Preached at St Mildred’s, Canterbury
Text: Luke 2:22-40
In the name of the +Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
My dear friends in Christ, it gives me great pleasure to be with you this morning, and indeed to be with you this entire weekend. I would like to thank you all for your kindness and hospitality that you have extended to Liam, Dave, Vickie and myself as we joined you yesterday to share some of the work of Blessed, our alternative worship community, and share its vision for a deeply sacramental, radical call to mission. I would like to thank Fr. Mark and Jamie, your excellent youthworker, for their invitation.
In many ways, what was explored last night in the Blessed Mass for Candlemas is also played out in today’s theme: revelation, mystery and above all the word made flesh, made real, made among us in the incarnation of Our Lord Jesus Christ. What was once hidden, is now plain, for all the world to see. What our world once believed or took for granted has been transformed, challenged, subverted: for this is the very essence of what Blessed seeks to do…
I know that the great playwright George Bernard Shaw took great delight in revealing the error of so many of our assumptions and certainties. One story – so good that it strikes me as apocryphal – is that while giving a lecture Shaw mentioned in an aside that the English language had only two words which begin with the sound ‘sh,’ but are spelled with only a single ‘s’ and not the ‘h.’ Can you think of them?
Someone in his audience (clearly delighting in the opportunity to correct a man of such esteem) sent him a letter declaring that there were not two such words, but only one such word – ‘sugar.’ Shaw dashed out a response to his critic on the back of a postcard with the single question, “Madame, are you sure?”
Human beings have a great attraction to certainty. We long for order, simplicity, clarity. Certainty helps us to organize the world neatly, to make our experience more easily understood, and to give us a sense of control. Certainty makes us feel secure.
So we like sharp lines between good and evil, right and wrong, holy and profane, true and false. And there are some things about which we can be certain, starting with: God loves us. And if we start with that, live trusting in that, basing our lives upon it, our hunger for other certainties becomes far less intense. The most important principle for life is to trust in God’s love for us.
But we’re not always so good about it. Instead of trusting in God’s love for us, we trust in things that are less certain. We shape our identity not on the fact that we are most beloved children of God, but on how we are different than other people – things like wealth, race, religion, education, ancestry, abilities, social status, and so on. We often identify with things that make us feel superior to other people. This divides people. As S. Paul told us in his letter to the supremem dysfunctional people of Corinth: “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” (1 Cor 8:1)
Love unites people, but we are prone to divide life into us versus them. Our certainties often deepen this divide of us and them. It’s not just divisions like City vs United, Labour and Tory, but divisions with even fiercer emotions and certainties: Hindus and Muslims in Pakistan and India; Christians and government authorities in China and North Korea; Christians and Muslims; Shia and Sunni Muslims.
Christians, of course, divide up themselves too: Orthodox, Protestant, Catholic. We have those who tend to find certainty in Biblical inerrancy and others in Papal infallibility. And we have countless further distinctions: Anglicans, Romans, Baptists, evangelicals, charismatics, inclusives, traditionalists. And so on, and so on… what has happened to the body of Christ? For goodness sake!
Our distinctions are often very important to us, but are they important to God? I am sure our distinctions are far more important to us than they are to God, and that should make us question how much we value them.
S. Paul tells us that God desires all of humanity to be saved. (1 Tim 2:4) God does not limit or restrict his grace and favour to any group of Christians or to any group of people. He’s there for all. The cross was not just for you, as an individual, but for all humanity. The question is not so much whether God will reject us, but more whether we reject God.
We reject things all of the time based upon unfounded assumptions and certainties. We say, “This is too catholic.” “This is too evangelical.” “This is too silly.” “This is beneath my dignity and attention.” “This is too different.” “This makes me uncomfortable.”
Sometimes in these snap judgments, prejudicial impulses, we cut ourselves off from God. Lots of certainty about everything usually makes us very small people. We have to be open to the possibility that we can be wrong about things. We have to be open to risk and to surprise. I’m amazed, and saddened, when I look back at my life and see all the things I’ve rejected initially – including Christianity, but also countless more minor things. God is gracious, and we can grow, and later we get another chance, or twelve other chances, or a hundred, and we open up, and learn.
Blessed is about taking the mysteries of God, in their wonderful, awesome, complex, troubling, challenging and upsetting glory and exploring them in new and creative ways: a creative response to a creative God. Sometimes it fails, sometimes it upsets, sometimes it irritates (often all three, especially if you are a Bishop) and yet on occasion, a glimpse of God may be spotted, an encounter made, a new insight gained, and when that happens, as I pray may have happened last night; Blessed will have completed its task, for one person at least. So, Blessed may have made you feel uncomfortable, but do not reject it simply because it challenges…
We assume that God has rejected Judaism and the Temple. That is not so. The Temple, its priests, rejected God in Jesus, but God did not reject the Temple. To the contrary, as today’s gospel makes clear, God used the Temple to nurture and to raise up his Son.
More than any of the evangelists, S. Luke shows the deep connection between Jesus and the Temple. Luke’s gospel begins and ends with scenes of praying and worshiping in the Temple, and repeatedly Jesus is in the Temple teaching, healing, cleansing, worshiping.
Today we focus on the Holy Family observing two required cultic practices. Firstly, Our Blessed Lady Mary is ‘purified’ on the fortieth day after the birth of her son. As required by the purification rite, she offered two pigeons. If the Holy Family had not been a hardship case, they would have offered a pigeon and a lamb. But they are poor. Again and again, Luke emphasizes that Jesus identifies with the poor and lowly – the overlooked, with those regarded as inferior.
Secondly, the firstborn son is presented to God, dedicated to God. Normally this rite included redeeming, buying back the son from God for five shekels. Notably, Luke does not mention any exchange whereby Jesus is bought back. The implication is that Jesus wholly belongs to God.
While the Holy Family is celebrating these rites, Simeon and Anna come and bear witness to the identity of Jesus. Simeon and Anna represent what’s best about Israel. They are devout, prayerful, obedient. They are led by the Holy Spirit: They live in faithfulness, gratitude, patience, and hope. They are plain, ordinary people, not the great and the good, important clergymen or political leaders, but they are open to God acting in new ways, and they recognize in Jesus God’s Messiah.
Simeon and Anna were regulars at the Temple, routinely joining in the prayer and worship. If prayer and worship are authentic, then we grow; we see and experience God in new ways. He becomes a bigger part of our lives. Authentic worship is a life-changing experience. It is an encounter with God, not merely confirming who we are, but expanding our sympathies, broadening our vision, strengthening our character, deepening our trust of God, giving us hope.
Simeon encounters God in worship, and he is changed. He can now die in peace. He’s liberated. He feels the completion, the wholeness of God. That’s what worship can be for everyone. Whether that is Choral Evensong or Blessed does not matter, as long as God is worshipped with our whole hearts, engaged with, and encountered.
But that’s not the perception beyond these walls is it? I am constantly trying to overcome the feeling of many on the edge of faith that worship, church, the whole Jesus thing is for people who already have their lives sorted: who already have faith and certainty: I think the glossy images of American Evangelical Churches and the Alpha Course leaflets are partly to blame for that.
I recall a homeless, sick, penniless prostitute came to get food for her toddler. In trying to help her, I asked if she’d ever thought about the support a Church could offer. “Church!” she cried. “Why would I ever go there? I am already feeling terrible about myself. They’d just make me feel worse.”
What irony! It was exactly women like this whom Jesus sought. It was exactly people like this poor woman who came to Jesus. “The worse a person felt about herself, the more likely she saw Jesus as a refuge.” We fail as the living body of Christ, my dear friends, when the Church makes people feel excluded, unworthy even to be in Church, when the Church makes moral outcasts feel like one of ‘them’ and not one of ‘us.’
Imagine again Simeon meeting the baby Jesus in the grand, magnificent Temple. Simeon took Jesus in his hands and held up his Lord. God creates all things and powers the universe, and God the all-powerful, the all-knowing, God the unimaginable, untouchable, unseen had become a helpless, vulnerable baby.
Simeon and Anna saw that God had forever changed his relationship with us. It’s no longer God and us. Now, he’s become one of us. That changes the way not only we see and experience God, but the way we see and experience ourselves and other people.
We see God in ourselves. We see God in other people. We see that we’re all brothers and sisters, children of God.
We are loved. That love is part of the revelation that this mystery of Candlemas offers us. Share that love, and ensure that your love unites rather than separates.
Acknowledgements to Fr. Davenport for the core of this homily.