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"Hope, Satisfyingly Unfulfilled" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - December 30, 2018

posted Jan 23, 2019, 12:05 PM by Plymouth Church UCC

A number of years ago our congregation held a special service on the Saturday before Easter - Easter Eve.  The worship for the service reflected some of the oldest traditions in Christianity. We gathered outside of the church, around a fire burning in a wrought iron pit.  Our prayers lifted up the hope for the light of God to guide us. Then we used the fire to light the Christ Candle - the Paschal Candle - and each of us lit our own candles as well.  We brought the candles into the church. (This particular service happened in the gym.)

Once inside, we read many of the great stories of God’s work in the world - at the beginning, creation; then, the promise to Abraham; on to the liberation of the slaves and words of the prophets; culminating in the resurrection of Jesus.  As the readings progressed, we turned on more and more lamps; a physical manifestation of God’s enlightenment of the world.

During this celebration, we heard a bit of commotion outside but we didn’t really think anything about it.  Inside we rejoiced in the promise of the Gospel of John, “What has come into being in [Jesus] was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

The whole service embodied this wisdom: light conquers the shadows, truth overpowers lies, love overwhelms sin.

And then we stepped back outside to learn: someone stole our firepit.  The commotion we heard during worship was someone coming into the church playground, dumping out the coals of our fire, and loading the pit up in their vehicle.  The light shines in the darkness, until someone steals your firepit.

The theft - minor, in the scheme of life - felt like water thrown on the flames of our Easter faith.  Jesus won over the powers of sin? Maybe we hung too soon the sign “Mission Accomplished.”

Sometimes I think back to that Easter Vigil Service because the dichotomy of celebrating Jesus’ victory over sin and death while being robbed seems like such a parable for our spirituality.  Can we hope, even when it seems improbable? Can we still work for justice, even when it seems like society backslides? Can we forgive, even when it seems we’ll get hurt again?

Our reading today - the story of Jesus’ presentation in the Temple and the reactions of Simeon and Anna - speak to how we can rejoice when the realization of hope still seems distant.  Simeon and Anna found a way to celebrate God’s liberating justice when the world around them continued to be marked - and marred - by inequality and injustice. Simeon and Anna hoped in a way that makes this often overlooked story a key to understanding the promise of Christmas.

Luke wrote the story of Jesus’ birth as a play with three acts.  First Act: promises and expectations as Zechariah and Mary hear from Gabriel and Elizabeth and Mary become pregnant.  Second Act: Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem, the heavenly choir sings, and shepherds come to see. Final Act: Mary and Joseph travel to Jerusalem, Simeon sings, and Anna makes a prophecy.

Our typical reading of the Gospel stops after the second act: the shepherds.  We miss the way Luke wrapped up the story in the third act. The First Act - the promises - built the expectation that John and Jesus would led a movement of change, “scattering the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, bringing down the powerful from their thrones, and lifting up the lowly.”  The Second Act declared these promises realized, as angels sang of peace on earth.

But if we end our Christmas gospel there - with the angels and the shepherds - we miss how Luke imagined these promises coming true.  We need the Third Act.

Two new characters enter the story for the third act - Simeon and Anna.  Luke called Simeon “a man who was righteous and devout.” But the most important description remained unspoken: Simeon wasn’t a priest or Temple authority.  In a highly structured society, in which only priests could enter the most sacred precincts, Simeon stood outside the power structure. This was even more true of Anna, whom Luke called, “a daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher, a very old widow who never left the Temple.”  In scripture, widows are synonymous with the poor. And while we might think it pious that she lived in the Temple and fasted, we might also see her as a homeless woman who spent much of her time hungry, praying for a bit of food. Both Simeon and Anna spent their time in the Temple but existed outside of its hierarchy of power and privilege.

Simeon and Anna, along with Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, lived in a world marked by exclusion.  Ethnicity, gender, age, and wealth divided up their world. And yet, when they met, they formed a community of inclusion.

I’ve already indicated some of the ways this scene in the Temple upended the expectations of class.  But I want to make it plain: there are no priests in this story in the Temple. Priests defined the Temple; only priests could enter its most central places; the work of priests was the whole reason to go to the Temple; but on this day, the action takes place among lay people, people without privilege in the Temple; and among some of the poorest people.

But even more, Luke upends the expectations of gender in this story.  (Of course, of all the Gospels, Luke shows the most concern for stories of women; nearly a third of the stories only found in Luke speak about women and their experiences.)  The gender signals in this story point in all the wrong directions. Mary came to the Temple for a ritual purification after giving birth; women went through the ritual alone but in this story, Joseph attends to her.  Throughout Luke spoke of “their purification.” Joseph stands beside Mary, they both take part in acts of purification, related not to a hierarchy of priests but to other vulnerable people like them.

So what emerges in this Third Act is a scene in which bit players rejected the dominant narrative of their society.  Instead of following the narrative of exclusion, they played their parts in a story of inclusion. Simeon and Anna each responded to this new storyline: imagining a new world birthed in their inclusive moment.

The narrative of exclusion - whether in the first century colonialism of Rome over Israel or in our modern expressions of domination - seeks to divide, control, and exploit people.  But Mary, Jesus, Joseph, Simeon, and Anna refused to follow that script. They improvised: a commoner acted the role of priest, a poor woman spoke holy words of blessing, a husband underwent the purification for women along with his wife.  Simeon and Anna didn’t wait for the dominant narrative to define the realization of their hopes; they didn’t wait for a victory Herod and the Emperor would recognize. Instead, they wrote a new story together, the beginning of the Gospel of liberation.

Chimamanda Adichie, a writer from Nigeria, recently spoke about the danger of single stories - dominant narratives - and why we need to create a variety of storylines for ourselves.  Adichie described growing up in Nigeria, a voracious reader. As she explained, “I was also an early writer, and when I began to write, at about the age of seven, stories in pencil with crayon illustrations that my poor mother was obligated to read, I wrote exactly the kinds of stories I was reading: All my characters were white and blue-eyed, they played in the snow, they ate apples, and they talked a lot about the weather, how lovely it was that the sun had come out.  Now, this despite the fact that I lived in Nigeria. I had never been outside Nigeria. We didn't have snow, we ate mangoes, and we never talked about the weather, because there was no need to.

A single story can trap us into seeing our world - and other people - in limited ways.  Adichie described going to visit the village of a person - Fide - who worked in her home.  She’d been raised to think of him as very poor - as in, “eat all your food because people like Fide’s family have nothing.”  One day the family went to Fide’s village, where she saw a beautiful basket made by Fide’s brother. Adichie described her reaction, “I was startled. It had not occurred to me that anybody in his family could actually make something. All I had heard about them was how poor they were, so that it had become impossible for me to see them as anything else but poor. Their poverty was my single story of them.”

Adichie experienced the other side of this single story trap when she came to America to study.  Her roommate, meeting her Nigerian roommate, assumed Adichie couldn’t use modern appliances like stoves, lived in the bush, and danced to “tribal” music.

Do we get trapped in a single story?  A limiting story told about us in our society?  Or our family? How can we write a new story for our lives?  Simeon and Anna remind us we can escape by improvising a new story; we can all have a Third Act for our lives.

This past summer a horrific crime played out in Iowa.  Mollie Tibbetts, a 20-year old college student, went for a run, never to return home.  After a month, her body was found in a field, covered in corn stalks. Police arrested an undocumented worker in town, a young man named Bahena Rivera.

The report of her missing daughter and then the excruciating discovery of her body devastated Laura Calderwood. How could she go on?

But her private grief became overwhelmed by a national narrative.  Politicians pushing an anti-immigrant narrative used the story of her daughter’s death to push for crackdowns on undocumented people.  The dominant narrative sought to divide, control, and exploit the story.

Undocumented immigrants in the town started to flee, including the family of Ulises Felix.  Ulises went to school with Laura’s youngest son. Ulises didn’t want to leave the only town he’d ever known; so Laura and her son took him in.

She felt anger, but not toward an entire group of people.  Still, Ulises living in her home challenged some of the story she constructed about what happened.  The investigators spoke of Rivera as “demonic.” But slowly she began to hear other stories about him.  Ulises grew up on the same farm; his parents often fed Rivera; and Ulises’ cousin dated him and bore his child.  The stories complicated Laura’s view of Rivera, causing her to see beyond the awful thing he did.

And, as complex as her emotions may get, she sets them aside because she now has two boys to care for, her son and Ulises.  The three of them are writing a new story for their lives, one of grace and grief and forgiveness and hope.

I find Laura’s story gives me hope.  Not because everything happened perfectly, not because everything got resolved, but because in her grief she refused to be broken.  Instead of playing out a dominant narrative of exclusion, she, like Simeon and Anna before her, improvised a new story of inclusion, welcoming into her home Ulises.

As we turn from 2018 to a new year, what new stories can you improvise in your life?  What narratives trapped you? What Third Act can bring together the story of your hopes?

May you, like Simeon and Anna, come to say to God, “my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples.”  Alleluia and Amen.