A Sermon Preached by The Rev. Douglas M. Donley
January 4, 2015
University Baptist Church
Fourteen years ago this weekend, we met for the first time. You welcomed our young family to Minnesota for a candidating weekend. You took a chance on this family and have embraced us well. I remember some of the sage faces that were in this room back then, that have gone on to their reward. Bea Bixler, Adele Fadden, Chris Fraulin, Mark Juergens, Earl Shaw, Ron Blackmore.
Sages. It’s a name of reverence for those who have been around a while and have gained wisdom because of that experience. We have plenty of sages in this very room. And there are sages who cannot be here this morning. I’m thinking of Doris Dunn, Vicki Wilson, Faye Kommedahl, Tai Shigaki.
We went to Cleveland over break. We visited family, went to the church of our childhood, drove a lot and got brief visits with a lot of people. We especially liked the visits we had with the oldest members of our family—my aunt, uncle and mother, the remnants of the generation before us. We wanted to glean from them their words, their insights, their warnings. Sometimes they remember things differently than we do. Which is the way it is with all of us.
My Mom gave us a gift at Christmas which was the result of a memoir class she is taking at church. It’s a series of stories from her childhood. It’s better than any other soon to be discarded Christmas trinket.
What lessons do we wish our children would learn? What things do we only recognize now in the waning years of our lives that we wish we had integrated earlier? How do we distract the younger generation from their mobile devices long enough to pass on some wisdom?
Amanda’s swim coach has a rule that no phones or mobile devices are allowed at meals. Go coach!
In today’s scripture lesson, Mary and Joseph take young Jesus to the Temple to be dedicated. He had already been circumcised 8 days after his birth. But it was at least a month later. Luke says that they were there for the law’s purification ritual. If you give birth to a son, you are ceremonially unclean for 41 days (81 days if you have a daughter). The only way for you to be a part of the community is to be declared clean by a priest. The cost for this is a pigeon and a lamb. If you are poor, you can get by with two turtle doves and a partridge. The pear tree is optional.
So there form two lines, a sheep line on the right and a turtle dove line on the left. Mary, Joseph and Jesus on the left side are about to get this over with when they are met by two sages. Simeon and Anna. They seem like throw away characters in the story. But Simeon’s words are some of the best known in the Bible, since they are set to music and are part of the evening compline liturgy in the Episcopal Church. “Lord now you dismiss your servant in peace.”
Simeon exclaims this because he recognizes what others do in the new family before him: the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.
He has been waiting for this, we imagine. And he says something people will remember. “This is the one. Pay attention. Now I can die in peace.”
I’m thinking a lot about seeing things from the end looking backward. Yesterday was the two-year anniversary of my father’s death 1/3/13. I’ll always approach this change of calendar with that on my mind, just like I approach Christmas as the anniversary of my cousin’s suicide, Easter as the anniversary of my grandmother’s passing. And so I get a little melancholy. I resonate with the god Janus who looks back and looks forward at the same time.
Of course I think of regrets, and there are more than a few in my relationship with my Dad. I could have been more present, more supportive. He could have been more gregarious, less scary. I wish he had written his thoughts to I could revisit them. But I also picture him knowing that it was his time and trying to make things right as best he could. On the eve of his September open-heart surgery which was his last chance, he confessed his sins to my sister and brother who were at his bedside in the middle of the night. He wept for all of the hurt he caused, for the years wasted and the opportunities lost. He also thrust his trust on God whom he had often met with skepticism, a holdover from God’s seeming refusal to save his toddler brother from a disease that took him sixty-plus years ago. My dad, looked into his son and daughter’s eyes, all brimming with tears and said, “now I know. And I want us all to do better with the time we have left.” And we did.
That’s what I think of when I hear old Simeon’s words, “Lord, now you dismiss your servant in peace.” And we expect God’s voice to say, “Well done good and faithful servant.”
Take some time to learn form the sages in your life. They just might reveal something about what is truly important.
The other important sage from today’s lesson is Anna. She is at first glance like a mad woman at the gate, probably wearing purple and talking out of turn. She’s 84 years old. That’s an odd number until you realize that it’s seven times 12. Seven years is completion. There are 12 tribes of Israel, 12 months, 12 disciples. She’s the embodiment of it all. But her presence reminds us of someone else. Like Mary’s Magnificat reminds of Hannah’s song from the book of Kings, so Anna’s words remind us of Serach. Who, you might ask?
Serach was the only granddaughter listed of Jacob’s 13 children. The Midrash, commentary that grew up around the Hebrew scriptures, has her showing up as a prophet, a comforter, a wise one. She sooths Jacob in his old age. She knows the secret location of Joseph’s coffin so they can retrieve it and take it with them in the Exodus. Like the Holy Spirit or Lady Wisdom Sophia, she is even at the great exile. She is the one who proclaims that God “takes notice” of God’s people. God takes notice of the Hebrew people in Egyptian bondage and sends them a liberator. God takes notice of the Hebrew people living under Roman bondage and sends them a liberator in the form of a homeless boy from the tribe of Asher, who occupy the land near Galilee. Mary like Serach, like Anna is a daughter of Asher. And God takes notice. What do you notice these days?
Seeing all of the children here on Christmas Eve reminds me of when we were new parents lo those many years ago. We found ourselves more than once at our wits’ end with our kids. It was her job to test us, and they were good at it. They knew that we don’t believe in corporeal punishment. The problem is, they did. If they didn’t like something, they’d haul off and hit one of us, or worse yet, they’d hit each other. When you are not listened to for the 40th time or the child runs out of her time-out bedroom for the sixth time with a gleeful “you can’t do anything to me” smile across her face, you have to believe there is another way out. We replayed the old tapes in our heads. We were tempted to settle a dispute quick and easily without trying to negotiate. We were tempted to hit back. The first time I spanked Amanda was after a rare restaurant dinner when she was 2. With our hands full of another child and a diaper bag, she wiggled free from us and ran into a twilight parking lot. Our screams at her just made her laugh. When I finally caught her before she went in front of a moving car, I gave her a little swat on the butt. It surprised her more than hurt her, and we have years of therapy to deal with the implications of it all.
It’s times like these that we sought out the wisdom of the sages. We talked with other parents. We talked with sisters who’ve been there, done that. We got some advice from someone who’s gone through what we are going through. And it’s always better to give advice when it is asked for rather than crossing our arms, shaking our heads and saying “you know, they’d do better if you just…”
It is no accident that Mary and Joseph encountered Simeon and Anna at the gate of the temple. It is also no accident that they gave them sage advice and imparted their wisdom when others had shunned them.
People that are a bit older, and approaching the natural ending of their lives, have a much better perspective on this world than we young-uns do. They have seen the cycles of war and peace. They have seen children and grandchildren struggle over the same things they struggled over. There is often a smug smile that crosses their faces when they see us try to handle our unruly offspring. It’s payback time.
God is like that, too. God is surely concerned about our immediate struggles. But God also sees each step we take as a part of the divine ultimate plan. God weeps when we weep, rejoices when we rejoice and through it all watches over the weaving of our lives into the intricate web like a grand master craftsperson.
Now, Job reminds us that “great men are not always wise: neither do the aged understand judgement”(Job 32:9) Just look at our aged politicians in Washington. But I’ll pick an octogenarian who faithfully stands at the temple any day over a seasoned and cynical politician if I want to know what is really important in the world.
Where do you go when you are seeking wisdom? Who are your sages? My grandfather was one. So are my aunts and uncles, my mother. Friends can help me through the here and now, but people who have been here for a long time, they are the ones I look to. We have plenty of sages in the walls of this church and those who cannot make it here on a regular basis. And they give us wisdom, if we are patient enough to hear it and brave enough to accept it.
I hope you have some way of looking at the big picture. Our perceptions of the word change. No serious scholar of the bible can escape the realization that the perceptions of God and the account of God’s priorities shifted through the centuries. In Moses’ time, God was a deliverer. In Joshua’s time, God was a warrior. In the time of the prophets, God was beckoning the people to turn from their wicked ways. In the time of Jesus, God was a person interested in how we get along with one another. In the time of Paul, God was concerned about salvation.
But those perceptions of God simply say that God’s ultimate concern is for us to recognize that we are holy people, on a holy quest. Living right is important. The little things are important. But most important is the sum of our lives. How we touch people. How we do our part to stay on God’s road, imparting peace, love and mercy in all our relationships. Sometimes it takes a wise older person to point us once again in the correct direction. Or if not to do that, then like Simeon and Anna, recognize in us the potential we have to live out God’s call for us. When we do that, then we are living the true meaning of Christmas. For God is with us in a very powerful way. Thank God for the sages in our lives.
So take some time as this New Year emerges to recognize and thank and reconnect with your sages. They may have new insight or you may be more receptive to their perspective. The truth is that we are influenced by the sages. And who knows, we just might be sages for someone else.