Rev. Dr. Amy Butler
Today we’re still talking about gifts, and we’re rounding out our series on Simple Gifts by naming the gift of presence. You know, not the brightly wrapped packages under the tree, but presence, being intentionally in relationship. It’s loved ones who traveled from far away and grandchildren running around excited and dear friends with whom we share the holiday. It’s you, right here, sitting in a pew this morning or watching online. It’s people like Spencer and Roz and anybody who is willing to step out of their comfort zone, to reach across an imaginary or a real line, and to make an unlikely friend. It’s showing up; giving and sharing the gift of being present in the world, working to make it a better place. And most of all, it’s God: Emmanuel, God with us, come to earth to understand what it means to be human and to give us the gift of God’s presence.
And this might actually be the best gift of all—better than even Hamilton tickets—the reminder that no matter how cold and hard this world seems to feel, we are never alone. And we, in turn, are now called to give the gift of presence, to be present with each other and with a world that is in need of transformation through the power of love.
Today our gospel lesson from the gospel of Luke is all about presence, about showing up. The assigned passage begins in the second chapter of Luke’s gospel with Mary and Joseph headed to the temple to take care of some religious obligations they had after the birth of Jesus.
According to Jewish law, Mary and Joseph would have actually made two trips to the temple—one for Mary to go through a purification ritual after giving birth and one to dedicate the child—both involving sacrifices and dues paid to the temple. It appears that Luke, the only gospel writer to tell us about this incident, probably combined both trips into one story.
Whatever they were there for exactly, we immediately know that Mary and Joseph were very devout; they took this parenting thing seriously, and they were determined to do what was required for devout religious practice. And when they showed up at the temple with their new baby, they encountered two interesting individuals we meet only here in scripture. (Huh, hard to imagine encountering “interesting individuals” at temple, or church as it were…).
The first is a man named Simeon, who is described as “righteous and devout,” someone who came to temple regularly, hoping and praying for change in the scary world in which he lived. And, there was Anna, a prophet, the text says, an old woman who lived her life at the temple, worshiping and fasting there day and night.
Every day, Simeon and Anna were at the temple praying and waiting…waiting for some change to come, not sure exactly what they were waiting for, but showing up regardless. And as they prayed and sang and helped with all the details of temple life, what they were communicating was: if the world in which I live is terrifying and void of hope, if I don’t know what’s going to happen, if I’m not sure what I can do to change things, then the least I can do is show up. Offer my presence.
And there they were that day when Mary and Joseph and Jesus arrived at the temple.
Perhaps you are aware that there is often heated conversation in my circles about the inclusion of the “passing of the peace” in our worship experience. In fact, I probably get more emails and have more lively conversations about this than anything else in church life. This is the part of the service when the minister says “the peace of the Lord be with you,” and the congregation responds, “and also with you.” Then, the minister invites the congregation to exchange signs of peace with each other.
That’s where the disagreements arise. “I’m an introvert; I don’t like saying hello to people I don’t know.” “I come to church for silence and reflection; I don’t like small talk.” “I’m shy!”…and even, “But what if I don’t want to make peace with certain people…?”
Despite the controversy, we include the passing of the peace in our liturgy because the physical act of extending peace to our brothers and sisters is good practice for us—both in these walls and outside. But I understand that some people would just prefer to be about the business of worshipping God and not be bothered by strange church people they don’t know coming up to them and engaging them in conversation.
Perhaps this is how Mary and Joseph felt that day at the temple. There they were, minding their own business, trying to do what was required of them by religious law, and two rather strange individuals came right up to them, asked to hold their baby, and started making proclamations about him and even singing. Mary and Joseph and Jesus suddenly became the center of attention, because in addition to Simeon and Anna, there were many people at the temple that day who were there because they needed comfort during a difficult time. The Roman occupation of the region and the economic burden they faced made all of them, not just Simeon and Anna, long for the coming of Messiah—someone who would solve all of their problems.
So everyone started watching and listening when Simeon and Anna started exclaiming over this baby who they were calling a light to people living in great darkness. As he held the baby, Simeon started praying out loud, thanking God that the prophecy he had been waiting for for so long had finally come to be. He insisted: “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel…”.
Today we stand on the edge of a new year, and it seems to me that the ending of one year and the beginning of another is the perfect time to think about falling and rising, about the way that the gospel Jesus taught us results in the falling of corrupt systems—thanks be to God—and the rising of the kingdom of God, God’s highest hopes for our lives and our world.
With just a quick glance back over 2017, I think it’s safe to say that we are far too familiar with falling. In this year we have lived with considerable fear and uncertainty: a travel ban that discriminates against our Muslim brothers and sisters; the loss of health care by so many Americans, especially children who rely on the CHIP program; dramatic turnover and scandal in the highest offices in our government; the growing uncertainty and instability within immigrant communities; policies and pronouncements that put international relationships in peril. So much falling.
And even in the church in America, 2017 has been a year of falling. Some people who call themselves Evangelical Christians have sold their souls to corrupt human power, embracing evil in some distorted logic that sounds vaguely like ends justifying means. A public Christian witness has come to mean saying “Merry Christmas” while refusing to make wedding cakes for gay couples and supporting tax bills that hurt the most vulnerable among us, and it’s so bad that some of us who call ourselves Christians are wondering if we need to find a new name for what it is we believe.
2017 has been a year of falling. Falling, falling, falling…falling from a flimsy structure of comfort and security, feeling the ground underneath our feet shift in ways many of us never have before, and struggling to understand and live a faithful response to what feels like perpetual chaos.
But perhaps the beginning of a new year is a call to listen and respond to the other part of Simeon’s prophecy: the rising. To look all around at the chaos that engulfs us, to get our feet under us, and to offer the simple gift of our presence—of showing up—to be part of God’s kingdom rising to take its place in the world. Like Simeon sang: the message of this Emmanuel, God with us, is a message of falling…and rising.
How do you and I look at the uncertainty and fear of these times and rise to respond to the call of the gospel? Simeon and Anna, fixtures at the temple who waited for the consolation of Israel for years, would look around at all of us and say: why, you show up! You offer the simple gift of your presence. Because when you do, you become part of the rising.
I’d like to take a moment of pastoral privilege to tell you about something I’m doing over the next few weeks—of which you are now a part, to invite you to come along with me virtually, and to ask for your prayers.
This all started over three years ago, when I was new to New York and trying to understand the religious landscape of this city. I’d previously lived in Washington, DC, where interfaith connections in my work were strong and vital. But New York is a huge city with many more layers of religious diversity, and I didn’t know where to start to begin making those connections.
Back then I was particularly interested in understanding how to participate in dialog about Israel and Palestine with Jewish colleagues in the city. So I reached out to several local rabbis, three of whom have become very close friends over these years. All of us happen to be women, and we jokingly remarked a few years ago that the conflict in Israel and Palestine is so tangled and politically charged, it’s going to take some women to clean things up.
We began dreaming about the possibility of gathering a group of Christian and Jewish women religious leaders and traveling together to Israel and Palestine to meet women peace activists on the ground there, to give us new tools to understand the conflict and to work as we can toward peace.
It took all these years to make this trip a reality: finding the right people to go, coordinating ten very busy schedules, raising the funds to pay for the trip, arranging a program that thoughtfully engages folks on every side who are committed to transforming conflict into peace.
And so, finally, tomorrow I will show up at Newark airport and get on a plane to Tel Aviv, where I will meet up with the rest of the group. 5 women rabbis and 5 women ministers, none of us with the answers for how to usher in world peace, but all of us trying offer our presence, to build relationships with each other that will help us move the world, if just incrementally, toward a reality that is more peace and justice filled.
During our trip we’ll get to know each other while we meet and talk with women in Israel and Palestine who are showing up and making change. Over the course of two weeks we will meet with groups like: Women Wage Peace, a large movement founded in 2014 and consisting of thousands of members from the right, the center and the left of the political spectrum, Jews and Arabs, religious and secular, all working toward the achievement of a mutually binding non-violent accord, agreeable to both sides. We will meet people bringing Israeli and Palestinian children together to make art; women working with family members who have lost loved ones but who want to lend their voices to end violence; women who study genocide and ethnic cleansing and sound alarms; women who are working to lead religious communities, provide clean water for children on the West Bank, women opening conversations and relationships that are critical if we are going to rise together.
The original hope of this trip was to understand the conflict in Israel and Palestine, and to see how we as women religious leaders can be part of creating peace—even from far away.
Of course, this exercise is not limited to peace in the Middle East. We’re in need of peace and justice right here, as we know from the falling we’ve lived through in 2017. We should have always known this, of course, but the healing of our world is going to demand our presence right here, right now; showing up to do the hard work of relationship building over and over and over again, facing down the fear and dis-ease around us with the tenacious insistence that we will show up, that we are done with the falling, and that in 2018, we will be part of the rising.
I think this is the best gift all of us can give the world in 2018: the simple gift of presence, of showing up and having the hard conversations with love. Here at Riverside, we will be part of the rising in 2018 by treating each other with love, kindness and respect—to show the world what gospel community looks like.
We will welcome our neighbors.
We will work together to resist policies that hurt the poor.
We will defend the earth.
We will be a place where racism is rejected, where women are empowered, where everyone is welcome and everyone is safe.
Together in 2018, we can be part of the rising of God’s hope for the world by giving each other the simple gift of presence.
Today it’s the story of Simeon and Anna that inspires us, that reminds us no matter how deep the despair swirling around us, we can show up, day in and day out, insisting with our presence that we will turn from a year of falling and be part of the rising that the hope of God with us has brought. The rising.
It wasn’t just Simeon and Anna who said it, I heard it this week in the words of Lin Manuel Miranda, the soundtrack of Hamilton that I can’t get out of my head:
Legacy. What is a legacy?
It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see
I wrote some notes at the beginning of a song someone will sing for me
America, you great unfinished symphony…
A place where even orphan immigrants
Can leave their fingerprints and rise up…
Together, we can spend 2018 being part of the rising. And we do that by bringing the simple gift of presence to the work of God’s kingdom in the world—we do it by showing up. And when we do, we slowly but surely turn away from the falling, and we rise. Together. May it be so.