Holding Christmas Hope

simeon2

Luke 2:22-40 NRSV

One of the great wonders of church is the surprises. Our worship on Christmas Eve was full of them. Sweet Little Jesus Boy becomes profoundly poignant when Brandy sings it without an instrument. While singing O Come All Ye Faithful, the magnificent sound of a trumpet is heard being played by someone we’ve never seen before. Young people stand tall behind this pulpit and share the Christmas story from the scriptures in a way that is soft and sweet, yet strong and stirring. A first-time visitor shows up, sits on the front row, and unexpectedly contributes to the worship service by helping us light our candles. The candles seem to flicker more beautifully during the singing Silent Night than we ever remembered. And who will forget Will and Natalie Brown walking in right before the service starts carrying their four-day old infant daughter.

It happens all the time. You are tired and give-out, but you get up and come to church anyway. You come more out of duty than desire. You come not really expecting anything surprising from what is certain to be a just another predictable service. You come fully expecting to leave the same way you came, unmoved, untouched, unchanged. But then, out of nowhere something happens that astonishes you: someone unexpectedly hugs you; a song you’ve sung a thousand times before astounds you; a word you’ve heard countless times startles you. God, in spite of everything, in spite of you, speaks. And everything, including you, is amazingly transformed. A tiny cracker and a sip of juice become more than sufficient. A simple handshake brings healing. A smile from an unassuming child generates hope.

Simeon had arrived to worship in the Temple as he had for many decades. He was as devoted to the Lord as anyone. For years he had been eagerly coming to the Temple expecting to be surprised by the presence of the Messiah; however, year after year he left each service disappointed.

It was just another ordinary Sabbath. Old Simeon was tired and give-out. Over the years, much of his anticipation had turned into doubt. But he got up and came to Temple anyway, more out of duty than desire, knowing that he would once again leave the service unmoved, untouched, and unchanged.

He came in through the front door, nodded politely to the usher who handed him an Order of Service that he had all but memorized, and settled in his usual seat for another predictable service. During the Prelude, he opened the bulletin and noticed that there was going to be another baby dedication service. As was their custom several times during the year, the minister was going to once again ask the congregation to bless a new born baby. Nothing unusual. Simeon had seen this a hundred times before.

But then, out of nowhere, it happened. After the Prelude, the Call to Worship, a hymn and the Invocation, this strange new couple unexpectedly came down the aisle holding a tiny baby. They were coming for the baby dedication service.

Simeon cannot explain how he knew it, but he knew it nonetheless. This was it. He could not keep his eyes off that baby during the prayers for the child and the parents, for he knew without a doubt that this was the Messiah, the Promised One God sent to save Israel.

In the middle of the dedication service, he grabbed the back of the pew in front of him with both of his hands and slowly pulled himself up to stand on his tired feet. Holding on to the pew in front of him, he shuffled past three people who were sitting beside him and made his way down the aisle to the front where the new parents were standing. Then he had the courage, some would say the audacity, to ask the parents if he could hold the tiny baby. He must have looked harmless enough, for Mary and Joseph handed the old gentleman their firstborn son without hesitation.

Again, Simeon cannot explain how he knew it, but he knew that he was holding more than a baby in his arms that morning. Astoundingly, he was holding hope in his arms. Amazingly, he was holding salvation in his arms. Holding none other than Christmas in his arms, Simeon had crossed off in his mind the only thing that was ever on his bucket list. He started praising God saying:

Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word;  for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.

That is the wonder of this thing called church. When we least expect it, God shows up and surprises us. We read a familiar scripture and hear something we’ve never heard before. We perform an ordinary ritual, like a Child Dedication Service, and something extraordinary happens that changes us forever.

Mary and Joseph showed up with their baby asking the likes of old men like Simeon to bless their new born baby, and the child ends up blessing Simeon.

We thought we knew what we were doing here this morning. We thought our friends Will and Natalie Brown have come merely presenting their infant, Graylyn Elizabeth, before the Lord. And we thought they came asking us, their family of faith, to take her in our church’s arms and bless her—Bless her by promising to teach her the faith, to share our knowledge of the Lord with her.

But, to our surprise, what if it is the other way around?

What if we are not here this morning to bless Graylyn, but Graylyn is actually here to bless us? Now, I know that Graylyn is not the Messiah; however, the Messiah had this to say about children like Graylyn: “Let the little ones come to me, for to such as these, belong the Kingdom of God” (Luke 18:16).

I believe this means that Graylyn may have more to teach us about the ways of God than we could ever possibly teach her. I believe this means that Graylyn and the other children whom God has given us are not the future of the church, but are the church’s present. Surprisingly, they have much to give the church today. Unexpectedly, Graylyn, even as young and as little as she is, has much to teach the church this very moment.

On her eighth day in this world, Graylyn will never be more vulnerable, more dependent than she is right now. And because of this, she may never have more to teach us. Graylyn teaches us that if the church is going to look like the Kingdom of God, then the church must continually reach out, invite, bring in, accept and adopt, and care for those in our society who are the most vulnerable, the most dependent.

Graylyn teaches us that we are to feed those who cannot feed themselves, give drink to those you cannot drink on their own, clothe, shelter, comfort those in need, and love those who are the most frail, fragile and needy.

Graylyn affirms that it is the mission of the church to buy presents for children who have a parent in prison, build a handicap ramp for an elderly man or woman, bring gifts and carols to residents in a nursing home, make prayer quilts for the sick, rebuild a home in West Virginia, send medical supplies to Nicaragua, host a party for cancer patients at the hospital and dedicate ourselves to little children. Graylyn teaches us that we are the closest to living in the Kingdom of God, we come the closest to holding the Messiah in our arms, when we offer grace and hope to the least of our brothers and sisters.

However, Graylyn also teaches us something that may be even more important. The Messiah once said: “Unless one comes to me as a little child, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God.” Graylyn may never be more honest, more real, and more genuine than she is today. What you see is what you get. There is no putting on airs with Graylyn. She’s not proud. There’s not a pretentious bone in her tiny body. When Graylyn is hungry, she is going to let us know. When she is distressed, saddened or in any discomfort, she is going to tell us. When she needs a change, she will cry out to us.

If we could only learn to be as honest as Graylyn: honest with each other, and honest with God. Before we can truly offer grace and hope to others, to the least of our brothers and sisters; we must confess our own need for grace and hope. We need to confess our own utter dependency on our Heavenly Parent. We need to confess our own weaknesses and our need for a savior who knows such vulnerability to pick us up, comfort us and change us in those places where we most need changing.

We thought we were going to come here this morning and hold a little girl named Graylyn Elizabeth Brown in our arms; however, through her honest vulnerability and her utter dependence, through the Christ who is revealed in her, amazingly, we hold hope in our arms, hope for the present and for the future. We hold salvation in our arms. We hold our mission in our arms. We hold Christmas in our arms. And with Simeon, by the grace of God, we will not leave this service unmoved, untouched, unchanged. We leave this morning praising God saying:

Master, now you are dismissing your servants in peace,    according to your word;  for our eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,  a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel. Amen.

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She’d Had Enough

emma burnette

Luke 2:22-40 NRSV

I just read a story of a beautiful and faithful widow named Anna who lived almost ninety years. Mary and Joseph were presenting the baby Jesus in the temple for circumcision and purification when we are introduced to Anna. She, along with an elderly man named Simeon took part in the blessing of the little baby.

Anna is called a prophet by Luke. She continues the tradition of the great female prophets of the Old Testament—prophets like Miriam, Deborah, Huldah, and the wife of Isaiah. Luke tells us that she never left the temple, but worshipped both day and night. She praised God and spoke about the child to all. Luke paints a beautiful portrait of a devout and faithful woman.

With Simeon, Anna was looking forward to the fulfillment of all prophesy. Anna was looking forward to the salvation of the entire world. In spite of her advanced age, in spite of her physical limitations, Anna never despaired, but always hoped.

I believe it was this hope which caused this devout widow of great age to remain so faithful. It was the hope in the salvation and redemption of the world that kept Anna in the temple worshipping night and day—giving God all she had to give.

We meet Anna and Simeon, near the end of their lives, lives that were lived completely devoted to God and the Temple. We meet them as their joy and their hope is finally being fulfilled in meeting the baby Jesus. I imagine the two of them lovingly and adoringly holding the baby in their arms. 

Holding any baby always floods one’s spirit with hope, but holding this baby, in whom they understood as the fulfillment of the hope of the world, I imagine Anna and Simeon becoming so overwhelmed with hope that they became unable to restrain themselves. Together, nearing the end of their lives, that was enough to cause them to burst into song…

“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant(s) depart in peace, according to thy word: For mine eyes have seen thy salvation.”

Holding the hope and the salvation of the world in their arms, they sang a wonderful hymn consisting of phrases and lines from the Hebrew Scriptures, mostly from Isaiah 49 and 52—a song of God’s great final embrace of all peoples, Jew and Gentile—even while living in the last days of their lives, they sang a song of possibility, a song of a brand new future, a great song of hope.

On this particular day, I believe this story has a rather familiar ring to it.

Like Anna, Emma Burnette, was a devout and faithful woman who was devoted to her church where she spent her entire life worshiping and praying, day and night. She served as an elder and taught Sunday School for 67 years. You could call her a Presbyterian prophet.

Last weekend, nearing the end of her faithful and beautiful life, Emma told her family that she was ready to go home. She told them that she had had enough.  However, Emma was not giving up. Emma was not throwing in the towel. She was not losing the faith. I believe she was faithfully singing the song of Anna:

“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word.”

When Emma said that she’d had enough, I believe she was faithfully saying that, in her life, her eyes had seen salvation. She had seen her savior and savior of the world.  It was like she had held Him in her very arms. And that was enough for her. That was enough. That was enough for her to be able to faithfully say to her family, to her minister and to her God, “Lord, now lettest thou servant depart in peace.”

Last weekend, when Emma said that she was finished with doctors and medicines last weekend, she was not in despair. She was not giving up hope. No, Emma was embracing hope, because, like Anna, Emma had held a baby in her arms—and not just any baby—Emma literally held hope. Emma held possibility. Emma held life abundant and eternal. Emma held a new and glorious future. For Emma held Jesus.

When each of us nears the end of our lives, this is what faith in Christ is all about. It is about a widow, advanced in years, holding a baby and faithfully singing a song—a song of strength and a song of grace, a song of possibility and of life—abundant and eternal.  A song about a God who loves us so much that God sought to identify with us by becoming one of us.  A song about a God who has experienced the despair, brokenness and misery of this our fallen and broken world and promises to transform it, recreate it and resurrect it.

This is the good news for us today.  Instead of departing this service today in despair, we can leave singing a song—Emma’s song—a song of eternal hope and amazing grace.  A song that sings our God is Emmanuel, God with us and God for us, and God always working all things together for the good.  A song that sings that even in death, there is hope, there is possibility and there is life forevermore.

And the good news is, that is enough for us all.

Walter and Frances – A Love Story

Love story

Walter and Frances Blackley were married on the Tuesday before Valentine’s Day, February 13, 1945. They were married for 58 years. In February 2003, they both passed away, ten days apart, around Valentine’s Day. So each time Valentine’s Day rolls around, I remember them and their wonderful love story. The following are the words from their memorial services.

On February 8, 2003 I said…

Luke 2:25-32 NRSV

This scripture text contains one of the most beautiful prayers found in the Bible. In fact, it is more of a hymn than it is a prayer. It is a wonderful hymn of celebration consisting of verses found in the Hebrew Scriptures from the book of Isaiah. It is the last hymn of righteous and devout man named Simeon.

Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of al peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for the glory to your people Israel.

This was the last prayer of a righteous and devout man, named Simeon. I want to suggest that this was also the last prayer of a righteous and devout man named Walter Blackley.

Simeon was able to sing this prayer, because Simeon was given the blessed opportunity to hold the Christ Child in his arms. Simeon was given the opportunity to hold the hope for the world in his arms. Simeon was given the blessed opportunity to hold grace in his arms.

More than perhaps anyone that I know, I believe Walter was also a holder of grace.

Allow me to define the concept of grace for you by asking you a few questions:

What do you call a seventy-something-year-old man who was able hit a baseball and ran the bases with his grandson during a little league’s parents’ day?

I believe you call that grace.

What do you call an eighty year old man riding a jet ski with his thirteen-year old granddaughter?

I believe you call that grace.

What do you call someone who valiantly served his country in the Second World War, surviving untold horrors, without loss of limb and life?

You call that grace.

What do you call someone who contracted malaria that sent him home to a military hospital until the end of the war where soon after he married his girl named Frances with whom he shared 58 long years of happiness?

What do you call the gift of a small farm which provided needed therapy which helped a war veteran overcome the dreadful experiences of war?

You call that grace.

What do you all someone who was given the gift of three beautiful daughters and the gift of four beautiful grandchildren? What do you call the miracle of Vida Mclawhorn who has and continues to confound medical science and inspire us all?

You call that grace.

Walter understood that these gifts—this gift of abundant life, this gift of vigorous health, this gift of miraculous strength, and the gifts of love—were all completely unearned and underserved gifts of God’s amazing grace.

This is what I believe made Walter such a wonderful man.  This is what I believe made him so endearing and so loving to so many people.  This is why I believe Walter lived is life and served others in the community with such incredible integrity. This is why he treated everyone the same regardless of their ethnicity and regardless of their religion.  This is what gave this endearing man such a wonderful sense of humor.

Walter understood that it was God’s grace which kept him going so strong so late in his life.  Always in a hurry.  One of Walter’s all time favorite sayings was:  “C’mon Frances, we got it go!”

It was the amazing grace of God which enabled him to mow is own lawn every summer, even this last summer. . .with a push mower.  Walter Blackley was indeed a holder of grace.

Like Simeon, Walter had been given the wonderful opportunity to hold the Christ Child in his arms.  He had been given the opportunity in his eighty-six years to hold the promise of strength and the promise of help in times of trouble which was found through his relationship with Christ.  Walter had been given the opportunity to hold hope and salvation in his arms.

I believe this is what compelled this man to attend Sunday School and worship so faithfully Sunday after Sunday.  Walter came to church, even during the past year when the pain in his neck and shoulder was the greatest, because Walter realized that all that he had, and all that he had received were unearned, undeserved gifts of God’s amazing grace.

I believe the best news for us is that we who loved Walter and were loved by Walter, are also holders of grace. We are holders of grace because we too have been given a wonderful gift.  We too have been given a gift which was completely unearned and undeserved.  For we each of been given the gift of Walter—of  knowing him and loving him and being loved by him.  And when we can consider this, I believe our mourning and grief can be and will be transformed into thanksgiving and joy.

And in what may be more difficult, I believe we should also consider that we are holders of grace because have also been given the peaceful, gracious death of Walter.  I have heard many Christians tell me that they do not fear death.  It is dying that they fear. Christians do not fear going to be with God, it is the pathway to God that we fear—it is the suffering we fear. Yes, the way that Walter died is yet one more reason that I believe the last prayer of Simeon was the last prayer of Walter.

And I believe we also need to consider that we, like Simeon and like Walter, have also been given the gift of the gift of the Christ child.  We too have been given the gift of the promise of strength and help in times of trouble. As God had delivered Walter through so many of life’s storms, we can know that God can and will do the same for us.  God will see us through our grief and our pain, and God will one day see us through our deaths, as God has seen Walter through his. We are indeed holders of hope, holders of salvation, and holders of grace.

And hopefully, we too will one day be able to sing the prayer of Simeon and the prayer of Walter Blackley:

 Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.

_____________________________________

On February 19, 2003 I said…

I need to say it, because during the last three days, we have all have been thinking it. We have said it silently to ourselves and out loud to others.

Frances was always just a few steps behind her husband, Walter.

It was like Walter had called from heaven, “Come on Frances, we got to go!”  Frances was always a few steps behind Walter because Frances loved to tell a story. Walter would say, “Frances, we’ve got to go” or “They’ve got to go. They’ve already heard that story ten times!”

And she would respond, “Well, I’m going to tell it again!”  Then she would say: “That man’s been rushing me since the day we got married!”

Yes, Frances loved to tell a story.  And this woman was the perfect story teller because she knew a little something about everything.  She was one of the most well-read ladies that I know.  She was also one of the most faithful Christians that I know.  Thus, many of her stories, her grandchildren recall, were like Aesop’s Fables. She had a story for everything, and each story taught us a valuable lesson about life. Carol, Janice and Vida, your lives and your children’s lives have been enriched forever because of those stories.  You are who you are—strong, caring, compassionate, loving, Christian—because of the many wonderful stories Frances told.  Her stories taught you to avoid gossip and pettiness.  Her stories taught you not to sweat the small stuff; to respect and to love everyone the same.  Her stories taught you to work hard, to be fair and to keep it simple.

Her stories taught you about love. That love is patient and kind. That love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. That love does not insist on its own way.  It is not irritable or resentful.  It does not rejoice in wrong doing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, hopes all things, and endures all things.

Many of us have said to one another and said to ourselves that Frances died the way Frances lived: Ten steps behind her husband, Walter, telling stories.

Frances spent the last ten days telling and retelling a wonderful love story that mimics a fairy tale.  Eleven days ago, Frances had the rare opportunity to share this love story with her entire family and a host of friends:

A love story of a seventeen-year-old beautiful stenographer from Salisbury named Frances who had eyes for a handsome, confident 25 year old named from Franklinton named Walter— A love story of a courtship that was only six months old when the couple was separated as Walter was called to serve his country during the Second World War— A love story of a long distance  relationship which endured two-and-one-half years as the two sent exchanged love letters between Salisbury and New Guinea— A love story of a young man who came home from the war to meet his girl in Salisbury on a Monday, and to elope the next day on Tuesday, the day before Valentine’s Day.  Frances told us of a love story which encompassed fifty-eight years of marriage— A love story about a couple who were completely devoted to their family, supportive of every  good thing their children did— A love story of a couple who always stayed together, always worked together, always worshipped together and always played together— A love story of a couple who spent many Saturday nights dancing together in their living room to ball room dance tunes emanating from their television tuned to the Lawrence Welk Show.

This past week I believe that Frances also told us another love story.  However, this story was not told with mere words. This story was told more with her life. This story was told more with her tremendous faith in God.  One of the grandchildren showed me Walter and Frances’ big family Bible.  Throughout the book, from Genesis to Revelation, there are dates written on the pages with two initials, “W.” and “F.”  Beginning in Genesis, Walter and Frances read the Bible together and then dated and initialed each passage.  They did this for years until they finished reading the Bible from cover to cover.

Yes, Frances loved to tell a story, but more importantly, Frances loved to tell the story.  With her life and with her faith, and with the word of God engraved on her heart, with tremendous fortitude, Frances shared with us the love story of God. –The love story of a God who has promised to never leave us or forsake us.  –The love story of a God who walks with us in the valley of the shadow of death no matter how many times we are forced to walk there –The love story of a God who promises to be present with us through the storms of life and to see us through them—The love story of a God who always gives us the strength that we need to face any trial and any tribulation—The love story of a God who is always in our world working all things together for the good—The love story of a God who has given us the wonderful gift of God’s self, the gift of the Spirit and the gift of the Church.

One of the first things that Frances said to me after Walter’s death was, “Jarrett, I have said it before, and I will say it again: “If you are going to have to go through trouble in this world, there is no better place to be than the church.”  Frances loved her church.  She knew that it was through her church and through her many relationships in the church that she was going to be alright.  She was so looking forward to attending her circle meeting on the Monday after Walter’s death.

Frances’ tremendous faith was unwavering.  She was so strong, so hopeful.

Over and over and over again, with her life and with her faith, Frances has shared with us the love story of God— The love story of a God who promises each of us who have lost so much recently that we too, are going to be alright— The love story of a God of resurrection and of hope— The love story of a God who is in the business of transforming our sorrow into joy, our despair into hope and death into life— The love story of a God who has brought life, abundant and eternal to Walter and Frances through resurrection and who is working even now to transform our shock and grief and pain into peace.

I believe God has already done that for many of us. When we first heard the tragic news of Frances’ sudden death, we were shaken and dismayed beyond belief. But then the God of resurrection came, and the God of resurrection began to work. And it was not long before the look of bewilderment on our faces was transformed into great big smiles.

“Come on. Frances, we got to go!” he said.

“That man has been rushing me since the day I married him!” she quipped.

“Come on Frances, they have heard that story already ten times!”

“Walter, you are going to have to wait, because I am going to tell it again!”

And that is exactly what she did.

She told us one more time the story— the story of unseen things above— the story of Jesus and his glory, the story of Jesus and his love.  She loved to tell the story, because she knew it to be true.  It satisfied her longings as nothing else can do.

My prayer for the Blackley family and for all of us who grieve is a simple one. Remember the love story of God which was shared over and over again by this beautiful woman.  May the love story of God, which was Frances’ story become our story.  May this story fill us with courage and with strength. And may we spend the rest of our days sharing this story with others, until that day comes when we will see the couple again face to face, as we will one day see God face to face.