Church and People

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A sermon for Candlemas, the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple, February 2, 2014.  The lectionary readings are Malachi 3:1-4 , Psalm 84, Hebrews 2:14-18 , and Luke 2:22-40.

How do we picture the church?  How do we picture our church?  If we met someone on an airplane or on the Metro and they were curious about our particular church, how would we picture it and explain it to them?

Over the past few years, at All Souls, we’ve tried hard to use more photographs of our church.  In our stewardship and program brochures, efforts to invite newcomers, and on our web site; we’ve used some good photographs of the church. But then, thank goodness, a friend pointed out a problem. Each of the photographs, though usually showing some beautiful aspect of the building, nonetheless gave the impression of an empty church.

A beautiful church at Easter, but empty.  A gorgeous space at Christmas, but empty.  Perhaps the worst was an almost-used image of our baptismal font—with no water, no child, and no one around!  Thank goodness, we caught that one in time.

We pray and work hard for God to send us people and for our church to grow in the Spirit– do we really want to show ourselves as an empty church? No, was the answer we came up with. And since making that decision, we’ve worked harder to have pictures of the church that show people—the people who come and go to various events, the ones we meet at street fairs, the farmer’s market, and public events, the people who are here every Sunday, the people who volunteer to decorate or clean or make music. We’ve tried to live out our own version of that old children’s rhyme, “Here’s the church, here’s the steeple, if you look inside our doors, you’ll see people.”

But the question can be asked for each one of us: How do we picture church?  What do we see when we come to church?  Do we focus on the saints in wood and glass? Or do we see the saints among us—the difficult person from the Adult Forum class, the visitor who had the temerity to sit in our seat, or the ordinary and extraordinary saints-in-the-making all around us?

When we think of the temple of God, do we dare to see ourselves as God views us:  beautiful and beloved?

On this Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple, the Gospel doesn’t pay much attention to the building. It focuses on the people. Jesus, the flesh and blood baby, now forty days old, is brought for a blessing. His mother Mary comes also to the temple for her blessing. And then, the bulk of the Gospel involves Holy Simeon and the Holy Anna.

Simeon waits at the temple. He has received a vision that he will see the Messiah before he dies, and so he waits. And then it happens:  He sees Jesus, he holds him, and then Simeon gives thanks to God for bringing such life and light into the world. Because of this little baby, because of the coming of the Messiah, there will be peace and glory and salvation, salvation for all. Somehow, someday.

Anna, too, is in the temple, night and day, fasting and praying. With her trained spiritual eye she sees Jesus and recognizes him. She too gives thanks to God and tells others that Jesus is the way to salvation.  Someday, somehow.

Simeon and Anna are people whose faith outshines the temple itself. They know to look for God in the flesh, and because of this, they recognize Christ when he comes among them.

The epistle reading today is from the Letter to the Hebrews. It reminds us “Surely it is not with angels that [Jesus] is concerned, but with the children of Abraham.” Jesus was made human in every respect, so that he might offer all of his humanity to the service of God, clearing the way for us to reach God. The lesson concludes with those beautiful words of hope, “Because [Jesus] himself has suffered and been tempted, he is able to help those who [like us] suffer and are tempted.”

This weekend, several of us attended the 119th Convention of the Diocese of Washington.  This is the annual get-together of the clergy of the diocese and representatives from every parish, and this year we met at Reid Temple, AME Church, a huge campus in Glenn Arm, MD.  Heidi Rasciner and Will Coley represented us.  Some of the priests who are retired from other ministry, and who join us when they can, were also there—Mother Orens, Mother Lusignan, and Mother Thon.

Friday night and Saturday, as happens sometimes at these convention-like meetings of the church, during most of the worship experiences, I found myself alternating between feelings of profound sadness and outright anger.  It seems that when worship is designed by committee, the overall motive seems to be “more is better and when it doubt, be loud.” It was not how I “pictured” the worship might be.  At many places during the worship, had it been convenient, I would have simply left.  Except for one, hugely important thing:  people I care about were there.  People I love had helped design the trainwreck of liturgy.  While I disagree with their choices, I love them.  The Church was very much there, just not how I normally picture it.

In Tuesday’s Washington Post [January 28, 2014], Ben Hutchens and I were quoted, talking about another version of this same thing.  The reporter was asking about the conversation churches have, and always have had, around what’s appropriate for our common gatherings.  The newspaper column touched on the question of theater and music, but the question really goes further, doesn’t it?  In our dream church (the one—if we’re honest—you and I are always  looking for), is there room for missteps and human error, for blunders and bad experiements, in short, is there room for God’s people—broken and on-the-mend, as we all are?

In presenting his own body in the temple, Jesus leads us to present our bodies as well.

We present all that we are to God, that he might consecrate us and purify us and help us to live more faithfully. In the Presentation, we are also reminded of that choice that comes for us every time we enter the temple: do we look for God with the angels, or do we look for God in the broken-but-healing lives all around us? As we notice a few more candles around us especially on this day, may the Spirit remind us that here is the source of our light, that even on the darkest of days, Christ comes to us in this place, in sacrament, in prayer and in the outstretched hands of Christian community.

On this Candlemas, may the light of Christ be rekindled in our hearts that we may shine forth with his love in the world. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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