In praise of the ordinary

After receiving the Ten Commandments, Moses says to the nation: “I set before you blessings and curses, Life and death. Now choose life, so that you and your descendants might live”. (Duet 30) Life emerges (as a blessing) when we as individuals and together in community adhere to the covenant. We do not enter  the biblical covenant alone, we enter with God and each other.  God’s ancient vision calls us to love our neighbor as ourselves, to do justice, practice mercy,  and to treat the resident immigrant as one of us. This ancient covenant invests justice within a community, inside a series of laws. The blessings of Justice are not found in mob violence or isolated individual righteousness. Like Love, Justice is systemic. Jesus brings the Good News of the kin-dom of God. God’s Love comes to all to warm individual hearts, but God’s Love is not isolated inside personal faith or individual practise-Love  is expressed in collective community action: loving neighbors and strangers as we love our own kinfolks. 

Amazingly, Christ pushes the boundaries of our love by calling us to extend love even to our enemies. This love is not a warm fuzzy feeling towards evil-doers. Dr King describes such sentimentality as “emotional Bosh”!  Love is a deep sense of redemptive goodwill, demonstrated in ethics and equality, which we must extend to all people. Wesley said even to the enemies of God. 

So when something as accursed, violent, and destructive as an explosion seeks to disrupt life and destroy community, we must resist that evil with strong ethics, equality and collective action. We must  root our responses in love for our neighbors, those who come to us as strangers, and to even the perpetrators and “their” people.  

The Golden Rule moves us out of tribalism and asks us: How would I respond if one of “my” people (my kindred, party, race or ideology ) perpetrated this terrible act? Racism and many politicians thrive on blame. “Know this: everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slower to grow angry. An angry person doesn’t produce righteousness” or build community! (James 1) A slow response requires spiritual maturity. We want to rush in and confirm or even insert our biases. Blame once cast is not so easily retracted.  Hate only tears down- it rebuilds nothing. Blame allows us to live without self-examination. Blame deceives us into believing that we can live outside of community:  “we” Blame “them”. Blame acquits “our” people without a trial. Our black and brown siblings know that one  individual’s action can unleash a tidal wave of retribution, racism, and retaliation upon an innocent community for years. Conversely, the white majority usually sees white violence against our black or brown siblings as isolated individual actions not tied to “our” people. Love refuses such non-systematic understandings of justice or community.   

To truly Live, we must come to mourn all losses together, render aid together, and collectively rebuild. Let us celebrate all our heroes and helpers. Let us pray for all wounded in heart or body by the Nashville explosion and injustices everywhere. Let us ask ourselves: “Lord, how can I bring healing- how can I help build community? Lord, do my words bring harm or healing? Lord, am I listening? Jesus, what does love, equality, justice, and community require of me?” 

My sermon originally was to begin: Life is filled with thousands of small decisions that shape our lives. Will I carve out time for daily prayers today, worship on Sunday, forgive that offense, measure my words, make my contribution, give my gifts, take the risk, stand up for justice, listen to my conscience (and build community)? Mary and Joseph poured into Jesus a pattern of weekly synagogue worship, modeled sacrificial giving, taught Jesus to read the scriptures, and every year spent a week in pilgrimage to the temple. Such routine practices sustained Jesus in the most challenging moments of Christ’s life. One of these thousands of practises so impacted the Holy Family that Mary and Joseph retold it with Jesus, and we revisit it today as part of our sacred story.       

Luke tells us, “When eight days had passed, Jesus’ parents circumcised him and gave him the name Jesus. When the time came for their ritual cleansing, in accordance with the law from Moses, they brought Jesus up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord. Luke adds an editor’s note for the un-synagogued Gentiles: (“It’s written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male will be dedicated to the Lord.’”) 

The Bible is full of stories of God upsetting the conventional understanding and laws. God jumps the “birth right” order lifting up Jacob, Rachael, and Joseph. God’s spirit pushes through our patriarchy speaking through Ruth, Esther, Mary, Elizabeth, Magdalene, Phoebe and Priscilla. And yet, the church laws prescribed gender bias. What context made it okay to dedicate babies of only one gender or use God’s good gift of human sexuality to deny the priesthood?  Jesus grew up in the presence of strong women – Elizabeth, Mary, and Anna. I imagine Jesus recalled these female role models on Easter as Christ commissioned Mary, Joanna, and Magdalene as the first Christian preachers. Love expands the circle of justice, equality, and power. 

After bringing life into the world, the ancient levitical law named the mother as unclean (Lev. 12), but nothing could be further from the truth. As a pastor, it has been my holy privilege to be  invited into the hospital room of a newborn family. I once was rocking the swaddled days old child, when both exhausted parents fell asleep. I held  their newborn child for over an hour as they napped. I did not correct the nurse who congulated me as a proud grandfather.  That moment is as pure and holy to me as my ordination! Jesus said to a woman counted as unclean, “Daughter, it is your faith (not your menstrual cycle) that heals and makes you whole.” (Luke 8)

They offered a sacrifice in keeping with what’s stated in the law of the Lord – a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons. They come with doves, not sheep. The priests will prepare and share a simple meal with the holy family who bring the sacrifice prescribed for people of modest income.   

The prophets always knew that God did not demand an animal sacrifice. “I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats… Who has asked this of you? STOP bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me….Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.” (Isaiah 1) As we progress away from older theological understandings, let us not think God was not with us in practices, hymns, or sermons that we now see in different light.  God’s blessing shines through even our imperfect understandings, “We see through a poor reflection.” (1 Corinthians 13) The “all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” (2 Cor. 4) The Spirit always seeks to blow new  life into us: opening minds, softening hearts, and emboldening hands. And so Joseph and Mary brought their offering for a ritual cleansing even as Mary did not need to be made clean and a vegan meal would likely have pleased our God, who mourns the lost sparrow more!   

So what do we make of Mary and Joseph’s cleansing ritual? The spiritual life calls for these moments, for markers of joy or grief. We need to stand before the church and make vows and name persons as beloved members of God’s family. We need photos of now departed grandparents smiling around the baptismal font as reminders of who we aspire to be! We need the routine faithful worship practices of Mary and Joseph if we want to raise up children who might help bring about the kin-dom of God.  

Far from home, away from family, a few weeks after giving birth, Joseph and Mary walk 8 miles to temple, where they find a community of love and forgiveness, people who imperfectly dedicate their lives to resisting evil, injustice, and oppression and building God’s kin-dom on earth. You will always find these holy people hanging around churches. They are never the people who think they are holy. And yet, in every church I have pastored, I’ve learned more about incarnational faith, justice, forgiveness, and love from the daily experiences of faithful lay people than I ever did in seminary. 

Luke tells us that a man named Simeon was in Jerusalem. Simeon was righteous and devout; he eagerly anticipated the restoration of Israel. The Holy Spirit rested on Simeon. The Holy Spirit revealed to Simeon that he wouldn’t die before seeing the Lord’s Christ. Led by the Spirit, Simeon went into the temple area. 

Oh, friends, hear the Good News: The Holy Spirit rests on us. The Holy Spirit reveals things to us. The Holy Spirit still leads us. Christ is still coming into our world. As the Holy Spirit led Simeon and Anna to the temple, simultaneously and synchronistic the holy family walked into the temple. Simeon and Anna both will take the newborn Jesus in their arms and praise God. 

Mary and Joseph risk opening their hearts to God’s wider community and handing their baby (Jesus) off to Simeon and Anna, who are complete strangers. No doubt they saw God’s wider family in the wrinkled warmth of Simeon’s smile and Anna’s delight. It takes a village. Jesus needed a village. We all need a village. Right now, the pandemic reminds us of our need to share life together. Let us not forget our usually unspoken longing for the embrace of a wider community. Yes, it is risky to belong to a church, you will get hurt and hear bad sermons, but we are made in the image of God- We are created for community by a God who dwells in relationship: Creator, Christ and Comforter.   

Holding the baby Simeon said, “Now, Master, let your servant go in peace, because my eyes have seen Your salvation, your presence for all peoples: a light for the Gentiles and a glory for your people Israel.” Jesus’ father and mother were amazed by what was said about Christ. They will share this inclusive message of reaching out to the gentiles as Jesus grew. We celebrate it even today!

Hear what Simeon prays: “Lord, I see your light, your glory, your hope in this tiny life I hold in my arms. I see God’s salvation in a coming generation. I am ready to pass into life to come full of peace, trusting You are at work in our world!” As Anna and Simeon come to the end of their lives, widows, knowing life’s heartache and losses they seem to model navigating Eriksons’s stages of moral development. They have lived with trust over mistrust, personhood over shame, identity over confusion, intimacy over isolation, generativity over stagnation, and integrity over despair. What a beautiful gift to be rooting for a stranger’s child, to see the face of God, not just in a agrnachild, but in every child brought to the temple.  Oh, that we might move close enough to God’s love to love every child and see Christ in every face. 

Simeon blessed them and prophesied to Mary, Christ’s mother, “This child is assigned to be the cause of the falling and rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that generates opposition so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your innermost being too.”  Simeon’s hard truth, “Mary, a sword will also pierce your heart,” surely came to Mary as she and Joseph sought refugee status in Egypt, and as she watched in horror decades later as Christ suffered on the cross. Simeon’s words reminded her that Jesus was part of something bigger than the terrible moments they endured: God was going to use Jesus despite the opposition and cost to shine Light into the world.  

Along with Mary, Elizabeth, and Zachariah, Simeon sings a prophetic word into Jesus: Child, you are going to make a difference in this world. Maybe Joseph sang Simeon’s song along with Mary’s Magnificat as he tucked Jesus into bed. Oh, that we might all always strive to bring a blessing to the coming generation. 

There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, who belonged to the tribe of Asher. She was very old. After she married, she lived with her husband for seven years. She was now an 84-year-old widow. She never left the temple area but worshipped God with fasting and prayer night and day. (Scholars think may not be a metaphor, but Anna is a bit of an unusual church member. Prophets were often an odd bunch.) Anna approached at that very moment and began to praise God and speak about Jesus to everyone who was looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem. When Mary and Joseph had completed everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to their hometown of Nazareth in Galilee. The child grew up and became strong. The child was filled with wisdom, and God’s favor was upon Jesus.”

I love this story of Jesus’ village and God’s wide welcoming table. Simeon and Anna came into Jesus’ life for just a few minutes one day. They spoke love, justice, and hope into the Holy Family. It all likely took less than an hour, and yet, Mary and Joseph treasured these stories of being included in God’s working. They gifted Jesus with stories of beloved aunts and beloved strangers who brought God’s presence to a child born far from home. They told Jesus of shepherds and Magi. They recounted how Anna and Simeon, two strangers, blessed them as frightened parents. Mary and Joseph passed these blessed experiences along to Jesus and we are still telling the story today. These stories and songs reminded us that we too belong to a community stronger than we are and a story bigger than any single moment.  Maybe today, you might pass along a few simple sentences of identification or hope to a discouraged stranger. Maybe your kind words might lift someone up. Like Simeon and Anna, you may not know til heaven how your words blessed a life. Let us remember we belong to a bigger family. Let us raise up the prophets, see Christ in strangers, bless the coming generation, and offer our lives to God in peace.  Amen.

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