Sunday, 1 February 2015

"Get Out of The Temple!" or, more accurately, "Depart in peace."

The Presentation of Christ in the Temple (2015) Year B RCL Principal

This last Thursday we had a Clergy Day, one of our twice a year opportunities to meet up with colleagues from all the Islands of this Diocese, and to have some input and chat to and hear from our Bishop, Logan.  As part of the Bishop`s desire to make these days as much about being together and learning more of each other than about having lots of people speaking to, or sometimes at, us we were all asked to create a line around the room where we were meeting and sort ourselves into order of Ordination – stretching back to the 1960s, up to our most recent Diaconal Ordinations in 2014.  We then went around the room and were asked to call out when and where we were ordained, and the Bishop who ordained us.

It wasn`t until I found myself calling out `Petertide 1996, St Paul`s Cathedral, London, England by the Bishop of London, Richard Chartres` that I realised how much I loved that memory.  Christopher Wren`s great Cathedral building filled with people – I remember the Bishop`s Chaplain saying to the twenty five of us being ordained “the Cathedral will be gloomy then the great West Doors will open and light will flood in and everyone will turn, thinking `who the hell is that?’ and it will be you!  Enjoy the moment.” And we did.

I remember my first visit to St Paul’s – a massive edifice, with wonderful artwork, grandiose in its scale and intricate in the carving and construction that makes it such an iconic part of London’s skyline.  I was wandering around looking at the cathedral when one of my colleagues said ‘It doesn’t do anything for me, this place, it’s like a religious railway station’.

I can see why she said that, it’s a well visited  place, and it’s iconic stature means it is on the list of pretty much every London Tour.  In its construction it is large and echoey and noisy and busy.  There are quiet spots, but it doesn’t feel a lot like a place of prayer – not like some of the other Anglican places of worship I have been fortunate enough to visit and minister in.  It is what it is.

I wonder if the Temple in Jerusalem was like that too.  We certainly get the feeling that it was busy, and that there were people in and out all of the time, praying, offering sacrifice, talking and debating.  Then there was the Temple market with its money trading and buying and selling of sacrificial animals.  I don’t get the feeling from Scripture that it was a quiet, contemplative space. At least not all of it.

But it was loved. It was a magnificent place – a place that was a spiritual home for a nation.  Kevin preached a few weeks back on Luke’s repeated references to the Temple, Luke – probably a gentile – who begins and ends his Gospel stories with stories relating to the Temple, and who repeatedly places encounters between God and others in the temple, Zechariah, Anna and Simeon in today’s story of the Presentation, the boy Jesus and the scribes, the disciples visiting the temple with Jesus, the final visit before the Ascension story. 

It’s interesting to me, though, how in Luke’s narrative the life of the temple is so often disrupted by the action of God – Zechariah is struck dumb whilst performing his priestly duties, Simeon’s powerful words (of which more in a moment) which are spoken into the lives of Joseph, Mary and the infant Jesus, the young Jesus debating with the learned and impressing them despite his youth, Jesus being carried up to the top of the temple as part of the temptation stories, the parables of the Pharisee and the tax-collector, the widow’s mite, the driving out of the moneychangers. All of these disturb an accepted way of thinking and doing – as if, dare I say, the presence of God was there!

And yet the Temple wasn’t the only place God was at!  As Luke holds in balance a love of the temple and a recognition of the challenge that Jesus brings to the life of the temple, a promise that God is here, but God is elsewhere too!

I’m pretty sure that’s what is going on with Simeon’s bold and disturbing proclamation here.  And I must admit the Nunc Dimittus brings out the Book of Common Prayer lover in me so I will use the 1662 translation:

“LORD, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace : according to thy word.
For mine eyes have seen :
thy salvation;
Which thou hast prepared : before the face of all people;
To be a light to lighten the Gentiles :
and to be the glory of thy people Israel.”

I am sure many of us know the story – Simeon was waiting for this encounter with the Messiah, an encounter that he believed would mark the end of his life… And so he shares this song, and a word for Mary that ‘this child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel’ and ‘a sword will pierce your own heart also’.

But I want to take just the one line for us to consider today – the opening line of this song of Simeon – in modern translation ‘Lord, now let your servant depart in peace’.  It’s that sense of departing – that after encountering Christ in the temple Simeon departs.  The story suggests that he goes for a very long rest! But I want to suggest that we are being called to depart in peace too, not in the same way, but called to be people of peace, taking the peace of Christ with us – going out from the temple to be active in the cause of peace.

Thomas Merton, the great contemplative who –were he still alive - would have been 100 years old this week wrote in a collection of his writings called ‘Passion for Peace’:

"Christ our Lord did not come to bring peace as a kind of spiritual tranquilizer. He brought to his disciples a vocation and a task: to struggle in the world of violence to establish His peace not only in their own hearts but in society itself."

Lord, now let your servants depart in peace - that peace which involves truly engaging with the world around – no longer considering, as Craig reminded us last week, that there is an ‘us and them’ but only an ‘us’. We are called to include all not just by welcoming people to come to a church meeting, but by being Church in the world.  As someone tweeted earlier this week: “God is not calling us to go to Church, God is calling us to go and be church”

So often our Churches contain the life and faith of the church, rather than liberate that life to shared abroad.  We are church not only when we gather together, we are the body of Christ when we serve beyond ourselves.  Our spiritual community is to be the springboard from which we leap into the world.  Though not all of us are necessarily built for leaping!  Yes we should value our sacred space, yes we have wonderful buildings – not least this warm and welcoming, prayer soaked building here – yes we are called to BE together.  But these things exist as resources for our journey out into our families and friendships, our places of work, our communities, the clubs, societies and activities we are a part of.  This is all the work of the church, the places where we are called, in work and word, to proclaim ‘God is here’.

To look at it another way, still drawing on this imagery of going beyond the Temple – departing in peace - we were reminded by Rev’d Canon Dr Richard LeSueur at our Thursday Clergy Day, that by the time of Jesus, Israel had undergone a massive change in its thinking about the presence of God in the years following the exile.  Quoting the Theologian and Scholar Walter Bruggemann, Richard told us that the defining image for the church today is not the Temple, but the Exile. 

How might the exile be speaking to us? Bruggemann tells us that firstly, Years of peace were suddenly broken: the comfort of the temple and the king, a stable and reliable order no longer existed.  Likewise we in the Church find ourselves in a place where any privilege or prestige we may have had is gone.  We are so often seen as little enclaves of slightly odd people who gather apart from the rest of the world on a Sunday Morning.  An image, a perception we are called to challenge – I believe.

Secondly the exile of Israel that came following the destruction of the Second Temple between 586–537 BCE saw the worship of God take place no longer in a Centralized institution, the temple, but it went out to a growing network of synagogues, which can be translated as simple as assembly – interestingly the word used in the New Testament for Church ekklesia means exactly the same thing.  But the important message is that the encounter with God, the presence of God, is no longer considered restricted to one place, the temple, but the divine can be engaged with in diverse and dispersed ways.  A message for the Church today!

Thirdly, as we find the Privileges of Christendom have passed we can ask ourselves if this is liberation to a new apostolic age – a new age of being sent out to share the life of Christ with the world!  If you remember this time last year we had a number of folk standing up and calling out ‘God is here’ – and important reminder of the God who is in the midst of us – but our calling is to remember that we are called to carry that presence with us in all we do, as much beyond these walls as within.

Perhaps, as Richard told the Clergy, we are being called from settled life – and being a settler church has too many connotations for me to begin to address this morning - to being a nomadic, a travelling people.  A people recognising that Church is a waystation, not a destination.  We come here, as a desert dweller may come to an oasis, for refreshment and for strength for the journey.  We are gathered, in order to be sent out.  In the Latin Liturgy echoed in our contemporary services the deacon would call out or sing ‘Ite, missa est’ – Go, you are dismissed (or according to some scholars ‘Go, you are sent out’) Or, as became more usual  ‘Go forth, the mass is ended’. 

Further, in this theme of moving beyond the temple, of being in exile, strangers in a strange land, we find ourselves again having to engage with culture and discover our own distinctiveness – how can we be Christians in our everyday lives? How do we practise the presence of God in our society?  How do we share this good news, this life of Christ which are blessed with? I don’t have the answers to that, but I am committed to finding them, together, with all of you.

Perhaps as we engage further with our visioning, with the vision of our Diocese and our own parish as shared in the Quo Vadis report in which we are collecting the voices of our community, we can commit ourselves to seeking where our calling to do and be church is. How may we depart in peace?

Thanks be to God.