Sunday, February 2, 2014

Sermon for Presentation (Candlemas)

Church of the Holy Communion, Charleston, SC--Luke 2:22-40

There’s a venerable hymn that doesn’t get sung very often, though it is in the Hymnal 1982, with the first line, God is working his purpose out. Indeed, it’s a critical part of Christian theology and spirituality that God is working his purpose out, that God is active in the world and not just passively distant, that God is doing something about  those things that we renounce when we make or renew our baptismal vows: the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God, the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God, and the sinful desires that draw us from the love of God. God is active in the world, and it is the vocation, the calling, of all Christian disciples to discern where and how that is happening, to be where God already is and to ride the wave of God’s sovereign action.

Two elderly people named Simeon and Anna, whom we encounter in the second chapter of Luke’s gospel, were privileged to have a moment of exceptionally clear insight into that very thing. They met the Holy Family entering the Temple in Jerusalem to fulfill the expectations of Jewish custom when a newborn child was forty days old, the offering of a small animal sacrifice. They both recognized the infant Jesus as the long-expected Messiah, the “consolation of Israel,” as Luke puts it. Simeon offered both an oracle of hope—“a light to enlighten the nations, and the glory of your people Israel”—and a darker oracle directed at Mary: "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 also." Anna didn’t have an oracle, but simply went around bearing witness to Jesus: she “began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.” But all this wasn’t just some lucky coincidence. Simeon and Anna didn’t just show up at the Temple one day and catch a glimpse of an ordinary-looking family of three and suddenly get a revelatory flash. They were able to see what they saw only as a result of finely-honed spiritual insight.

So, the question that leaps out at us—at least to me, and I hope to you!—the question before us is, How might we put ourselves in the position of Simeon and Anna? How did they get the finely-honed spiritual insight that enabled them to recognize the consolation of Israel in the Temple with them, and is there any way we can replicate what they did? Well, I want to suggest to you the possibility that spiritual insight comes from spiritual practice. Practice, that is, things we do to cooperate with Holy Spirit in the formation of Christlike character in us. Things we do. This may strike you as odd, I suspect, because we tend to think of “spirituality” as a gift, something that just happens—or doesn’t happen. Certain people just have the gift—the gift of religious fervor, or the gift of moral virtue, or the gift of being able to see and understand how God is working his purpose out. And if one doesn’t have the gift, one simply doesn’t have the gift.

But, in fact, I want you to know that spirituality is something that can be cultivated. Spirituality is something that can be “practiced,” a skill that can be learned. We all have the capacity. It looks and feels different in different people, but we all have the capacity. In our Catholic and Anglican tradition, there are certain classic elements, certain essential building blocks, in the development of our capacity for spiritual insight. These are—pretty much in order of importance, though they are all important—these are: Mass on Sundays and certain other Holy Days, some version of the Daily Office, private prayer on a daily basis, service to the church and to the world in concert with the community of the church, and faithful Christian stewardship of the resources which God has entrusted to us. Mass, Office, private prayer, service, and stewardship. I don’t mean to just mention these in passing, but that’s the subject of a whole other sermon or teaching event, or series of teaching events. My point is simply that there are things each of us can do, intentionally and proactively, to put us in the way of seeing what God is up to, and get in on the action, just as Simeon and Anna did. It’s not magical. It’s not mysterious. It’s concrete, something any of us can do.

Simeon’s oracle, as I have already mentioned, did have a dark side. He articulated his insight in a way that describes the consequences of not attending to and cooperating with what God is doing, of finding ourselves in the way of what God is doing, not as cooperators, but as obstacles. Simeon’s dark oracle is Luke’s counterpart, perhaps, to Matthew’s account of the slaughter of the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem, Herod’s cowardly and desperate attempt to exterminate the one whom he rightly considered a rival, one who would be hailed as King of kings and Lord of lords. The process of redemption, God’s grand project, the purpose that is being worked out and which we can see if we have the eyes to see it, indeed does have a dark side. Christian discipleship brings with it a sword of grief that will inevitably pierce those who endeavor to follow Jesus, an intention that we are all going to make or renew during this very liturgy. Yet, the wounds to which we make ourselves vulnerable as we walk the road of discipleship will in due course be healed in such a way that the restoration will be more glorious than the original creation. That’s just the way God rolls!  

Sustained faithfulness in spiritual practice enables us to see what God is doing. This has never been more important than in the moment in which we live, as the leadership of the Christian world passes from Europe and North America to Africa and Asia, and we face a winter of judgment, a “dark ages,” in our post-Christian western culture. Only doubling down on spiritual practice will give us the eyes of Simeon and Anna in this our moment, our time of trial. Only doubling down on spiritual practice will enable us to see not only what God is doing, but to see also the lay of the land in which he’s doing it. In that way, we will be able to maintain a faithful witness, and join in Simeon’s song of release: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation.” Amen.

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