December 28, 2014

Church of Peace, United Church of Christ

Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield

Luke 2:22-40

Signs of Life

It happens to our littlest children, and they get it. They absolutely understand. Somebody else is more powerful or more popular. There is an In Group, then there’s everybody else, now who can you possibly sit next to? Our littlest children know what it’s like to be left out, sent to the edges to stay.

You know this happens to our oldest adults, and they get it. They absolutely understand. Somebody else is more powerful or more popular. There is an In Group, then there’s everybody else, now who can you possibly sit next to? Our oldest adults know what it’s like to be left out, sent to the edges to stay.

Of course, you don’t have to be a little child or a very old person to know what it is to be sent to the edges to stay. Who doesn’t know what this is like? Maybe it seems like you need to be part of a big family in order to be at the center, or maybe you need to be able to walk, or know how to speak English. Maybe it seems like the people at the center are the ones who have their lives together. See if you can’t afford to buy the things your friends have, if you don’t have a college degree or a career you love, if you don’t have grandchildren and all your friends do, you might find yourself with the rest of us, sent to the edges to stay. In some way, we’re all looking for somebody we can sit next to.

And the truth is, it might not be a problem to find ourselves on the edges. But it can be a problem if we believe the lies that get told about this place.

One lie purports that you’re the only one who’s ever been to this place. No one else can possibly know what you’re experiencing. This is the lie that leads me into those contests of suffering. I hear myself saying, “My experience of rejection is worse than yours!” Really? How does anybody win this contest?

The second lie teaches that if we get sent to the edges, we must be stuck. Once marginalized always marginalized, may as well build a house and settle in for good. These lies can sentence us to solitary confinement trying to make us believe we are alone and locked up.

These are the lies that get stirred up, and nobody should get blamed for believing them. We know that lies move like tumbleweed; they swirl down the street and take on a life of their own…

But sometimes the people sent to the edges are exactly the ones who see right through the lies, right into the truth. Here from the margins they see the people in the In Group are actually on the edges from another angle. From here they can see boundary lines get crossed. They see signs of death turn into the unmistakable signs of life.

Today our Gospel reading features people who know what it is to get sent to the edges to stay. It begins with Mary and Joseph bringing the baby Jesus to the Temple. Now the Temple was an institution that enforced laws separating the holy from the profane, the clean from the unclean. In this context, being unclean has to do with a mixing together of life and death.

So on this day in our story, Joseph and Mary bring two birds as a sacrifice, which is allowed if the parents are unable to afford a sheep. And this offering marks the shift for Mary. She was ritually unclean in the weeks after giving birth, now with this, she is considered clean. But here when the holy family comes out from the margins to the center, what happens is they get confronted by two prophets, Simeon and Anna.

Much like Joseph, in the story we hear today, Anna’s character gets pushed to the edges of the action. We don’t know much about her, except that her place on the edges is no deterrent to her ministry. Anna is at least eighty-four years old and maybe older, and she never leaves the Temple area. Even if she’s made to stay in the outer courts, Anna fasts and prays night and day. Now she comes right over and takes one look at this baby, and Anna knows. She begins praising God and prophesying about this baby.

Simeon’s age is not mentioned, but he is imagined to be an old man close to death, since he’s waiting to get a look at the Messiah, the consolation of Israel. The Holy Spirit rests upon Simeon. Here this old man approaches this teenage girl with her infant son, he takes one look at that baby, and Simeon knows.

Then Simeon takes the baby into his crooked, strong arms, and he does the only thing he can. He praises God with the song that has become famous: “Now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation…”

In the next moment when Simeon hands the baby back to Mary, he leans in and says to her, “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, destined to be a sign that will be opposed so the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.”

This baby who is a sign of glad tidings of great joy for all the people is named here, by this old man, as a sign that will be opposed. What kind of blessing is this? But the thing is, Simeon is right. He looks right at Mary, and I wonder if he is just a little bit surprised because what he says to her is not a sneering curse; it might be the truth spoken in love. “And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

It’s like there had been a respectable divider keeping the safety of life from the scary mystery of death. I picture it like the kind you see at the bank, made of velvet ropes that get latched to those shiny metal pillars. Then here comes Simeon, a dying man who gets a glimpse of the light of salvation. He holds a newborn baby and sees that one day he will die too soon.

Right here at the Temple the rope divider becomes unhinged; the boundary between life and death gets crossed. Death pours into life, and new life answers all death. Heaven and earth spill into each other, and see this baby, the sign that will be opposed is actually a sign of life.

In her book Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor encourages all of us to try our hand at this practice of pronouncing blessing. She writes this, “The key to blessing things is knowing they beat you to it. The key to blessing things is to receive their blessing.”[1] Now if she’s right about this, and I think she might be, then Simeon is not the only one handing out blessing.

Here this old man gets blessed by the baby he’s holding, he gets blessed by this girl whose soul will get pierced by a sword. Blessing is the work that unhinges the respectable divider and crosses the boundary between heaven and earth, death and life. Just try holding a baby sometime and see if you don’t get blessed.

The good news is this is our work as the church. We are the ones who bring the blessing, because we can be at the edges just like Mary and Simeon, like Joseph and Anna. We’ve already heard the lies that get told and we know the truth: Just because you’re on the margins doesn’t mean you’re forgotten or alone. Just because you find yourself there today does not mean you are sentenced to this place forever. Just because you might actually live in the segregated unit of some awful prison somewhere, this does not mean you are separated from the love of God.

We who are the church come from the edges to do the work of blessing that takes down the dividers and crosses the lines. It is not enough for us to welcome youth and keep them in their place, then welcome the oldest people and ask them to please sit over here.

Let the littlest children go and visit our oldest members in their homes. Let the people who can’t come into this building still join in our life as the church. Let those who are retired sing in the choir with the twenty somethings, and let our middle-aged adults be mentors and cheerleaders for our fourth and fifth graders. Let the old people hold the littlest babies, and let all of us bless and get blessed by our teenagers.

If you know what it is to get sent to the edges to stay, your help is what we need. You have the blessing the church needs to hear. Let us sit next to you. Then we’ll see heaven and earth spill into each other. By God’s saving power, the signs of death keep getting turned into the unmistakable signs of life.

And still more light shall break forth like the dawn. Amen.

[1] Taylor, Barbara Brown. Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith. HarperCollins: New York, 2009 p. 196.

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