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Presentation of our Lord

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

By now I’m sure most of America is getting ready for the big day. Yes—you know what I mean. It’s Groundhog Day. How many saw the 1993 movie with Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell?  So, did I.  According to German folklore transplanted to America in 1887 by Lutherans in central Pennsylvania, if a groundhog comes out of its hole today and sees its shadow it’s means six more weeks of winter; no shadow means an early spring.

Now, even if you did see the movie a bunch of times (again, like me) you could be forgiven for not knowing that Groundhog Day is today, February 2nd, because it is 40 days after Christmas. Our agricultural ancestors noticed that today is also 46 days before the spring equinox (this year on March 19th).  They came to regard this day as a hinge between winter and spring. Yet, originally the dating of Groundhog Day had nothing to do with its relationship to the seasons, but rather, it is rooted in the rhythms of the church year.

Groundhog Day sprang from the ancient Christian recognition of Candlemas, when forty days after his birth, Mary and Joseph presented baby Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem in keeping with Jewish law, and for Mary to undergo postpartum rites of cleansing following childbirth. By remembrance, the Church blessed and distributed candles needed for winter in honor of the Presentation of Our Lord, inspired by Simeon’s words that our Lord Jesus is a light to the nations.”

Since February 2nd falls on Sunday this year, today for Candlemas, we have revived this ancient practice. We will bless the candles we use in worship and the votives you received to connect our place of worship with your home altar.

Apparently, Groundhogs hibernate through winter and emerge from their burrows starting in early February. With nightly news too painful to watch and so much cold weather, I can understand the desire to snuggle into my burrow and throw the blankets over my head.  Wouldn’t you know, for the first time in about 10 days, it’s supposed to be 50 degrees and sunny today! The Groundhog will see his shadow for sure. Is that good news or bad news?

Yes, we understand the desire to retreat from the world. That’s why we are extra thankful for a certain resident prophet named Anna and an old man named Simeon. Despite centuries of hardship and longing for the Messiah, they kept alert and awake waiting and expectantly watching for God’s good news.

Our gospel reminds us how much we need each other. Congregations are those rare communities in which young and old are soulmates, bound together as an extended family in God, who love, support, and sustain one another. Seniors, adults, toddlers, and infants are honored as faithful contributors to community life, wisdom-givers, exemplars of the faith, and worthy recipients of care. It prompts us to ask ourselves how we are making this biblical vision concrete in our lives?”

Upon a time, the Messiah came unexpectedly, as a child.  He came not among those with power, but to shepherds, beasts of the field, and wise men from a distant land.  He came not among those with wealth, but to a manger. When the Messiah finally appeared in the Temple, he didn’t walk but was carried. Yet somehow, Simeon and Anna had faith enough to recognize him.

According to a popular proverb, “Seeing is believing.” For Simeon and Anna, the opposite appears to be true: “They believed, so they were able to see more than the obvious.”. (David Lose) God is present in an infant, in bread and wine, in each other, and in the events of the day. Where God is present, there is salvation for those with the faith to see more than just the obvious. Will we have eyes of faith to recognize and embrace it? Can God be revealed in such ordinary things? Will we walk in daylight and not be afraid –or return to our cozy burrow?

This is one of those surprises that isn’t actually surprising. To Moses, God came as a voice in a burning bush. To Jacob God came as a shadowy figure that wrestled him through the night and left him with a limp come morning.  To the prophet Isaiah, God appeared seated on a heavenly throne.  The fringe of God’s robe filled the temple. Cherubim and Seraphim sang him praises.  But to us a child is born, a son is given. Authority rests upon his shoulders; and his name is Wonderful counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9:6)

Luke tells us how Simeon took the infant Jesus into his arms, turned his voice toward God and offered praise for the “light of revelation” that had come into the world. Simeon’s words of comfort, joy, and acceptance of death join Mary’s Magnificat as among the oldest, most persistent Christmas hymns sung by the church.

Jesus the light of grace shines brightly upon the world giving life to all like the rising sun or the approach of Spring. It also reveals our shadow side. Light always casts a shadow. Simeon saw this inherent contradiction and said to Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” (Luke 2:34-35) The love revealed in Christ Jesus confronts each of us with the sword of decision.  Which way will we go? How do we respond?

We instinctively reject God’s love because along with grace it reveals our shadow side.  We don’t always like what we see when we stumble out of bed and trip over dirty clothes or have to look at yesterday’s dishes still piled in the sink. Sometimes, the light reveals new things too, that developed overnight while we slept that now we have to deal with. Perhaps, there is snow to shovel. Sadly, our 15-year-old dog Maddy is in her last days, so lately she has been leaving little gifts for us to clean up. No, we don’t like everything the light of day reveals. But we who have lived in the gloom of so many cloudy days also know we need some vitamin D!

Let Jesus teach you how not to be afraid of your own shadow.  We don’t have to run back to our holes. Instead, by grace we discover how to love our whole self as God does and how to learn from what God reveals in both light and shadows with honesty and humility. We do this with the help of Christ our teacher in order to love our self, each other, and the world in which we live.

God comes among us, as a child, in flesh and bone.  Truly, this is a gift to ponder; a gift to hold in our hearts and minds to give us courage for living all the rest of our lives. Unwrapping and unfolding this gift the path to abundance opens before us. God’s first, best Christmas gift, so delicately and sincerely offered is yours today and all the days of your life.  May the little Lord Jesus teach you how to love as you have been loved.

Epiphany 3A-20

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people” (Matthew 4:19). Simon and Andrew, then James and John, heard and followed Jesus. Perhaps they meant to follow only for a moment, or just to satisfy their curiosity. Yet moments would become hours, then days, a week, a season, and finally, a way of life. The disciples followed him and kept following him. They were hooked. They left their nets, their boats, family members, and everything they knew to follow Jesus and never look back.

I don’t even own a fishing pole anymore. I used to go quite a bit when I was a kid. We used worms and jigs to catch Crappie. Fish eggs for trout or anything that looked like a bug if you were fly-fishing. Worms and bobbers made fishing a more relaxing —just cast it out and wait for a nibble. It was also important to know the time fish would be feeding, to recognize the best spots to find them, and how to approach without scaring them away. And of course, even amateurs like me carried a whole tackle box of lures, baits, swivels, hooks, line, and other tools.

What was so enticing and persuasive it had power to transform the lives of the disciples so completely? What was the bait Jesus put on the hook? It could only be one thing, just one Divine Lure in his tackle box— the euangelion—the good news—the gospel. The root from which we get the word, “evangelize.” Jesus cast good news into the turbulent waters of the world to pull people out the pain and suffering caused by hate, fear, hopelessness, poverty, and any other thing that degrades and dehumanizes us. Jesus cast the good news of grace and let the Holy Spirit do the rest.

Where we find him today, Jesus has rejected the comforts of nearby cities like Tiberius and Sepphoris, places you might expect a talented young Rabbi to go. He is searching out fertile fishing grounds among those in need. Capernaum was in the back-water territory of Zebulun and Naphtali. It was the “wild west,” a rough, unruly place frequented by bandits and revolutionaries derided by religious authorities in Jerusalem as uncivilized, semi-literate, and infected by paganism.  It was a land familiar with brutality, poverty, and hunger, a land unaccustomed to hope.

Imagine a place where security and safety are stripped away. Every asset may be claimed by conquerors of the moment. Every child born can be taken by the powerful into slavery. Every harvest can be seized by the mighty. Every hope for the future could be stolen by masters who have the final say. ”This is ‘the land of deep darkness’ into which Jesus journeyed.  (Amy Oden, Dean and Professor of History of Christianity, Wesley Theological Seminary)

That’s the place Jesus went in search of disciples. It was a fertile place to fish for human hearts and minds hungry for hope. Jesus was not interested in their resumes. Simon and Andrew, James and John were not the best and brightest of their generation. The only qualification that is necessary to be a disciple of Christ is to follow him. They responded to the good news, hooked by the divine lure, the fabulous, preposterous message Jesus declared: “The kingdom of heaven has come near.”

The bait Jesus used was his very own life. With this hook Jesus showed them how to live.  Look, we are being drawn out of isolation into communion. Hooked, pulled, fighting, resisting we have become like fish out of water, thrown into a life we could not imagine. The kingdom of God in which we now find ourselves is not a place, or a destination, but a way of life.  Now we finally understand we belong to each other and to all people, our brothers and sisters in Christ, whom God created, named, and loves.

Now, as the body of Christ, we become bait for people like us who are lost and hurting—people like a young boy named Alfredo. When Alfredo was small his house in rural Mexico burned down. His whole family died in the fire. He was left with scars he couldn’t hide. His face and mouth were permanently disfigured. Alfredo didn’t belong to anybody.  Although he was only about ten years old, no one took him in. He drifted from place to place, sleeping and eating wherever he could.

One day, he was drawn by the sound of children laughing. He watched other children play from a hiding place behind a schoolground wall. Later he would tell how he pressed his face up to the bars on the windows to get a better look.  It was a Christian orphanage run by an order of Franciscans. But he was afraid.  He was afraid of rejection.  He was afraid about what the other children might say when they saw him.  Yet he was desperate to find a home. So, one day, Alfredo got up the courage to show himself to the priest. He told him his story. The Priest wanted to take him in but he also knew how the other children might respond. So, he assembled the whole school.  He told them Alfredo’s story and put the decision about what was to be done about him in their hands.

Of course, all the children said, bring him in, we won’t mind.  But the priest warned them.  He said, you’ve never seen anyone like this boy. The grainy, low budget 1969 re-enactment of this story shows the priest call Alfredo to stand before the other children.  A long awkward silence falls over them in the courtyard.  The children stood and stared at Alfredo for a long time.   Finally, one of them, a boy about the same age, steps forward, stood before Alfredo, and declared simply, “You are my brother.”  He took Alfredo by the hand and led him among the other children.

What was it that drew Alfredo? Laughter, play, community, belonging, these are all good news. There is nothing too rough, unrefined, or shameful to bring to this church, these waters, or that table. In fact, these are the very things that draws us to Jesus and make us hungry for the gospel.

We read Jesus went to “Galilee of the Gentiles,” literally, the land of ‘those who are not us.’ We will see the same word appear again, translated as “nations” in the Great Commission Jesus issues the nascent Church at the end of Matthew’s gospel. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you,” (Matthew 28:19-20).  Who are the Gentiles—those who are not us—among whom Jesus moves today? Jesus hooks and draws us together with them into one body, one people, one life. This is the good news. Follow me.