Saturday, December 27, 2014

Soul Support

Luke 2:22-40
December 28, 2014
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

Luke 2:22-40

The Gospel of Luke is structured as a biography of Jesus and follows the literary conventions of the time. As you might expect then, after the prologue, we have the birth narrative, which you heard on Christmas Eve, then the stories of infancy and childhood, which foreshadow the life of Jesus as an adult. Aside from Matthew’s account of the visitation of the Magi and the slaughter of the innocents, Luke’s gospel is the only one that includes any stories of Jesus from his infancy and childhood. Listen for God’s word to you in the second chapter of the Gospel of Luke, verse 22-40.

When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23(as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), 24 and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord's Messiah. 27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law,

28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, 29 “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; 30 for my eyes have seen your salvation, 31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”

33 And the child's father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

36 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. 39 When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.

40 The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Those of you who were with us on Christmas Eve will probably always remember it because of our special guest – a bat. He flew in before the service began and swooped around the sanctuary, then we didn’t see him for a while. I was hoping that the bat had taken advantage of the escape we offered by opening one of the windows up there.

But if he did fly out of one of the windows, he must have decided it was not where he wanted to be, because right as we began communion, that bat started swooping around the sanctuary again. He was diving down low toward the pews this time, and I was impressed that the congregation managed only to flinch, and not scream, as we waited for the bat to land.

He eventually did so and wasn’t seen again until after the service. After you all left, I wanted get rid of the bat -- permanently. So, in order to make sure he wouldn’t come back, I caught him, baptized him, confirmed him, and let him fly out the door. Now he won’t be in the building again until Easter.

I think that’s pretty funny but it is only funny because anyone who has been around church much knows that there is more than a kernel of truth to it. One of the more pernicious side effects of Christianity having become the civic religion of the United States in the last century is that baptism and church membership, once a powerful and potentially risky decision, has become for many people a pleasant but fairly meaningless tradition. Worse, for many more people, baptism and church membership, are mere empty rituals, not only devoid of meaning but actually superstitious nonsense.

It is an odd and sad truth that whenever Christianity is the ascendant religion in a country, fully supported by the majority of people and the government, the individual Christian’s commitment and faithful observance and the church itself, seem to be sapped of any strength and power. If you don’t believe me, review your history of Western Civilization, or visit churches in Switzerland.

The paradoxically good news in that reality is that the less we are truly a “Christian nation” the more we can take seriously our own faith commitment. After all, there is no social stigma whatsoever for a child who is not baptized or an adult who is virtually unchurched. There is no community critique of those who do not go to church, even those who are members of a congregation! So any active effort that people make to connect to the to the faith community and to participate in the expressions of our faith commitment may be taken to be sincere and genuine. Given all that, I’m overjoyed when couples ask to be married in church, and when they bring their children to be baptized.

I think we all understand that the world has changed since the 20th century. We know that family mobility and the demands of careers have changed how families interact with faith communities. Regular church attendance, once defined as attending almost every Sunday, is now defined by most people as attending about once a month. So we hope that when couples come to us for their wedding, or a baptism, that they will connect with church, but we know it won’t be like it was in the old days.

Since we have the privilege of baptizing young Alexander today, the little vignette we’ve heard this morning from Luke’s gospel is rich with meaning for us as a faith community, In this story we get to see the convergence of two expressions of faith.

Mary and Joseph, Jesus’ parents, are models of commitment, faithful to the covenant and observant of Jewish law. The law of Torah commanded that a woman who had given birth needed to be ritually purified in the temple by bringing a sacrifice of two doves.

The law of Torah also commanded that the firstborn son is dedicated to the Lord, to God. That child belongs to God. One practice was that the parents would bring the child to the temple and literally hand him over to God. Then, they would offer five shekels to redeem him, to get him back![1]

Mary and Joseph brought the sacrifice of two doves, for Mary. But they made no redemption offering. Jesus belonged to God, they knew even then. Their presentation of him demonstrated that knowledge.

Those two people at the temple, Simeon and Anna, are also models of faith and commitment. Simeon’s blessing of both Jesus and his parents, and his oracle that in this baby there will be salvation, light and glory, are an outpouring of the joy he feels. He was drawn to the temple by the Spirit, and he has been waiting all of his life for this moment. Now, Simeon holds in his arms the salvation of the nations, the light of the world, the glory of God.

But then Simeon adds a less than joyful prophecy –through this child, there will be some who rise and others who fall. There will be those who oppose him. And Mary, his mother, Mary’s heart will be pierced by this. It is a prophecy no mother would want to hear.

Anna, too, has been waiting, serving, and praying for so many years. She echoes the blessing that Simeon has offered, praising God for the gift of holding this child, the redemption of all of Israel. Mary and Joseph, understandably, were amazed. Even with all the unexpected and surprising things they had seen, they were not expecting that!

The scriptures close this episode with this line: “The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.”

Here is where this story, I think, becomes most poignant to us today. Isn’t that what we wish for every child? We want every child to grow, and become strong, and be filled with wisdom. We want every child to feel and know that the favor of God is upon him or her.

When we baptize Alexander in a few minutes, in some ways we re-enact this story. Now, I can pretty much assure you that Alexander is probably not going to be burdened with the kind of expectations that Jesus was! He is very special and much loved, but not the savior of the world. But when we baptize him, we are making the same kinds of promises to him and for him.

In baptism, we saying certain things to Alexander and about Alexander. We are saying to him, before he can even understand fully what it means, that he belongs to God. We are saying to him that we will do everything in our power to make sure that he will grow, and become strong, and filled with wisdom. We are saying to him that we are intent on sharing our faith with him and teaching him to know and love God, who loves him already. We are blessing him, as Anna and Simeon blessed the infant Jesus. And we are blessing his parents too.

We are also making promises about this baby. As a congregation, representing all Christian congregations everywhere, we promise God and Alexander’s parents that we will support and nurture him and them as they endeavor to raise him in the light of God’s grace. And Elizabeth and Christopher are promising their son, the church, and God that they will do so, and will make every effort to keep these pledges. It is not a thing to be taken lightly, to make this sort of promise to a child, to one another, and to God.

We are saying, along with all of this baby’s family, that we want him, and all our children, to have a life that is not only happy, but also to have a life that is meaningful. We want him, and all our children, to know the joy of participation in a faithful community, to reap the unseen rewards of charity and generosity, to build the courage gained in a struggle for justice, to experience the simple peace that comes from knowing that we are loved, unconditionally, eternally, and without regard to merit.

We promise to be Alexander’s soul support.
We know that there will be challenges, for every life has them;
and when those challenges come, we will be rooting for him.
We know that there will be moments when others oppose him even though he is in the right,
for it always happens; and when it does, we will be on his side.

We know that there will be times when he is judged;
we promise that if we should ever appraise him, love will be the measure we use.
A time will likely come when he struggles with belief, or with faith;
we promise that in those times, we will believe and trust on his behalf.
We know that as he grows, he may go far away from us and if he does, we will go with him;
whenever he comes back to us, we promise that he will be welcomed home.
We know that we cannot protect him or his parents from everything.
We can, however, assure him, in this ritual and in our prayers and actions,
that no matter what he does, in all his days on this earth, he will be loved.
We pledge and affirm to this child, and to his parents, as we pledge and affirm to one another and to God, that what we offer, in every way we can offer it, is to be soul support,
a life-giving community demonstrating faith, joy, and love of neighbor;
teaching him above all and in every moment, an unshakeable love for our loving and merciful God.

[1] In another tradition in the book of Numbers 3:11-13; 8:16-18, the Levites (a tribe of Israel) take the place of the firstborn.

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