Holy Week & Easter at St. Paul's

“Doing What is Customary and Finding it a Joy”

“Doing What is Customary and Finding it a Joy”
February 2, 2020
Series:
Passage: Malachi 3:1-4; Hebrews 2:14-18; Luke 2:22-40
Service Type:

Well, that day has finally arrived. The official end of the Christmas season. It’s really time now to put away whatever remains of those decorations in and around our homes. According to the church’s traditional calendar, at least. Today’s Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple concludes two months of liturgical attention to all manner of events and people surrounding the birth of Jesus. Sorry about the decorations. You could do what Debra and I have done at our house, though, and reclassify some lights and candle holders, pinecones and greenery, as winter decorations, not Christmas ones, and leave them up a bit longer. Maybe until we switch over to daylight savings time.

But seriously, the Christmas season tells a particular story. The story of incarnation. God taking on flesh. And this story of Jesus’ birth is part of a longer, wider biblical story. One that engages the question: Where do we find God’s dwelling here on earth? First, on a mountain top. Then in a moveable tent. Later, a Temple built of stone and wood. Ultimately, Jesus’ humanity. Still the story goes on, for the Apostle Paul writes that every human being is a temple of the Holy Spirit.

I’ve heard two main themes woven through the story of Jesus’ birth so far this season. From the four Sundays of Advent through the twelve days of Christmas to the Feast of the Epiphany. Two themes: scandal and miracle. The scandal that the most unlikely people bear and receive and proclaim God’s earthly dwelling. A young, pregnant girl who is not married. Those shepherds. The little helpless baby himself. Folk at the margins of society, if not despised by more respectable people. And miracle, signifying that despite the scandal, this truly is God’s dwelling on earth. Angels with their “Glorias.” The star. Magi from the east bearing precious gifts. The helpless little baby. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. And that very Word became flesh and dwelled among us.

Both scandal and miracle continue to weave through today’s gospel reading from Luke. But I hear a third theme in our Presentation story. One that concludes the story of the Christmas season and suggests how we might live the birth of Jesus now and into the future. Let’s call this: doing what is customary.

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“Presentation”is all about tradition and institution (Luke 2:22 40). The scene is mthe Temple in Jerusalem – all the action takes place there. Mary and Joseph have,brought their forty day old son, Jesus, to the Temple to accomplish two tasks required by the law of Moses: Mary’s ritual purification after the fleshiness, the earthiness, of pregnancy and delivery of a child; and Jesus’ ritual dedication to God as first born. The sacrifice Mary and Joseph offer – a pair of doves – indicates they were poor and could not afford the lamb that would have been the ideal sacrificial animal. That and they had to travel to Jerusalem and find lodging and food, all with a new baby in their arms. Despite inconvenience and expense, Mary and Joseph do for Jesus what is customary.

First Simeon and then Anna step into the story. Two vulnerable people. Vulnerable because of their advanced age. Anna doubly vulnerable as a widow. Both anchored deeply in the messianic tradition of their Jewish people waiting expectantly for God to dwell on earth in a new way. Simeon and Anna elevate doing what is customary to a calling in life.

Simeon holds on to the promise that he would not die without seeing the Messiah, God’s anointed agent of salvation for all peoples, Gentile as well as Jew. How much easier it would have been for Simeon, after waiting all those long years, to ignore a promise so unlikely to be fulfilled. And yet there is the infant Jesus. What can Simeon do but take him in his arms with praise to God and blessing for parents and child?

Anna, a most unlikely prophet. How much easier to evade her vocation. Married for just seven short years; then making her own way in the world, alone, as a woman, until age eighty-four. It was customary for her people to serve God with fasting and prayer. Anna does nothing else – never leaves the Temple, but worships there night and day. She, too, sees Jesus and fulfills her role as prophet by praising God and proclaiming the child to all who were also waiting expectantly for Israel’s redemption.

Now I know human traditions, including our religious traditions, don’t always liberate. They can and do enslave. The forty-day old baby Jesus we hear about today, grows up and later returns to the same Temple in which he was presented to God. He returns to drive out all those who were in the business of selling there (Luke 19:45-48). God’s house shall be a place of prayer, Jesus will demand, but you have made it a den of robbers – stealing from the poor and the vulnerable; people like Mary and Joseph, Simeon and Anna.

At their best, our customary ways of doing things, our laws, our institutions, clear space for the common good and offer protection to the many poor and vulnerable in society. At their worst, institutions serve the private interests of the few, the privileged,  the powerful. It matters when infrastructure – physical or social – no longer exists to do what is customary. The poor and vulnerable suffer first and most. Best estimates are that four times as many Iraqi civilians have died since 2003 due to lack of electricity, clean water, reliable food, sanitation, rudimentary health care and police protection than
were killed by bombs and guns. And at the same time, isn’t it often the least powerful and privileged people in an institution who live out its best values just by doing what is customary for them? Mary and Joseph, Simeon and Anna in the Temple. A radiation clinic receptionist or technician as much as any doctor or hospital administrator. On this one holy day – Presentation, doing what is customary can be one way of taking God’s human, flesh-y dwelling into our arms with praise and blessing and proclamation.

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Maybe this is a message we especially need here and now given the state of our institutions. A colleague of mine at school said on Thursday that it feels like institutions are crumbling all around him. He had a pair in mind: higher education, where it’s increasingly difficult to defend the financial viability of programs that prepare chaplains and social workers and pastors and therapists who care directly for the poor and vulnerable; and the church, as his United Methodist denomination is about to make official and permanent their split over gender and sexuality. Listening to my colleague talk, I thought of other institutions. Our local health care system in light of the nurses’ strike at Swedish. The United Kingdom leaving the European Union. The state of
American democracy.

What can we do? What should we do? Lots of things, I’m sure. At the least, we can and should accept the invitation from Mary and Joseph, Simeon and Anna to keep  on doing what is customary. And find it a joy. Which is exactly what I’ve seen my wife Debra do for years. I share the following story with her permission.

Debra’s cousin George died a decade ago. Keeping an old Jewish tradition in a modern way, she promised George’s partner of thirty years, Frank, that she would phone him every week the first year of his bereavement. Debra became accustomed to those phone calls, and they continued and continued. So much so that talking to Frank developed into a kind of ritual anchor for her life. Last Saturday, Debra called Frank as usual, but he didn’t answer. She reached out to Frank’s brother John and learned that Frank had been in the emergency room and away from home and phone. When discharged, Frank went to his brother’s house so they could keep an eye on him for a few days. But within twenty-four hours, there on Sunday night, Frank passed away – still without his phone. Here are some words Debra has just written to John:

“What began as a one-year commitment to call Frank every Saturday after cousin George’s death, became a ten-year joy. I wanted Frank to know that he had family on the Vicari side to support him and love him. Well, our conversations were so meaningful and enjoyable, that I kept up our calls until Frank could no longer answer. How I wish we had one more conversation! I did notice that our last two calls were more of a struggle for Frank. He said that he was sitting by the phone waiting, so he wouldn’t be out of breath when I called. We always concluded with ‘Be a good boy. / Be a good girl.’ ‘Don’t bite anybody this week.’ And, ‘I love you.’ I am missing those calls already.”

Now my own words again in closing.

Yesterday was the first Saturday since Frank died. Since she could no longer call him, Debra and I lit a candle at exactly 5:00pm and let it burn for thirty minutes, the  usual time and length of their conversations. Doing what is customary and finding it a joy.

Resource:

Neta C. Crawford, “Civilian Death and Injury in the Iraq War, 2003-2013,” in Costs of War from the Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs, Brown University (March 2013).
https://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/files/cow/imce/papers/2013/Civilian%20Death%20 and%20Injury%20in%20Iraq%20War%2C%202003-2013.pdf.
Accessed January 31,2020.