The Gospel for today, Simeon and Anna meeting the Holy Family has two themes I will cover today. The two themes are God in the Unexpected, and Life has Suffering. I'll cover God in the unexpected first.
We stumble on God in unlikely places. In the mall, at our New Years party, in the grocery isle. God is truly in all, through all, and above all. But sometimes we have to be awakened to the possibility. God in the unexpected. Even in the city dump.
In a recent episode of my favorite NPR show RadioLab, they talked about what they find in dumps. In New York, they are burying garbage in manmade hills. Imagine what some future archeologist will find decades from now. A current archeologist dug down and took a core sample about 50 feet down in one of these massive "landfill hills" and do you know what he found? God? No, a Ten year old hotdog.
However the concept of making hills out of garbage isn't new, nor is it unusual. We've been burying garbage for a while. In a few days I'll be going to Egypt, but let's go there now! Well not now, but to Egypt 1898. Two archeologists from Oxford noticed some strange sand dunes. They just didn't look like the other ones. They are strange and irregularly shaped. They found huge quantity of baskets, pottery, clothing, the MOTHER LOAD! Undisturbed mounds of 10 centuries worth of trash. The biggest find was all of the ancient paper… In fact the first piece of paper they pull out is a Lost Saying of Jesus.
Imagine, standing in a desert, in a 1,000 year old trash dump, and the first thing you pick up is the words of Jesus Christ. Here you are standing on a sand dune, reading words of Jesus no one's ever heard before. The first saying out of this dump "He who knows the all, but fails to know himself, lacks everything." Forget the 10 year old hotdog! Here is something not heard or read about for 2,000 years. It's not even alluded to! Jesus states that Heaven, the kingdom of God is spread out all over the world, but we don't see it. We're surrounded by it, but don't see it. [i] I think this exactly the Jesus I know, it fits with the story we do know.
God in Garbage dumps. God in unexpected places. These archeologists didn't expect to find God there in an Egyptian dump! And I bet, neither did Simeon or Anna when they first looked at the baby of the poor carpenter and the woman he "got pregnant" out of wedlock.
Here is Simeon, an old man who somehow got it in his head that he was going to see the messiah. Here is Anna, a faithful servant who isn't expecting much, just to live out her days in the temple, worshiping God. Along comes this poor couple. How do we know they're poor? The family offers a sacrifice and the details of the sacrifice are interesting. Two turtledoves or two young pigeons are to be offered if the family couldn't afford a lamb. Mary and Joseph are poor! Poor but observant Jews.
Imagine how many babies Simeon has seen in his quest. I bet he looked at every baby that came into the temple. If I had Simeon's mission to see the Messiah, I would be ready to quit after my tenth baby. Simeon was faithful, he trusted God and stayed in it. Who knows how long he was in there, how long he waited, but he knew he had found the messiah when he saw Jesus. I would imagine Simeon was a little shocked. I have no idea what Simeon thought the messiah would be, but it couldn't be this little child from this poor family. The messiah was to be from the House of David, ROYALTY! A great military leader, the prophecies say nothing about a baby from a poor family. We have words of Christ in the dump and the Messiah in a Poor Baby.
Simeon does something odd though. He gives a beautiful hymn of praise to the family and to the baby, Simeon is SO happy but then he throws in this sadness. And Simeon's words to Mary say "Sword will pierce your heart" meaning, her heart will break. Simeon is foreshadowing the cross.
Wait, wait. This story is just the gospel writer foreshadowing the cross, nothing more. It's not relevant to our lives today. Some dude meets a baby in the temple, who cares? What's the point? There's no God here, this is just a 10 year old hotdog part of the Bible.
Of course God is here in the story and it is still relevant today. As you may know, Kate and I are pregnant. Well, she's pregnant and I'm responsible… what I mean to say is that we're expecting our first child. The kid is still in utero and we've already had an army of Simeon's and Anna's.
These modern prophets start off just like Simeon's hymn, with joyous praise, "you're going to have a baby! That's great! Congrats! That child will be the apple of your eye. You'll be great parents." But just like Simeon, there's also a note of dread. From the funny like "Oh I'm sorry Kate, now you're going to have two children to deal with, your husband and your baby." Then there's the saddeness. One particular message keeps playing in my mind from a particular Simeon. He said "You raise your kids, and all is well. The terrible twos aren't that terrible. You get them talking and out comes this little personality, and it's great you love it. Then you have to send the kid to school and your heart breaks a little bit. But then you realize that the manners you taught them are working out. Then one day, ugh, the school sends home this person… this happens around 13 or 14… this stranger who looks like your kid, sounds like your kid, but doesn't act like your kid. Talks and acts impolite, is very selfish, THAT is when your heart will break."
That's something to tell expectant parents. But this Simeon is right! And I'll further that message. Throughout your life, not just one sword is going to pierce your heart. Life, after all, is terminal. As one philosopher Van Wilder put it, "Don't take life too seriously, no one gets out alive." One day, everyone you know will die.
So what's the point? You may ask. Why remind us of our mortality, thanks a lot Debbie Downer!
It is easy for me to say standing up here in front of you. God is great and God is good, found in trash heaps and in little babies. How sweet! Some religious traditions try to make excuses for these hard times – talking about the mystery of God or even suggesting that God does these things for reasons we will never know, or because we’ve sinned or done something wrong – THOSE traditions don't go down the road of hard questions. But we're not that kind of church. THIS tradition asks hard questions – feels hard feelings – and tries to make sense out of hard truths. And one of the hard truths about illness, accidents and calamities and death is that… it doesn't make sense. It isn't fair… and it hurts like hell.[ii]
It's easy to stand here and say Jesus is Christ and use images of riches and glory all devoid of the suffering of the story. We don't often talk about the blood of Jesus at Trinity and I think that reason is twofold. First is because we don't subscribe to a "blood atonement theology" and second is that we're uncomfortable with the physicality of Jesus. Jesus was human, and what he went through on the cross HURT and it was terrible and it caused him a lot of pain and those around him even more pain. So much so that his best friends couldn't even watch their friend suffer and die. Isn't that true of us? Don't we stay away from grieving and dying people sometimes, not because we don't care, but because we care too much? But here within the announcement of the Messiah there is also an announcement of the tragedy. "A sword will pierce the heart of Mary". To recall a movie title, there will be blood.
In this life there will be blood, and tears and pain. From my time here at Trinity, since June, I have seen pain and suffering. In our tradition of Christianity we sometimes say that the authentic follower of Jesus is NOT the person with all the answers – or all the degrees – or even the best words. No, the real follower of Jesus is the one who knows how to feed the sheep. To feed the sheep of our world demands compassion – and patience – and tenderness. It requires being true and real and humble. One person said that if you are going to feed the sheep of this world you can't be too full of yourself. Like communion bread you have to be taken – and blessed – and broken and shared.[iii] You don't need to have the right words, in fact, I've learned that words are the least important thing! Just be there, be present, be that someone who stands and offers the hug, or handshake or meal to a family who is hurting.
We think we need some Hollywood scene and say the right thing in a beautiful, eloquent speech. No, you don't. You just need to be present and listening.
A professor of theology at seminary once told me a story about how good wine is made. There are a few spots where good grapes can be grown because the climate in America is too perfect.
"Too perfect?!" I asked, "Perfect grapes make bad wine?"
"Yes," He responded, "For great wine to be made the grapes have to suffer. Suffering adds depth and builds character."
This is what life will do to your spiritual character. It adds character and depth. And you will suffer and wrestle with new concepts. New joys and new tragedies. However, the community here will help you through it. The community will help and although we might not understand it, we will get through it. This too shall pass.
Jesus said, "I am the vine…" (John 15:1) so that makes us grapes! We will be crushed, and stomped, and bruised, but we have each other and God is there and we can make something great! God is there even in the unexpected tragedies of our lives. We have the grace of God and the example of Jesus and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. When tragedy strikes, we're allowed to say OUCH and ask for help.
When i think of a good grape, Mother Teresa and Dalia Lama springs to mind, but the main example is a more personal one. I think of my GMA Bet. She was always positive and hopeful despite suffering with Rhuematoid Arthritius. I never heard her ask why did this happen to me? Christians get so focused on the why we lose focus. Our Muslim and Buddhist brothers and sisters don't ask this, they take it as a given that there will be suffering. They don't even bother to ask why, they just focus on dealing with it. This is something we do well to remember. It's not about hoping there won't be suffering, it's how we respond to it. As Nancy quoted in one of her sermon's this year, "10% of life is what happens to me, 90% is how i react to it." [iv]. When turmoil engulfs our lives, we should remember that Christmas is a never-ending story. Christmas is a reminder that “God so loved the world..” and God loves us. [v]
We don't love because it's easy or because we won't get hurt. We love despite it all. We love because you and I are here, now, it could have been otherwise. Jesus never said that following him, or even life for that matter, would be easy… he just said it would be worth it. AMEN.
[i] Radio Lab "Detective Stories" 9-11-2007, http://www.wnyc.org/shows/radiolab/episodes/2007/07/29
[ii] RJ from "Saying Good-bye to Vicki" http://rj-whenlovecomestotown.blogspot.com/2008/12/saying-good-bye-to-vicki.html
[iii] RJ Again, dude was on it in this post!
[iv] Nancy quoted Charles Swindoll.
[v] Charita Goshay "Christmas is a never-ending Story" Canton Reposititory, 12-25-08. This 'n' that.