This is my teddy bear. It doesn’t have a name. It was given to me when I was born and has travelled with me into different neighbourhoods, homes and stages of my life. On the one hand it’s a lovely gift you give a child and yet on the other it symbolises something you cannot see - a love, a relationship that sustains you from childhood into the rest of your adult life.
These teddy bears have been knitted lovingly to be given away to the families of small children who come for Christening. On the one hand it is just a gift from the church community to that child and their family and yet on the other it symbolises something you cannot see - the blessing and presence of God who loves that child from conception to grave and wants them to love Him too. It connects that child and their family to a particular time and place by water and oil; but also welcomes them into a family of people of differing ages and stages.
This morning we meet Mary and Joseph going up to Jerusalem, following the centuries old traditions of their faith. They went with their first born son to honour the God who had been faithful to their forebears. What they were doing was common place and normal.
Encountering Simeon and Anna introduced an abnormality as Simeon takes their child and speaks not a blessing over the child but himself. No wonder they were amazed. But as Simeon blessed the couple, he turns to Mary and speaks of her child tipping the balance of power amongst their people to the point that he will be opposed - silenced, stopped, perhaps even crucified… her heart and soul now cleaved in two by such awful news.
This morning we encounter Simeon and Anna, who through years of faith filled tradition reveal their trust in the same God, who through those traditions, speaks, acts and transforms our today and tomorrow by the power of the Holy Spirit.
What’s clear to me is that Mary and Joseph did not come to the Temple to have their feathers ruffled or their received traditions challenged. They knew what they were coming to do and what to expect. They followed the Law of Moses to the letter - offering the thank offering of the poor for their Son’s safe arrival and for their own sanctification.
It sounds familiar doesn't it? We come to church week in week out. We carefully attend to the various practises of our faith that countless others have lived and shared. Honouring the God who had been faithful to our forebears. We certainly do not expect to have our feathers ruffled or our practise challenged. When we come many of us know what we are coming to do and what to expect. And we find it difficult, unsettling and uncomfortable when the liturgy is different, or the music changes or there is no Eucharist. But when two words I’ve heard recently to describe the church come again and again - buildings and boring - you know that we have got something badly wrong.
'...Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God…'
Aerial performer Jennifer Bricker was born without legs. Adopted by a loving and supportive couple, both they and she never let it stop her reaching her goals. By the age of 11 she was a gymnastics champion - having fallen in love with the sport after watching Dominique Moceanu win a gold medal for the US at the 1996 Olympics. She followed the ups and downs of her idol over the years. When Jennifer was 16 she asked her mother if there was anything they hadn't told her about her birth family. To her surprise, her mother said: "Your biological last name would have been Moceanu."And it turned out to Jennifer and Dominique’s surprise and delight that the two had a lot more in common than athletic talent but they were sisters.
I find myself surprised and delighted by Simeon and Anna. It is clear that they both played a very important role in revealing God’s love and purposes for Jesus to Mary and Joseph. They continue to challenge me to think and think again about the way we help young parents and their children hear of God’s love and purposes for them. But they offer me a further challenge.
Simeon and Anna offer us a pattern for living out our faith. Yes they clearly loved the traditions of their faith but they weren’t a means to an end, as it’s clear that as they meet the Holy Family, the Holy Spirit had tuned their hearts to the music of God. Their lives were a dance that told of a radical trust in that God who they knew would one day fulfil His long held promises in their day and in the their age. It is no accident that their encounter with Mary, Josephs dn Jesus took place in the heart of Jewish life and worship - the Temple - the place that enshrined the presence of God amongst His people.
Two words to describe the church that I’ve heard in recent days - buildings and boring. Yet the Bible talks of the church as a body; as people; as disciples as something organic, full of life and growth. There is a dissonance. How do we become the church we long to see - the people of God who embody His presence in in this place?
What is Jesus asking of us? Our traditions need to lead us to God and not be an end in themselves - constrained by expectations and time. Our worship needs to be engaging, beautiful and moving, drawing us into the presence of the God of tradition but with an expectation He will speak still through Scripture and sustain us through the Sacraments. We are part way through an experimental pattern of worship. We didn't change things for changes sake, but try to enable as many people as possible to encounter God. Change is uncomfortable. But our worship is something we offer to the God who loves us and longs to transform our hearts and lives. When it has been boring - sorry. Please journey with us as we seek to meet God in new ways together.
We need to allow our buildings which speak of God the Creator to be the places where the church gather to have the Holy Spirit rest on us; where we encounter God and be remade and transformed by Him. Our buildings are places where we the church should be expectantly waiting, hoping praying that God will do as He has said He will.
We need to radically trust the God we cannot see - expecting Him to fulfil His promises. That doesn't mean we do nothing - we should live that reality - being gracious with our time and our generous with our money for without enough of either we stop looking expectantly for God and instead see a few more empty pews & changing figures in our accounts. Simeon and Anna faithfully worshipped; Mary and Jospeh gave what was needed both expecting nothing in return but they did so responding to the God whose love and presence filled that place.
The Temple was the place that enshrined the presence of God amongst His people. The church is the people of God who embody His presence in in the communities of our parish. Today we reorientate our gaze from looking back to Christmas as Christ’s coming amongst us to looking forwards to the mystery of His Passion - His Crucifixion and Resurrection. Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk, described our journey of faith like driving a car on the motorway at night - the only way the driver can keep to the road is by using his headlights. So will you help me steer this car following the light of Christ? Will you help me and each other to not look back to where we have been but to look ahead to where God is leading us? Will you help me by being gracious with you time and generous with your money so that we can focus on God and His leading and not those things? Will you help to ensure the times we gather to worship or study to be occasions where we encounter God and are remade by Him? Pray with me...
A prayer of St Thomas Aquinas:
Most loving Lord, grant me
a steadfast heart which no unworthy desire may drag downwards;
an unconquered heart which no hardship may wear out; an upright heart which no worthless purpose may ensnare. Impart to me also, O God, the understanding to know you, the diligence to seek you, a way of life to please you, and a faithfulness that may embrace you, through Jesus Christ my Lord. Amen.