January 3, 2021
After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb. When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord’), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons.’ Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, ‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.’ And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’ There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband for seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God was upon him.
There is a joy in life that comes from reflecting. When we make space in our lives for watching for the Holy in the ordinary, we are sometimes gifted with seeing it burst into our world, iridescent, full of hope. I’m a fairly impatient person by nature. I want to make things happen, to be moving, acting. But one of the gifts of the Pastor’s life is the invitation to slow down to watch, wait, and listen for what we are called to be doing, and what is not ours to do.
In my mid-20’s I was impatient, I always wanted to be doing something. But Seminary has a way of slowing you down, to get you to start to take notice. Or at least, it did for me. It wasn’t that I stopped caring about God’s justice and healing of the world, it’s that I realized that, if I didn’t stop and look, I could miss the invitation, God in our midst, to be a part of what was mine to do.
In my impatient years, a few close friends recommended I read Marilynne Robinson’s book Gilead. It is a beautiful book, winner of the Pulitzer Prize. John Ames, the Narrator, is a congregationalist Pastor who found love late in life, experiences the joy of becoming a father, and then learns that he is dying. He begins to write letters to his young son, reflecting on his family history and the suffering and transcendence he has known in this “poor perishable world.” Much of the book are moments of standing in awe at God among us in the ordinary, while sharing an extraordinary story of family, the raging fire of the Holy Spirit, all in small town rural Iowa.
As Marilynne Robinson writes Rev. Ames’ reflections, he tells the story of walking up to the church early one morning.
“There was a young couple strolling along half a block ahead of me. The sun had come up brilliantly after a heavy rain, and the trees were glistening and very wet. On some impulse, plain exuberance, I suppose, the fellow jumped up and caught hold of a branch, and a storm of luminous water came pouring down on the two of them, and they laughed and took off running, the girl sweeping water of her hair and her dress as if she were a little bit disgusted, but she wasn’t. It was a beautiful thing to see, like something from a myth. I don’t know why I thought of that now, except perhaps because it is easy to believe in such moments that water was made primarily for blessing, and only secondly for growing vegetables or doing the wash. I wish I had paid more attention to it. My list of regrets may seem unusual, but who can know that they are, really. This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it.” Robinson’s observations on life are full of a heavy beauty that made me slow down. I read parts of the book now and again, checking in, slowing down, letting this interesting planet catch my attention all over again.
Our scripture passage this morning reminds us to give attention to this incredible world we find ourselves alive in. Simeon and the Prophet, Anna live their days like John Ames watching, and waiting, hoping to experience in the ordinary, the coming of God with Us. In human bodies, with our own senses, they are hoping to experience the Divine, and they do. This intense observing, watching, opens them up to seeing God in the everyday, long before Mary and Joseph show up with their little one. They had waited for years, these two, for God to show up in a new way. I wonder if after a while they went up to all the parents, arriving with their children, to give a blessing? Hoping for the Messiah, I imagine they began to see God in so many little ones. At marriages, and funerals, at the festivals and High Holy Days, the world must have been aflame with the Holy in so many small, ordinary moments. What insight they must have gained, being there for so many moments in people’s lives.
One of the gifts of being part of a faith community, is this invitation to be like Simon and Anna, learning to pay attention. When we live in community, we celebrate so many births, marriages, and breakthroughs. We are invited to see children growing and leaving home, watch as our friends fall in love. There can be moments, if we’re paying attention, that surprise us, stop us, and grab our attention along the way, moments heavy with blessing. We experience life exponentially, both its awe, and its pain, as we watch one another get sick, lose jobs, suffer setbacks, lose friends to death. And in it all, there’s an invitation to pay attention to God showing up.
This past year, many of us found ourselves paying attention to our lives, and our world, with a heightened sense of urgency. As our daily lives changed, as our ability to act was curtailed, I found that many of us took the time to pay attention to the smaller, quieter moments of our lives, and make changes. I have seen so many people move, get married, admit that their marriages needed to end, go back to school, change jobs, adopt children, become pregnant. I’ve also watched as our teenagers have found the joy of walking with friends after a long day of virtual school, the joy of coloring, people taking time to garden for the first time, spending more time on the phone with loved ones and friends. We’ve spent more time watching the birds, enjoying sunrises and sunsets, finding peace in the chaos of domestic life. One of the surprising paradoxes of slowing down, of paying attention, of looking for the extraordinary in the mundane, is how this practice can focus our action. When we truly look, we can recognize, sometimes slowly, sometimes in a flash of insight, what we truly hope for, and our part in God’s work in the world.
Usually during the summer, I spend a lot of time with our Session and Ministry leaders planning out the next year. But this summer wasn’t the time. Instead, it was a season of paying attention, and stepping in to love one another and our neighbors as best as we could, but not looking too far forward. How could we? We were in crisis. But now, we’ve had a long season of being able to pay attention, and now, in the stillness that always seems to emerge in late December and Early January, we get to reflect on what we truly hope for. And so our Ministry coordination team and our Stewardship Action Team for the Earth are meeting in the coming weeks, and I thank God for their leadership, as we set out what we truly hope for in this coming year. The Interfaith COVID Taskforce’s farm to stoop project is taking time off from distributing food to plan for this next year and beyond, to dig deep into the kind of community we truly hope for, and how to move from a model of charity, to one of mutual aid, where those most impacted by the ravages of capitalism and our government’s failure to provide for the most vulnerable among us, can be empowered. This seems to be the time to reflect on what we’ve been paying attention to, the moments of beauty and pain and insight that stop us in our tracks, of seeing God coming into the world and bidding us to be a part of the story of salvation, wholeness, and liberation.
And so, this month, our Ministry Coordination Team is inviting us to spend some time enjoying paying attention to the beauty that is among us. We’re going to gather on Zoom to play some Bingo, folks of all ages, together virtually. Lorraine has been working hard to reach out to folks we miss, especially those who are “shut outs,” those we don’t usually get to interact with on Zoom, or who can’t join us for worship on Facebook. She’d love to let you know who to reach out to. This can seem so ordinary, and yet, I promise, if we’re paying attention, there are moments aflame with the same fire that lit up the sky with angels to announce Jesus’ birth to the shepherds. If we watch, we just might encounter Jesus showing up, the culmination of our deepest held hopes.
So this January, I’ll be taking two weeks away, one for vacation, to enjoy being married to Eric, to start some seeds, to rest and be in awe at the miracle of being alive. During the second week, I’ll be working with Ken, my mentor and friend, to do some professional coaching, about how I spend my time, working on being attentive to where the Holy is at work, and my part to play. And also, recognizing what work isn’t mine to do.
Because Anna and Simeon, they had a part to play in Jesus’ story, but there was also work that wasn’t theirs to do. They left that to Mary and Jesus. God is calling us, each of us, to be part of Jesus continuing work in our world, but the Holy Spirit isn’t expecting you, personally, to do it all.
I wonder for you, is there one part of your life, or one ministry of MPC, that as you have time to reflect, and pay attention, you feel drawn to focus on? You don’t have to go it alone, but is there a hope, a dream you have for this world, that you see Jesus coming to our world through, that you want to pay attention to, and step into? Now’s the time to reflect, to pay attention, and Lorraine and Tammy, and the whole Ministry Coordination Team would love to have you as part of our meeting on Sunday, January 17th after worship. Or maybe you’d like to chat by phone with myself, or Leigh, about what you’re noticing in your life, the struggles, the hope you’re finding, the dreams bubbling up. We’re here, we always have time to love, to give witness to the Holy at work in the mundane that shimmers with blessing. However, you are called this year, know you are loved, and there are so many around you who, when invited, can give voice to God at work in, though, and around you on this interesting planet, this world of our Creator, who invites us all to slow and pay attention to love streaming down all around us.