Sermon preached by the Reverend Niciholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple – February 2, 2014
Today we celebrate the feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. Unfortunately, most of the country woke up this morning anticipating “Groundhog Day” and a forecast about how many more weeks of winter we must endure. If you missed it, the answer is six more weeks!
Long before this North American tradition that originated in the late 1800’s in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, the universal church celebrated this day as a holyday also known as “Candlemas” because candles are blessed on this occasion.
Orthodox Christians refer to the feast as “The Meeting of the Lord,” and the origin of the feast is ancient, appearing in the fifth century. Luke’s Gospel provides the story line. In Jewish tradition women were considered unclean after the birth of a child and were not permitted to enter the Temple to worship. At the end of that period, the mother was brought to the Temple and ritually purified. The story is not all pleasant or uplifting. At some point in history, first born sons were actually sacrificed to placate a demanding God—explaining why Abraham was willing to go as far as he did when he laid his young son Isaac on the rock. By the time Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to be dedicated, the more acceptable form of sacrifice had become a lamb or a dove if the family were poor.
That all seems pretty draconian and offensive. We might just dismiss it as the traditions of a very different and arcane and uniformed culture. Clearly, the idea of human sacrifice and the belief that women who have given birth are tainted are hardly positive and inspiring legacies of a faith tradition, however ancient. Times, practices, and attitudes have changed and we look at human sexuality, pregnancy, and the birthing of a child from an entirely different and much more enlightened perspective and yet, in many parts of the world, women are still regarded as second class citizens, beaten for minor infractions of religious codes, and denied so many rights. There is the evil of human trafficking, and, while we may not sacrifice animals, how many of God’s creatures are abused or neglected. Our time and practices have not spun the best legacy either.
There is a happy centerpiece in this story and the feast it brings us: the presentation of a child to God’s service on the 40th day of his birth and the unexpected declaration of the temple priest Simeon of the divinity of Jesus as the long awaited Messiah. Simeon’s words are said or sung in our services of Evensong and Sunday night Compline, known in its Latin text as the Nunc dimittis, “Now you may dismiss your servant in peace, for my eyes have seen my salvation” I’m sure that nobody who came to the Temple that day expected that—certainly not Mary and Joseph.
This was an ordinary family of sparse means who had come to dedicate their new born and fulfil a mother’s obligation for ritual purification. I’m sure they expected to pray, to participate in the prescribed and then depart quietly.
What do we expect when we come to church? Paul Hanley, who writes for a newspaper in the United Kingdom, did a piece a few years ago on falling church attendance in England. His conclusion: Statistics on church attendance reveal a simple pattern. If the worship is done well, the congregation grows. If it’s done badly, numbers fall.”
And what makes worship so crucial? Hanley goes on to explain: “When Christianity, and probably any other faith, happens to you, it rattles the core of your being. It is exciting, perplexing, troubling, challenging. How wonderful to have a weekly gathering of people who are going through the same experience!”
Worship is at the core of everything we do here and we are committed to doing it with excellence. It’s not just something we do; it is the source of our energy for the rest of our ministry. Worship is what Eastern Orthodox Christians refer to as liturgia—liturgy—which means “the work of the people.”
Worship is our principal work as a congregation and is the way God feeds us, teaches us, supports us, and raises us up to go out and do God’s work in the world. That is why the final words on our worship leaflet reads: “The worship is over the service begins.”
Today’s liturgy celebrates an important event in the life of one family—Mary, Joseph, and Jesus—who came to the Temple to fulfill a requirement of the religious law—to present their firstborn to God— and do that within the context of the community there and in the context of temple worship. There was joy and excitement and probably even laughter.
We’re not unlike the Temple that day so long ago. Sometimes our worship includes celebration of an important event in our lives such as baptism or remembering the life of someone we have loved. Every week we honor those who are celebrating birthdays and anniversaries. We pray for the sick, the lonely, those struggling with addiction and depression, and all sorts and conditions of people through the world.
So here we are today in this temple, our church, like Mary and Joseph and their child, like old Anna and Simeon, like the congregation in the temple in Jerusalem, like worshippers all over the world, we’ve shown up. We have come to be fed, to be strengthened, to be edified, to learn, to be participants in this sacred drama of the liturgy. Like old Simeon and Anna, we come not knowing what to expect yet we come in the hope that we will find light amidst the darkness, joy where there is sadness, peace where there is unrest, healing where there is suffering.
When William Temple was Archbishop of Canterbury he regularly got fed up with the business of the institutional church. In a moment of frustrated frankness, he once blurted out: “What people want, people who are starving for the spirit, is not religion but the living God.”
In their book All Things Shining, Hubert Dreyfuss and Sean Dorrance Kelly postulate that religion is defined by the importance of community. “The awesomeness of the moment,” they wrote, “is reinforced when it is felt as shared by others. When it is also shared that it is shared—when you all recognize together that you are sharing in the celebration of this great thing—then the awesomeness of the moment itself bursts forth and shines.”
Many years ago Frederick Buechner confessed to his own General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church that he struggled to attend church. “I hate to say this,” he said, “but for many years now I’ve taken to going to church less and less, because I find so little there of what I hunger for… It’s a sense of the presence of God that I hunger for. It’s grace that I hunger for.”
Long, long ago, a unpretentious, ordinary, meager family came to the Temple in Jerusalem hoping to meet God but not expecting how resplendently God would meet them. Centuries later, we come to this temple as a community of people who long to discover for ourselves that same power of the living God.
We are the living family of Jesus who come with our presentation of our gifts and burdens, our abilities and liabilities, our resources and baggage, our dreams and our heart breaks. This sacred place, this temple, is an anchor of hope, an oasis of grace, a beacon of light, an icon of stability in the midst of the unpredictability of life.
Later we will sing the words of psalm 84 in that lovely hymn, “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord.” Let’s really pay attention to what we are singing this morning. Our time here can be exciting, perplexing, troubling, and challenging. Yet, it’s a sense of the presence of God that we hunger for. It’s grace that we hunger for.
How wonderful to have a gathering of people who are going through the same experience!