Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,”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, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother 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.”
Good morning, Christ Church! If we’ve not yet met personally, I’m Mariann Budde, and honored to serve as bishop of this diocese. Christ Church is a part of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, which includes all the Episcopal Churches in the District of Columbia and 4 Maryland counties. Should you be worshipping at Christ Church for the first time, on behalf of the entire congregation and the 87 congregations of this diocese, welcome!
It has been quite a year for you. Just last spring, you blessed and sent off your good rector, Cara Spaccarelli and her family to their new life in Indiana. You celebrated all that God had blessed you with during their time with you. No doubt you shed a few tears at their leaving (I certainly did). But then you said your prayers, recommitted to God and to one another, and turned your gaze toward the next season of your life as a faith community.
You are blessed with strong leadership: among them members of the vestry (the leadership body), past and present: you have a great search committee for your next rector; your interim rector Rick Miles and Interim Associate, Mary Flowers are hard at work, along with many others. Will you join me in thanking them?
I’m particularly happy to be here on a special day for the 2nd and 3rd graders and their families. Thank you for taking the time to learn more about one of the most important things we do whenever we gather in church, which is to gather around a table like this one and remember the time when Jesus shared a meal with his closest friends. He said to them that everytime they gathered together and shared a meal, his spirit would be especially close to them. They passed this practice on to those who came after them, who passed it to the next generation, and so on across the centuries, all the way to us. In church we share a symbolic meal of bread and wine, believing that Jesus is particularly close to us in spirit.
In honor of our second and third graders and their families, I’d like to speak this morning about two ways that I believe you might experience the presence of God in your life. They may, in fact, be two versions of the same experience, for although they are different, their impact on us is similar. Both are deeply affirming of who we are and of our purpose for living. When God comes to us in this way, we feel loved; we feel prized; and we feel needed, for who we are, as we are. I don’t know about you, but I’ve had times in my life when I secretly wished that I was someone else, or more like someone else. Have you ever had that feeling? We call this feeling jealousy, or envy–when we not only want what someone else has, but we wish we were more like someone else, and not ourselves.
Two years ago, Pope Francis published a small book entitled Rejoice and Be Glad, and in it he assures us this feeling of being important to God isn’t only for the special people we call saints: “The important thing is that each believer discern his or her own path, that they bring out the very best in themselves, the most personal gifts that God has placed in their hearts, rather than hopelessly trying to imitate something not meant for them.” (Pope Francis, Rejoice and Be Glad: On the Call to Holiness in Today’s World (Maryknoll NY: Orbis Books, 2018), p.87.)
The experiences I want to describe help us realize how important we are to God–as we are–and that we’re alive for a purpose, for something that only we can be or do. Sometimes it’s as if we can see into the future–what life could be like for us someday–and we feel guided to follow a particular path.
The first way we have this experience is inside ourselves. We hear or feel something inside that no one can hear or feel. It can happen early in life, sometimes in response to someone else doing what we immediately know we’re meant to do, too. It’s not the same thing as being jealous–it feels more like a light bulb going off. For example, there was a young girl who went to a jazz concert with her father and it electrified her, so much so that she went on to study music and become a jazz artist herself. She wasn’t imitating what she saw on stage; she simply knew that she belonged in that world. Another person, as a child growing up in a small English village in the 1960s, used to watch The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, a television documentary that traced the sea adventures of Cousteau on his ship, the Calypso. The boy hadn’t known that such a world existed, but upon seeing it, he knew that he belonged there, and he went on to study marine biology.
This kind of internal affirmation, or awakening, can also happen later in life. I remember when I was in my 20s and I learned that someone took a year off from seminary–the school you go to when you want to be a priest–to work at an orphanage in Central America. My first response was–”Wait. You can do that?” I spent the next two years getting ready to do the exact same thing, not only because she did it, but because that was what I wanted to do, and felt meant to do, somehow.
Another time an older colleague said to me as he was about to take a job that was clearly a step down on the vocational ladder: “I have been preparing all of my life for this.” He sounded as amazed to say it as I was to hear him. I was a lot younger at the time and I remember hoping that I would be able to say that about my life someday.
Jesus experienced several such moments of internal affirmation. One was at his baptism. When he rose from the water, he saw the skies open, a dove descend, and heard a voice: “You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:9-11)
Another one occurred when he took his turn at reading the Scripture in his hometown synagogue. The passage that day was from the prophet Isaiah: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind; to set at liberty all who oppressed and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” As he read, Jesus knew that they were speaking to him, that in Isaiah’s description of call, Jesus was hearing echoes of his own. (Luke 4:16-21). Another one we’ll read in church next month is when Jesus climbs a mountain to pray, and he has experience that clarifies for him what is going to happen when he goes to Jerusalem. It was going to take a lot of courage for him to do what God needed him to do, and the experience on the mountain gave him that courage.
I don’t know if you have had this kind of internal awakening or affirmation of who you are, and what your unique gifts and destiny might be. If you haven’t, I trust that someday you will. They don’t happen every day but when they do, you know it. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry was in town last week, and he told us of a time when his dad said to him, “You know, God didn’t put you here just to consume oxygen.” At that moment, his dad was irritated, but he also wanted his son to know that he had something to contribute, not just to take from those around him. That’s true for all of us. Each one of us has something to contribute that only we can give, something to do that only we can do. Sometimes God seems to speak to us on the inside, giving us just enough to believe that who we are and what we have to give is important. And God gives us courage to take the next step on a path toward whatever our future might be.
The second spiritual experience I’d like to highlight, which may be a variation of the first, is when someone says something to us, or about us that they see but we don’t. Rather than it being an internal message, this one comes through another person telling us what they see in us and for us. These are words of blessing, with power to help bring into being the potential that is named.
We just heard a story from Jesus’ life when he was still a baby. His parents, Mary and Joseph, brought him to the Temple–their house of worship–in a service of dedication similar to our service of Holy Baptism. As they arrived, an old man, Simeon, came up to them and took the child Jesus in his arms. He blessed Jesus, saying to all who could hear that he was the chosen child of God, that his destiny on earth was like no other. Simeon wasn’t predicting Jesus’ future; rather God had given Simeon eyes to see Jesus’ future, and Mary’s, as well. As a baby, Jesus wouldn’t remember what Simeon said, but his parents did. It filled them with awe about her child.
Chances are that every one of you, at some point before you could remember, had someone speak that kind a blessing over you. I have no doubt that there was someone holding you when you were a baby, who had been given eyes to see the possibilities in your future.
Then maybe when you were old enough to remember, someone saw something in you that you didn’t as yet see in yourself, or they validated a part of you that you didn’t think anyone else could see. Once when our youngest son was about 9 or 10, we signed him up for a week-long summer camp in musical theatre. He didn’t want to go. His first choice was football camp, but it had already filled up, and musical theatre sounded silly to him. But something happened that week none of us could have anticipated. He came alive in a new way. In the evenings, he did his chores singing the songs and dancing the steps he was learning during the day. When we came for us to attend the performance at the end of the week, one of the camp directors pulled us aside and said, “Pay attention to this. I don’t know what this means for your son, but he belongs here.”
I can think of several moments in my life when someone else saw something in me or for my future that I, in that moment, I didn’t dare to believe for myself. When they told me what they saw, a part of me wanted to believe them; a part of me was afraid to, and risk disappointment later.
This isn’t fortune telling, a simplistic predicting of the future. Rather it’s what happens when God gives a vision to someone of what could be, or what matters most, for someone else. In the Bible, this is called prophecy. And it has more to do with future potential than guarantees. (Spoiler alert: our son isn’t on Broadway). Sometimes the word is a challenging one, causing us to wake up and change course, or to give us courage for what lies ahead. More often it is one of deep affirmation, so that we might know ourselves to be uniquely gifted and that our gifts are needed. Even when the path ahead is hard, we may hear people say things like, “Hang in there. You’re on the right path. Don’t give up. It’s going to get better.”
What I’ve learned over time is that it’s all right simply to hear those words of blessing, to let them wash over me. They are, in general, words of love and affirmation of the best of who I am, the best of who I can be. They help me to trust that circumstances aren’t entirely in my hands to control. The French Jesuit scientist Pierre Theilhard de Chardin put it this way: Give our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you, and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete. What a gift it is when someone speaks a word of blessing and reassurance that you are, in fact, in God’s hands and all will be well.
So to the 2nd and 3rd graders here today, and to your brothers and sisters, and all gathered alongside you today, let me say this: God loves you more than you will ever know, and you have gifts to offer that only you can give. Listen for the voice that speaks to you, deep inside, or through the words of other people, that will guide you on the path that is your life.
And for those of us who might be given words to speak for another’s sake, may we remember the power of those words, that our blessing may be the very thing that others need to hear to believe that their lives are of priceless value. May our words be like wind in their sails.
In closing, as my word of blessing to all of you, I’d like to read a portion from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Hear these words from St. Paul as if written for you:
I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ . . . And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you determine what is best . . .” (Philippians 1:3-5).
God bless you all, and may you remember how much God loves, prizes and needs you to be who you are and become who you were meant to be.