In Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth, heaven and earth are on the move. The sky is restless with the rustle of wings and the sound of angel choirs. Shepherds drive their sheep from the hillsides to go and see what the angels were talking about, and then back to their fields to wonder and absorb what they had seen and what it might mean. Mary and Joseph are on the move too– first to Bethlehem to be registered, and then to the temple in Jerusalem, to dedicate their first-born son. It is here in today’s Gospel reading that we catch a glimpse of this still-frame in the midst of the Great Turning.
Following the ancient tradition of presenting their first-born son, along with an offering of turtledoves or pigeons, Mary and Joseph bring their month-old baby Jesus to be dedicated in the Temple. Mary also is here to be ritually purified after giving birth to her son, so it is a milestone moment in this observant Jewish family’s life. And as their life as a family begins and comes to this moment, so the lives of an old man and an old woman meet them here. Simeon, “a righteous and devout man, looking forward to the consolation of Israel,” is guided into the Temple, and when he sees the young couple and their child enter, he knows that this is the pivot of time he has been waiting for.
Taking the child in his scrawny old arms, he sings a song of thanksgiving and acceptance–Holy One, now let your servant depart in peace, according to your word. My eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples; a light to reveal you to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.” It is a song of courage and acceptance in the face of his impending death, a song of letting go and trusting in God’s wisdom. It is Simeon’s song that we say at the end of the funeral service, just before the benediction.
From another corner of the Temple an old woman steps up–a Prophet, Luke says, named
Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She has been living in the Temple for years, praying and fasting, and upon seeing the child, she sings a song of praise to God and “speaking about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.” Anna sings into the future.
This New Year’s Eve we too stand at a point of turning–the turning of the year, according to our calendars, 2017 to 2018; the turning from the time of one pastor (me) to the time of a new pastor (Mark). In our nation and in our world, it also appears to be a time of turning, though what we are turning to remains to be seen. At the very least, it is a time of disruption and even chaos, as massive waves of immigration from country to country take place, as weather patterns fluctuate and grow more intense, as the stakes increase and humanity’s power for good or for ill grows larger.
Change– transformation –is underway. As Franciscan author and teacher Richard Rohr says, “Fear and confusion signal change.” Have you noticed? Have you seen or experienced any fear or confusion? It’s exhausting. The underlying level of stress and exhaustion seems to have increased exponentially, and on top of–or underneath–the normal stresses and upheavals of life–moving, retiring, birth of a baby, the death of a loved one, an injury or sickness–on top or beneath all that is this the level of chaos and disruption. “Exponential change creates exponential fear,” writes Diana Butler Bass in her book Christianity after Religion, but she adds “along with exponential hope.” “Massive transformation creates the double-edged cultural sword of decline and renewal. [she says] Exponential change ends those things that people once trusted to be true. At the same time, upheaval opens new pathways to the future….Our way of seeing the world, understanding our selves, expressing faith are being ‘born again,’” she says. And, using one of my favorite images, she writes, “The toothpaste is out of the tube.” More people than ever are open to a new consciousness, to a way of seeing the world as connected and interdependent, to seeing that we are more alike than different, to seeing that we are integrally related to the planet. Change is coming not from the top, Bass contends, but from the bottom up. The Holy Spirit is loose in the world.” [cited by Rohr on Center for Action and Contemplation website, 12/27/17]
When we think of change, we usually think of new beginnings. What’s next? What’s coming? But change also happens when the old starts to fall apart, when what used to serve us no longer does, when we are weighed down by baggage and old assumptions that keep us from being flexible and open to new growth. This week as I continued the process of clearing out the shelves and drawers and files in my office, I came upon a file with pamphlets on “preparing for Y2K.” You remember Y2K? This time 18 years ago, we were wondering whether there would be a breakdown in civilization when all four digits in the dates on our computers would roll over, from 1999 to 2000.
Obviously, we survived that crisis, but some of the wisdom we drew upon in preparation for it–like, getting to know your neighbors, because you might need to count on and take care of one another in the unknown days and weeks to come, or making sure you’ve got enough supplies to carry you through the emergency–those things are valuable pieces of advice and practices to hold on to and carry on. The pamphlets on “Preparing for Y2K”? Not so much. They’re in the recycling bin.
“Transformation usually includes a disconcerting reorientation…,” Richard Rohr writes. “We either find new meaning or become bitter…The difference is determined by the quality of our inner life, our ‘spirituality,’” he says. “In the moments of insecurity and crisis, ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ don’t really help; they just increase the shame, guilt, pressure, and likelihood of backsliding. It’s the deep ‘yeses’ that carry you through…Love wins over guilt any day.” [CAC website, 12/29/17]
So, in the midst of this “great turning,” I’m going to invite us to a few moments of silence and reflection. If we are to truly make room for the new, room for the Holy Spirit to birth new life in us as individuals and in our congregation, we need to let go of that which no longer serves us or God. So I invite you to think about what seems to be not working, what is falling apart, maybe some of the “shoulds” and “oughts” that you’ve been carrying around, and write them down on that little sheet of card stock you got in your bulletin. What do you need to leave behind? ….
We had thought of building a bonfire or even a smaller fireplace pit outside into which we could throw our little papers with those things we wished to leave behind; maybe then roast marshmallows, but the weather has made that plan seem less of a good idea for today–perhaps another time. Instead, I invite you to fold those papers up and place them in the basket in the back of the sanctuary as you go out, and I will make sure that they “go away”–either into our fireplace or some other appropriate means of disposal and offering.
The second invitation, of course, is to consider what you want to say “yes” to in the coming year or beyond, while honoring the space between the “no” and the “yes.” What makes your heart sing? “What matters most,” as Brian McLaren says, “is not our status but our trajectory.” [cited in CAC, 12/26/17] These times of upheaval and change, when the old falls apart, are an invitation to our souls to listen more deeply, as Richard Rohr says, to go to a new place because the old place isn’t working any more. This requires patience, guidance, the freedom to let go, instead of tightening our grip and clinging to certitude. [12/29/17] What new place is calling you? I’ll give you a minute or two to let these questions resonate, and then as we continue in worship, and in the hours and maybe days to come, you might jot down on the back of the insert, which has very little other writing on it, what comes to you. What new place is calling you? What makes your heart sing?…
“Holy One, now let your servant depart in peace,” Simeon sang. And Anna sang her praise to God, reassuring all those who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. In the days and months of upheaval and change that culminated in the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, the citizens of Leipzig, Germany engaged in peaceful protests gathered by candlelight around St. Nikolai Church, where Bach had composed many of his cantatas. They too would sing songs, and over a period of 2 months, their numbers grew from a little more than a thousand to more than 300,000–over half the citizens of the city, all singing songs of hope and protest and justice. “Sometime after the fall, a journalist asked one of the commanders of the East German secret police why they hadn’t crushed these protests like they had so many others. He replied, ‘We had no contingency plan for song.’” [David Lose, inthemeantime, 12/22/14]
What makes your heart sing? That song is more important than any resolution or diet or make-over plan. “Today, like every other day,” the Sufi poet Rumi wrote, “we wake up empty and frightened. Don’t open the door to the study and begin reading. Take down the dulcimer. Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.”
Here, at the end of the year, receive this blessing, from the Irish poet John O’Donohue–
As this year draws to its end,
We give thanks for the gifts it brought
And how they become inlaid within
Where neither time nor tide can touch them.
Days when beloved faces shone brighter
With light from beyond themselves;
And from the granite of some secret sorrow
A stream of buried tears loosened.
We bless this year for all we learned,
For all we loved and lost
And for the quiet way it brought us
Nearer to our invisible destination.
John O’Donohue, Excerpt from ‘At the End of the Year’, TO BLESS THE SPACE BETWEEN US (US)
So may you be blessed. Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark