The Rev. Jay Sidebotham
My friend Margaret was more than 90 years old. She had been married for over 65 years. A month or so after her husband died, I visited her apartment. I asked: “Margaret, how are you doing?” She said: “I’m struggling.” That seemed reasonable. She continued: “I’m having a hard time figuring out what God is calling me to do in the next chapter in my life.” In a singularly lame pastoral response, I thought to myself; “Margaret. You’re over 90 years old. Coast.” I had a lot to learn from this faithful woman. With every fiber of her being, she anticipated God’s activity in her life. It was never too late. She was never too old. There was always more. I wondered how a person comes to that holy way of being, always expecting something to happen in her life with God, always learning. She was my teacher.
I thought of my friend Margaret when I read in today’s gospel about 84 year old Anna, the daughter of Phanuel of the tribe of Asher, widow for more than half a century for sure. Anna faithfully waits for God’s activity. She’d been waiting most of her life, there in the temple, year after year, anniversary after anniversary, expecting God to do something, expecting the promise to be realized. Who knows what she was looking for, what that anticipated experience, encounter would look like. We meet Simeon who spends his life in the temple as well, guided by the Spirit, believing in the revelation given to him which said he would not see death before he would see the Messiah. He waited to realize God’s promise. He expected hope to be fulfilled. Today, Anna and Simeon also become our teachers.
On this day, we gather for a distinctive, annual religious observance, liturgy with glorious music framed around great anticipation. No, not the Super Bowl, though I think that event does tell us a lot about what we worship. Another sermon. Today is the Feast of the Presentation, for church geeks, Candlemas, a feast that draws our attention to a story told only in Luke’s gospel, when the infant Jesus was presented at the temple. It is a story about hope realized in and through institutional religion, of all places, a story about how the spiritual journey for Simeon and Anna unfolds in the tradition of their community, a story about unflinching expectation that God will act, so in the end it’s a story about hope.
We don’t know what Anna and Simeon were expecting, except that God would do something, that salvation would show up. This gospel passage is their 15 minutes of biblical fame, although Simeon’s song lives on in our tradition through the Nunc Dimittis, heard later in this liturgy. In a season of award shows, if we were nominating Anna and Simeon for an Oscar, they’d be supporting actors at best. But in only a few verses they teach us about faithful living, about discipleship. They waited, faithfully, for a long time, never surrendering expectation. I wonder if they were surprised where their spiritual search led them, to an infant presented at the temple, the child of folks neither wealthy nor influential. I suspect that Simeon’s family, I suspect Anna’s friends thought that they each had lost their minds, and were wasting time. We honor them, they become our teachers because they never stopped learning, waiting for something to happen, anticipating God’s activity in the world. They knew there was more. The season of Epiphany, from magi to transfiguration, week after week asks this question: What are you looking for? What do you expect? And what does it have to do with Jesus showing up in your life?
I found myself wondering, imagining why you all are here this morning. You may come here for any number of reasons: spiritual longing, a need for healing, a desire to worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness in this singularly beautiful place, a desire to pray for your team of choice. You may come out of curiosity or habit or duty or devotion or love, or tourism, or concession to a family member or friend, or joy, or sorrow. Whatever brought you here, you have come to a place of discovery in a season of discovery. What is it that you are looking for? Do you expect that God will act in your life? Do you expect God to act in our broken world? Does the institution, the tradition feel like an obstacle or a pathway, a threshold or a dead end? Can the witnesses of Simeon and Anna, Mary and Joseph, and maybe my old friend Margaret teach you about faithfulness? Are there other teachers who show you what it means to live faithfully. I’ve been thinking this week about Pete Seeger, who taught us all about grace and humor and justice and hope, to the age of 94. He said: “Being generous in spirit is a wonderful way of life.” I need to learn from him. When Simeon said “let thy servant depart in peace,” it sounds a lot like what Pete Seeger said: “To my old brown earth and to my old blue sky, I’ll now give these last few molecules of “I.”
Last July, I moved from service as rector of a parish to a ministry exploring spiritual growth in our denomination. With the help of researchers and other smart and faithful people, we are asking Episcopalians about their own spiritual journeys. To use the vocabulary of the season, we ask what they are looking for. We’re in early stages of this work, but we are finding that in our mainline denominations, there is often a low level of expectation about anything transformational happening. Frankly, many people expect little from church, either because it’s boring or irrelevant, which it can be, or because they’ve been wounded by its failures, which are numerous, or because they’re unsure anything could ever be different. Many find the brokenness of the world too overwhelming. Many seem uncertain that the news of our gospel could be true, news that proclaims God’s love to us in Jesus, love from which we can never be separated, love we can’t earn, love which goes to the cross where it meets the suffering of our world (witness a sword going through Mary’s heart), love which is resurrected, which means to stand again. Do we dare to expect that that love might come to us? Would we know it if we saw it? Are we expecting it to go to work in the world? Can we echo Simeon’s words: Our eyes have seen thy salvation?
The feast of the presentation calls us to expect more, to get ready to meet Jesus, God with us, word made flesh. The feast calls us to remember that God can show up anywhere, even in organized religion, sometimes because of it, sometimes in spite of it. (Folks often tell me that they don’t like organized religion. I tell them that they’ll love the Episcopal Church because we are not organized at all.) Today’s feast calls us to expect God to do that, to act, to show up in our hearts, in our churches, in the world. It challenges us to participate in that fulfillment. I’m honored beyond imagination and humbled to the point of humor to stand in this holy space where others have heroically called for justice and claimed God’s healing power for a broken world, proclaiming expectation that love will conquer hatred, fear, poverty, discrimination, war, including the current dean and bishop who call for healing of gun violence that plagues this city and our nation, anticipating that God can act even in intractable problems, that our world can be different, maybe even channeling Pete Seeger who said: When we look and see things that should not be, God’s counting on me, God’s counting on us.
A friend, a rector of a large congregation, told me about a parishioner, a polished patrician pillar of the parish. Late in life, this parishioner had a powerful experience of God’s spirit transforming her life. My friend, the rector, asked her to share her story with the congregation. She resisted, convinced that good Episcopalians didn’t do that. The rector persisted, and convinced this woman to get up before the congregation. This woman, not given to over-sharing, moved to the lectern and said: My friends, all I want to say is “there is more.” She sat down.
The feast of the presentation asks what we are looking for. It asks if we are ready for that which God will do, ready to be surprised, ready to experience God’s grace and healing in a broken world, ready for more. Wherever we are in the journey, whatever has brought us here, whatever challenges we face, whatever issues threaten our hope for our world, there is more. Be a learner. Look for teachers. Expect the God who loves you, the God met in that infant in the temple, to show up, to be present, to act in the world, in the church, in your heart.