The sermon for week January 01, 2012
We stumble on God in unlikely places. In the mall, at our New Year’s party, in the grocery isle. God is truly in all, through all, and above all. But sometimes we have to be awakened to the possibility. God in the unexpected. Even in the city dump. In an episode of my favorite NPR show RadioLab, they talked about some amazing things they find in dumps.
It’s 1898 and two archeologists from Oxford notice some strange sand dunes in Egypt. These dunes didn't look like the other ones. They are strange and irregularly shaped. They found huge quantity of baskets, pottery, clothing, the MOTHER LOAD! Undisturbed mounds of 10 centuries worth of trash. The biggest find was all of the ancient paper… In fact the first piece of paper they pull out is a Lost Saying of Jesus.
Imagine standing in a desert, in an ancient trash dump, and here you are standing on a sand dune, reading words of Jesus no one's ever heard before. The first saying out of this dump "He who knows the all, but fails to know himself, lacks everything."
God in Garbage dumps. God in unexpected places. These archeologists didn't expect to find God there in an Egyptian dump! And I bet, neither did Simeon or Anna when they first looked at the baby of the poor carpenter and the woman he "got pregnant" out of wedlock.
Here is Simeon, an old man who somehow got it in his head that he was going to see the messiah. Here is Anna, a faithful servant who isn't expecting much, just to live out her days in the temple, worshiping God. Along comes this poor couple. How do we know they're poor? The family offers a sacrifice and the details of the sacrifice are interesting. Two turtledoves or two young pigeons are to be offered if the family couldn't afford a lamb. Mary and Joseph are poor! Poor but observant Jews.
Imagine how many babies Simeon has seen in his quest. I bet he looked at every baby that came into the temple. If I had Simeon's mission to see the Messiah, I would be ready to quit after my tenth baby. Simeon was faithful, he trusted God and stayed with it. Who knows how long he was in there, how long he waited, but he knew he had found the messiah when he saw Jesus.
I would imagine Simeon was a little shocked. I have no idea what Simeon thought the messiah would be, but it couldn't be this little child from this poor family. The messiah was to be from the House of David, ROYALTY! A great military leader, the prophecies say nothing about a baby from a poor family. We have words of Christ in the dump and the Messiah in a Poor Baby.
Simeon does something odd though. He gives a beautiful hymn of praise to the family and to the baby, Simeon is SO happy but then he throws in this sadness. And Simeon's words to Mary say "Sword will pierce your heart" meaning, her heart will break. This is not only true for Mary, but for all mothers and fathers, all parents in general. Parenting is full of highs and lows. I only have 2 ½ years of experience and even I know this.
When Kate and I were preparing for Eve’s arrival back in 2009, we had a slew of Simeons singing us hymns. They start off just like Simeon's hymn, with joyous praise, "you're going to have a baby! That's great! Congrats! That child will be the apple of your eye. You'll be great parents." But just like Simeon, there's also a note of dread. From the funny like "Oh I'm sorry, Kate, now you're going to have two children to deal with, your husband and your baby." Then there's the sadness. One particular message keeps playing in my mind from a particular Simeon. He said "You raise your kids, and all is well. The terrible twos aren't that terrible. You get them talking and out comes this little personality, and it's great you love it. Then you have to send the kid to school and your heart breaks a little bit. But then you realize that the manners you taught them are working out. Then one day, ugh, the school sends home this person… this happens around 13 or 14… this stranger who looks like your kid, sounds like your kid, but doesn't act like your kid. Talks and acts impolite, is very selfish, THAT is when your heart will break."
Now I haven't gotten to that point in my parents, so I asked my mom and she confirmed that this is true.
Throughout your life, not just one sword is going to pierce your heart. This is the reality of the Advent season: life is not honky-dorie and God entered into the world anyway. Our world, with all its pain and suffering and heartbreak. Our world, and not so Precious Moments version.
It is easy for me to say standing up here in front of you. God is great and God is good, found in trash heaps and in little babies. How sweet! Yet some religious traditions try to make excuses for hard times – talking about the mystery of God or even suggesting that God does these things for reasons we will never know, or because we’ve sinned or done something wrong – THOSE traditions don't go down the road of hard questions. But we're not that kind of church. THIS church asks hard questions – feels hard feelings – and tries to make sense out of hard truths. And one of the hard truths about illness, accidents and calamities and death is that… it doesn't make sense. It isn't fair… and it really really hurts.
It's easy to stand here and say Jesus is Christ and use images of riches and glory all devoid of the suffering of the story. Yet we need to realize Jesus was human, and what he went through on the cross HURT and it was terrible and it caused him a lot of pain and those around him pain. So much so that his best friends couldn't even watch their friend suffer and die. Isn't that true of us? Don't we stay away from grieving and dying people sometimes, not because we don't care, but because we care too much? But here within the announcement of the Messiah there is also an announcement of the tragedy. "A sword will pierce the heart of Mary".
In our tradition of Christianity we sometimes say that the authentic follower of Jesus is NOT the person with all the answers – or all the degrees – or even the best words. No, the real follower of Jesus is the one who knows how to feed the sheep. To feed the sheep of our world demands compassion – and patience – and tenderness. It requires being true and real and humble. UCC minster James Lumsden said "If you are going to feed the sheep of this world, you can't be too full of yourself."
Like communion bread you have to be taken – and blessed – and broken and shared. You don't need to have the right words, in fact, I've learned that words are the least important thing! Just be there, be present, be that someone who stands and offers the hug, or handshake or meal to a family who is hurting.
We think we need some Hollywood scene and say the right thing in a beautiful, eloquent speech. No, you don't. You just need to be present and listening.
We don't love because it's easy or because we won't get hurt. We love despite it all. We love because you and I are here, now, it could have been otherwise. Jesus never said that following him, or even life for that matter, would be easy… he just said it would be worth it. AMEN.
Lindon, Lucas. "God in the Unexpected." Sermon originally given on 12-28-08
Lumsden, James. "Saying Good-bye to Vicki"
Radio Lab "Detective Stories" 9-11-2007,