Sunday, January 29, 2017 – The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple
1 Corinthians 1:18-31
(Matthew 5:1-12, assigned)
The First 100 Days
We went to Boston the weekend we were away, and Ken and I visited the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum, in all its quirky wonderful weirdness. I love it, but it can be a frustrating place to visit if you’re actually there to see the art – between the strange placement of the paintings and the lack of decent lighting, and having to look on plastic cards to find the artwork in the rooms, … well you get the idea. Mostly we go for the experience. In the new wing, we took in the exhibit on illustrated manuscripts (really well done); and then entered the original museum. We had to be disciplined, follow our plan to see a few particular pieces, rather than try to do it all. And risk being overwhelmed by the magnitude and chaos, and end up seeing almost nothing.
On the second floor of the museum Ken and I admired Fra Angelico’s Death and Assumption of the Virgin in the Early Italian room, and made our way to the Raphael room where I overheard an argument between two women a little older than me. It was clear they had almost no grounding in the stories the artwork was based upon… really no idea. (“John the Baptist wanted to be the messiah, so he betrayed Jesus and that’s why they cut off his head…, right?”)
We in the Church have this assumption that the majority of the population knows the Biblical story, and I think we are being overly optimistic. But here’s the good news, in our reaching out to teach the younger, “unchurched” generations, we are catching up a lot of other people as well. So our being intentional about formation and liturgy is a very good thing for all of us. When we created the education program at St. Bart’s, we deliberately crafted a program that follows the same story as that in the sanctuary. It made sense to be formed by these lessons together, one community, no matter where you were in the building for church. Our other guiding principle is intentionally including the foundational stories. The ones we used to assume everyone knew – but can’t assume anymore. Because people don’t necessarily tell or read these stories at home, or come to church every Sunday all year, and we don’t celebrate the feast days that are during the week, which is where this morning’s Gospel story is normally heard. The Presentation of Our Lord is a fixed day, it happens 40 days after Christmas, on February 2nd. Three years ago that fell on a Sunday, so we had a chance to hear it then. But otherwise, it falls during the week. So Kerry and I decided to pull it forward to this Sunday, so we could celebrate the Presentation together.
Which brings us back to that trip to the museum. On the third floor in the Gothic room, we found the last painting on our quest, painted by Giotto, in about 1320, The Presentation of the Christ Child in the Temple, is a small painting. With Joseph and Mary on one side, Simeon and Anna on the other. In the center between them, there is a delicate ciborium: a wooden canopy supported by columns standing over the altar, it represents the Temple of Jerusalem. The artist has captured this moment in our text – when Anna realizes this is the child of the prophesies, she is holding a length of scroll in one hand and gesturing to Jesus with the other. Simeon is holding the infant Jesus out a bit over the altar, and recognizes him as the Christ Child, the Savior; while Jesus struggles to get back into his mother’s arm. Mary reaches a little for him, like she’s afraid he might slip Simeon’s grasp, while Joseph stands behind her, still holding the dove offering.
The painting is small, and yet, the whole story is contained right there in the image. The people look and act like real people, though with halos. We see clearly that Joseph has only the dove offering to give, because they are poor. And yet, he and Mary bring the greatest offering: the offering of this child, the light of the world. We see Simeon, who has waited for this moment, who holds the salvation of the world in his arms, and it has weight and warmth, this child is squirming and REAL. And Anna who just knows, and all that she has ever known backs her up. And Mary whose heart will be pierced but who has said YES, the greatest yes in history.
We don’t have many stories of the beginning of Jesus’ life, of his first days. This story happens on the 40th day, as Jewish tradition dictates; and this faithful family is dutifully doing their part. Given what both Mary and Joseph know at this point about their son, they realize they face an overwhelmingly uncertain future, but they faithfully follow the expected path. Though even this doesn’t go as they might have thought – as Simeon and Anna point to all that is to come. “your son is a light to the nations and the glory of the people, oh and a sword will pierce your heart, … and here’s your baby back, for now.” It must have been difficult to hear all of this, to face that uncertain future with hope and courage. But that’s what they are asked to do.
That’s what we are all asked to do, isn’t it? To face an uncertain future with hope and courage. Like Mary and her YES, it will be our choice. And like Joseph, we only have what we have to offer. What we can afford. And like Joseph and the doves, it will be enough. We don’t get to choose where in history we are placed, or our circumstances. What we do have is our ability to respond – always.
The Gospel lesson assigned for today is from Matthew’s Gospel, and Jesus has just called his disciples and has been walking through Galilee teaching the good news of the kingdom and healing. Here’s the lesson:
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Blessed are these in the eyes of God, for these are Kingdom values. We know that the ways of the world are not the ways of God – no argument there. We are experiencing the huge disconnect between the two right now.
My question for us is – How do we respond? For that is what is up to us, always. What do we have to offer? What will be our YES? What is our blessing for those in need of it? As the news reports keep rolling in, there are many in need of our blessing, our hunger and thirsting for righteousness, our mercy, … what will be our particular blessing for them?
The Women’s March movement has begun something they are calling 10 actions in 100 days, which I found really intriguing. Whether or not you are a political person, it’s clear that many in the community around us are in distress, and there are those living in fear of real persecution; those are reasons enough to respond. Let’s be clear – I am not asking us to get political – but rather to act as agents of God’s Kingdom. To act for those in need of our care. For real people (without halos).
10 actions in 100 days – that sounds like something we might be able to achieve. That’s only one act every 10 days: one act of kindness, one note, one call. Surely we can do that. For those in need of our blessing, our support, our protection, our care. Someone not personally known to us necessarily, to whom this would be a true act of grace, a gift from one who is an emissary of God’s Kingdom. From us. 10 actions in 100 days – that’s not all that much to ask of ourselves.
I know that many of us are really struggling right now with all that is happening in our country. It would be easy to be overwhelmed, but we can do better. We can face an uncertain future with hope and courage. We can walk into these 100 days with a plan to be intentional, to act on behalf of the Kingdom of God. 10 acts in 100 days. My friends, look around you, between us that’s a lot of action, a lot of hope, a lot of blessing, a lot of light.
In the words of the prayer we will pray after the Eucharist, The Song of Simeon:
“Lord, you now have set your servant free
to go in peace as you have promised;
For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior,
whom you have prepared for all the world to see:
A Light to enlighten the nations;
and the glory of your people Israel.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit:
as it was in the beginning, is now and will be for ever. Amen.”