God Needs More Annas

God Needs More Annas

Rembrandt_Harmensz_van_Rijn_REH036“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,” our passage today begins. “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord.” If you’re anything like me, you probably have your hand up already. Teacher, teacher: But, why?

To understand why we must begin with Mary, who according to Leviticus 12, is unclean from the moment of Jesus’ birth through the seventh day. On the eight day, Jesus is circumcised and Mary’s thirty–three days of blood purification begin. Had Jesus been Jessica, that time would’ve doubled to sixty–six days. In these days during the purification period, Mary, along with all other Jewish mothers, are forbidden to touch anything holy or to partake in any religious celebration. Then on the fortieth day—eightieth day if baby Jessica—Mary goes to the Nicanor Gate in the Court of Women at the Temple, where she is to be sprinkled with blood of the sacrifice as a sign of her purification.

The text tells us that Mary offers to the priest for sacrificial dedication a pair of turtledoves or pigeons. What the text doesn’t tell us is that the required offering is a lamb and a pigeon, which cost a month’s salary for the average person. So Mary offers up for Jesus what is called the offering of the poor.

According to a New Testament commentary that consults sacred Jewish texts written before and during the time of Jesus, what we call Hebraica, and commentary on a collection of Jewish law and interpretation called the Talmud, the offering of the poor could be used as a spiritual weapon against the rich and powerful. The offering of the poor is more pleasing to God, the rationale goes, because it is an act of faith overcoming great fear and uncertainty. Think of the parable Jesus will later tell about the widow who gives all out of penury and therefore displays a faith greater than those who give only out of their surplus.

So, for example, when King Herod Agrippa came with a thousand burnt-offerings, the Talmud tells us, a single poor man prevented him with an offering of two turtledoves. Even if Agrippa had kept the priests sacrificing around the clock, they would not have been as pleasing to the Lord as were those turtledoves.

What the passage also doesn’t inform us is that the redemption of the first–born child had at its roots practices of child sacrifice. Scripture is clear that the firstborn of most animal species are to be offered to God. Humans were to be no exception. One interpretation of God’s substitution of the ram for Isaac is that it marks an end to the practice of child sacrifice.

Something new emerges as a result, however, called the Redemption of the Firstborn, in which parents were required to make an offering of five shekels, nearly a month’s pay, in essence buying their son back from God. There were strict regulations regarding how and when the money could be offered. The mind boggles thinking about all those thousands of stories lost, tales of families feeling both joy and panic with each new pregnancy.

With Jesus, though, Mary walks into the Temple and with the offering of the poor. There is no ransom needed here, though, for the child already belongs to God. Once again, though, the mind boggles thinking about Mary going into the Temple. Is she steadfast? Confident? Confused? Overwhelmed?

The scene shifts and we meet a priest named Simeon. He is among the first nonviolent resistors. He engages in fervent prayer, waiting patiently upon the Lord, and fulfills his priestly duties. He is a disciple of Hillel, one of the most important rabbis of the Second Temple Period. Simeon sees the death and destruction wrought by the Romans, yet in the Temple he remains, praying and waiting. We are told that he has been contacted by God and assured that the long-awaited Messiah, the one who will redeem all of Israel, will be made known before Simeon’s eyes dim and he falls into the shadow world.

We are given the sense that the day Mary and Joseph arrive with Jesus, Simeon has the day off. It is the Spirit that guides him to the place of meeting, where he takes into his arms the promised one. His prayer, which is beautiful in any language, connects Jewish beliefs with what will become Christian orthodoxy. Salvation, he says, is available to all, even Gentiles, through the birth of the Messiah. More importantly, Simeon says, God has sent the one who will free Israel from the yoke of Rome.

Joseph and Mary are amazed—and let us remember that Mary is not omniscient, she is on the cusp of an incredible journey in raising Jesus, as is Joseph—but Simeon speaks plainly to the young mother. This boy is gonna shake things up, including your soul.
Suddenly, a scene shift once again. This time, the focus is on Anna, whom Luke tells us is a prophet. The Greek word here is the one used frequently in scripture, but also one that has many different applications. Literally, a prophet is a “mouthpiece” or “spokesperson.” We know of all sorts of prophets—from Moses to Jeremiah—but what is especially interesting is that the Sanhedrin, the high court of Jewish law, had declared in 400 B.C.E that the age of prophecy was over. Kaput. No more prophets.

Suddenly, here is Anna, more properly Hanna, one who also is able to identify Jesus. We’re told that she immediately begins to praise God and to speak of this child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

But we’re not given a single, solitary word of what she says. Simeon’s words are recorded, if we take the passage literally, in great detail, but nothing from the wisdom of Hanna?

Maybe, maybe not. We are told that she is a widow. From the details available it seems that she was married for fourteen years and then upon the passing of her husband, she never remarried.

I do not know the pain of losing a spouse to death, but I do know what it is like to lose a sibling. I imagine each of you has grief events in your own autobiography. Such deaths face us with a choice. Do we become bitter? Do we become angry? Do we trust less, wallowing in the mire, and slowly kill ourselves with our rage?

Or do we, through God’s help, step into our faith and seek comfort through prayer, service, and a fervent belief that we are never alone? Do we see the Christ standing before us in the skin of a stranger? Anna is described as one who chooses to pray, to worship, to spend her time in a community in which she feels meaning and purpose.

Notice that Simeon, upon seeing Jesus, is ready to die. My race is run, he says. And we all have moments like that in our lives, don’t we? That moment when you know an important relationship has come to an end. I knew it a decade ago, the last time I saw a friend from college. We had outgrown the friendship, outgrown one another, turn mean toward each other, and were setting out on two very different paths. That day I was Simeon, ready for the relationship to die but remembering the good times we had.

I pray, though, that most of us seek to be like Anna. We never know how much of our lives may be spent waiting, hoping against hope, even wondering if God exists, but when we glimpse that hope, may we break out in song and prayer and may we seek to be examples to others about the great things God has done. In other words, may we get to work.

Even without knowing what she said, Anna’s temple presence and affirmation of Jesus seems the more important of the two. Couple it with Mary making the offering of the poor for the Son of God, and we have a potent female presence in otherwise male-dominated events. And I hope you find that my opinion does not come through a torturing of the text. I reflect on God’s word as it is presented.

What this says for us, as we leave behind a year that, by most accounts, was especially difficult, is that Jesus needs Annas. Now, more than ever. You never know when your steadfast patience and faith will touch another person’s heart. You may never know when God will call upon you to be a herald for Christ, a person who sings and proclaims the good news that none of us are outside of love and forgiveness. Faith, when practiced like Anna, can shield us from the anger, bitterness, and selfishness that arises when we think that we are accursed and life is bereft of meaning.

Friends, the hope, love, peace, and joy we have rekindled in our hearts through Advent may we now allow to grow in ourselves. Let us be Annas, ready to see and act when God is changing the world. Amen.

Sermons—When Advent Four and Christmas Eve Fall on the Same Sunday

Sermons—When Advent Four and Christmas Eve Fall on the Same Sunday

A Stoic Christmas: John 1:1-18 

Three hundred years before Jesus was born, a group of Greek philosophers asked some important questions: What if the human capacity for logic, flawed as it may be sometimes, is itself evidence for a divine being that is, in turn, perfect Logic? In other words, does our lowercase l logic exist only because a capital L Logic imprinted itself upon us? Even more, what if that capital L Logic imprinted itself upon all of creation, meaning that we can discover perfect ethics through study and experience of the natural world?

This group of philosophers, known as the Stoics, formulated an entire system of thought based on these questions and insights. For them, the author of all is known as the Logos. This word logos translates as logic, yes, but also to so much more. Logos means reason, study, and, as used in John’s Gospel, the Word.

In the beginning, was the Logos.

John is rewriting Genesis 1:1. In the beginning, he says, before the waters of creation, before the ruach, the breath of God, before letting there be light, before all of that: in the beginning was the Word. In the beginning was Logos. And this Word, this Logos, was with God and it was God.

It was God? One can almost still hear the gasps let loose in first–century synagogues.

And like the Stoic’s Logos, John’s Logos acts as the divine filter for creation: “All things came into being through him and without him, not one thing came into being.” Everything is brought into existence by being imprinted with the Logos. Our inner essence and the universe itself have all been touched by the Logos. It is what guides us, even when we do not recognize or understand. The logos is the light of creation and existence, a light that shines throughout the universe.

And now for something completely different. John’s Logos became flesh. And not flesh imprinted by Logos, like we are. No, Logos itself enfleshed. The embodiment of God’s Logic, Reason, Study, and Word. What if God were one of us, indeed.

The Logos became known as Jesus and dwelled among humans, including among those who rejected him. This Logos presented people with grace and truth, helping them to understand that they are children of God, not as a result of blood and flesh, but through Logos. Through reason. Through study. Through the Word. This Logos will later say, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” The I here is Logos. Jesus is so much more than a baby in a crib.

We hear people say, “Jesus is the reason for the season.” Yes! But we must understand “reason” to be Logos. It is not just that Jesus is the cause of the season, it is that Jesus is God’s language made flesh. A language we must study. Jesus is the Logos of the season, the Word. Jesus is the walking dictionary of ethics, reminding us that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves and to pray for those who persecute us. Jesus is evidence that God cares so much about how we treat one another, God came down here to show us.

In the beginning, the Word was with God and the Word was God. Tonight, when we celebrate the coming of Christ into the world, let us think of Jesus as the Logos. Jesus as God’s embodied statement on what it means to be authentically human, living in accordance with eternal, divine mandates. And let us think of ourselves as imprinted by God living in a world bearing God’s imprimatur. Let us remember that “God is Love.” And that’s all we need. Amen.

One hundred fifty-seven Christmases and counting

The religious community known as First Presbyterian Church of Yellow Springs first worshipped together in 1855, but not in this building. No, in the Little Antioch schoolhouse that sat where the funeral home is now. The pastor, Rev. Samuel Smith—a fitting moniker, given the Yellow Springs Brewery—preached a sermon on Hebrews 10:23-25:

Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who                          has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to                          love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as in the habit of some,                        but encouraging one another…

The great historian of FPC was Lila Reed Jones. Her grandfather, J. J. Reed settled here in 1857; he came so that his boys could be educated by Horace Mann. The elder Reed involved himself with this fledgling Presbyterian community. His granddaughter Lila would later record in her history that the very first Elder, R.W. Davis (think of Davis Street), was suspended, along with his wife, “for a belief in Spiritualism.” Only two months after that, scandal of scandals, a “member in good standing was reprimanded for drunkenness.” Rather than give us more specific, sordid stories, Lila writes tantalizingly: “Probably no other village in this mid-west area has had more interesting people than Yellow Springs, and our church has had its share.” We come by our quirkiness honestly here, it seems.

The original building, the inside of which we have gathered tonight, sits on land purchased from Judge Mills in 1858 for $400. What we now refer to as the sanctuary was completed for $5,029.47 in the year 1860. These walls around us contain, deep in the limestone, the memories of people who have gathered, as of tonight, for 157 Christmas Eves.

Listen and you can hear the voices from the Christmases of 1862-65. Lila’s history is peppered with the names of those who served in the Union Army, including her uncle who returned disabled and lived on the Bryan farm. Or Lieutenant Colonel Ewing, who also was injured and served for a spell as superintendent of the growing Sunday School. The Ewing family moved on from this village before the turn of the twentieth century, but their voices remain. In the pages of Lila’s history and in the stones of this church.

What of the two Christmas Eves that passed during U.S. involvement in the Great War? Lila writes, “These were troubled times. Our boys were enlisting for training, as the First World War was already a certainty. Our army defense forces totaled almost 700,000 and every home was disturbed . . . The church,” Lila wrote, “should be able to afford leadership for world activities as well as moral and intellectual inspiration for all, comfort in time of sorrow, peace in time of distress.” She continued by noting, “We bought New Testaments of the best army type, and gave one to each of the boys from our church going into the service.” Lila lists over a dozen names, including four brothers: Elmer, Ira, Roger, and Owen Barr.

Can you imagine the burden of the Barr family? Can you hear the mother’s prayers for safety, the calls for God to protect her children? Let us hear the prayers that came on December 7, 1941. And November 22, 1963. And April 4, 1968.

How many Christmases of the 157 have been during times of great uncertainty, calamity, confusion, and pain? And yet, people have continued to come. They came in 1955 when Rev. Dr. Buckley Rude and Dr. Walter F. Anderson’s family, together made FPC the first integrated church in all of Greene County.

Not all came here for the same reasons. Such is true tonight. Some are here as a family tradition. Others still for the music. And, as always, a faithful core because they believe in this story of God showing us how we are to live.

What we experience collectively tonight, though, through hearing the tale of Jesus’ coming into the world, is a continuation of the call made by Rev. Smith: that we extend love and good deeds to one another. That we gather together because it is important. By being here, you are part of an ongoing effort to live up to Lila Reed’s declaration that this place be a voice of love in affairs both international and local. We counteract the darkness of the world by following the light of God’s star.

I think we celebrate Christ’s birth best by following his teachings. By being here tonight, you help the mission of this church: to be a place that is open to all who come, meeting them as they are and declaring them beloved of God.

One hundred fifty-seven Christmases and counting. The Christ child has come again. We sing our Alleluias. We squeeze one another’s hands. And we feel that Emmanuel, God With Us, is more than just a name. Emmanuel is a statement of fact. God is with us.

I leave you tonight with the words of Rev. Dr. Buckley Rude, who resigned this pulpit in 1966 because the threats against him and his family proved to be too much.

“Our church for tomorrow,” he said in his last sermon, “must seek out and become the home of the stranger as well as the longtime resident.” And to that, let the people of the church say, Amen.

A Very Beatles Advent: Imagine Religionless Religion

 

We spend most of our lives imagining peace, don’t we? If we’re lucky, we catch pockets of peace in the right conditions. Around the fire, snuggled in with loved ones safe and sound, a great book and a mug full of something nice. Walking in the woods, the symphony of birds, bugs, water, and waving trees crescendo, lifting our Spirits to God. Peace is the sense that we are aligned, our hearts beating in time with the pulse of the universe.

Peace can be relative, though, right? Some pockets of peace we grab at are simply desperate cries for relief: a break from the chemo treatments, a day off from incessant responsibilities, a positive bank account at the end of the month. How many of us spend our lives looking for a peace we can grab in the short-term while fearing that a true peace, an enduring peace, a dependable peace, is nothing more than a myth told to keep us from philosophical nihilism? If there can be no peace, why believe in anything?

The world tends to hate the spokespersons for peace. In fact, most of them are assassinated. Or executed. And for those of us who are students of peace, those of us who understand that peace is a way of life and a fundamental orientation toward the world, we know why this happens. Spokespersons for peace often make the comfortable feel afflicted, and help the afflicted feel comforted. Purveyors of peace seem to not know their proper place in society, and what does the world do when a person does not know their place?

The world crushes such a person.

**

         Mark’s gospel begins with a bang. The narrator tells us that we’re about to hear the story of Jesus, who, according to various manuscripts, is the Anointed One and the Son of God. Before we can ask how Jesus is anointed (like a priest, a prophet, a king?) or how he is Son of God (through adoption, like the Davidic kings? through biological fact?), we are told about a voice shouting in the wilderness. The narrator of Mark erroneously credits the words to Isaiah alone. But the first half of the passage is from Malachi 3:1. You may be asking, why does this matter? Why, indeed.

During the prophet Malachi’s time, despondent and dispassionate priests oversaw the Temple duties. The numbers of the faithful were dwindling and true worship of God—love of thy neighbor—was fading. Malachi was infused with the Word. “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to the Temple.” Malachi, of course, was the messenger.

But this is not a gentle message. Malachi is warning the priests that purification is coming. They are about to be upended because they have not been good stewards of the people or servants of the Temple. Quoting Malachi 3:1 as you walk out of the wilderness, locusts in your teeth and beard, wild honey on the hair tunic you wear, a rope coated with all manner of detritus tied around the waist, this is the way to make an entrance that gets you killed.

**

         In 1971, the FBI began their file on John Lennon. Senator Strom Thurmond warned President Nixon that Lennon and other activist-artists were putting together a concert tour as a way to target Nixon for the ’72 election, the first one to allow 18-year-olds to vote. The tour would follow behind Nixon’s campaign stops, culminating in a three-day festival in Miami, site of the 1972 GOP convention. Efforts were begun to deport Lennon as a result of his 1968 marijuana possession charge.

The pressure to deny Lennon his green card intensified, even after he was shunned by others for not being Leftist enough. Ever the artists, Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono held an April Fool’s Day press conference in 1973, declaring themselves the first citizens of Nutopia, a conceptual country with “no land, no passports, only people.” You became a citizen by “declaration of your awareness to Nutopia.” Citizens were ambassadors and thereby had diplomatic immunity.

Think of “Imagine” as the national anthem of Nutopia. The lyrics were largely written by Yoko; a book of poems she wrote years before and a prompt to John to write about a place of evolved consciousness provided him inspiration for a song that is beloved around the world.

**

         When John the Baptizer burst onto the scene and started screaming about the forgiveness of sins that comes not from the Temple, not from empty rituals, not from the elite who cared more about themselves than God, he was as good as dead. When he proclaimed an eternal forgiveness that is equally ours and not ours, we must imagine that he was proclaiming a peace that comes from knowing that he was forgiven. John offered the peace in the moment, pocket peace for which we grab. So powerful is that pocket of peace, we Christians still act it out, this washing away of sins with water. But we do so because of the promised coming of a lasting peace through the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.

What John the Baptizer and John Lennon both proclaimed, in their own ways, was what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “religionless Christianity.” A peace that is not contingent upon the rules and regulations of religion; a peace that is not controlled by power brokers, or dangled in front of the people as a way to make them subservient and obedient. A peace available to all who are brave enough to not settle.

“Imagine all the people, living life in peace.”

 

A Very Beatles Advent: Joy and Blackbird

The Church year begins in darkness. This should come as no surprise: the first act of creation, according to the Book of Genesis, was done in pitch black. Granted, we’re dealing with two different types of darkness here. Genesis darkness is literal. The darkness of Mark 13 is more metaphorical, with promises of literal darkness to come.

Amos told of a coming darkness that could be stopped if the people began treating the least of these with compassion. Isaiah warned of an imminent darkness that could not be stopped because people did not listen to the prophets. Both manners of darkness came, the former through the falling of the northern kingdom and the latter with the destruction of Solomon’s Temple. But the darkness of both contained a promise a coming light, a breaking-in of grace amidst chaos and pain, that would end the darkness forever. This was called the Day of YHWH.

The text for our first Sunday in Advent is from Mark 13, often called the “Little Apocalypse.” The word “apocalypse” literally means “revealing, uncovering, or revelation.” An apocalypse is not necessarily about the end times, although it can be, but rather refers to the revelations of the true natures of good and evil. As we saw when considering Amos and Isaiah, God frequently said, “Y’all think you want the Day of YHWH, but you really don’t. You oppress your own people, you serve the false idols of avarice and indifference, and worst of all you do so in my name. The reckoning is coming, so get ready.”

When considering Mark 13 we must point out that it does not have the literary structure of an apocalypse and really should not be called such. It is not an apocalypse, but what concerns us is the content of the chapter. Jesus is warning his followers in graphic detail about the trials and tribulations that await them in the last days. He warns them about false prophets and Messiahs who will lead them astray. He beseeches them to stay true, even as darkness closes in all around them.

I will quickly note that many scholars, myself included, do not believe that the historical Jesus said these words; for those interested in knowing more about that, catch me outside worship and we can talk.

But what begins in Mark 13:24 is a theological shift that impacts the development of Christianity. The Day of YHWH mentioned throughout the Hebrew Bible becomes the Parousia, the Second Coming of Christ. Though the sun be darkened, the moon opaque, the stars burning out, and the powers of heaven themselves shaken, the Son of Man will come like the light of creation, bringing together agents of heaven and earth.

The lesson from the fig tree and the need for watchfulness expressed in vv. 28-37 reiterate points made earlier in chapter 13. But they present us with curious messages. Jesus—whether he said these things or not—throughout his ministry uses examples from nature to illustrate his message: “Behold the birds of the heaven . . . consider the lilies of the field.” Here, the leaves on the tender branch of a fig tree signal the season of summer.

But Jesus warns the listener/reader, those who receive the text, that while the season may be known the hour is not. “Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come.” Do not fall asleep, Jesus says, but keep awake. Like Paul writes, we are looking through a glass dimly.

Advent begins with the promise of God’s light and grace breaking into the world, overshadowing darkness and chaos with hope. In one way, it does not matter whether or not we believe in a literal, physical return of Jesus. What matters is that God promises a reason to hope. A reason to scan the dark horizon for that pinpoint of light that will burst into existence.

Regardless of personal politics, I imagine most if not all of us agree that it is a dark time. There are oppressive regimes around the world, natural disasters are coming quickly and with greater force than recorded memory. Our own country is fractured and angry. Divisions amongst our people and with other nations are deep and entrenched. Even the choice between “Happy Holidays” and “Merry Christmas” is postulated as part of a war upon our religious tradition. I don’t know about you but I am tired. Beaten down by the nonstop onslaught.

Our Church year begins in darkness. But the candle of hope is lighted. We have glimpsed the flicker of light that is like a spark within our hearts. And God will keep lighting flames—peace, then joy, then love—until the bright light of Christ explodes like the original light of creation. The light of life.

But now we huddle in darkness, eyes fixed on hope and one another, knowing that soon and very soon, we are going to see the king. Amen.