A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho on Dec 27, 2014.
Sometimes we are sent on the road because Roman authorities demand a census, as we heard about on Christmas Eve. In today’s story, the Holy Family is again on the road, this time headed to Jerusalem to present the baby in the Temple, as required by the law of Moses.
This trip to Jerusalem is, at least, on the way home from Bethlehem to Nazareth. But the Holy family continues their experience of being away from home, in unfamiliar circumstances, at a time when they would certainly like to be home, sleeping in their own bed, surrounded by the familiar, the comfortable.
There were many things they could have done that day other than go to church. We could understand if they woke up that morning and thought, “can’t we just read the NY Times over brunch and stay in our pajamas?”
I was grateful for that reminder this week. Sometimes we are dislocated for bad reasons—cue the evil Romans. Sometimes we are dislocated and uncomfortable and pushed out of bed for good reasons, because we are following God’s call on our lives and offering our pigeons in the Temple. And what could be better than presenting a new baby in the Temple, declaring him holy?
Both of my children were effectively raised in the temple. From the time they were a week old, they were at church, being passed around and loved by more people than I could keep track of. More than once, someone would ask me where my baby was, and I would just gesture toward the fellowship hall or sanctuary. “I’m sure someone has him.”
As a new mother, my worries about germs and flu season were quickly over ridden by the relief of being part of a community who could help me. I quickly learned to treasure the times that other people took my baby from me, taking advantage of the break it provided. Because cute new babies are exhausting. And they can never be loved or held enough.
I am forever grateful for the knowledge that my children were loved and held and cherished by so many people. The hardest part of leaving churches was always the realization that my boys would not remember all of those people by name, those who had loved them, and cared for them, and celebrated them.
I wonder what brand-new-mother-of-God-Mary thought when she walked into the Temple and encountered Simeon. Maybe after you’ve had shepherds show up in the labor and delivery room, you are unfazed by a priest grabbing your baby and singing,
‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.’
Then he blessed Mary and Joseph. Simeon didn’t know them. They weren’t likely to see each other frequently, once they went home to Nazareth and he stayed in the Temple in Jerusalem. But he blessed them. And he spoke truth to them, truth that may or may not have been wanted.
‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’
Yet we acknowledge the truth in Simeon’s statement, as we watch the news and see the pain of parents when children die on our streets, or in the displacement of war, or the devastation of Ebola. Elizabeth Stone once wrote:
“Making the decision to have a child is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.”
Or, as Simeon said, “ a sword will pierce your own soul too”.
I think of the blessings I received from strangers over the years. When Alden was 2 weeks old, we went on our first road trip with Justin’s parents. We were in a restaurant in a small town in southern Utah on our way to Monument Valley. A woman from the kitchen came out when she heard him. He was loud even then. “Give me that baby”, she said. I think I was somewhat startled at that, but dutifully handed him over. She walked around with him the whole time we were eating, taking him into the kitchen to see the excitement there, then walking around to see the other diners. And Justin and I ate dinner in peace, able to use both hands. That was a blessing.
A few months later, when Alden was baptized in a sanctuary all decorated for Christmas, Paul, the pastor, when I handed the baby over for the baptism, said, “don’t worry, I won’t trip and fall and drop him”.
A sword pierced my soul at that somewhat off-putting blessing that he offered. But while I had been out of the sanctuary, earlier in the service, feeding a fussy baby, Paul had actually tripped over his robe when walking down the chancel steps. I guess he tucked and rolled like a stunt man and came out of the incident okay, if shaken.
And he did not trip and fall with Alden, when he carried him throughout the sanctuary after the baptism, offering him his blessing.
So many blessings we receive, from strangers and from beloved church family, from Simeons, and Annas.
Tonight we get to baptize Renner. His parents are here in the proverbial Temple, dislocated and away from Nazareth, or Portland, visiting grandparents Randy and Cheryl. And in baptism, we get to bless Renner and his parents. We won’t get to see him every week, but our blessings will go with him, and we trust God will provide him with other people to give him blessing back home in his community.
And there are other children, baptized in this church or in other churches, who will be here each week, and so we serve as Simeon and Anna for them, making sure they hear of God’s love and bless their parents. A safe nursery, a noise tolerant congregation, the prayer center, caring Sunday school teachers, food after worship, as my kids call it, “second breakfast”, there are so many ways we can bless each other.
And it isn’t limited to how we greet and welcome children. It is in how we care for each other.
There are lots of different and good ways we make family, and community. The church, though, gives us a community we don’t get in other places. Sometimes we end up in churches with friends, with people we would voluntarily choose to be with. Maybe friends are the ones who invited us in the first place. But there are also people in our church families with whom we would never have met in our regular life. Church makes community, creates family, out of strangers. And it is how we are blessed and how we bless others, encouraging and supporting each other on this dislocating journey of life.
Like baby Jesus being blessed by Simeon in the Temple, we are blessed by strangers, who sometimes later become friends. We hear Anna speak good news we hadn’t yet seen for ourselves, and we pause in wonder and amazement.
As we enter into Sabbath rest this night, I pray we will leave time for wonder and amazement, expecting God to be at work in our midst, leading us into community that can bless and be a blessing.