Jesus’ Victory Dance

Let these branches be for us signs of his victory.

Remember that prayer, way back in the beginning of the service?

Palm Sunday was for generations—centuries—a celebration of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, described in the reading we heard from long ago in the parish hall. It was an ironic triumph for those of us who know—as Jesus did—that for him, Jerusalem meant death. And yet, the procession was a time of celebration The promise of victory was in the air. Let these branches be for us signs of his victory.

h19_18559141The people along the road treat Jesus like a king, shouting Hosanna to the Son of David, their way of saying “Long live the King!” “Praise to you, our king and our redeemer!” When we process around the neighborhood, singing “all glory, laud, and honor,” we act out that part of the story as much as we act out the passion gospel we just read. And yet it is usually the passion gospel that occupies the Palm Sunday sermon. As if what we just heard needed any interpretation or reflection.

I would like to linger instead, for a few minutes, in that celebratory mode associated with Jesus’ procession through the gates of the Holy City. Let these branches be for us signs of his victory. What victory? What are we celebrating? Jesus has just finished a whole series of hard teachings and challenging conversations with his disciples. (Go home and read Matthew 20 and you’ll see what I mean.) He has called his hearers to task, challenging them to break through the existing religious structures of the day, to hear of God’s call to teach and to heal. One might say part of what we celebrate is victory over religious misunderstanding.

Jesus rides a donkey, while Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, would likely have ridden into the city on the same day through another gate. Pilate would have ridden a war horse flanked by soldiers to protect Roman interests during the Passover festival, where there was often political unrest. Jesus’ choice of the donkey is a victory over pride and political trappings. The donkey is a sign of humility.

Our reading from Philippians speaks to us of this humility, exhorts us. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus. And what mind is that? What is the mind of Christ? It helps to read the two verses that precede these words. (If you all had bibles in the pews, this would be much easier. Instead, you need to use the ears God gave you. It’s the Anglican way.)

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus who, though he was in the form of God, emptied himself, humbled himself.

Palm-Sunday-2013The victory we celebrate today is the victory of humility over pride. The victory over the tyranny of self. If you want to experience victory over self, do something foolish and awkward in the name of Christ. If you want to be like Jesus, ride a donkey.

There is, of course, another victory to celebrate, but we’re not there yet.

In the coming week we are invited over and over again to enter into Christ’s death. I hope many of you will join us in some or all of our Holy Week services. This Holy Week story begins with the procession on a donkey—the story we read together of Jesus’ arrest and death was tacked on midway through the last century because fewer and fewer people were coming to church on Good Friday. Who remembers when school and liquor stores all over the country were closed on Good Friday? The Passion Gospel was added to Palm Sunday because without it, people who didn’t go to church during Holy Week missed the painful and miserable death that must come before Easter.

Let us journey together through the coming week and immerse ourselves in Jesus’ suffering and death, noting glimmers of victory and hope along the way. Then when we sing, on Easter morning, “This is the feast of victory for our God,” the words will be truly meaningful.

Let these branches be for us signs of God’s victory.

small interventions of grace

Once, you were in darkness, but now in the Lord you are in light.

Every year on Good Friday we offer an afternoon service with spoken and musical meditations on the Seven Last Words from the cross. When I was new to the church, I had heard this phrase, “seven last words,” but I always thought the seven words were “my god, my god, why…” and I’d have to count off on my fingers and figure I could make it work if I only used one “my god,” rather than two. Later I learned that the seven last words refer to the utterances attributed to Jesus from when he is on the cross. (Come on Good Friday to find out. It’s worth taking the afternoon off.)

There’s another interpretation about the seven last words of the church.  “We have always done it that way.” Or: “We have never done it that way!”

We have all had our turn to experience or witness a change we didn’t like: singing the psalm instead of saying it, pancakes versus tacos, changing from the old prayer book to the new prayer book. With my diocesan hat on, I’m working with another church that is trying to move from being consumed with anxiety about survival to joyful, frightening, new mission. (That should sound familiar to those of you who have been around here for a while.) To do this, that parish must move from saying “We always do it this way” to drawing a line in the sand that says: “That was then; this is now.”

In the “now,” things are different from the “then.” In the rest of our lives, we know that, right? Kids grow up and move away, jobs change, neighborhoods change, people die, and we understand this as the circle of life. But in our religious institutions, nothing is ever supposed to change. When we close ourselves off to change, we miss out on the new ways of seeing that God may have in store for us.

In today’s gospel, the religious authorities are upset with Jesus’ actions because that is not the way they do things around there. I’m not sure which was more offensive: healing on the Sabbath, or healing someone whose blindness they believed was a punishment from God. For everyone involved, that was then; this is now. And Jesus is now.

mudFor no one in the story is this as true as it is for the man born blind. He has experienced amazing grace. I was blind, but now I see. Can you imagine? That was then, that blindness. This is now, seeing. It is not the moment of transformation that is the miracle in today’s gospel, but the movement from one way of seeing to another. As fascinated as we may be by the description of the paste of mud that Jesus puts on his eyes, that is mostly irrelevant. The man born blind has inhabited a different world his entire life, a world without sight, and his experience of grace is dramatic: he leaves that world and enters another.

More often, transformation—leaving one world and entering another, with new sight—takes time. In the fitness world, one sees a lot of before and after photos, reminding us that while always miraculous, transformation rarely happens overnight. Transformation is always happening.

blindnowseeAmazing grace, how sweet the sound. The gospel—today’s gospel and the whole of the Good News—is about grace. Grace needs no reason. The man in today’s gospel was not punished by blindness, nor was he given sight as a reward for righteous behavior.

Not only that, but he did not even ask to be healed. He is just sitting there by the side of the road, the subject of a dialogue between Jesus and his followers about sin and God. From the perspective of the man blind from birth, this healing just happens out of nowhere. Grace is like that.

On Friday, Mark and I saw a fabulous movie which I recommend to all of you, called The Lunchbox. Anybody seen it? The setting is Mumbai’s unique dabbawallah system. Individually prepared and packed lunches are delivered to businessmen—mostly men—all over the city by a complex process and a faithful corps of deliverymen in white coats. The lunches are usually made by a family member, or, if the businessman is single, a restaurant. Well, in the early moments of the film, there’s a one-chance-in-a-million mix-up, and someone ends up with the wrong lunch. This is the beginning of a story that involves, ultimately, as much transformation as we read about in today’s gospel.

The characters in the story are changed by new ways of seeing, and I, too, saw things differently as a result of seeing the movie. For one thing, I saw that I really craved Indian food. I began to wonder whether the Indian restaurants around here might deliver individual lunches to people who work in SE Portland. But another, more significant transformation—and I don’t want to say too much because I don’t want to give anything away—is that I came to look at aging, and the way I see the second half of life, differently. Sometimes, someone else’s story about seeing differently can become our story, too.

We are changed, not only by dramatic intervention of grace, but by small interventions of grace. How do you see differently as a result of hearing this morning’s gospel? When has listening to a piece of music or watching a movie or seeing a painting changed you? Grace enters our lives and opens our eyes over and over again. How will you be changed by the stories we will hear in Holy Week, and on Easter? As we continue our journey toward the cross, I pray we will be ever more aware of the grace that travels with us and opens our eyes.

Go to Samaria. Drink the water.

Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves.

Many of you know that a significant piece of my work in my first few years as a priest was to help start a much-needed ministry called Rahab’s Sisters. Rahab’s Sisters, now in its eleventh year, offers welcome and no-strings-attached hospitality on Friday nights to women on 82nd avenue. Most of these women are on the street because they are sex workers, or homeless, or drug-addicted or, usually, a combination of all three. When we started Rahab’s Sisters we knew we were welcoming outsiders to come inside. We wanted to do good, and we hoped to help. But we also knew we would be changed by each encounter. For the first few months, we had a chaplain who prayed with us at the beginning of each Friday evening: God, give us eyes to see those who are not seen. Help us to remember that every encounter with a stranger is an encounter with you.

6-SamaritanWomanAtTheWellWe had lots of conversation in the early days about rules to adopt so our new ministry would run smoothly. We also learned that sometimes we needed to break the rules. Sometimes we needed to give a woman an extra plate of food to go, even when we knew she was going to give it to her pimp. Sometimes we decided to let someone sleep on church property, even though we had promised the host church’s vestry we wouldn’t. Once we changed someone’s bandage and provided wound care, even though we knew this would horrify the diocesan insurance administrator. God, help us to remember that every encounter with a stranger is an encounter with you.

Last week, we heard John the Evangelist’s famous words: God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. God so loved the world. This can—and should—be heard in a multitude of ways. The world God loves includes all of creation. It includes the hard, gritty realities of the world of 82nd Avenue or any number of other places where many of us have lived or worked. The world God loves includes people or places we’d rather turn our back on. The world God loves includes the intangible realities of grief, greed, self-centeredness, depression, and despair. All of it. The world God loves includes strange places on the map inhabited by long-ago enemies whom Jesus’ followers considered foreigners and apostate. Places like Samaria.

Jesus breaks a whole lot of rules in this story. A devout Jew, he speaks to a woman alone in a public place. He speaks to a Samaritan. One of God’s chosen people speaks to one of God’s rejected people. The Jews of Jesus’ time saw Samaritans as outside the circle of God’s grace, having separated themselves from the Israelites over a number of centuries. The most acute sticking point in the first century was that the Samaritans did not recognize Jerusalem as the holy temple site, but instead worshiped elsewhere, on Mt. Gerazim. It is near Mt. Gerazim that Jesus stops for a drink.

woman detailThe woman who comes to the well while he waits there knows Jesus has something to offer, so she brings him a major theological problem: Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, she says, but you say that people must worship in Jerusalem. Jesus doesn’t respond in defense of Jerusalem, but rather points beyond a particular time and place. The hour is coming and now is, he says, to worship God in spirit and truth.

The result of the woman’s interaction with Jesus is that she is not just educated, she is transformed. She comes to the well as an outsider, a stranger, and becomes an evangelist and a minister of the gospel. She drops her water jar and returns to the city empty-handed, armed only with the experience of Jesus. She tells everyone she can find: Come and see. And they do.

The woman at the well is transformed because Jesus reaches across a chasm of difference and prejudice to offer her living water. She reaches across the same chasm to talk theology with him. She is truly heard and truly seen by him, and this convinces her that the messiah is alive and well. This is the good news she shares with her community, reaching across another great divide when she returns to her village, not to bring water from the well but to bear witness to the Gospel.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we all had experiences like this? The challenge for us, I think, is that while it is all well and good to reflect upon gospel stories where people are transformed by encounters with Jesus, how often do we meet Jesus at the well? Don’t we all too often feel like the thirsty ones, with no one around to offer us living water?

I believe that we meet Jesus at the well whenever we reach across a divide to connect with something or someone from whom we feel separate. Who are the foreigners in our life? From what or whom do we feel divided? We may be alienated from those who differ from us in small ways or in big ways. Sometimes the way we connect with these people is to ask for help when we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves. I’m thirsty; I need something to drink. I don’t understand your views; please help me understand. Jesus connects with unlikely people in unlikely ways, as he does in today’s gospel. When we do likewise, we join Jesus on the journey. Sometimes, we may need to break some rules.

God, help us to remember that every encounter with a stranger is an encounter with you.

Lent I: accepting gifts, embracing weakness

On Ash Wednesday, I spoke about being at a workshop recently where I learned the three rules of improvisational theatre: 1) notice things, 2) if someone offers you a gift, take it, and 3) be fit and well. On my mind today is the second rule: if someone gives you a gift, take it. Sometimes this is cast simply as “say yes.”

In improv (I learned with my very brief and probably superficial introduction), “accept the gift” basically means to be ready for anything, and see everything as gift. Incorporate everything God throws at you into who you are and where you are going.

All of our readings today are about gifts. God gave the garden of Eden to the first man and woman he created. Then he gave them the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. He sort of gave it to them. They ate of the fruit from this wondrous tree and their eyes were opened.

Some consider this opening of the eyes to be original sin the beginning of all pain and struggle. And yet, I think I would get bored in the Garden. Not at first, mind you, but at some point I’d be wondering about life beyond the river. God spared us that wondering and gave us all creation and all human experience: pain, loss, strife, failure, and temptation.

temptation_of_christ_10_3[1]In the desert, Jesus is offered gifts that are not gifts. At least, we don’t think they are gifts. That is, of course, always our discernment. Is this thing that is happening to me from God or not from God? Jesus chooses to stay the course. But he was tempted. Tempted in every way as we are.

We rarely have such poetic tempters as Eve did, or as Jesus did. The devil on our shoulder is most often simply a voice inside our head, completely indistinguishable from our own. The voice that says be perfect, or worry about that thing you can’t do anything about, or ingest whatever particular substance you might regret later.

Someone asked me this week what I was giving up for Lent.

I love hearing about what others are giving up for Lent or taking on for Lent. A few years ago some friends of mine were casting about for something to give up. They wanted to give up something easy that they would never want to do anyway. They decided to give up bowling, and were suddenly seized with an overwhelming urge to go bowling, which they did. They decided to give up reality TV instead—something that had never been a problem for them—and the same thing happened. It is easy to get somewhat far afield from the Lenten journey.

You can learn things you didn’t know about people by learning what they give up for Lent. Sometimes you learn things you don’t want to know about people by what they’re giving up.On Ash Wednesday, my seventeen-year-old son told me over dinner that he’s giving up lying for Lent. Really! I said. I didn’t know lying was one of your habits. He didn’t say anything.

 

I confess I am not a big fan of giving things up for Lent. At least not personally. In the past, I have given up things like sugar, meat, or caffeine. When I wasn’t thinking about what was right in front of me, I was either consumed by my own craving for whatever I was giving up to a degree that rendered me fairly useless to the rest of the world, or feeling so superior and pleased with myself for being so pure that I was equally useless.

Some of you heard James’ Ash Wednesday sermon, “Confessions of a Lent extremist,” in which he described making grand and sweeping sacrifices, or taking on impossibly impressive disciplines. My confession is that I am not a Lent extremist. Sometimes I wish I were, but we can’t all be.

I tend to take things on, rather than give them up, for the reasons I just mentioned. There are a few things I am taking on this year, and I share them with you:

I have a wonderful new fitness coach whose motto is “Embrace your weakness.” We all like to do things we’re good at; I want to accept as gift opportunities to do things that I’m not so good at. I want be more disciplined in embracing limitations in every area, rather than masquerading as someone who can do everything. I don’t think Jesus had much patience with followers who held back from making mistakes, or from making fools of themselves for his sake.

The other discipline I’m taking on is to stay as close as I can to the Lenten journey, the journey with Jesus to the cross. We all have our own ways of staying with the journey. For me it’s staying faithful to the daily office readings, and also—especially this time of year—reading ahead in our Sunday readings, the way you might read ahead on list of travel directions, a roadmap to be sure you are going the right way. I want to remember that Jesus has set his face for Jerusalem, for suffering and death.

When I began planning for Saturday’s live storytelling event, I wanted it to have a Lenten theme, even though it’s a fairly secular event. I suggested “Suffering.” My friend with whom I collaborated on the event, said “I don’t know if people will pay $15 to hear about suffering.” We talked about Lent for a while and settled on Tales of Uncertainty as an equally Lenten theme. Even though the journey to the cross has a familiar ending for Jesus, if we take it anew, each year, it is different for us each time, because we are different. For each of us Lent is, indeed, a tale of uncertainty.

We don’t know what the outcome will be. My hope is that it will be, for each of you, a gift, a gift to which you will say yes.

….and then some

You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.

“Speak to all the congregation of the people and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”  Okay: You shall be holy, for the Lord your God is holy. Isn’t that just what you wanted to hear today? I’m not sure Moses made a lot of friends with that line. No more than Jesus got a lot of applause in the Sermon on the Mount when he said Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Leviticus is one of those books of the bible we all love to hate—too many words like “abomination.” Too many rules. But this verse, in particular, probably makes lots of us itch. To the extent that our culture engages religion at all, it is a cultural norm to think of holy as that which is set apart, that which is more sacred than we are (holier than thou). Deep down, I think many of us feel that we are not supposed to be holy, only God is holy. Or maybe, only God and people like the Dalai Lama and a bunch of anonymous monks and nuns.

And yet, here is Godself telling Moses to tell everyone: you shall be holy. Not just you who serve the church full-time or who have taken monastic vows. You, and you, and you.

The wonderful thing about this reading, though, which is also true about all of our readings for today is that they give us concrete images of what it means to be holy.

The portion of Leviticus that we read this morning is part of a larger section of the book called the Holiness Code. It is all about the practical, ethical behavior with which we live out the commandment to love our neighbor. Holiness is inextricably linked to love, and our readings remind us that love is a verb. How we feel is irrelevant in our striving to be faithful, whether we are being faithful to a loved one or to God.

We can equate this being faithful, being loving, to being holy. Here’s what holy means in today’s reading:

  • Always leave some of your harvest for the poor and the foreigner
  • Do not steal
  • Pay people on time
  • Don’t talk about your neighbor behind his or her back
  • Don’t bear a grudge
  • Don’t take advantage of people with disabilities

This holiness code is about what I call everyday holiness. That kind of clarity works for disciples like me. You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.

Psalm 119 does not give us the same concrete images for everyday holiness, but it’s pretty clear, too. When was the last time you read Psalm 119 from start to finish?

It’s got 176 verses. We rarely read it on Sundays; the Daily Office lectionary feeds it to us about 18-20 verses at a time on Wednesdays. It’s form is what’s called an alphabetic acrostic; it’s verses are divided in to 22 8-verse sections, one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet and, in Hebrew at least, each of the eight verses of that section begins with that letter of the alphabet.

The most important thing about Psalm 119 is that practically every verse contains a synonym for the Law. Statutes, commandments, decrees, your ways, your promise, ordinances, precepts….Psalm 119 but points us straight back to Leviticus. What is God’s law? God’s law is to be holy as God is holy by practicing everyday holiness.

leviticus imageGod’s law is the moral compass that guides Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. Listen to Jesus’ version of everyday holiness:

  • If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also
  • If anyone wants your coat, give your cloak as well
  • If anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile
  • Give to everyone who begs from you
  • Don’t refuse when someone wants to borrow from you
  • Love your enemies
  • Pray for those who persecute you

So much for the warm fuzzy Jesus taking the place of that mean Old Testament God! Jesus is not overturning the Law, but extending it.

When I first started looking at this Gospel, I had an image of the Kingdom of God filled with people joyfully walking an extra mile with no coats on, handing out food and money and blessings along the way.

But there’s more to the Kingdom than that. The expression “go the extra mile” is inspired by the words of this Gospel, but it’s important to remember the whole teaching: if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. We’re not talking about a friend who asks for help moving a couch, and you offer to move the piano also. We’re talking about people living in an oppressive regime, where the mile might be part of forced labor. Going a second mile is a way of saying to the oppressor effectively “you’re not the boss of me now.” Same thing with turning the other cheek. It is not giving up power, becoming passive, but rather a way of saying to the one who strikes you “you have no power over me.”

Turning the other cheek, responding to oppressive demands by doing even more than what is ordered of us turns oppression on its head. Suddenly, those who were squashed down are in charge. Jesus invites us into a new reality, a new way of engaging with the world around us.

This includes the everyday holiness of loving our enemies and those who hurt us, loving them as much as God loves them. This really is what Jesus asks of us: be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. The Good News is that perfection is less about getting things right and more about loving as God loves. Being perfect in this way is not a goal that is hopelessly out of reach; it is the invitation to be holy, every day.

Anger, Lust, Divorce & Jesus

Preaching with the folk at St. David’s for the sixth Sunday after Epiphany

Somewhere in the crowd on the hill listening to Jesus is a woman who remarried anyway. After her first husband issued a certificate of divorce according to the law of Moses, she was left with nothing, a virtual widow, the power she once held loosely as the manager of their household with their children and their slaves now gone. As a woman in first century Palestine, her economic power resided in relationship to men, first her father, then her husband. Without one she was nothing economically. Without a second marriage she would have to resort to some indentured servitude of her own. Yet she does not feel like an adulteress.  In fact, she feels joy. With all she learned from her first go at managing a household, with all she spent those years wishing for, she is thankful for the special grace of a second chances. She is perplexed at the peculiar words of the teacher on the hill. She makes a mental note to share her side of the story with him after his sermon is done. She is resolute on living her life as a blessing, regardless.

Somewhere in the crowd on the hill listening to Jesus is a woman who walks through the market square each day with the eyes of every man in town hot upon her back as she passes. She can hear their jeers and whispers each time she walks by. She is beautiful with God’s beauty, but instead of feeling joy about that beauty she has only ever felt shame. She feels shame because of the way her mother, wishing to rid her of any trace of pride, used to deride her physical appearance as a child. She feels shame because of the way others treat her, the way they look at her. As the teacher teaches on the hill she hears the story of her very own life; and as she hears her experience told out loud in the broad light of day, she watches the men around her. At one point, one of them casts his eyes to the ground, and for the first time she recognizes in a man the same shame that she has felt all her whole life long. In her compassion for him, she begins to feel something like relief.

Somewhere in the crowd on the hill listening to Jesus is a woman whose heart simmers with quiet rage. She has not spoken with her sister in years. The two of them were inseparable growing up, playing behind their mother’s house in afternoon hours when chores were done and supper not yet ready. In their late teens, when they were both mothering households of their own, they shared livestock between them. It only took a pair of missing hens for misunderstanding to grow between them. The argument which followed felt so uncharacteristic of their sisterhood at first, yet soon it bloomed with a rush of previously unheard of and unaddressed hurt feelings. The fighting grew so intense that they probably would have taken it all the way to a judge -if there had been a judge around willing to listen to a dispute between two women. Without judiciary recourse or closure the dispute lingered for years between them in toxic silence. As the teacher speaks, she begins to imagine what it would look like to step beyond the law and seek reconciliation for herself. She scans the crowd to see if her sister is there, too.

Somewhere in a church, in this city, listening today to stories handed down by centuries of believers, is a woman who grew up as a girl only hearing stories about boys. She has listened to men preach on stories about men written by men, she has been instructed in the ways of obedience, silent suffering, and self-annihilating service. She has remained in a marriage that stopped working long before it even began because she felt it was her God-given duty to do so. By grace, she will have a friend who finally sounds the alarm of resistance; by grace she will find a teacher, even if that teacher is a still small voice in the back of her head which has been silent all this time, at long last awoken by the ring of truth.

Before each of these four women, and before each of us, God sets a choice -just as God did before God’s people in Deuteronomy- between life and prosperity, or death and adversity. We know that life itself does not always come from the laws we have maintained or from the teachings we have inherited. We know this if we have ever found ourselves pushed up against a norm or expectation or requirement which simply doesn’t fit the pattern of what we know to be true in our lived experience. We know this if we have ever fought to change a law to more accurately reflect the justice we seek for ourselves and others, we know this if we have ever questioned a teacher’s words. We know this, and yet it can be so hard to listen to the still small voice of truth beneath the din of voices preaching doubt, and death, and fear, and hate. Yet we must listen, for God does not spell these things out beyond us in the air. God writes upon the human heart. In reply, human hands fumble to spell it all out again with pen and ink and paper and stone, but God’s ways are too fluid to be held there in place, too fluid for a book, or rule, or even the most elegantly chosen word. Jesus calls us to return to the heart of the matter, to pare down the elaborate exaggerations we have made to excuse ourselves from their great responsibility, to answer the call to help the helpless, pardon our offenders, and love our enemies with a simple, “no, no” or “yes… yes.”

Simeon: living in the tension

The Feast of the Presentation, Luke 2:22-40

Everliving God, we humbly pray that, as your only-begotten Son was this day presented in the temple, so we may be presented to you with pure and clean hearts. 

Welcome to the east of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin, also known as The Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, also known as Candlemas.

I had to check the pages in front of the Prayer Book titled “The Calendar of the Church Year” to remind myself, this past week, that this Feast of the Presentation is one of only three feasts in church calendar assigned particular dates that, when they fall on a Sunday, trump the regular readings for that Sunday. (I know you’re dying to know the other two such feasts. They are the Holy Name, on January 1, and the Transfiguration on August 6.) Hence this week we are skipping over the readings for the Fourth Sunday of Epiphany. In case you’re wondering, we’re missing the wonderful reading from Micah, about God requiring us to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly. We’re also missing the Beatitudes. Come back in late January or early February 2017.

According to Jewish law, the firstborn male child in a family belonged to God, and his parents had to “buy him back” 40 days after his birth, by bringing him to the temple and offering a sacrifice, such as a pair of turtledoves. Forty days was also thought to be the time when women were no longer “ritually unclean” from the messy experience of childbirth. Hence the name Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which, if you believe in the literal virginity of Mary, is a bit of an oxymoron, but we won’t go there today. Mary and Joseph are faithful Jews, and this common practice is what grounds this story in the temple, where we encounter Simeon and Anna.

It is from Simeon’s words, “a light for revelation to the Gentiles,” that the Feast of Candlemas developed. Candlemas began in the 11th Century with the blessing of candles to be used throughout the year in church and at home.

candlemasOur altar guild is far too kind to complain about my excessive, but, mercifully, episodic, love of votive candles. Over the years I have purchased hundreds of glass votives and candles to fill them, for numerous occasions. Someday, someone will gift us with a traditional votive candle prayer stand to put in the back of the church—with a kneeler and an icon. Lighting candles has always been, for me, a tangible way to offer prayer. It is a way of saying God is here. God is always here, but when I light a candle, I perform the connective act of inviting God in.

Light is, for many of us, a sign of hope. We talk about this time of year—Epiphany season—as the returning of the light. The days get longer, and the Epiphany star that guided the wise men to the baby Jesus shines a light on our own identities as followers of Jesus.

The heroes of today’s gospel, in my book, are Simeon and Anna. Each of them shines a light onto particularly deep, patient, persistent faith. I could preach a whole sermon on each of them. Today it’s Simeon’s turn.

Simeon’s gift to us, which has come down through the ages is his experience of peace, and the proximity of the Spirit, which combine into an ability to face death with grace. The other is his ability to lift up the tension embodied in Jesus.

simeon1Most of us would not be as ready to go as Simeon is—his joy at recognizing the Messiah overcomes any fear of death he may have had. Surely, in real life, this moment of recognition is a mixed blessing. Put yourself in Simeon’s position: Yay! I’ve seen the Messiah. But, oh, that means it’s time to die.” How would you feel? The Song of Simeon has come down to us as the nunc dimittis, an offering in our evening prayer service at the end of every day. And I’ve prayed Simeon’s words at the bedside of many people close to death.

I would venture to say that when we’re close to death, most of us want what Simeon has. We want peace and serenity at the time of death because most of us don’t have it. Most of us are not really ready to go any time. I had a friend in New York who flew to Europe on a regular basis. I went through a phase of being fairly fearful of flying and when I shared this with her she shrugged and said “I get on the red-eye, I close my eyes, and I figure when I wake up, I’m either going to see Paris or I’m going to see Jesus.” I always thought she must be far more spiritually mature than me. Certainly more like Simeon than most people.

Simeon’s message, though, is not all sweetness and light, not all serenity and peace. And here is Simeon’s other gift, the ability to hold the tension of Jesus’ life and message. This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel…—and a sword will pierce your own soul, too, he says to Mary.

Not all will be raised up by the good news of the messiah; for some, Jesus will be a stumbling block. For some, Jesus will be someone to reject and crucify. Simeon’s final words remind us that the earthly life of the little baby he holds in his arms will not end well, and that his mother, her own soul pierced, will—like any mother—have a share in her child’s rejection and pain.

This Candlemas, this Feast of the Presentation, marks the end of Jesus’ birth story, the story which began with Luke’s gospel on Christmas Eve. In today’s gospel we hear the great both-and themes that began in Advent and that pervade the gospel: remember? (I talked a lot about “both-and” in Advent.) Repent and believe the good news. Rejoice in the coming of the savior, and change your hearts and minds to prepare for salvation. Jesus came to bring peace on earth, and Jesus came to bring judgment. Some will experience him as judge, and others will experience him as the bearer of light and the prince of peace. As C.S. Lewis said “his wrath and his love are the same.” My prayer for all of us as we continue our Epiphany journey is that we might, with Simeon, be able to lift up both: to lift up Jesus and celebrate his message of salvation, and also to hear the call—harsh at times, painful at times—to become more like him every day.

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