February 3, 2014

What is Our Message?


Text: Matthew 5:2: “Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying...”

Today is actually two days. It is one of those unusual moments when two pieces of the calendar overlap in a way that happens only once in a while.

Of course, first, it’s Sunday, and Sunday is always the Lord’s Day, and this particular Sunday happens to be the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany. But it is also the second of February, forty days after the birth of Jesus; and that means in the calendar of holy mother church today is not Groundhog Day, and not Super Bowl Sunday, but the feast of the Presentation of our Lord.

The feast of the Presentation recalls the story we heard in this morning’s Gospel from Luke, the moment when Joseph and Mary do the duty of all Jewish parents and bring their first male child to the Temple to dedicate him to God. The commandment to do this goes way back to the book of Exodus, to the very beginning of the covenant relationship between God and the people; every firstborn son is to be dedicated, quite literally sacrificed, to God.

Now, the children were not literally sacrificed, of course, and the story of why that was not the case is the subject of many, many scholarly books. But even so, the child was to be brought to the temple, and it was understood that part of the special relationship between God and the people hinged on the special claim God made on first-born children.

And there was something else that happened on this fortieth day after the baby arrived, something we hardly think of anymore. The laws of the covenant taught that on this fortieth day after the birth of a boy child, the mother of that child would come to the temple to be purified. Childbirth was understood to be a risky, risky thing, and the way in which Hebrew tradition made sense out of that was to set the new mother apart as ritually unclean until a certain time had passed, forty days; and then she could bring a sacrifice to the temple, and be restored to the community.

That all sounds a little odd to us, maybe, but that basic idea became the foundation for a ritual that the Christian church observed for many, many centuries—in fact, into the twentieth century. This was something known as the “churching of women,” a little ritual that would happen here in the church forty days after a baby was born, in which the new mother would come and give thanks for having survived childbirth.

A little hard for us to imagine that now, huh? But as recently as the 1928 Prayer Book, we had that service at our disposal. Imagine, if you would, our own Lisa Moore, who twenty-six days ago gave birth to Olivia and Arya, coming into the church today, and all of us turning to the prayer book and finding these words:

The woman, at the usual time after her delivery, shall come into the Church, decently apparelled, and there shall kneel down in some convenient place, as hath been accustomed, or as the bishop shall direct. And the priest shall say unto her:

Forasmuch as it has pleased almighty God of his goodness to give you a safe deliverance, and hath preserved you in the great danger of Childbirth; you shall therefore give hearty thanks unto God.

Believe it or not there was also at one time a prayer book liturgy for the Blessing of a Woman in Childbirth. Yes, really. Now, it was for back in the days that babies were born at home, and not in the hospital. But those of you who are moms, I want you just to think back for a moment to that critical, amazing moment when you were there in the hospital, and you knew it wasn’t going to be long before the baby came—and then I showed up looking like this, and handing you a prayer book, and telling you to turn to page 387.

At any rate: Today is the Feast of the Presentation. It’s a memorial of a day in the life of Jesus that fits perfectly with the broader theme of Epiphany, with the idea of Jesus becoming seen, and known, and understood, more and more, as the one who will change our relationship with God for all time.

The story from the Gospel of Luke underlines this idea by including the figures of Simeon and Anna in the drama. In fact they are the only ones who really make this scene something other than a routine day at the Temple. They are both elderly; they have each been waiting in great hope for the fulfillment of God’s promise that a savior will come, a child who will grow into the Messiah who will reconcile us and restore us to relationship with God.

All Mary does in this story is come bearing Jesus. She doesn’t say anything, she doesn’t preach anything, she doesn’t hand out any flyers; she simply comes bearing Jesus. And the people who are searching for that hope get it, immediately. That’s an Epiphany story.

Now, if you are a close reader of the Sunday leaflet, you may well be wondering: What on earth does any of this have to do with our message? And why does the sermon title quote a line from Matthew, when we heard a lesson from Luke?

I said that this was a day of two days. The other day that today is is the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany. And if February second had not been today, then we would have heard different lessons.

Specifically, we would have heard the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, that great teaching of Jesus from the Gospel of Matthew. We would have heard again that list of beatitudes, of blessings, upon the poor, the meek, the peacemakers, the merciful, the pure in heart, the seekers after righteousness.

That is the message Jesus offers to the great crowds that come and gather around him. That is a slice of the story from much later in the story, something like thirty years or so after the intimate scene with Joseph and Mary and the baby in the temple, and the old man and the old woman who tell the young parents that there is something very, very special about that child.

It seems to me that our own situation is closer to that of Mary than it is to that of Jesus in the beginning of his ministry. When Jesus clambers up the mountain so that the throngs can hear him, he’s the focus of a growing movement of interest. There is a buzz around him. Everyone wants to be hear him.

Compare that in your mind against the scene of Mary and Joseph at the Temple in Jerusalem. They are going to carry out a duty, not to offer a message or to make a speech. They have to fight their way through crowds of people paying no attention to them whatsoever.

And yet when they get to where they are going, when they carry out their duty, the lives of people who have lived in a desperate search for hope are changed. They find joy. Their hope is answered with a promise. They are reassured that God has not forgotten them, that God will hold up God’s end of the bargain.

The Sermon on the Mount is perhaps the most beautiful utterance in all of scripture; but it is Jesus’s message. I think the model for us, the pattern after which we can shape our own discipleship, is the example of the mother of the Lord. Mary simply comes bearing Jesus. That is all. She is carrying out a duty, not because she wants to, not because she will be rewarded or admired or hailed, but because it’s the thing she’s supposed to do.

Mary comes bearing Jesus, and for people living in hope everything changes.

We might have a modern-day laugh at that strange old custom of churching women after childbirth; but the fact is, giving birth is still a very dangerous and fraught thing. Life itself is a dangerous and fraught thing. The wisdom of the church, the mother that gives birth to us all in baptism, was to understand that the best we could do for ourselves and for each other when our own path through life became dark and dangerous was to pray, to come into the temple and pray.

If we follow the example of Mary, then we go out into the dark and dangerous world, through the busy streets with the crowds paying no attention to us, and we go bearing Jesus. We go out among people who are transiting their own moments of peril and pain, bearing Jesus. We go out among people holding on to a shred of hope that God has not forgotten them, and we go bearing Jesus.

We don’t have to preach the Sermon on the Mount. We have to be the Sermon on the Mount. Our message is the possibility that the moments of joy and of anguish, and every moment in between, can be dedicated to a higher purpose and joined to the hope of justice simply by bringing them into the shelter of whatever temple holds the possibility of prayer. Amen.