Phyllis Anderson—February 2, 2011
PLTS Chapel of the Cross
- Luke 2:22–40
Each year we welcome the community back and begin the spring semester with this service of Candlemas. We bless candles and light candles to celebrate Jesus, the light of the world, “a light for revelation to the Gentiles.” We light the candles to let you know we are glad you are back — and to welcome our two new students and several special guests.
In the Eastern Church this day is called the Meeting, the Meeting of the Lord. This is the day when Simeon and Anna met the infant Jesus in the Temple. In that dazzling moment of recognition, they saw God. Their deepest hopes and longings were fulfilled and they were changed.
Most of you are here today because you have had such a revelation, such a meeting at some point, and it changed your life. You come here hoping for a deeper meeting with God. And those meetings keep happening — not on demand — sometimes when we least expect them. Anna and Simeon were surprised by the meeting even though they had been waiting for it for a long, long time.
I know that you have met God in your travels over these last couple of months since we were together. You are bursting to tell the stories. Yesterday in my formation group — those amazing men and women — Gretchen and Ana and Israel and Tyler — and Bill and Martha and Nate — were falling over each other to testify to where they met God in the Psalms of lament and the Ethics of Dietrich Bonheoffer. In the absolutely electric Evangelism and Justice intensive with Ruben Duran. Some were inspired by the people and leaders in the New City Parish in Los Angeles. They witnessed oppression first hand and saw the face of God in the faces of the poor. Others caught a new vision of the ministry God is calling them to as they experienced the Carter Center and MLK center in Atlanta and heard Representative John Lewis tell his story. Still others were renewed and praised God for the love they found in their families and in the simple freedom of time to play basketball and read a book. The hour and a half flew and they were still talking, still spinning, still praising God for the many ways they had seen the revelation of God’s salvation with their own eyes.
Jesus shows up to meet us here in worship, in the temple — just as he did for Anna and Simeon. We have his promise. In this service we will hear the words: “Take and eat. This is my body, given for you.” In the scripture we hear God’s own Word spoken. Luther dared to say that from the preacher comes the living voice of God. We affirm again and again that Word and Sacrament are the most dependable place of meeting with God.
But Word and Sacrament are not the only places where people meet God. A professor at Trinity Seminary some 20 years ago surveyed a large sample of faithful Christians asking the question: Where do you experience the presence of God? Under what circumstances have you said: My eyes have seen your salvation? Think about it for a minute. How would you answer?
According to the research, about 20% of people said that the meeting happens for them mostly in church — in formal worship like this, in the word and the sacraments, or in Bible study or reading great theologians or being lost in the beauty of sacred music and art and architecture. This relatively small segment of the population is disproportionally represented among pastors and theologians and, I might add, among seminary presidents. This whole church and seminary thing works for us.
The largest group of respondents — some 45% — say that they experience God in community — in intimate conversation, in times of shared prayer with close friends or within the family circle. Sure they go to church. They know it is important and good for them. They honor the disciplines of worship and study — but they really light up at church when they see their friends. It is in the personal relationships, in shared love, in physical connection with another human being, in the sound of voices blending, in the intensity of a closely bonded community — that they are most likely to actually have an experience of the presence of God that is transformative for them. Whenever we gather, even two or three of us, there Jesus is in the midst of us, just as he promised. It is true that Anna and Simeon’s encounter with the Christ child happened in the Temple, at a ritual occasion, but it was also a very human time of meeting among a small group — parents and elders and a tiny baby.
The next largest group — say 30%- enjoy community and attend worship, but don’t necessarily expect to experience God there. They find God — or God finds them — in times of solitude. They have to get away from the clutter of people and music and prayers and WORDS to hear God’s voice and feel God’s touch. Anna and Simeon had been waiting a long, long time for a sign from God, probably alone, probably in silence. Their years of silent praying and fasting prepared them for the revelation of the Christ child.
The contemplatives crave quiet— and so in this wordy place I’m glad we have contemplative worship on our weekly schedule. Some of you long for less theology to read and more time to just be still, to walk in the hills, to stand at the edge of the ocean. Seminary can be very frustrating for you. It’s hard for you to believe that writing a theology paper can be a deeply spiritual experience. It is for some. Honest.
And the smallest group — less than 5% — say they see God in the struggle for justice. God becomes most real and present for them when they are participating in demonstrations like we are seeing in Egypt, expending blood, sweat and tears to make the world a better place. We all long for peace and justice. We all know we should be out there doing our part to achieve it. For some few among us, the gritty work of doing justice is actually the window through which they see God.
God comes to us in many ways. The contemplative is not better than the activist. The thinker is not closer to God than the feeler. And none of us can be neatly categorized. The Spirit blows where it will. Hopefully we are all opening up to see God in more ways, new ways, unfamiliar ways. Spirituality Days on campus are a good way to expand and explore. Hopefully we are also growing in our understanding and appreciation for the ways our classmates and our teachers — and eventually our parishioners — meet God.
Simeon and Anna saw the long awaited Messiah with their own eyes, and it had a powerful effect on them. They came uncorked. Like my formation group, they couldn’t stop talking. They couldn’t stop praising. We still sing Simeon’s song — that great verbal release at the fulfillment of all his longing. He could die in peace now. He had seen God’s salvation with his own eyes and he could not stop singing. He praised God. He blessed the baby and his parents. He testified to them, preparing them for how their lives would be changed. And Anna — this old, old woman waiting and praying and fasting in the temple for decades — immediately began to praise God and speak about he child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
In a moment we will sing a favorite hymn of mine: “Go, my Children, with My Blessing.” As I pondered the story of the “meeting” this year, one line from the hymn kept running through my head. “Here you heard my dear Son’s story, here you touched him, saw his glory.”
I hope that happens for you today in worship, and then another day on the trail or in the midst of your friends or in the eyes of a homeless youth at Pastor Sarah’s church. And I hope you can’t stop talking about it. “Go my children, fed and nourished, joyful and free.”