February 2, 2020

Presentation of Jesus, Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling

Luke 2:22-40

Tomorrow is the 68th anniversary of when this sanctuary was dedicated.  In the last year, as we have been considered renovations to the sanctuary and new organ, I’ve wondered about that first procession when the marched from Victoria and Hague to a new, state-of-the art, gleaming church in 1950. There’s an 8mm film that shows the procession.  We’re working on getting that transferred so we can see it. What did they bring with them?  What hopes, dreams, fears did they bring with them?

They brought all their hopes and prayers, grief and imagination into this sanctuary in the same way that Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the temple.

Christians sometimes see the temple worship as a vestige of a legalistic religion, from which Christ has set us free.  It’s a rather anti-Semitic perspective that assumes Christianity is more evolved religion.  Let’s set that aside and assume that Mary and Joseph come to the temple to do what their ancestors had done for hundreds of year: bringing their hopes for joyful life, the pain of their transgressions, the wounds that they had received at the hands of others.  They brought their children, their sick, and their dying, and they placed them in the hands of a God who has promised to be there for them forever.  The temple was a sacrament of God’s history, a place where they could touch what God had done before and what God would do in the future. Is Good contained by the temple?  No. Can God’s life be touched at the temple?  Yes.  The Wailing Wall in Jerusalem still plays the same role.

Mary and Joseph come to place this precious 40-day old child in the hands of God.  Simeon and Anna saw this, and they recognize that this offering held revelation for the gentiles and glory for the people of Israel.  They saw with their heart’s eye what God would do through this baby.

It’s all a foreshadowing of the way Jesus will offer himself for the sake of the world; how he will give his body over to death so that life will flow in new ways to every corner of the globe.

Maybe it’s silly to say that their spirits saturate wood and stone, glass and concrete. This may sound a little New Agey-Woo-Woo, but when you’re not here during the week, something of you stays in this place.  Every now and then I’ll come into this room and sit in the quiet darkness.

If I can manage sitting quietly long enough, my heart remembers you:  the laughter and wailing of the children, Henry’s shouts from his wheel chair at the second service, the tears of grief, so close to the surface for many of us; the struggles to know how we fit, how our lives matter, what difference this all makes.  I also feel your power; your prayers for one another and for the world, your desire to be a countercultural witness when you leave:  to value gentleness and kindness, to advocate for those who continue to be left behind or forgotten; your yearning for peace and civility; your tenacity in bringing the presence of Jesus to your worlds of work and home.

Today, we begin a period of discernment and prayer on how to rise as a church.  For the last two years, we have been working on how to fix problems we have:  a broken and failing organ, a sanctuary that limits accessibility and participation, a sanctuary whose hierarchical structure and layout doesn’t speak to what we believe about community any more, namely that we are all equal participants gathered around a table of grace, words of life, and a font of living water. Our largest room, mostly unused, that needs to be considered as a neighborhood resource.  We’ve talked and talked, planned and planned; worked with an architect and invited you to vote on a series of proposals that have come together in a strategic plan.  Many of you feel the excitement rising; others are cautious and unsure about the cost and rightfully worry if we’re just doing this for ourselves.

We’re initiating a campaign for it all, almost 4 million dollars. Before we jump to giving–pledging to a campaign–I want us to go to the deep well within and around us to pray, to gather up our dreams, our hopes, our fears, our plans and to put them in the hands of God, asking ourselves, “What is God calling us to do right now?”

I suspect Mary and Joseph were filled with all kinds of hopes and fears as they offered their child to God.  The fragility of any child, the horrific violence of Rome shaping their everyday life, their poverty, and now a complicated prediction that their child would play a role in saving the world; and that a sword would pierce their hearts.

We’re placing this sanctuary, this house for the church, its function to house our celebration, our fueling, our private and public prayers.  It has always been meant for the sake of the world, not just for our private devotion.  What does it mean to offer this room to God, not always knowing where we go, especially in our current cultural context where religious identification is declining and many churches are experiencing loss? What does it mean for Gloria Dei–a church that continues to thrive and hold its own in this context of institutional decline–to offer again our sanctuary to God and to the world, as it was 68 years ago.

In the end, I think that’s what “Rise, O Church,” is about—a moment in our history when take what we have, look into the face of God, and ask what we need to do to continue to be relevant in worship and service, in prayer and service.  Do we trust that God will take what we, in all our best intentions, offer and do something for the sake of the reign of God?

I really do love that the kickoff of this time of prayer–and eventually commitment–begins with the Presentation of Jesus, this offering to God.  Mary and Joseph place their child in the hands of God, who we know by the end of the story, proves to be faithful.  This child does become the revelation to the Gentiles—all of us in the room a living sign that the promise became true—and the glory of the people Israel.

The gospel is that the God of Jesus Christ has joined us on the way, and takes what we offer, and turns it toward new life.

To me, this is why places become holy, not only saturated with the cries and prayers and hopes of a gathered people, but saturated with the presence of God.  Ordinary things—bread, wine, water, words, people, wood, stone, glass—the whole creation filled to overflowing with God.  Love that we can touch and feel and hold on to.  Love that begins to build a home in the world, in this neighborhood, a home that welcomes all.

And, if we can be quiet for just a moment, even in this room, you’ll feel it.  And, you, too, will be able to sing, “My eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared for all people.  A light to the gentile and glory for your people Israel.  Now, we can go in peace, to love and serve the Lord.”