Sunday, February 02, 2014

Transmitting the Blessing (J. Barry Vaughn, Feb. 2, 2014)

Yesterday I went to the Southern Mission District meeting at Grace in the Desert I had a revelation. As I sat in the meeting, something became clear to me: We are an aging church. There were only two or three people in the room younger than me, and I am 58.


"Not that there's anything wrong with that!" as they used to say on Seinfeld. But we live in a culture that worships youth. We do everything in our power to delay and even reverse the aging process. We wear youthful clothes, we go to the gym, we even go to the dermatologist. As I approach the 60 year mark in 2 years, I would like to believe that 60 really is the new 40, but folks, the fact is that 60 is just 60 - and no face lifts, skin peels, or tummy tucks will ever change that.


The Episcopal Church has generally done a really bad job of reaching out to and including young people. The Episcopal Church does not even publish a Sunday School curriculum for young people. No wonder that we are a church of people in their 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s!


We must do a better job of reaching the young. We must include the young in our worship, our education, and even in our governance. We must listen to the insights of the young and respond to their needs.


But now that I have given you my rant of the day, I want to say a few good words for the elderly. We live in a young-obsessed culture, a culture that has little use for the wisdom of those who are rich in days.


Sadly, the church is not that different from the world at large.  Every church I've ever been associated with has wanted to attract more young families with children, but the fact is that a church can also grow by attracting people who are 40 and older. We may be a somewhat geriatric church, but we seem to think that the church should be made up mostly of young people. 


Today's gospel reading introduces us to two prophets - Simeon and Anna. Luke doesn't tell us how old Simeon is, but he says that Anna was 84 years old, so we can assume that Simeon is about the same age.


And there is much to be said for those who are rich in days.


Presbyterian pastor David Lewicki says, "...the older folks are often the ones who are the more radical disciples: they were missionaries in far-away places before the age of cell phones and the internet, civil rights pioneers, anti-war activists, soldiers for Christ in the war on poverty, openly gay before that was even an option. In their retirement, they are the soul of our church: they are the ones who keep the prayer list and pore over it and pray over the names on it and the personal tragedies, asking God for mercy upon mercy; they prepare dinners for the family where the young mother is receiving chemo; they sit quietly alongside friends when they have lost their spouse of fifty years; they attend an otherwise sparse daytime funeral for the member who suffered for years with untreated mental illness, and they sit in the pews every Sunday, whether the sermon is good or lousy or somewhere in between." (The Rev. David Lewicki, "Joy comes in the evening")


Keep in mind that this story about Simeon and Anna is only found in Luke's gospel. The writer of Luke's gospel was profoundly concerned with the marginalized, the outsiders, the people we push to one side and exclude - the poor, the hungry, the homeless, women, children, and even the elderly.


But these people seem to have a special place in God's heart, they are often the ones God chooses to be his messengers. Near the beginning of Luke's gospel, Mary sings, "God has put down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the meek. God has filled the hungry with good things, but the rich he has sent away empty."


Simeon, and even more Anna, were outsiders. Anna was not just elderly, she was also a widow. She outlived her husband by 74 years. Doubtless, she has outlived all the members of her family.


All of us know people like Simeon and Anna. We all know older women and men whose lives have been hard, who have lost parents and siblings, spouses and even children. They have seen wars come and go, they have seen good times and bad. They know what it is like to hunt for weeks and even months for a new job and to wonder when the next pay check will come.


Sometimes these challenges embitter them, but sometimes they gain wisdom from them. Sometimes they learn the lesson that it is God who gives the increase, that those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint. And that is what Simeon and Anna had learned. They came to the temple, to the place of prayer, day in and day out, praying, longing, waiting for God's great promise. They were living their lives on their tip toes, straining forward so they could be the first to say, "Look! There he is!"


And they were not disappointed. When the child Jesus was placed in Simeon's arms, he exclaimed,


Now lettest thou thy servant go in peace

for mine eyes have seen thy salvation

Which thou hast prepared : before the face of all people;

To be a light to lighten the Gentiles : and to be the glory of thy people Israel.


Poet David Steele imagines Simeon pronouncing that blessing over all the babies presented to him:

When I read the blessing

And thought about it,

I began to wish he was right,

About Simeon--and those babies.

And I began thinking about our babies.

And I wished someone,

Some Simeon,

Might hold my grandbabies high--

And yours--

The born ones and the not yet

Proclaiming to them

With great conviction,

"You are the saviors of the World!"

Meaning it so absolutely

That these young ones would live it,

And love it,

And make it happen!


And that is one of the reasons that we need our elders, our wise men and women, so that they can transmit the blessing to us and to our children. For in the Bible that is one of the most important functions of the elders - to pronounce the blessing on the next generation.


In the Lutheran church the Song of Simeon is often sung following communion. That seems to me to be a wonderful place to sing, "Lord, now let thy servant go in peace according to your word. For my eyes have seen thy salvation."


We have seen and tasted God's promise. We have held the Christ child. Taking bread and wine, we have kissed him and have celebrated his promise in word and song.


We may not get all the way to the promised future ourselves, not in this life, anyway, but we've caught a glimpse of it and that's enough. We can go in peace.


But is it really enough? Are we not still called, summoned to a kind of holy discontent with the present state of affairs? Shouldn't there be more?


"Having tasted the kingdom's richness, we hunger and thirst for more of it. Having glimpsed it, we yearn to make it real, to call for God to delay no longer, to fulfill the promise, to give us today the bread of tomorrow." (The Rev. John Stendahl, "Holding Promises")


That's true, of course, But that is when we should remember Simeon and Anna who held the Christ child in their arms for only a moment,... and that was enough. For most of us, in this life, it may have to be enough just to glimpse the future, to taste God's promise for a few brief seconds now and then. And to say with Simeon


Now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace

According to thy word

For mine eyes have seen thy salvation

which thou hast prepared in the face of all people

A light to lighten the nations

and the glory of thy people Israel.