Presentation of Our Lord (Candlemas): Staying in the Temple on the Mission to the Margins
A Sermon Preached at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark
Isaiah 40:21-31; Psalm 147:1-12, 21c; 1 Corinthians 9:16-23; Mark 1:29-39
The Reverend Tyler B. Doherty, Priest-in-Charge
Today we are baptizing little Marguerite and I’ve been thinking about what that means for us as individuals and as a community of love who vow to walk the way of love with her as our sister in Christ. We’ve all heard that question, “What would Jesus do?” asked as a way to get at what love looks like in a particular situation, and I suppose it’s fine as far it goes. I was wondering this week, however, if a better question might be, “Where do we find Jesus? With whom does Jesus keep company?”
In these opening chapters of the gospel according to Luke, we move through a number of different spaces—geographic, familial, liturgical, ethnic, cultural—in order for us to realize two things. First, that what God is doing Christ is of a piece with the entire work of salvation that God has been up to since the foundation of the world. From the creation of Adam and Eve, the calling of Abraham and Sarah, the leading of the people of Israel out from bondage under Pharaoh through the waters of the Rea Sea and into freedom, the raising up prophets to call Israel back to the way of justice, mercy, and love, to its culmination in the sending of God’s own Son, there has always only been one aim—that we might place our trust in God, to dwell in his house, and know the happiness and joy that is our birthright. The first point Luke wants us to see is that God is always about calling forth healing, reconciliation, wholeness and salvation. The second point is that this healing, reconciliation, wholeness and salvation includes every aspect of our lives—our work for justice and peace, our emotional life, our family life, our common life as a community, as a nation, and as planetary citizens. Luke’s second point is that salvation as it is lived out is the embodiment of love always and everywhere: in so-called sacred places, and in the most mundane, at the altar and at the A&P.
So where do find Jesus? We find him in those places where humanity is most at risk, where humanity is most disordered, disfigured, and needy. Jesus is found in the neighborhood of human confusion and suffering—standing beside, walking with, serving defenselessly and vulnerably alongside those whose lives display the most acute human need. In our baptism, we are charged with going where Jesus goes in his risky, dangerous mission to the margins. Rowan Williams asks, “‘Where might you expect to find the baptized?’ One answer is, ‘In the neighborhood of chaos.’” Christians are those slightly mad folks who pledge themselves to walk the upside-down way of love—moving towards those from whom others recoil, and embracing the unembraceable. We step out, quaking in our boots to be sure, and go empty-handed to the places that scare us. What we find is not that there is nothing to fear (that’s pure tom-foolery), but that God, Emmanuel, is with us. Like the three men walking through the fiery furnace in the Book of Daniel we discover that even in the depths of human suffering, God walks with us, and makes a way out of no way, opens a doorway where there was only a dead end. It might not be what we expected, what we planned on, or even hoped for, but God makes a way through. Nothing is lost in the economy of God’s love, and no one is left behind.
One of my favorite characters in the gospel according to Luke is the prophet Anna—the old widow who never leaves the temple, but worships there with fasting and prayer night and day. Clearly, this is a bit of hyperbole—we are not to assume that Anna was some kind of squatter on the temple grounds. But the hyperbole has a particular point to make, a deep truth about the Christian life—in our baptism we are called to never leave the temple, to “pray without ceasing” as Paul tells us, and see each place we find ourselves in, no matter how apparently ordinary, as charged with the grandeur of God, alive in the Spirit. Not leaving the temple doesn’t mean we are Church rats—what I got called as sacristan at Seminary because I had to be at every service and set up for daily Eucharist. Not leaving the temple means that our lives are opened up to God, that our lives are spent being so close to Jesus that his life becomes ours. Not leaving the temple means that through the grace of baptism and in the power of the Holy Spirit we are called to make every place a temple, a tent of meeting, an open space in which God in God’s freedom can act. We are baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus in order that we might be open doors through whom people know themselves as precious in God’s sight, as beloved children of the household of God—that household without walls that includes all of creation: electrons, elephants, and Elvis Presley.
That means, if we go back to that question—“Where do we find Jesus?”—that part of what it means to baptized is to somehow bear witness, manifest, and embody, the love of God in Christ through the Holy Spirit in all kinds of different places. If Jesus is the one who is pledged in unshakeable solidarity to those who are most at risk, most in need, most broken and despairing, then it’s clear that we are called to go to those very places and encounter those people and make of that chaos and suffering a temple. The baptismal question is something like this—“How do I make, with God’s help, this difficult relationship, this diagnosis, this disappointment, a temple?” So never leaving the temple is actually the exact opposite of sitting on our haunches in a pious doze, or holy slumber. It’s about getting out into the world, going where Jesus goes, and being open enough to the Spirit that prays in us at all time with sighs too deep for words, that in some small way people might remark echoing Jacob—“Surely God is in this place. I don’t know what’s happening, but surely that’s what Church looks like.”
When we open our lives to Jesus and let ourselves be temples where the Holy Spirit plays and cavorts, it’s not just a bed of roses. Righteous and devout old Simeon knows this and says it directly to young Mary in his blessing—"This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed-- and a sword will pierce your own soul too." Kind of downer, don’t you think? Why rain on the parade Simeon? I think Simeon knows all too well what happens when we practice the way of the empty-handed fishermen, and learn to walk in love as Christ loves us. Radical welcome, indiscriminate hospitality, and unconditional love tear the boundaries we’ve erected between ourselves and others. For those on the other side of the wall—the unclean, the unsavory, the unseemly, and the unhinged—the collapse of the boundary, and proclamation of the invitation to join the Christ at the banquet is certainly good news. It’s better than winning the lottery, not least because you don’t even have to buy a ticket.
But for those people who earn a living maintaining the boundary and who enjoy the little charge they get from separating themselves from others, the flood of baptismal waters washing over everything and consecrating each place and each person as beloved in the eyes of the creator, is distinctly bad news. Their position and power, their status and standing in the community are suddenly rinsed away and they discover themselves to be regular Janes and Joes—blessed and precious Janes and Joes welcome into the very life of God—but regular Janes and Joes all the same. That’s why Simeon says the sign, Jesus, the perfect and complete embodiment of God’s love for all creation in human form, will be opposed and that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed. What are those inner thoughts? Everything that resists the coming of love into the world. Everything that wants to preserve the old system of insiders and outsiders. Everything that, in the words of our Baptismal Covenant, corrupts and destroys the creatures of God, that prevents us from seeking and serving Christ in all persons, hinders the work for justice and peace, and honoring each person with the inherent dignity of a child of God.
So baptism is a joyous occasion, but it’s also a pretty risky affair. As Rowan Williams likes to joke, “You don’t go down in the waters of the Jordan without stirring up a great deal of mud!” Baptism is really about letting our defenses down. We practice letting ourselves be loved and welcomed as a beloved daughter or son of God. But we also drop our defenses so as to be with Jesus where he is—in the depths of human chaos, suffering, fragility, and need. In a certain way, baptism is the ultimate expression of Jesus in Gethsemane praying, “Not my will but thy will be done,” and Mary offering up her “Let it be with me according to your word,” at the Annunciation. Baptism is, to say the least, a rather inconvenient affair that implicates us in the whole network of human suffering to a staggering degree. The baptized are those who, going with Jesus into risk and darkness, open themselves up to receive the Spirit that allows them to call God Father, Abba, Papa.
Our mission to margins, pursued that there might not be a margin at all isn’t conducted by ourselves. We go as a people, a community, and our openness to the Spirit that prays within us means that we go in the Spirit just as Simeon is a Spirit-saturated old salt. Did you notice that Luke uses the words “Holy Spirit” three different times in telling Simeon’s story? The “Holy Spirit rested on him…” “It was revealed to him by the Holy Spirit” and “Guided by the Spirit…” Clearly, Luke wants us to see something. Being able to see Jesus, to receive Jesus, and to be received by Him into the bosom of the Father in the Spirit depends us being open to something other than the cocktail party that’s going on in our heads—that jumble of preferences, preconceptions, and prejudices.
Led by the Spirit, and in the knowledge that Jesus has shared fully and completely in all of our sufferings and redeemed them, soaked them through with God’s love, we step forth. Rising from the waters, we are new people not shackled by the fear of death that warps us in all kinds of ways. Jesus has assumed it all and redeemed it all. That is the freedom of the Christian that allows ordinary Janes and Joes to become leaven in the bread of the Coming Kingdom, and fast-spreading mustard plants that overrun our carefully manicured gardens and landscaped versions of the Kingdom. Freed from the slavery to death, we are free to make ourselves slaves of others—servants know that it is in giving ourselves away in service to others that we find who we really are. And that’s the reality baptism put before us. We die to manipulating and controlling others, fashioning them in our image, and learn, in the spirit of the Risen Jesus to stand with them, to walk alongside, to have our hearts broken with theirs. We sprinkle the salt of mercy, shine the light of God’s love in Christ, and walk in solidarity with those most at risk in the fiery chaos, confident that the Living God is the one who brings life out of death, possibility out of what seems intractable, and makes a doorway out of dead ends. With God’s help, we walk on, journeying into love with empty hands and without a net except for our trust in God--just like those fishermen Jesus first called.