The following is roughly the sermon I gave at Chalice Christian Church on December 27, 2008.
Good morning, everyone. I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas. We certainly did here at Chalice. For those of you who were here for the Christmas Eve service you got to finally enjoy the Christmas carols that Linda wont let us sing during Advent. And of course, last Sunday we enjoyed the Chalice tradition of Improv at the Stable. How great was it to see so many of our young people participating even if some of them were pressed into service? Well, following up the pageant, I thought we would have a little quiz. So, here we go, in what order did these events occur. If you know the answer just call it out.
The quiz is basically what is contained in this old post. The punch line that today’s scripture doesn’t fit into the classic pageant.
Examination of the Scripture
Okay, so why do this exercise? Well, first off, if you recall when James preached on youth Sunday that he occasionally spars with his eighth grade classmates over matter religious; you will be shocked to learn that I have found myself in similar discussions with coworkers. So, I want to make sure you all are also equipped for such confrontations. The more serious, more important reason is that this examination demonstrates these stories cannot be read as a newspaper story or a biography. Once you realize that these were not written as factual recounts, you have to ask yourself why did the authors write what they did. And, that is the question we need to go after today.
Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, our strength and our redeemer.
First, there are hints in this story of what is to come. Jesus the social and spiritual revolutionary is foreshadowed in this story. For example, the sacrifice they bring is that of two pigeons, which according to the Old Testament is an exception for the poor from the requirement to bring a lamb and a pigeon.
Next, as with the rest of Luke, there are several examples of parody between men and women. The story says that they were purified, when the law only required Mary to be purified after giving birth. Jesus’ greatness is declared not just by a man, Simeon, but also by the woman, Anna. Mary and Joseph are doing everything together. You may start to have visions of the woman at the well or Mary & Martha.
Finally, while we have all this discussion of the temple and the law, we have Simeon say, “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel,” this might bring you to the clearing of the temple and hearing him tell Mary, “a sword will pierce your own soul” may bring you all the way Gethsemane.
So floating around in the mix are these images but we can’t let the subtext overwhelm us. Remember, that while Matthew follows the birth in Bethlehem with Herod behaving like Pharaoh, and Jesus first going then coming out of Egypt, Luke has the holy family doing pretty ordinary stuff, as the author writes, “everything required by the Law of the Lord”.
Role of Customs & Rituals
This group assembled has in a real way inherited a tradition of rejecting tradition. As Christians, at some point after the fall of Jerusalem, we rejected Judaism. As Protestants, we rejected Catholicism. As Disciples we have rejected even Protestant doctrine, with Barton W. Stone declaring that he professed the Westminster Confession of Faith “As far as it is consistent with the word of God.” (Which I’ve always thought was a kind of non answer.) We like to say that we have “No Creed but Christ.” It seems clear from today’s scripture that Luke didn’t share such a stark few of tradition.
Now, a quick story. When Mom and Dad were first married, he bought a set of encyclopedias. He did this when, as I understand, they were eating peanut butter for lunch everyday because half of his Air Force salary went to their rent. Evidently they a little fight over this choice. As a result, years later whenever we had a question Dad would send us to the encyclopedia—thus justifying his purchase. Well, Pat & I didn’t fight about it, but I have a set of books called The Great Works of Western Civilization, and I like to get them out whenever I can. So, lets start with Plato.
Plato praised “the particular training in respect of pleasure and pain, which leads you always to hate what you ought to hate, and love what you ought to love from the beginning of life to the end” and just hated novelty. In fact, he praised the Egyptians because their current art was exactly the same as there ancient art.
There is something to this. In some sense, our scripture this morning is a story of preparation. Surely part of Jesus’ growing in strength and wisdom and being full of grace comes from the practice of spiritual disciplines. Spiritual disciplines like studying: he could not have fended off the attacks from church leaders to Satan in the desert if he was not familiar with his scriptures. At age thirty when his ministry began, he could not have simply turned on empathy for all those who he healed—empathy is an acquired skill, it is I think one of the greatest advantages of coming here to pray for others. How could he have recognized the need for the rich to surrender their material belongings, if he had not himself experienced the joy that his charity.
Likewise, we cannot expect to be a force for good in the world, an agent of change if we don’t likewise practice spiritual discipline.
Of course, I suspect some of you cringed at the idea of teaching children what to love and many of you cringed about teaching children what to hate. And the dialogue has some stuff that would make even the strongest champion of back to basics education blush, when it says that the populous cannot be asked to judge what is best. Nor the children or women, nor the young men, but obviously what the old men think is best is what is best. (Which is easy to sell when you’re only speaking to old men.)
On Sunday, I cut out some citations, which are italicized below, in the interest of time.
Recent thinkers are more in line with liberal ideology seeing the often destructive effect of over emphasizing tradition. Freud wrote, “its ordinances, frequently too stringent, exact a great deal from him, much self-restraint, much renunciation of instinctual gratification.” It becomes therefore one of the main aims of psychoanalytic therapy to release the individual from the bondage to custom.
Indeed, the fight over marriage equality is largely about adhering to old traditions without recognizing the reality of love. Much racism, both attacks against African Americans and those against recent immigrants, are justified with references to custom and culture. Likewise, much of the economic injustice we see in the world today is a product of traditional behaviors. It is tempting to throw it all out. Indeed, this is exactly the reason guys like Sam Harris wrote the End of Faith, wherein he blames religion for successfully transferring accountability to allow devastating injustice.
Francis Bacon wrote The first of these is the extreme affecting of two extremities; the one antiquity, the other novelty … one of them seeketh to devour and suppress the other; while antiquity envieth there should be new additions, and novelty cannot be content to add but it must deface: surely the advice of the prophet is the true direction in this matter, “Stand by the ways and see and ask for the ancient paths. Where the good way is, and walk in it; and you will find rest for your souls.” Jeremiah 6:16
Spring board to changing from within
But it is not just for our own well being that we are versed in our culture. It is not just for the sake of gaining the benefits of spiritual disciplines. We must be engaged, I believe, in order to bring about change within the larger Christian Church. This is my fear: that thinking people are falling away from the church. Now, I think this church can be a vehicle to continue to bring such people into the Church. And the Church needs them. Those are the people who can be an agent for change in the church universal.
And that as a result, we are increasingly talking past each other. We see our holy scriptures brutally misinterpreted. Read in a way that is absolutely inconsistent with the words on the page. We see prophesy transformed into fortune telling instead of social commentary; faithfulness turned into a suspension of disbelief instead of fidelity to the teaching of Jesus Christ. We can’t let it happen. There is too much to be lost.