Throughout my time in parishes, I have been reminded again and again how different the varied groups are in church. In one parish I served, the Twenties and Thirties group was struggling because the events that appealed to the single Twenties and Thirties members were not as appealing or convenient for the married Twenties and Thirties members – let alone the ones with children. At another parish where I served, I remember trying to plan an event for a diverse group of families. I suggested a particular time of day, keeping in mind the bedtime needs for our new infant. After much debate, one of the other staff reminded me that families with older children do not need to start bedtime nearly as early as our family did. I served in one parish that had Holy Eucharist on a weekday at 6:30 am, followed by Bible Study from 7:00 – 8:00 am. As a sleep-deprived parent of a young child, the arrangement was hideous for me; but for those who worked in the City and needed to be there by 9:00, or for seniors who were up and fed well before 6:30 am, the timing was perfect. And almost every parish I have been a part of has had youth lock-ins. It is a special adult who is willing to supervise youth overnight, knowing that they may get little to no sleep, may need to navigate the energy and sexuality of teens, and are willing to be pretty silly and playful when they otherwise would like to be snuggling into a warm, comfortable bed for the night.
That is the funny thing about churches. Though we all arrive on Sunday on time, relatively speaking, to do the same thing together, we all enter those doors with vast differences. There are the basic differences – gender, age, marital status, and phase of life. There are the personality differences – introverts or extroverts; morning or night people; spiritually expressive or quiet and contemplative. And then there is what we bring in the door with us on any particular day. Perhaps you just barely managed to dress and wrangle kids into the car to get them here today, probably running out of time to do much tending to yourself to get ready for church. Perhaps you woke up with aches and pains today, but willed yourself to come anyway. Perhaps you had a fight with a loved one recently, or even with a fellow parishioner, and you are not even sure if you are in the right mindset for church. When we take into account all those widely diverse features of any particular gathered group, we begin to see how amazing the idea is that we even gather together at all.
I see a similar dynamic on the day that the holy family went to the temple for purification. Mary needed to offer sacrifice in thanksgiving for a safe childbirth and sacrifice needed to be offered for Jesus as the firstborn son of the family.[i] The family has already been through a great ordeal these past 40 days. They managed to make their way to Bethlehem, had an eventful birth experience in a stable, had strange shepherd visitors, and are now back home. I imagine at 40 days old, Jesus is still not sleeping through the night, Mary and Joseph are still figuring out this first-time parenting thing, and we can tell from their sacrifice of two turtledoves or young pigeons that the young couple is still struggling financially.[ii] That this family made it to the temple for this traditional religious experience is a minor miracle. We all know couples who have been in that stage of life at one point or another.
Meanwhile, we have Simeon. He is a bit up in age, and has been waiting for a long time for the fulfillment of a promise. The Holy Spirit had revealed to him that he would not see death until he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. That means that Simeon has spent a lot of time at the temple, just waiting for that long-anticipated day. We know that Simeon is righteous and devout, and that the presence of the Holy Spirit is strong in him. He is a man wise beyond his years, who has been taught to look for just the right thing. We also know that he is a man of song. When he finally sees Jesus, he breaks into a song of praise that is now known worldwide, sung at Evensongs and said at Compline or after Eucharists. We know too that he is not afraid to tell the cold, hard truth, as he warns Mary what hardship is to come her way through her relationship with her son. We all know a gentleman or two from church who both show forth a Spirit-filled life, yet is never afraid to speak truth – no matter how stinging that truth might be.
Finally, we meet Anna. Anna is in her eighties. She has been a widow for about sixty of those years, so we know she has had a rough life. We also know that she spends every waking hour at the temple, worshiping, praying, and fasting. Her whole life is centered on being in the temple. We also learn that Anna is a talker. When she sees Jesus for the first time, not only does she praise God, but she also talks about the child to anyone who will listen. Surely we have met that older church gossip, who is always full of church news.
So we have this beautiful scene set before us: the frazzled young family, struggling both physically and financially to just get by; the wise, righteous older man who is filled with the Spirit, but holds nothing back – not even if maybe he should; and the older prophet whose whole life is at the temple, and who has no problem catching people up on temple news. In truth the scene is a bit comical. Though the scene is meant to be another Epiphanytide manifestation of the identity of Jesus Christ, the scene is almost absurd in reality.
As I pondered this scene this week, I could not help to think about our community of faith, and how absurd we probably seem to outsiders. We have all sorts of parents with children of various ages – many of whom have confessed their own frazzled lives to me on Sundays. We have teens who struggled to get out of bed to come to church, but who are listening and will ask really hard questions from time to time. We have empty-nesters who are so overjoyed to have a new lease on life that they are equally likely to be found at some exciting location as they are to be found at church. We have retirees who are deeply spiritual, who will also give you a piece of their mind. We have members who love when the guitar team plays and members who avoid church when the guitar team plays. We have members who will come to every Holy Week service, and other members who are lucky to make it to church on Easter Sunday.
If you look at our wide diversity, you might wonder how in the world we all call the same community home; and yet we all do, and most of us cannot imagine life without this community. That is the joy of church. Though that older member might take you to task on something, you also know that they often speak with the love of someone who knows you can take it and you need to hear it. Though there are Sundays when families feel like the behavior of their children has made their worship experience a complete bust, there are members around you who only get a glimpse of joy that week by being near your child and getting to know their beautiful personalities. Though that church gossip might frustrate you at times, she is also the same one who has been praying for you and brought you a meal when you were sick.
That is what I love about the text this Sunday and the reality of Church. Both the text and Church are extremely incarnational – they show us the depths of our messiness, but the beauty that can only emerge from that messiness. Both show us how no matter how wacky the people are, God shows up, and reveals joy, hope, and grace. Both show us that no matter how challenging our community might be at times, at its best, our faith community shows us how to better love God, love ourselves, and love our neighbors. No matter what stage of life we are in, what personality we bring to the table, or what hurdles we overcame to get here today, we need each other because God needs and uses each of us. For that messy, challenging, incarnate community of faith, I am forever grateful. That is the good news we celebrate today, and the good news that we invite all our messy, challenging, incarnate friends into as well. Amen.
[i] Lauren F. Winner, “Simeon’s Faithful Proclamation,” December 26, 2011, as found at http://thq.wearesparkhouse.org/yearb/christmas1gospel-2/ on January 29, 2014.
[ii] William R. Herzog, II, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B., Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 167.