Friday, December 26, 2014

Simeon and Anna, Patience and Discipline (1st Sunday after Christmas, 28 December 2014)

First Sunday after Christmas
28 December 2014

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

         When I was ordained transitional deacon in June of 1981, the Bishop of Colorado, Bill Frey, decided to appoint me as ‘Deacon to the Bishops’.  It was a position that Bill had created in the early period of the restoration of the diaconate as a full and equal ministry in the Diocese.  Although I was not called to the diaconate, there were no deacons yet ordained in the Diocese, so Bill made use of transitional deacons as models of the diaconate for the Diocese.  I was clearly instructed that my role was as a deacon not as a ‘priest in training’.
         More than half of my time on the Diocesan Staff was spent assisting the new Suffragan Bishop, William H. Wolfrum, known to everyone as ‘Dub’ for ‘W’.  Dub had begun his professional life as a wildlife biologist who specialized in trout habitats in Wyoming.  His life’s journey had led him to ordination as a transitional deacon and priest in Wyoming before election as a bishop.  Dub expected me to help him become a good bishop and I looked to Dub to help me to grow as an ordained minister.
         One day Dub called me into his office.  Apparently the word had gotten round the office, where, by the way, a young woman by the name of Paula Porter worked, that I was walking around ‘like a turtle pulling his head into his shell’.  I cannot remember the details thirty years later, but I can remember that I was angry at one of the more difficult clergy in the Diocese.  He had a knack of ‘pushing the right button’ and setting his colleagues on edge.
         After I finished my explanation of the cause, Dub was silent for a bit.  He then said to me, ‘Richard, if you were a trout, you wouldn’t last one season.  You rise to bait faster than anyone I’ve ever met.’  I am sorry to say that I am still learning but have not yet achieved mastery of myself in this.  In my journal for the 5th of June of this year, written while I was attending a meeting of the Bishop, Archdeacons, Regional Deans, Dean and Senior Staff, affectionately known as ‘BARDDSS’, I wrote, ‘Wait.  Watch.  Listen.  Ponder.  Then act.’  I should print these words on several cards and make sure that one is with me whenever I attend a meeting!
         Today we hear the story of Simeon and Anna, two Jewish elders whose story, as told by Luke, reminds us that the life of faith requires (i) that we have patience and (ii) that we discipline ourselves to practice what we hope.  Let’s begin with Simeon.
         Most Christians know Simeon even if they don’t know his name.  The song of praise that he sings to God when he holds the infant Jesus in his arms has been sung by Christians for almost two thousand years:  ‘Now, Lord, you are releasing your servant in peace, according to your promise.  For I have seen with my own eyes the deliverance you have made ready in full view of all nations:  a light that will bring revelation to the Gentiles and glory to your people Israel’.[1]  Anglicans have sung it at Evening Prayer since the first Prayer Book, Presbyterians have sung it at the eucharist since the time of John Calvin and religious orders have sung it at Compline or Night Prayer since at least the fourth century.  Today it is often used at funerals as we give thanks for the witness of our beloved dead.
         Simeon had been waiting, day after day, to see this.  His patience was fuelled by his confidence in the promise God had made to him that Simeon would see the Messiah before his death.  Imagine, for a moment, spending each day looking for the Messiah, peering carefully at every face, not just children but adults.  We can almost hear Simeon’s question, repeated many times, each day, ‘Is this the One, Lord?  Or is that One?’
         Then there is Anna, the prophet after whom Paula and I named our daughter.  Eighty-four years old in a world where most women died in their thirties.  There is no mention of children and we do not know whether she lived in poverty or whether her family is providing her with a dignified old age.  What we do know is this:  She lives a disciplined life of prayer, almost a monastic life of prayer, within the confines of the Temple in Jerusalem.  Her message after seeing the infant Jesus tells us something of what she was hoping for:  the liberation of Jerusalem.[2]
         My friends, life as a Christian, especially as an Anglican Christian, in the twenty-first century requires patience and the discipline of practicing what we hope.  We live in a culture that tends to seek quick fixes to the world’s problems, but quick fixes are rare and frequently only Band-Aids that peel away when the waters of the world’s tears wash over them.  No matter whether the challenges are social, economic, environmental, political or religious, the good news comes with bad news.  The good news is that God loves us more than we can ask or imagine and is working in us, through us and even despite us to bring renew the creation.  The bad news is that it is going to take time and that God is relying on us to participate in this great work.
         Look to the west wall of this church.  You will see four plaques that contain the names of those who are buried in our Memorial Garden just outside that wall.  Two are full, one is partly full and one empty.  These plaques do more than just list names; they tell a story of patience.  Many of those buried here worked with God so that this congregation could participate in God’s great work of renewal.  For reasons that I do not fully understand, God has not yet finished this work.  But the plaques remind me that I am not alone; I am part of a community that stretches back almost two thousand years, even longer if I add our years to those of the people of Israel.  Perhaps, whenever we are tempted to be impatient with God, we should either look to or remember the names of our sisters and brothers who have gone before us in this place.  And remember that there are likely to be more as we continue in this great work.
         We also continue on in the discipline of service, worship, evangelism, education and pastoral care, fuelled by the hope that we have in God’s promises to us, some already fulfilled in the past and present, some to be fulfilled in the future.  I am tempted to buy every Anglican in the Diocese of New Westminster that little red coffee mug that reads ‘Keep calm and carry on.’  Care for those in any need or trouble.  Share in the eucharist.  Proclaim the good news.  Learn about God as God is revealed in the scriptures, in the tradition and in our lives.  Build up others in the love of Christ.
         So we wait and watch like Simeon.  We listen and ponder like Anna.  Then we act in hope, even as we lift our voices and ask our God, ‘Lord, how long before the work is done?’  ‘Not yet,’ God seems to be saying, ‘but keep calm and carry on.  The day is surely coming.’  Amen.

[1] Luke 2.29-31 (Revised English Bible).

[2] Luke 2.38.

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