The video above includes the full service, except for the time for sharing.
Permission to podcast/stream the music in this service obtained through One License with license A-727859
Order of Worship | Epiphany Sunday
Call to Worship
STS 30 | Arise, your light is come! | Paul Knapke
Offering/Dedication Prayer https://www.columbusmennonite.org/donateget-involved/donate
Special Music | Mozart Piano Sonata 11 (excerpt) | Alexander Martin
Scripture | Luke 2:21-40
Sermon | Life blessing life (Manuscript below)
HWB 366 | God of Grace and God of glory | Fred and Marlene Suter, Julie and Phil Hart
Sharing of Joys and Concerns
Extinguishing the Peace Candle
Thanks to everyone who helped lead today’s service
Sermon: Joel Miller
Worship Leader: Sarah Werner
Music coordination: Paul Knapke
Children’s Time: Jon Lucas
Peace Candle: Shakita Kabicek
Scripture Reading: Shakita Kabicek
Zoom Host: Brent Miller
The sociologist Elise Boulding suggests an expansive way of thinking about the present. She calls it “the 200-year present.” It’s a pretty simple concept. You take the oldest person alive and include all their years of life experience and social connections, and you add to that the newborn child and include all the years ahead of them and everything their life will hold. What we usually think of as the present moment is actually a touching point of 200 years of life - past, present, and future.
Elise Boulding didn’t just invent this as a thought exercise. Along with being a sociologist, she’s a pioneer in peace research, a Quaker, and she offers the 200 year present as a way of thinking about peacemaking. It encourages generational thinking and a long term commitment to how past actions and patterns can be transformed over time. The past is still present, and the future is already taking shape.
I learned about this idea from the Mennonite peacemaker John Paul Lederach, who claims Boulding as a mentor. He puts his own twist on it in a way that makes it ever more personal, and extends it out even more years.
It’s something we all have our own version of. John Paul says to go back to the youngest age you can remember, or even younger if you still have a parent alive who can remember for you, and think about who was the oldest person who held you, and then you go back to their birthdate.
So I didn’t have any great grandparents living when I was born, but my Grandpa Lehman’s older sister Wilma lived nearby and was alive for the first two years of my life. My mom doesn’t have any specific memories of her holding me, but I’m going to give Aunt Wilma the benefit of the doubt. She was born in 1896, the oldest of 11 kids. My grandpa was #10, so she undoubtedly held him also. Wilma wrote up some family history that includes surviving cyclones and blizzards and crop failures in Oklahoma, and having their dugout house fill up with water during a massive storm. The hands that lived through these experiences were in my life for a brief time.
OK. So that’s the first part of it.
Then you think about the youngest person in your life right now. The last CMC baby I actually got to hold was Asher Ryan-Simpkins. I visited him and Kelsey and Mike back in early March, just as we were learning about this novel coronavirus. So you consider that young person, and you imagine a full life ahead for them, and once you have that, John Paul says, you consider this: “You were held and touched, and you will touch the lives, of people that cover a 200 year present.”
Or, depending on your age, quite a bit more that a 200 year present in this way of figuring. Al Bauman turned 90 yesterday and I imagine the oldest person to hold baby Al was born quite a bit before 1896. I was kind of thinking Al might have been born before 1896, but I’m not sure the math adds up. I believe it would have been a 1931 birthday, meaning the elder holder was likely born before the American Civil War.
I was reminded of this idea while reading the story of the young Jesus’ dedication in the temple in Luke chapter 2 - the elder Simeon taking Jesus in his arms and praising the Creator. The aged prophet Anna offering blessings as she speaks about the child. It’s one of just a few windows we get into the early life of Jesus.
The first part of this story has several related, but different practices surrounding first century Jewish births. Verse 21 mentions circumcision on the eighth day, a custom that went all the way back to Abraham in the book of Genesis, chapter 17, verse 12, a sign of the covenant between God and Abraham and his descendants.
Verse 22 of Luke 2 mentions the time of purification according to the law of Moses, which Mary, Joseph, and Jesus go to Jerusalem to fulfill. Luke, a non-Jew, quotes Exodus 13:2, that “every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord” as a reason for this trip, but there are no Jewish laws requiring this to occur as a presentation in the temple, and no recognized custom of doing this.
What was required, back to the language of purification, was a ritual for Mary after giving birth. The blood of childbirth rendered one impure. A mother of a boy becomes eligible for the purification ritual after 40 days. Leviticus 12 gives these details. To complete the ritual she is to appear before a priest with a one year old lamb, and one pigeon or turtledove. It makes an exception for those who can’t afford a lamb to offer two pigeons or turtledoves. This second option is the one Luke describes Mary offering, a clue about the lower social status of this unlikely holy family.
It’s hard to know exactly what these rituals meant. To our eyes there is a glaring gender imbalance regarding which gender gets dedicated to the Lord – firstborn male - and which parent needs a purification ritual – the mother.
Scholars themselves haven’t agreed on the meaning of purity/impurity, or clean/unclean, trying to find the common thread that connects these codes that range from skin diseases, to blood, to semen, to contact with corpses.
A leading idea among contemporary scholars is that all these matters of purity and impurity deal with the boundary between life and death. Purity isn’t just about the individual, but the wholeness of the entire community, the temple sanctuary, the land itself. With the word purity so loaded down with Christian purity culture, the word wholeness or life-full is more fitting for what this actually entailed. Example: The loss of blood, which is liquid life, called for a ritual restoration of the forces of life within the community. Jewish feminist scholar Tikva Frymer-Kensky writes: “like the person who touched death, the person who has experienced birth has been at the boundaries of life/non-life...."
Mary has been to the boundary of life and non-life. Her child Jesus has been birthed from this boundary into the community. Mary has lost blood, but after 40 days, as the custom went, her body has moved toward wholeness, and the family makes pilgrimage to the temple to receive the ritual that acknowledges that the forces of life are fully restored to them and the nation.
All of this takes place within the first four verses of this passage in Luke.
The remaining 16 verses narrate something else that takes place while they are in the temple precincts – something they could not have anticipated. While there, they are approached by a man named Simeon. Luke describes him as righteous and devout, one on whom the Holy Spirit rested. The elderly Simeon approaches Mary and Joseph. As he does this, he must have extended his arms, and the parents must have sensed that he was someone who could be trusted. They place Jesus in the gentle arms of Simeon. And Simeon breaks out in thanks and praise addressed directly to the Creator of them all:
“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.”
Here, at the boundary of life and death, the sunset of Simeon’s life, and the dawn of Jesus’ life, the elder and the newborn touch, blessing and praise are passed from one down to the other. Words of hope and even salvation proclaimed over the life that has just come into the world. A gift not just for these parents, or even for this nation, but for all peoples.
Luke, who does give at least some effort toward gender balance throughout his gospel, also tells of a prophet named Anna. She was “of a great age,” 84 to be precise, well above the average life span in the ancient world. She had essentially made the temple her home. A woman of prayer. She too sees the child, praises God, and speaks about the child to all who are around.
When Mary ponders all these things in her heart, perhaps she was pondering something like the 200 year present moment she had just witnessed. The love, wisdom, stories of her people, treasures of the past, made present within the cradled arms of Simeon, the wrinkled grin and twinkling eyes of Anna. And the future of which they spoke, already starting to take shape:
“This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel…so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” The words of Simeon to Mary. Past and future all present within these pregnant moments of this Jerusalem journey.
It’s a good story to start a new year. Our month of January is named after the Roman god Janus, the god of doors, gates, and transitions, the god who presided over the threshold of beginnings and endings. Janus has two heads, one facing forward, and one facing backward. I suppose the Janus of 2021 is trying really hard to turn both heads forward and forget about last year.
But nope, this past year is now a part of us, and in 50 years the experiences of this time will be a source of wisdom and blessing for future generations, and it will be ours to be the Simeons and Annas
What we long for is that our moments and years be times not just that we live through, but times when we participate in the peacemaking and justice-doing that make for the salvation Jesus taught and lived. This is a salvation that is for all peoples. And we are a small but vital part of this story that started well before us, and will continue well after us.
May God bless you in this year to come. May you, like Simeon and Anna extend blessings to those you encounter. May you like Mary share your life-force with the community, may you like the child Jesus receive these gifts with wide eyes and an open heart.