time. At least Simeon had a holy hunch that he would meet the Messiah before he died. The Holy Spirit had whispered to him in his ear. I wonder what he expected: a grown man to come to the Temple, at the threshold of his ministry, or what he got, a babe in arms? The prayer of thanksgiving he proclaimed lives on in our tradition through the Nunc Dimittis, and will be heard later in this liturgy.
And then there’s Anna the prophet, the widow who spent all her days and nights in the temple; how could she have waited so long and not lost hope? Coming from a long line of prophets, Anna knew she was chosen by God from before time, to speak God’s word of hope in her own time. Still and all, she’s an octogenarian, Luke says, who spends her days fasting and praying, no doubt pleading with God for the deliverance of her people, using the words of the Psalms “God, we need you. Please God. How long, God do we have to wait? Come quickly, God. Lord, fill us with your mercy.”
And then, one day, right there in the Temple, Anna’s waiting was rewarded. First, she thanked God. Then she proclaimed that the One they had longed for had finally arrived.
I suspect that Simeon’s family and Anna’s friends thought that each had lost his/her mind and were wasting time praying and hoping. We honor them today, they become our teachers because they never stopped learning, waiting for something to happen, anticipating God’s activity in the world. They knew there was more. The season of Epiphany, from the coming of the Magi on Epiphany Day to the Transfiguration on Mt. Tabor on the last Sunday of this season, asks this question week after week: What are you looking for? What do you expect? And what does it have to do with Jesus showing up in your life?
I found myself wondering why we all are here this morning. We may come here for any number of reasons: spiritual longing, a need for healing, a desire to worship the Lord in this beautiful space, to connect with friends, or even a desire to pray for our favorite team’s success this afternoon. Whatever it is, we’re here together in the season of discovery. What is it that you are looking for? Can the witnesses of Simeon and Anna, and Mary and Joseph, teach us about faithfulness? Do we expect that God will act in our lives? Do we expect God to act in our broken world?
We know how broken it is. Simeon told Mary that her child’s suffering would break her heart. If we claim to love and adore that child, we will uphold the dignity of every human being. This means that migrant children will not be separated from their parents, that walls of division and separation will be broken down, not built up, that children will not be abused by anyone, that every child will be treasured and know it, that love will conquer the hatred, fear, poverty, discrimination that runs rampant in our world. We will anticipate that God can act even in intractable situations, that our world can be different from what it is. In the words of the late activist and folk singer Pete Seeger, “When we look and see things that should not be, God’s counting on me, God’s counting on you.”
Last Sunday evening an amazing and Holy Spirit filled event took place here, Let Justice Roll. Organized by the Race and Social Justice Coalition, spear-headed by our former assistant rector Peter Thompson, the event was an experience of uplifting and engaging music, readings from some of the various books the group had studied, and honest and painful personal reflections from members of the group. This even was the culmination of months of study and conversation. And it happened because, in the words of Bob Giolitto, “Two years ago, one of the many questions we asked ourselves was, ‘Where are the churches?’, and decided that Jesus did not want us on the sidelines with just good intentions.” The group, knowingly or not, understood that God was counting on them. God is always counting on us, on you and on me.
The Feast of the Presentation calls us to expect more, to get ready to meet Jesus, the Word made flesh. The feast calls us to remember that God can show up anywhere. It asks what we are looking for, if we are ready for what God will do, if we are ready to be surprised, ready to experience God’s grace and healing in a broken world, ready to participate with God.
Wherever we are in the journey, whatever has brought us here, whatever challenges we face, whatever issues threaten our hope for our world, there is more. Look for teachers. Expect the God who loves you totally and unconditionally, the God who met that infant in the temple, to show up, to be present, to act in the world, in the church, in your life.