January 29, 2012
Scipture: Deut. 18:15-20 and Mark 1:21-28
The Authority of Our Experience
Rev. Leanne S. Walt
The tracing of our faith begins with a prophetic voice and unclean spirits. The tracing of our faith begins in the synagogues and on the hillsides of Capernaum, from the Sea of Galilee to the River Jordan, teaching and healing, water and soil, the space and voice of the sacred and the profane. From this vantage point we learn, question, and discern the authority of our faith.
The roots of our faith grow out of our willingness to accept the authority of Moses’ prophetic voice in the 18th chapter of Deuteronomy, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet” (18:15). The roots of our faith grow out of our willingness to accept the authority of Jesus’ healing of the unclean spirit in Mark’s Gospel. The roots of our faith are based on our willingness to accept the authority of this history and to claim it as our own.
It is not an easy thing to know which voice, pronouncement, promise, teaching, or healing to trust. It is not an easy thing to discern authority in our lives and in the world. In this election year, we know this to be especially true.
“Tan, Rested, and Ready to Win” in reference to Mitt Romney was one of the leading headlines on Time Magazine’s blog post the day after Wednesday’s Republican Presidential debate in Florida. I caught a bit of this debate and I have to say, though Romney was sporting a nice tan, I don’t know that I would be so quick to declare him the ready winner. As is the case with most political debates, it seemed that authority was bouncing around the panel like a fast moving Ping-Pong ball. A battle of quick-witted words; a duel of syntax and semantics. We are left following the empty he-said/she-said below-the-belt trail of the ball.
At one point Romney denied responsibility for an ad that had aired in Florida the previous week, which portrayed Gingrich as calling “Spanish the language of the ghetto.” Moderator Wolf Blitzer was quick to point out that the tagline of the commercial was, “I am Mitt Romney and I approve this message,” leaving Romney fumbling for words.
These debates always leave a bitter taste in my mouth. After all attacks have been aggressively and artistically launched, I walk away overwhelmed by the flood of inflammatory remarks and find myself longing for truth, clarity, and authenticity. I find myself searching for the humanity, for the common thread that binds us all together. I wonder where is the wisdom, the vision, the kindness, and integrity that can lead us onward into our promised land? I wonder where is the leader who acts with conviction, who lives for the sake of the people rather than the ego, who remains politically limber in order to best support the common good?
And I wonder where we derive authority from in our own lives, in our political systems, in our faith, and why?
We often associate authority with power and there are various ways that this power comes about. There is authority that comes from a job or title. There is authority that is the result of a particular skill set or acquired knowledge. In a sense, these kinds of authority are derived from a source external to the individual; they are bestowed upon an individual through social, political, or religious systems. And this authority is not free from corruption, we know, we have seen our leaders preach family values and yet get caught in adulterous lies, those who preach compassion for the poor while lining their own pockets.
In Jesus’ day, authority was viewed and obtained in much the same way. The scribes are the central authority figures in this morning’s gospel lesson from Mark. Their authority comes from status and title, from their knowledge of scripture and verse, of Jewish ritual and tradition.
But when Jesus, a poor, uneducated carpenter from Nazareth, enters the synagogue where these scribes hold power he asserts an entirely different kind of authority. He does not acquire his authority through any sort of social, political, or religious system or institution, and those there in the synagogue when he arrives see and understand this, for the gospel tells us, “he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (Mk 1:22). The people recognize in Jesus a new kind of authority, a refreshing truth, a grace-filled power. For, he invokes an authority that is derived from action rather than the fleeting breath of words alone, an authority that comes from within rather than outside of himself, an authority of character, integrity, and wisdom. Jesus enters this sacred space of teaching and faith and he sees a man tormented by internal demons. Jesus reaches out to this broken, unclean, and tortured man and he sets him free from the wicked spirits swirling within; he lifts his burdens and heals his pain.
And at once the people have seen ~ not only heard in quick-witted rhetoric, fancy rhyme and verse ~ the truth and depth, compassion, and integrity of Jesus’ authority. An authority that in Mark’s gospel does not mean power, which is a different Greek word all together, but rather the word the gospel writer uses is exousia, which is a willingness or right that has everything to do with justice served. Such authority is found at the very roots of our faith. Such authority is what compels us still today, in our own lives.
In his work on spiritual formation, Henri Nouwen writes at great length about movement of the Spirit ~ from the mind to the heart, from illusion to prayer, from sorrow to joy, from resentment to gratitude, from fear to love, from exclusion to inclusion. The authority that Jesus reigns into the world is one that provokes movement of the Spirit, one that indeed has the power to move us from word to action, from the unclean to the clean, from rhetoric to the truth, from the profane to the sacred, from self-interest to compassion, from dominance to justice ~ in our homes, in our political landscape, in our communities, and in our churches.
In late January, as we find ourselves nearly halfway in between the manger and the cross, we recognize that this new kind of authority that Jesus bears into this world is what leads him to the depth of despair in Gethsemane and is what nails him to the cross. This conflict of authority, the world’s inability to move with Jesus into the realm of authority found within our hearts rather than that which is derived from the institution or system is what leads to his death. The world kills Jesus because they fear the power of justice and benevolence, character and grace, wisdom and compassion. They fear his authority that comes from within. “It is too much to speak with such authority!” They say as they hear his Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus reinterprets the scripture “of old”:
You have heard it said of old, you shall not kill.
But I say to you, everyone angry with his brother is liable for judgment.
You have heard it said of old, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.
But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.
You have heard it said of old, you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.
But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
As the authorities of old tried to silence Jesus, so too today, do the authorities of this world try to silence pathways to justice and the roads that lead to the kingdom of God on earth. But we have the power to give voice and authority to Christ ~ an authority that is based on our own experience of a lived faith ~ of loving our neighbors and enemies alike, of doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with our God. May we teach as Christ, with our actions always in keeping with our teachings, our faith inseparable from our conduct and values, holding to the integrity of our character and proclaiming with authority the truth of the Good News.
 Feasting on the Word, year B, vol. 1, ed. by David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008) 313
 Nouwen, Henri, Spiritual Formation: Following the Movements of the Spirit (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2010)
January 15, 2012
Scripture: 1 Samuel 3:1-20
Here I Am
Rev. Leanne S. Walt preaching
“Where are you?” is one of the very first communications from God to humans. In the book of Genesis, as they are wandering around in the Garden of Eden after their encounter with the serpent and eating from the tree, God asks Adam and Eve, “Where are you?” Strange, you might think, considering the question is coming from the all-knowing, all-powerful God who created Adam and Eve not long before and placed them in the garden.
Strange, perhaps, but I’m willing to bet that if there is one question that each one of us has ever heard God asking us personally, it is “Where are you?” Or, “Who are you?” But if you truly know where you are, if you know what spiritual, emotional, and geographic place you occupy, then you know who you are. In many ways, the journey of our faith is a daily answering of this very question, “Where are you?” The scary part is that once we have told God where we are, we will have given ourselves up – we will have been found - we will have been discovered, and we will have to answer God’s call and allow God to use us in this world.
* * * *
As he explained it to me, Joe was the one always doing the asking. From the time he was a small child, he never took anything at face value and he had a lot of questions. He was a “Why?” kid – every adults’ nightmare – the kind of kid who never let a simple answer go at that. We have all known these delightful children:
“Why do we need air to breathe?”
“Because we need oxygen.”
“Well, little Joey, because we need energy.”
“Because we need to think and talk and move.”
“Because that’s how God made us.”
“Because God wanted us to be able to think and talk and move.”
“Because God wanted us to interact with other people and the world.”
“Because that’s what God wants.”
“Because I said so.”
He was no different when it came to his faith. He had a lot of questions. He had a lot of questions for the Church and for God. Though he was raised Lutheran, he kept his distance from the Church in his adult life, remaining skeptical of its purpose, value, and most of all, of its truth. Joe believed that there was a God and he held deep faith in a higher power. But, he struggled with the idea that this guy came along 2,000 years ago, walked the earth, and claimed to be God. More than that, he had a huge problem with Christianity claiming that this guy, this Jesus character, is the only way to God.
But then, something monumentally life changing, earthshaking, utterly astonishing happened to Joe…he had children. He and his wife had children and something happened inside of him which inclined him to feel that it was important to expose his son and his daughter to a community of faith in God.
So Joe and his family began attending the congregational church in town and he continued to surprise himself on this new spiritual adventure because for some reason he found that as time went on, he was becoming more and more involved in this community. Joe had volunteered to be a youth group leader, thinking that this would be a good way for him to participate in the life of the church and for him to be around teenagers, the dreaded age that his kids would someday soon reach.
On this particular Sunday, youth group was coming to a close and Joe had volunteered to stay with the kids until their rides came so that they other adults could head home. Eventually, all of the teenagers had gone home with their parents but there was just one girl, Kathleen, still waiting for her ride. Being so new to the church, Joe didn’t know much about Kathleen. She was quiet and seemed somewhat mysterious. She looked like she was about 14 or 15 years old. He asked her some questions to make small talk while they waited and after a while, she said to Joe. “You know, no one’s coming for me.”
He asked, “Is there someone we can call?”
“No,” she said.
Joe offered to drive her home and on the car ride home, the young girl explained that she lived with her aunt and uncle. Even though he was curious about her situation, Joe tried not to ask too many questions. But in the comfort of their silence, she began to share a bit of her story. She told Joe that her mom had a drug problem and was living on the streets, so her mom’s sister had taken her in. Kathleen said that she was scared of her uncle and that she wasn’t allowed to leave the house except to go to school and to church. Joe began to wonder how much of what this girl was telling him was actually true.
Then she asked him a question, “Do you ever think about what it would be like to be dead?”
And there it was, the question striking like a lightening bolt to his chest, as if descending from God himself, asking, “Joe, where are you?”
After dropping this young woman off, Joe called the minister of the church and explained what had happened on the car ride. Joe asked if any of this could be true. Was this girl’s situation really as bad as she made it out to be? The minister confirmed that her life at home was not good.
Twelve years later, I was hearing this story in a cafe over coffee and bagels. After a sermon I had preached on call at my home church, Joe felt compelled to share with me the story of how he and his wife were called - not only called to the church - but called to Jesus. As Joe describes it, the day he met Kathleen was the day that he became a Christian. That was the day that he welcomed Jesus into his heart; like an old friend who had been there all along, waiting patiently on the doorstep for that door to ease open. How many times God had knocked on the door and called out to this man, “Where are you, Joe? I need you,” he can’t be certain. But on this particular occasion, Joe decided to respond, “Here I am.”
Joe’s response to God resulted in he and his wife asked this young woman to live with them and their two children; they invited her into their home and after a four year long court battle with her aunt and uncle, Joe and his wife were granted full custody of Kathleen. Because of their hospitality and open hearts, this young woman attended college and is now living on her own.
* * * *
Like Joe, God did not call the young Samuel just once. God did not call Samuel two times. God did not call Samuel three times, but it was the fourth time that God calls out in the middle of the night while this twelve-year-old boy was asleep on the cold temple floor, “Samuel! Samuel!” when Samuel finally answers, “Here I am!” and just as his trusted elder mentor Eli had instructed him, Samuel tells God, “Speak for your servant is listening.”
Time stands still as Samuel eagerly awaits the specifics of God’s call for him – a great and prominent moment in the life of our Scripture – but the task Samuel receives causes him to question whether or not he should have given himself away to God in the first place. God, it turns out, wants Samuel to speak out against the house of Eli, his beloved teacher and friend, and name the fact that Eli’s sons have been using their status as priests to satisfy their own desires, eating the meat of animal sacrifices and sleeping with women who come into the temple to worship.
And yet, this is how we can say we know it’s God’s call because it’s not one full of lollipops and candy, sweet rewards or immediate bliss. This is how we can discern God’s call from our own willful desires. From God’s call to the reluctant Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt to Jonah’s call to proclaim judgment to the people of Ninevah to Jesus’ call for us to feed the hungry, clothe the poor, visit the prisoner, to love our neighbor, to pray for our enemies and those who persecute us – God’s calls are never small tasks, easily achieved and crossed off a neat list. For when God calls us, it is for the purpose of bringing about the good news on earth and this will always be a tall order. This will always be a challenge.
Always, but especially on this holiday weekend, we would be remiss to note Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in any conversation about Christian call and vocation. One, who indeed stands in our great line of prophets, offered a bold “Here I am!” in response to God’s call, “Where are you, Martin?”
“Here I am! Here I am! Here I am!”
And God said to this young black man from Atlanta, “Martin, go, go cast my dream, no matter what the cost.”
You might say that for most of us, we claim no special place in history; that we assume no place in the line of great saints or prophets. We do our jobs, raise our families, care for our homes, go to school, come to church. We get through the day or the week or the month or the year as best we are able and we try to be good people along the way. And yet, who will speak the truth to power, if not each one of us sitting here? Who dares to stand and give voice to God’s proclamation of good news on this earth, if not each one of us sitting here? Who will lift up the last and least among us, if not each one of us sitting here? Who will greet the stranger if not each one of us here? Who will lead the lost if not each one of us here? Who will cast a dream for the oppressed if not each one of us here?
When we stop our questioning, when we relinquish our excuses, that dreaded, wondrous, petrifying and glorious question will come to us, “Where are you?” And when it does, whether in the depth of the night or in the blinding light of the sun or on an impromptu car ride with a stranger, we will wake up to accept the truth of God’s call. We will wake up to the challenge of our faith, the reality of our task to bring about the good news on this earth. We will give ourselves away to God, shouting “Here I am! Here I am! Here I am!”
In response, we will hear that sweet assurance that we have been searching for all along from the God who walked alongside Adam and Eve in the garden telling us, “Beloved, here I am. Here I am. Here I am."
 Duprè, Judith, Full of Grace: Encountering Mary in Faith, Art, and Life (New York, NY: Random House, 2010) 297
January 8, 2012
Scripture: Matthew 2:1-12
Rev. Leanne Walt
Bill and I recently spent some time with a good friend who has two young daughters. Apparently his oldest, who is now 2 ½ is going through the “Mine!” stage. She regularly declares sole and primary ownership over all toys, cupcakes, and even refrigerator magnets in the house and she has taken to hiding some of these items, which she declares to be, “Mine!” in her crib. Even this year’s Christmas card from her grandmother was not safe from the jurisdiction of her “Mine!” Though intended for the entire family, the card was addressed to her and so she took this as a clear indication that this was HER Christmas card - so began her collection of Christmas cards in the far corner of her crib.
My 1 ½ year old nephew is also in the throes of the “Mine!” phase. He is inclined to yell, “Mine!” quite loudly at anyone who picks up his favorite toy football or stuffed Elmo doll, reminding them that he is the rightful, private owner of these playtime enrichments.
The “Mine!” phase is nothing unusual. If you have kids, they probably went through a similar stage, and if they are now grown, hopefully it did prove just to be a passing phase and they no longer take Christmas cards or ornaments to bed with them.
In fact this behavior is so common in children that there is a famous scene in the children’s movie Finding Nemo that is known for its “Mine!”s. In this scene Nemo’s father, a small and beloved clownfish finds himself stranded on a dry dock in the hot sun after being mistakenly swallowed by a pelican. Fortunately, the pelican is quite friendly and tries to help him search for his missing son, Nemo. The bad news is that there on the dock are hundreds of seagulls hovering around wanting to eat this little clownfish. All at once, the seagulls begin swarming him, each one declaring, “Mine! Mine! Mine! Mine!” The fish barely escapes by jumping into the mouth of the friendly pelican and this ends up being one of the funniest scenes in the movie.
I recently watched a documentary film entitled I Am, by Hollywood movie director Tom Shadyac that explores the phenomenon of the “Mine!”s. Yet, in the film the subject is not approached as an amusing childhood phase, but as a more pervasive and deeply troubling social reality in the U.S.
After making millions directing and producing hit Hollywood films like Ace Ventura, The Nutty Professor, Liar, Liar, and Patch Adams, Tom Shadyac had a terrible bike accident that caused him to seriously reevaluate not only his life, but society more generally. As he faced the possible end of his life, he began to ask himself, “If I am indeed going to die, what do I want to say before I go?” And he began to think about The Inconvenient Truth of the environment, the war in Iraq, poverty, and all of the other ills that plague our country. And he began to wonder if these aren’t the real problems after all, but rather causes of a poison lurking underneath the surface of American society.
So he began a journey around the world with a small film crew to interview religious leaders, historians, and academics asking the questions, “What’s wrong with our world?” and “What can we do about it?”
What he found was that our society functions in a certain way based on the understanding and acceptance of scientific claims, namely Darwin’s emphasis on competition as a means to human survival and the idea that we occupy a reliable and well-behaved universe where separate objects operate separately in time and space. The picture that has emerged from science is that human beings are made out of material stuff and that we work in mechanistic ways. Believing in the laws of competition and scarcity, we operate as self-interested and singular individuals, needing to be significant at someone else’s expense. We establish layers of separation between ourselves and others - the more stuff we have the better, the more layers to protect the stuff we have the better. The more wealth we have the happier we are.
Yet, through his conversations with philosophical, spiritual, and scientific leaders, all evidence began to paint this reality as a lie and instead pointed to an entirely different truth: that our basic nature is not to dominate, but to cooperate; that we actually function better in a state of empathy, compassion, and love, than we do in a state of dominance and competition. As it turns out, when Darwin wrote The Descent of Man, he used the phrase “Survival of the Fittest” only two times and the word “love,” 95 times.
In the documentary, Tom goes to see his father who was one of the founders of St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital, an organization that provides free cancer treatment for children and families, even for those without health insurance. St. Jude’s is truly an exercise in loving both your neighbor and your enemy, as patients receive treatment regardless of religion, ethnicity, political views, and socio-economic class. So, Tom approaches his father as someone who understands and has lived humanity’s greater call to compassion and service and he sits with him and asks him if he believes that it’s possible for society to live and operate in cooperation with rather than competition with one another.
His father answers by telling him, “There is a church out here that I go to every Sunday and I cry because there is so much love in that church for an hour and a half. Then, people go outside and get into their cars and they drive away. There are blacks, Hispanics, and white people in that church and they give each other the kiss of peace inside, but would they do that in the supermarket, on the street corner? Probably not,” he concludes. Because there is this pervasive perception that, ultimately, we are all separate from one another.
Yet, Tom and others he interviews continue to work to undermine this misperception throughout the rest of the film by suggesting that maybe we can look at achieving a profitability in our lives other than that measured by the financial economy and our place in it. And that maybe we can do this by changing the fundamental question that we ask from, “What do I get out of this?” to, “How am I adding value to my community?”
This film got me thinking about how difficult it is for us as Christians to live out the gospel in a culture that preaches separation and competition, in a culture that teaches us from the time we are toddlers to declare ownership over those things that threaten to be shared by others.
But, it also made me think about how much power we hold as Christians to break down the barriers of separation between members of God’s creation.
In our Wednesday evening Prayer Study, we have been talking quite a bit about how a prayer calls us to action, about how a Christian meditative, contemplative life is not a passive endeavor, but it is one that invites action. And, what’s more, that this action ought to be directed to serving the needs of others, working toward healing and fostering greater love, forgiveness, and peace, in this world because we believe that God is manifest in this world – working within, among, and between us.
When recently asked what is the most important meditation that we can do right now, the Dali Lama responded, “Critical thinking followed by action.” Discern how your gifts might benefit the world and you will discover deep contentment.
The magi saw the same power to herald in a new world and social order through epiphany – or the manifestation of God-in-Christ in the world – and they heard the call to perceive and participate in the glorious work of God. In response to the birth of the Christ child the three wise men ask, “What gifts can I bring?” They did not journey to Bethlehem and approach the manger proclaiming, “Mine! Mine! Mine!” They did not come to lay claim to the Messiah or to steal him away in the dark of the night. They came bearing gifts.
Whether it’s our time, money, or talent, you could say that giving is the beginning of an adventure. It involves a lowering of the guard to let the power of relationship have its way.
The magi respond to God’s initiative of grace by giving – a bold and countercultural gesture as much in their day as it is in ours. For the magi, this surely marked the beginning of an adventure. After they offer their gifts to the Christ child, the magi return home by another road. Perhaps it was a combination of meeting the Christ child and offering their gifts that directed them to change their direction or perhaps they were simply scared of the world’s Herod’s breathing down their back if they were to return home by the same road. Either way, the Christ child, epiphany – the manifestation of God in the world – caused these three wise men to change their direction.
The scene with the flock of seagulls preying on the small, helpless fish in Finding Nemo is so funny because it is so true. But maybe we ought to view it as more disturbing than humorous as we begin to see a little bit of the seagull in ourselves - not behavior that we naturally possess, but constructed and fostered by society - our need to declare ownership over what’s ours and our tendency to separate ourselves from others through individual achievements and private property.
But the truth is, the most important gift we can receive does not belong to you or to me or to my neighbor with the fancy car or to the Hollywood socialites living in the Hills of Beverly. The most important gift we can receive is epiphany – the manifestation of God in the world. And Christ does not belong just to you or to me or to the haves or to the have-nots, but Christ belongs to each one of us. Epiphany – the manifestation of God in the world – is not for us to claim as our own but to share with the world through bearing our gifts for the good and sake of others.
God’s manifest presence in the world calls us to think critically about the world and how we might best share our gifts. The economy of Jesus’ gospel calls us to ask, “How can we add value to our community?” Through talking to our enemies, loving our neighbor, inspiring our youth, eliminating poverty, trying peace, including everyone. Praying. So that we can be a people who herald in the new Jerusalem, who boldly receive Isaiah’s proclamation to, “Arise, shine; for our light has come” long after we leave this place for on Sunday mornings (Isaiah 60:1).
Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 1, ed. by David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008) 199
January 1, 2012
Scripture: Luke 2:22-40
Year in Review
Rev. Leanne S. Walt preaching
It’s about that time of year again – in fact, it’s exactly that time of year again - when we look back upon the previous year and various news and media outlets offer their own “Year in Review” slideshows and written analysis of the events of the past year. If you haven’t yet come across at least one of these this past week, you’ll surely catch some rendition of a year in review later this afternoon or evening if you tune into the radio, flip on the TV, or peruse the Internet. Now, maybe I’m just a sucker for a good photomontage, but I always enjoy these tours through the previous twelve months - a chance to look back, to remember, to reflect, and to mark the passage of time.
These years in reviews are full of the good and the bad, the ups and the downs, chronicling moments of revolution and repression, misery and jubilation, triumph and defeat. As such, they’re usually tearjerkers, tugging on our heartstrings with poignant quotes scattered throughout and inspiring music playing in the background.
The Yahoo! News Year in Review called 2011 “A Year of Extremes,” contrasting the devastation of the Japanese earthquake and nuclear crisis with the extravagance of April’s Royal Wedding.
The New York Times December 22nd Year in Review described 2011 as a “spectacle of anger,” making note of the wave of Arab Spring protests rippling through Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Jordan and the Occupy movements taking place right here in our own backyard.  A local heading from The Wisconsin Rapids Tribune reads: “Year in Review: Winds of Change Defined 2011.” From London to Athens and Tahrir to Dudley Square this has been a year of revolution, kindled with an anger that has fueled the winds of change.
President Obama remarked of the Arab Spring, “There are times in the course of history when the actions of ordinary citizens spark movements for change because they speak to a longing for change that has been building up for years…across the region those rights that we take for granted are being claimed with joy.”
Longing and hope, anger and courage, transformation and joy.
This past year marked both the killing of Bin Laden and the 10th anniversary of 9/11. In his 10 year anniversary speech at Ground Zero, Mayor Bloomberg of New York City reflected that, “We have lived in sunshine and in shadow, and although we can never unsee what happened here we can also see that children who have lost their parents have grown into young adults, grandchildren have been born and good works in public service have taken root to honor those we have loved and lost.”
Sunshine and shadow, terror and grief, fear and audacity, loss and growth. A year in review.
In the days after Jesus’ birth as they traveled from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, perhaps Mary and Joseph engaged in their own version of the Year in Review 6 BC (or there about, as the exact date of Jesus’ birth is not known), reflecting and remembering the events of the past year. It had no doubt been an incredible year for this couple. An angelic message and divine mission, an immaculate conception, a marriage, a journey, a pregnancy, a birth.
Today when we meet them in the Gospel of Luke, they are bringing their firstborn son to the temple to make a sacrifice for Mary’s purification, as was customary according to Jewish law. Upon entering the temple, they are greeted by a man named Simeon, whose years of old age seem to drape over him like a cloth, obvious and discernable. This stranger takes the infant Jesus into his arms and in his righteousness and wisdom he embraces the child whom he recognizes as the Son of God. He cradles Jesus there in his arms and speaks to Mary, telling her that, “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many.”
If we pause here for a moment and linger with Simeon’s prophecy, we would notice the oddity of his ordering of things: “the falling and rising of many.” For if we were to review the years throughout all of history we would find that they have been full of the rising and falling of many: from the Roman Empire to the 3rd Reich, Saddam Hussein to this year’s fall of Moammar Gadhafi. Even the peacemakers and pacifiers have fallen to death at the hands of hate: Martin Luther King, Jr., Bonheoffer, and Ghandi.
And of course the rise and fall of financial and business tycoons has become a hallmark of our times, from Enron, Goldman Sacs, and Lehman Brothers to this year’s Rupert Murdoch, most notably. Not to mention that we seem to be obsessed with contributing to the rise and then watching the fall of the rich and famous. This year we witnessed Charlie Sheen and Arnold Schwarzenegger fall from grace, to name just a few.
The media certainly had plenty to work with this year and they usually do because the rise and fall of fame and power appears to be the way of the world. But, here, in this brief encounter in the temple with an old, strange man, Mary learns that the birth of her son challenges and reverses this order of the world. In Jesus, we become destined to rise, as he did. Falling on the cross into what seems so ultimate and final, then rising again for all eternity. Some of you may remember at one point or another reciting the Apostles’ or Nicene Creed, which articulate the fall and rise of God in Christ:
And in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, our Lord:
Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary:
Suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, dead and buried: He descended into hell:
The third day he rose again from the dead:
He ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.
Held within these few words that Simeon offers to Mary in the temple, so fleeting and easily glossed over amongst the rich stories of the gospel, is the very promise of our faith: that in Jesus Christ, though we most assuredly will fall as we stumble along the highways of the world, we will rise with Christ. We remember the Word that came to us last Sunday, on Christmas morning:
But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God (John 1:13).
As a congregation, we have our own year in review coming up at the end of this month. At the annual meeting we will look back and reflect upon all that has come and gone in 2011. We will look at the good and the bad, our joining together in this exciting and new ministry and the financial cost of embarking upon such a journey of faith. However, as we engage in our year in review as a body of Christ, I can assure you that the startlingly startling cost of the fall of our boiler will be vastly overshadowed by the rise of our faith.
The scripture I have held closest as I have contemplated my call to turnaround ministry is Proverbs 16:3, which reads:
Commit your work to the Lord, and your plans will be established.
I believe that as a congregation, we have committed our work to the Lord, and by the grace of God, our plans are being revealed. If we continue to put our trust in Christ in the coming year, we are destined to continue to rise with him.
The gift of a year in review is the power that such an exercise holds to bind us together in our common human experience. And, as Christians, it has the power to remind us that despite all of the bad, awful, and terrible that has come and gone in the previous twelve months, we remain children of God who have been born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God so that though we may be fallen, we are risen in Christ.
 “2011: The Year in Pictures,” text by Colin McCann, The New York Times, Published: December 22, 2011