Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
“There was also a prophet, [named] Anna …” (Luke 2)
At the rear of the church, over in that corner, there is a window that depicts the scene of today’s gospel (its reproduced for you in the bulletin so you can see it). There, in the bottom panel of that first window, are Mary and Joseph presenting their young son Jesus to be blessed in the temple. And on the right is Simeon, the old man who had waited his whole life for the coming of the Messiah.
In the window scene, Simeon has just sung the song we heard in the gospel, “Mine eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared for all people.” But now we come to the moment when Anna, the elderly woman who has likewise waited her whole life for this same moment, also sings to God. While the words of Simeon’s song, however, are recorded in scripture; hers are not. And so the artist depicts Anna with her arms outstretched, praising God in her own words, but with her back to us, her song long forgotten.
In preparing for today’s service, I ran across a prayer for the occasion which began, “O God, on this day your servant Simeon recognized your son as the Messiah,” but sure enough, there was no mention of Anna. Such omissions might cause us to wonder: How is it that we have such selective attention, and overlook so much that is right in front of us?
Last week at the Annual Meeting, I talked about how the church is going through a period when the way we understand Christian faith is radically changing. Its one of those seemingly every-five-hundred year renewals when the church rethinks and reconstitutes itself (as we talked about last week). The current renewal is due in no small part to the fact that our self-understanding as human beings has likewise changed so much. Modernism (you see), as the heir of the Enlightenment, urged upon us the idea of the self-sufficient individual, who acts in his or her own rational self-interest, and whose behavior is then socialized by the invisible hand of the marketplace. That’s the myth by which we have lived for the last several hundred years.
But after the horrors of the twentieth century, it seemed pretty hard to hold onto the idea that human beings act rationally. And so we have had to ask ourselves as a society the question: How did we overlook the fact that we are actually a jumble of contradictory emotions, and that our behavior is as much motivated by how we feel as by what we think?
And those feelings in turn include the instincts of insecurity and selfishness which lead to the irrational groupings of tribalism, in which human beings are bound together not by their rational self-interest, but by their fears and anxieties. We saw, for example, that kind of isolationist tribalism on full display in Washington this past week. How did we miss recognizing the role pure emotion plays in politics?
It should come as no surprise, then, that church too has had its own remarkable blind spots that have gradually come to light in this period of a societal change of perspective. Have you ever noticed, for example, that in our so-called statement of faith, the Nicene Creed, that the whole of Jesus’ ministry of preaching, teaching, and healing is reduced to nothing more than what Richard Rohr calls “the great comma”? Jesus was “born of the Virgin Mary,” we say, comma, and then we go right on to “he suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried.” No hint of the Beatitudes, the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, the raising of Lazarus. Not even the word love appears anywhere in the creed, nor the word mercy, nor the word compassion. How did we miss that?
And like our societal emphasis upon the rational individual, Christian faith in modern times has tended to emphasize a very personal idea of salvation that reduced it to nothing much more than the personal piety of me and Jesus—and in that order. If I accept Jesus as my lord and savior, then all is right with the world. But what about Jesus’ own summary of what he taught, that we are to love God and love our neighbor? Where is our responsibility to one another? Where is our commitment to the common good? And how did we miss that?
In short, we are at a period in the church’s history when we are realizing that there is a lot we have missed, and so we are having to rethink what it means to be Christian. Across much of the church, there is a growing awareness that to be Christian has to do a lot more with a way of life that makes us followers of Jesus, and a lot less to do with a set of propositions about him. It is in practicing the faith, in other words, that we become Christians, rather than in believing the faith. One of the clearest signs of that shift, for example, is the emphasis Pope Francis gives to mercy and compassion as markers of faith, rather than doctrinal orthodoxy.
Another form that this shift takes is what has been called the “Emergent Church” (perhaps you know that term already)—a way of being church that mines the ancient traditions of Christian life to inspire its worship, and then out of that creates ways of making faith an active way of life. The word emergent is sometimes rather superficially understood to mean a church that is “emerging” from its previous blind spots. But it really refers to something more profound.
The idea of emergence comes from a theory prevalent in the biological and social sciences that recognizes that a combination of entities can result in attributes that neither of the entities has by itself. Take a bicycle and a human being, for instance. By themselves, neither has the ability to move swiftly forward. But put them together, and voilà! You have an amazing capacity for motion.
The emergent church, then, is a community that recognizes that when individuals come together to live a common way of life shaped by core Christian practices, it creates a community of imagination and creativity and generosity and caring that is qualitatively different and bigger than that of any of its members. It’s what scripture calls “the body of Christ”: a community that is able to be Jesus to the world.
And one of the hallmarks of the emergent church, is that there is no great need for a big institution for it to happen: it can happen in homes as well as in churches, in small groups as well as in congregations. And so we are entering into a period when the church is in the process of re-inventing itself, moving away from fixed structures to informal networks, and away from a static hierarchical organization to the vitality of localized communities.
As I said, this is an exciting time to be a Christian—a once in five-hundred year opportunity—and we get to be part of it! And not only that, but perhaps we at St. Michael’s are ideally positioned to be on the frontlines of this great emergence: spiritually grounded, theologically astute, socially progressive, aesthetically gifted, and willing to take a risk.
So if over the coming years, we as a church retrace our steps by reclaiming what has previously been overlooked, we might yet get to hear what Anna had to say—or better yet, perhaps we will be the generation, finally to give voice to her long forgotten song. [And who knows, maybe it was a jazz tune itself!] Amen.