Pessimism Permanently Punted

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I.

I’m not sure how easy it is to convert a pessimist into an optimist.  I’m sure it’s possible, but probably rare.  (By the way, as I typed these words yesterday, I was sitting at Starbucks on Marsh Road, waiting to meet with Amanda Catania and our new Social Media Coordinator, Michelle Moran. 

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Looking out the window, I noticed the front bumper of a scratched up Acura.  There was a Handicap tag hanging from the rearview mirror.  One of four or five bumper stickers across the front of the car reads:  “Just Say NO to Negativity.”  What are the chances?)

So, I’m saying it’s probably rare to turn a pessimist into an optimist—though I’m sure it happens on occasion.  With that in mind, I’m wondering if it’s a responsible use of time to try to encourage thinking pessimists to relinquish their pessimism and to embrace, in its place, optimism.  I mean, if one begins with almost any day’s news from any of the major news networks, there’s not many places to grab hold of optimism.  Some of the news shows may end with a happy tale or a cutsie story, but after having been told how the world is falling apart for an hour or half an hour, the little upbeat word at the end is nearly incomprehensible.  “60 Minutes” for most of its history may have gotten in right by ending a show with an offbeat word from a pleasant pessimist—at least curmudgeon—Andy Rooney.

 

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I ran across a book review a while back of a book I’ve not read so what I’m sharing with you today is based on the review, but you can see why a book titled, The Rational Optimist, came to mind as I was gathering my thoughts for today.  The author is Matt Ridley, whom the reviewer says has made his marks in the world as a zoologist, a banker, a journalist, and for good measure an expert on evolution.  Ridley sets out to invite his readers, thinking people, to dare to embrace a positive view of the world—that is, optimism.  The gist of his argument, I gather, is that while humankind has in modern times developed “an unmatched capacity to resolve its most pressing challenges,” pessimism has probably dominated world views for about the same amount of time our country has been its own free land.  Yet, in “contrast to more pessimistic predictions, humanity has not collapsed.”  On the contrary.  In the last thousand years, life expectancy has increased significantly in many parts of the world, and violence indicators have been on the decline.  Humans have rather continuously increased quality of life for many in the species. 

 

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The Rational Optimist.  Worth pondering, huh?

 

 

II.

Some religions attempt to offer words of optimism, but usually in the context of that particular religion’s winning out over its enemies by and by.  Judaism is an exception in this regard.  When the ancient writers pictured the culmination of history, all nations and peoples had come together.  Yes, they were on Mount Zion, but they weren’t all Jewish by either ethnicity or belief.

Generally, religious groups that have offered optimistic options have done so on a distinctively conditional basis—mostly promising the real good out there to their own adherents, and in many cases these groups have claimed the ability to predict not only what comes to be in this world, but also in the next realm with which they seem more familiar than a traveler who has just returned from an extensive excursion at some fascinating part of the globe.

You will, perhaps, recognize at least some of these words as those of Karl Marx:

Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusion about its condition is the demand to give up a condition that needs illusions.

 

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The phrase, “opium of the people,” or, “opiate of the masses,” is often used out of context.  Marx was thinking more deeply here than at a level that would have allowed to take a callous, rather random swipe at religion.  

While I was certainly taught to scoff at Marx and any of his ideas—especially his perspective on religion—even as a professional religious insider, I have to say that, in most cases, he’s correct.  Religion isn’t without value for those who need to have their senses numbed, but when it’s time to face the real world—as he says, minus illusions about life as it really is—religion has to go.  In other words, any optimism most religions offer is real as an imagined utopia.

Perhaps the most openly pessimistic writer in Judeo-Christian scripture is the author of the book of Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew Bible.

The words of the Teacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem:  “Futile! Futile!” laments the Teacher, “Absolutely futile! Everything is futile!”  What benefit do people get from all the effort they expend on earth?  A generation comes and a generation goes, but the earth remains the same through the ages.  The sun rises and the sun sets; it hurries away to a place from which it rises again.  The wind goes to the south and circles around to the north; round and round the wind goes and on its rounds it returns.  All the streams flow into the sea, but the sea is not full, and to the place where the streams flow, there they will flow again.  All this monotony is tiresome; no one can bear to describe it:  The eye is never satisfied with seeing, nor is the ear ever content with hearing.  What exists now is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing truly new on earth.  Is there anything about which someone can say, “Look at this! It is new!”?  It was already done long ago, before our time.  No one remembers the former events, nor will anyone remember the events that are yet to happen; they will not be remembered by the future generations (New English Translation).

There are varieties of pessimism.  Some pessimism is built on a view of the world that says, either, the world is getting worse and worse—less moral, less safe, and so on.  It can’t get any better.  The downward spiral will keep spiraling downward until we crash at either divine destruction or self-destruction.  The end result in either case will be pretty much the same.  

The kind of pessimism with which the Teacher (or Preacher) writing the book of Ecclesiastes is frustrated is that both the natural world and human experience are just going around in circles.  Nothing is really changing or improving.  Everything is a repeat of what has gone before.  Ho hum.

 

 

III.

Jesus told a memorable story, a parable, about a guy who was in all probability congenitally pessimistic.  Sad to say, all of us probably knows more than a few of these.  Was that a pessimistic assessment? 

The story Jesus told has been so well-remembered that it has a name, “the parable of the talents.”  Dr. Barbara Reid is a nun and cutting-edge Christian scripture scholar with whom I had the good fortune of working last time I had an editing gig–four or five years ago.  Now Dean of the Catholic Theological Union, she says the traditional interpretations of the parable of the talents are wrong. 

 

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A quick overview of the story is that a demanding master, a wealthy guy, decides to take a vacation or head out on a business trip, and not wanting to lose out on any money-making opportunities from investment sources while he’s away and unable to stay on top of what’s hot and what’s not, he has some smart slaves with financial experience.  He taps three of them to invest while he’s away.  The slave with the most promise gets five talents to invest; a talent was a unit of currency equivalent to what an hourly worker would earn in twenty-five years of steady, hard work.  Let’s say five talents might be equal to a million bucks today.  The next slave got three talents to invest–six hundred grand-ish.  The third slave got a mere quarter mil to invest.  Their mission, their responsibility was simple and clear:  stay on top of this money and keep it invested in whatever makes money.  

The slaves with the most money to invest did exactly as they were told, and they were good.  When the master returned, he was thrilled with how much of a return these two slaves had gotten on the money he had entrusted to their care.  

The slave who was left with the least amount of money to invest buried what he had been given in the ground–presumably to ensure that no market decline would cost his master a single dinarious.  That worked, but no money was made.  In a good market, when there was money to be made with investments, this slave sat on the original amount and ended up not earning a thing for his master.  The master was irate and had him punished severely.  

A common interpretive approach portrays the master as God and the slaves as God’s people who have been entrusted with talents.  The moral of the story is:  to the one who has been given much, much is required.  And despite the fact that talent was a unit of currency, in English most preachers have crafted their sermons to make talent mean “inherent skill,” such as the ability to sing or arrange flowers or whatever one’s inherent or learned best skill is.

Barbara Reid says this approach is as wrong as can be.  Recognizing the subtly subversive streak in Jesus’ teachings and some of his acts as well, she says that, as Jesus told the parable, the slave who declined to invest is the hero of the story, the only one who did the right thing even though there was no happily ever after ending for him.  

How could this have been a point Jesus would have wanted to make?  Well, for starters, he was anything but a capitalist.  The two slaves who invested were status quo types. If they represented followers of Jesus, and they probably didn’t, they were the types who saw value in what he taught, but who still leaned toward traditional Jewish laws as the heart of religion.  

The master in the story didn’t represent God at all, but rather traditional Jewish leadership intent on punishing those Jews who were attracted to Jesus’ twist on what was core in Judaism and for that matter core in spirituality.  

The slave who was given the least to invest and who didn’t invest at all is the example of what Jesus’ followers needed to be doing–namely refusing to be controlled by the status quo, regardless of its power; regardless of consequences.  Investing in the past is a popular but a poor practice.

Professor Reid believes that the parable of the talents shows what happens when someone dares to expose a corrupt system—religious or political; she or he is punished.  Optimism is believing it’s still worth taking a stand against injustice and other immorality. 

Amen. 

 

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Seven Deadly [Societal] Yens: Sloth

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I.

There’s a good chance that in the vast majority of cases, laziness is in the eye of

the beholder–whether the beholder thinks of herself or himself as the slouch or of

someone else as the slacker.  For how many years did large percentages of teachers

accuse learning disabled students of being goof-offs when, in reality, we have begun

to catch on to the fact that most of them simply couldn’t learn using methods

developed for the rank and file, “more traditional,” learner?  Alexis de Tocqueville

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couldn’t have been more off base than when in his ignorance he wrote, “The Indians

of North America view labor as not only an evil but also a disgrace, and their pride

combats civilization as obstinately as their indolence.”

 

 

I heard all my growing up years in the racist South that people of color were lazy,

were naturally lazy, born lazy.  Once I was able observe enough of life to draw my

own conclusions, I was perplexed.  The work I saw Black people doing was, across the

board, manual labor.  We can be sure that the persons of color who worked as slaves

on the plantations were anything but lazy; their masters would’ve beaten them if

they’d begun to fall into such habits. I have most recently been reminded of how

difficult the work and life in general were for plantation slaves as I finally got

around to watching the opening scenes of the film, Lee Daniels’s, The Butler.

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So, still quite young, I couldn’t understood how anybody would draw the conclusion of

congenital laziness of persons of color; it had to have been based on

misunderstanding and lack of information, which racism permits.

 

 

In mid-December this past year, the Sun newspaper in London put out a list of the

laziest politicians in its nation. I wonder when somebody will do that for us here.

Unfortunately, the research, if you will, was compiled by someone who simply counted

how frequently politicians had shown up to vote in the months leading up to the

article. We all know there’s much more to being a politician than voting although we

certainly do expect our elected officials to be present as much possible to vote.

That’s a big part of what we sent them there to do.  Back to Britain.

 

 

A Member of Parliament by the name of Lucy Powell had been absent for a couple of

months late in 2013 and therefore had not been in attendance at several voting

opportunities. The Sun reporter or reporters did not take into account

that she had been on maternity leave and named her, as I described, one of the

laziest politicians in the country. Her staff naturally responded with protests; she

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also responded in protest and reminded them of her maternity leave, also informing

them that some others on the list had been absent recently because they were dealing

with very serious illnesses, which the paper had taken no time to investigate.  Had

the person or persons preparing the article been writing on who had voted less often

in the past several months without trying to give reasons why then there would’ve

some suitable data on hand, but without interpretation beyond mere numbers the data

was useless. Once again it is likely that in many instances laziness is in the eye

of the beholder.

 

 

That said, laziness is a reality; there really are people who are

lazy, but laziness isn’t an ethnic or cultural trait, passed along from generation

to generation.  One of my students knew I had this sermon topic coming up, and she

shared with me a report by Christopher Hudspeth called, “25-ish Signs That You’re Really Lazy.”  Of

course I’m not going to share the whole list with you; that would take too much

energy.  But some few of the items on the list I must share with you.

 

 

1. Your clean clothes are at this very moment in your dryer where they will remain

for the next several days or weeks, being  removed piece by piece, as they are

required.

2. You’ve sat through movies that didn’t do a thing for you and television shows

that turned your stomach only because the remote was on a table across the room.

3. You’re perfectly capable of walking, thank goodness, but you drive around a

parking lot for 20 minutes just to be a few steps closer to an entrance.

19. You hope karma is for real because you don’t have the energy to get revenge on

people who have done you wrong.

20. On cleaning days you help out by lifting your feet so someone can vacuum under

them.

21-25. You use stale tactics and lame shortcuts to finish things.

 

 

II.

“Lord o’ mercy, Mary, get yourself up out of that bed, and help me get this lunch

fixed so we can be on time for church.  You know good and well the Evangelist’s coming

home to eat with us after services,” Martha yelled through the bedroom door at her

sister.  “This chicken ain’t gonna fry itself.  Already wrung its neck, plucked it,

cleaned it out, and cut into the pieces. You think it would be too much for you,

Madame, to coat it and fry it?  No way we’d have a preacher to eat without fried

chicken on the table.  We’ll cook it now and then just heat it up right before we

serve it. Mary? Do you hear me?  Brother is out chopping wood for the stove and

milking the cows so we’ll have fresh milk. Only you are still in bed, Sleeping

Beauty.”

 

 

Mary had heard every word her sister yelled, but she refused to respond partly in

rebellion to her sister’s bossiness and partly to aggravate Martha.  Mary and Martha

had been roommates all of their adult lives. They were sisters who loved each other

without question, but some level of sparring was nonetheless always going on,

especially as initiated by Martha.

 

 

The Bethany sisters were as different as night and day, but their differences were

typically kept from upsetting the household apple cart by the presence of the third

person in the household, their bachelor baby brother, Lazarus, whom they spoiled

rotten as their late parents had done before them.  As a family, they loved the itinerant

evangelist they would soon hear, a frequent visitor to their church, and each

individually had a treasured one to one friendship with him.  The

Evangelist, the Reverend Jesus José, could not officially play favorites in the

congregation, but the Bethany family knew just the same, as the good Reverend knew,

that they were the best friends he had in the world and that whenever needed they

had his back.  Others in the congregation knew about the Bethany family’s absolute

loyalty to Preacher José; some had learned of it quietly while some few others had

learned it the hard way by saying something critical of this frequent visitor in front of one

or more members of the Bethany clan.

 

 

When Mary came out of her room, more or less on her own timetable, she was already

dressed for church, her long black hair beautiful combed and free flowing (unlike her

sister’s every-Saturday-shampoo-and-set-every-hair-in-place-do), Bible in hand

ready for Sunday school and the preaching service to follow. Mary always dressed to

the nines, and this particular Sunday was no exception. She went into the kitchen to face the scowl of

her sister and slipped a full apron over her favorite church dress so that she could

do her sister’s bidding and coat and fry the chicken. Though no one could figure how

from the outside, the truth is that together, sparring all the while, the

sisters made the best fried chicken in El Paso, Texas.

 

 

As much was done as could be done right up until it was time to leave for church,

and the family went together; the three of them as usual found their ways into their

Sunday school classes and then to their favor pew in the sanctuary where the Rev.

Jesus José, in the absence of their pastor, preached a thoughtful sermon that somehow

spoke to each of them. The sermon text was from the book of Proverbs, and of all things

Preacher Jesus focused on ants.

 

 

He pointed out how the writer of Proverbs used an ant an example of someone who

was always prepared, working hard, anticipating, doing more than her or his share.  Martha

nodded in agreement throughout the sermon because she, anything but lazy,

surely was right down the line everything the ant was.  She ran through in her mind,

while listening attentively to the sermon, the countless tasks she’d already completely

since she had arisen with the rooster that morning and how many more tasks she

would undertake before she rested that night.

 

 

Mary heard the sermon very differently and took the admonitions of her favorite

preacher to challenge her to prepare herself spiritually for life’s challenges

rather than to be so concerned about the toil of daily life, not that necessary chores were

omitted from the sermon’s concerns but that those who are lazy about tending to their

spiritual well-being, which is probably the easiest thing in the world to ignore,

may not do as well as they might with other aspects of life.

 

 

The sisters hurried home–each one thinking how inspired she had been by the sermon

and how Preacher Jesus had been trying to preach in particular to her sister.

Martha hoped Mary heard the sermon that day and would in the future be more diligent

about her chores around the farm.  Mary hoped Martha had heard the sermon that day

and would make a moment for prayer here and there.

 

 

Lazarus’ was to walk Jesus from the church to the house after he had greeted all of

the congregants and had a cup of  chicory coffee with the socially-minded ones in

the fellowship hall.  Lazarus knew he was supposed to delay as long as possible home

arrival with the Preacher in tow to give his sisters time to add the final touches

to the feast for four.

 

 

The instant Martha and Mary had flown into to their kitchen, they donned their aprons

and scurried around madly to make things perfect before their evangelist friend came

for yet another cherished visit. They never took his visits for granted, carefully

treating each one as if it were the first and most special of all.

 

 

About that time, Lazarus and Jesus walked through the front door and, without

lingering in the parlor, were called to the beautifully set table where the Preacher Jesus,

of course, was asked to say the blessing before they all dug into a fine meal–

fried chicken; mashed potatoes with gravy; deviled eggs; collard greens flavored

with bacon grease; corn on the cob; sweet tea and yeast rolls.  Yum yum!  Of course, there

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were homemade salsa and tobacco sauce for the use of the Mexican evangelist in their midst.

The meal was topped off with rhubarb pie under a big ole scoop of homemade ice cream.

 

 

Everybody was full.  Martha naturally started cleaning up and prevailed upon her

brother to assist.

 

 

Mary followed Jesus out to the rocking chairs on the side porch.  She began to talk to him

about what she had heard in his sermon that day in regard to not letting tasks and chores cause

one to be lazy about spiritual matters.  Right in the middle of that rocking chair conversation,

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Martha stomped onto the porch and began scolding her sister right in front of company.

Could she pick another day to be lazy, Martha wanted to know. She, Martha, reminded

Mary exactly who had done most of the early morning work and who had already done a great deal

of the clean up as well.

 

Mary told Martha to leave what she didn’t want to do, and she, Mary, would happily

finish up in a little while.  That didn’t shut Martha up, though.  She ranted on and

eventually apologized to Jesus for drawing him into family business.

 

 

The Preacher told her he was used to hearing the sisters spar and normally kept his

nose out of it, but in this case he said, “Mary made the right choice today.  We’ll

both be in there to help you and Lazarus in a few minutes, before I head back over

to the church for a healing service.  But for now let us finish our

conversation about how not to be spiritually lazy.”

 

 

The minute Mary made it to the kitchen, bossy Martha gave her another job:  “Go ahead

and pour the after lunch wine.”

 

 

Mary said, “OK, I will, but I still feel funny serving wine to a preacher…just

how we were raised, as you know.”

 

 

“Pour the wine and hush that nonsense,” Martha barked.  “That’s why we left those

crazy Southern Baptists and switched to the Presbyterian church–so we could have wine without

being told we were going to burn in hell for imbibing.  Besides, Preacher Jesus

likes wine; I’ve even heard he makes his own.”

 

 

 

 

 

III.

In my early days as a preaching professor in Louisville, we used a textbook in our

intro to preaching courses to which I have made reference from time to time,

Preaching the Good News by Princeton homiletician, George Sweazey. In that book, Dr.

Sweazey writes about the many facets preaching, which is the purpose of the book,

but also tosses in a lot of handy advice for pastors since most preachers preach in

a pastoral context and the whole process of preparing and delivering a sermon is

done within that context–something very different than an itinerant preacher

experiences.  One of the things that stood out early on for me was Sweazey’s

definition of “laziness” for the preacher, which was doing an easier or less taxing

task while putting off the more demanding, more difficult task.

 

 

It is not impossible to find a lazy preacher, but most preachers today have the

opposite problem of workaholism whether or not they’re congregants happen to know

it.  For the lazy preacher, however, if you can find one, and for the preacher who

wants to avoid falling into that habit to use Swayze’s advice is to require of

oneself that the more difficult task not routinely be put off until the easier tasks

are finished.

 

 

If that is a suitable definition of “laziness” or of one kind of laziness, I’m sure

there must be several types, then I wonder how that principle might apply to the

congregation at large instead of just to the minister:  doing the easier things

first or always, while putting off the more difficult tasks or perhaps concentrating

on the easier duties as a way of avoiding having to deal with the more difficult

stuff. For example, planning, spewing forth ideas, letting creativity flow are much,

much easier and for many people much more fun than doing the nitty-gritty work of

implementing the ideas that have come forth from creative planning sessions.

 

 

Not everybody in the church family, naturally, is okay with the absence of

implementation, and they become uncomfortable after a while with an abundance, an

overload, a storehouse full of creative ideas about what MIGHT BE while very little

energy is being put into what needs to be or must be done now, what should’ve been

done yesterday. That is not nearly as attainable for many folks.  I’m not suggesting

that cranking out creative ideas happens without expending energy, but if Dr.

Sweazey were correct then when coming up with fun ideas gets in the way of

implementation of anything substantive then there is a problem.  Some kind of

laziness has won the day.

 

 

In all likelihood, laziness as preoccupation is only a part of why congregations put off doing

specific tasks. There is also laziness attached to fear of  rejection, fear of failure, angst that the

expected outcome doesn’t come around at all.

 

 

Every new or repeat undertaking may either succeed or fail. We have known since the beginning

of  human civilizations, however, that unless some effort is made to create a change there is no change.

Also, there must be failures because human beings are imperfect people and because even when

perfect people come up with the ideas and plans, imperfect people, probably lazy–right?, fail to implement

them properly.  Regardless, we cannot let laziness caused by either preoccupation or fear of failure keep us

from tackling with full strength the demands of the hour.

Having to (Work and) Wait a While

I. South African Anabaptist and Christian studies scholar, John W. de Gruchy, wrote an article of excitement and amazement when Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as President of South Africa. He followed that article with several others, but none as pivotal, perhaps, as the one he wrote on the occasion of President Mandela’s death. De Gruchy did the unthinkable, as many would certainly view it, when he used the word “messiah” in connection to Mandela. It wasn’t a slip up. He explained, “The term ‘messiah’ is for [the majority of] Christians so exclusively associated with Jesus that it is difficult to think of anyone else in these terms. So we cannot use the world lightly or thoughtlessly when we speak of Mandela in this way.”

John-de-Gruchy

De Gruchy reminds his readers that in Judeo-Christian scripture, the word means “the Lord’s anointed.” In the Hebrew Bible, it is used to refer to those chosen by God to fulfill some divinely ordained purpose such as liberation of oppressed people—for example, Moses who led the Hebrew slaves out of Egyptian bondage into what they took to be their new land of promise. De Gruchy says that many other pivotal personalities in the ancient Hebrew world were referred to as divinely anointed ones: the prophet Elijah, King David, and benevolent Cyrus, the pagan King of the Persian Empire, who allowed—yeah, encouraged—Jews taken into captivity by the Babylonians before the Persians took control, to go back home and rebuild their Temple in Jerusalem. This being the case, how could it be off base to refer to Nelson Mandela as a messianic figure raised up to lead South Africa out of the bondage of apartheid and into long, long delayed freedom?

De Gruchy insists that those who are self-proclaimed messiahs through their very claims instantly disqualify themselves as what they claim to be. Mandela never did that. In fact, he said point blank, looking back over his hard life, “I was not a messiah, but an ordinary person who had become a leader because of extraordinary circumstances.” Therein was his greatness. Quoting De Gruchy directly again: Mandela “would never have claimed the title of messiah for himself, or thought of himself in that way. He lived and acted with the kind of humility, compassion, and self-service that allows us to refer to him as a messianic figure, a true liberator, an agent of God’s justice, peace and reconciliation; someone who, through his life, words and deeds [pointed] towards Jesus and not to himself….”

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 Interestingly, Jesus of Nazareth never claimed to be a or the messiah who’d been dreamed of from ancient times. That identity was thrust upon him like the most ill-fitting of garments. It’s all summed up in several places such as in Ezekiel 37:24-28 where the prophet shares what he believes to have been spoken by God Godself:

My servant David shall be king over them; and they shall all have one shepherd. They shall follow my ordinances and be careful to observe my statutes. They shall live in the land that I gave to my servant Jacob, in which your ancestors lived; they and their children and their children’s children shall live there for ever; and my servant David shall be their prince for ever. I will make a covenant of peace with them; it shall be an everlasting covenant with them; and I will bless them and multiply them, and will set my sanctuary among them for evermore. My dwelling-place shall be with them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Then the nations shall know that I the Lord sanctify Israel, when my sanctuary is among them for evermore.

Jesus didn’t achieve any of these and didn’t set out to. He wasn’t a failure. He achieved what he set out to achieve. Those who thought he was a failed messiah said all the things the messiah was supposed to have brought about will happen at the end of time when Jesus reappears—this time, finally, as messiah-in-full. You may have heard of the group Jews for Jesus; members are Jews who claim that Jesus was the messiah. There’s another group, Jews for Judaism, that refutes what Jews for Jesus say. The Jews for Judaism make the following points in denying the claims of Jews for Jesus. They say that Hebrew scripture teaches that a complete list of criteria must be met by the one who is the long-awaited messiah.

  • The messiah must be biologically connected to the Tribe of Judah, one of the twelve tribes of Israel, and he—I think there are no references to the messiah as possibly being female—must have descended from King David. Jesus was not connected to that tribe nor was he biologically descended from David through he may have had a legal connection to the pivotal monarch.
  • When the messiah comes to reign as King of Israel, the Jews will be ingathered from the various exiles and all together in their homeland. This has never happened since they initially dispersed. And, by the way, Jesus never ruled over any individual or group.
  • The Temple in Jerusalem will be rebuilt/restored a third time. This is an odd one since the Temple was standing in all its glory during the life of Jesus. It was destroyed by Rome some 43 years after Jesus’ execution, and has never been rebuilt. When the messiah rules, peace will prevail throughout the world. Hmmm. How much we wish that had ever happened! It surely hasn’t happened in modern times. I saw a news clip the other day pointing out that though wars are waning in so far as the United States is concerned, the Pentagon budget remains robust and untouchable.
  • When the messiah’s reign is in full swing, all the Jews worldwide will be following the commandments said to have been established by God and recorded in what is now known as holy writ. This has never been going on and isn’t going on right now.

 

Now, none of this is a negative reflection on who Jesus actually was and what he was about. He was as remarkable a human being as ever lived—maybe the epitome. But we are operating at a double deficit during the Christmas season in this country. First, Santa Claus is not the reason for the season. Second, the Jesus who is supposed to be, needs to be remembered as the baby who grew up to be a remarkable person, was not a deity, was not a monarch. Nonetheless, we cannot fault those who looked to him as a liberator who might have made all things right. We’d all like one of those.

 

II.

According to Luke’s Gospel, Joseph and Mary brought their baby boy, Jesus, up to Jerusalem to present him at the Temple to the Lord since it had been written in the Torah, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord.” To mark this joyous event in their lives and to demonstrate their gratitude to God, they—doing what they believed they were supposed to do—offered a sacrifice, likely a pair of turtledoves or pigeons.

 

At the Temple, the little family of three is approached by a man named Simeon, whom Luke tells us had been drawn to the Temple that day by God Godself. Simeon was well known among some Temple-goers as the old guy who insisted that God was going to let him live long enough at least to see the messiah. He believed the well-being of his people, the very future of his people, was dependent on the that person sent from God to for the people what they had not been able to do for themselves.

 

Presumably with Jesus’ parents’ permission, Simeon takes baby Jesus in his arms to bless him and to announce to all who would listen in such a bustling place that the long-awaited messiah was now among them though in the form of an infant. That was a bit of jolt for many who expected a messiah, but expected a messiah who was already seasoned, mature, and ready to get to work. They didn’t think they, the Jewish people living and struggling at the time Jesus was born, could wait any more; they might not make it if they tried.

 

Simeon holds up the baby boy and blesses God, praises 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” (Luke 2:28–32). This is what Simeon had lived for. He was now prepared to die. He wasn’t going to jump off the pinnacle of the Temple and end it all; nor was he going to retire from spiritual seeking despite the fact that in this event he’d been able to check off the last item on his bucket list.

 

Many elderly US Americans, persons of color in particular, had a similar feeling when the news of President Obama’s first election was initially announced. How do you suppose an African American butler felt, a man who had served presidents in the White House from Truman to Reagan? Eugene Allen apparently respected all of them, but by the time Obama was elected he was retired and in service to no one. He was given a VIP pass to the events planned for family and closest friends during the inauguration. He died less than a year about Obama’s first election.

 

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The movie about this gentleman, titled “The Butler,” is still one of the hottest films showing around the country. Simeon thought he could die in peace because his people were now in the hands of the one, whom he believed, God had sent to lead them into the greatest days.

 

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We don’t know how soon after that magic moment he did, in fact, die. Then, an elderly woman, Anna, approaches baby Jesus and his parents. She, like Simeon, takes Jesus to be the messiah, but she has a very different response: “At that moment, she began to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38). Anna is 84ish years old, and she does not want to die. She wants to preach. Like the faithful ones who will follow her, she is driven to share with others what she has experienced. Anna is a “prophet” (Luke 2:36). In fact, she is the only woman in the New Testament explicitly described as a “prophet.” She then stands alongside women like the judge, military leader and prophet Deborah as well as the Jerusalem prophet Huldah, who, in the days of King Josiah, was asked to verify the reliability of scroll found in some Temple renovation work.

 

Unlike Simeon, Anna is not just visiting the Temple for the day; she is there all the time. According to Luke, Anna “never left the Temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day” (Luke 2:37). Perhaps she was part of some sort of order of widows (Luke tells us her husband died after only seven years of marriage) who had specific religious functions in the Temple.

 

The literary pairing of Simeon and Anna, according to the Biblical Archaeology Review, reflects Luke’s penchant for male-female parallelism when he writes about the recipients of divine blessing and salvation. The story of Jesus’ birth is framed by two such stories—that of Elizabeth and Zechariah in Luke 1 and Anna and Simeon in Luke 2. Interestingly, in both cases, the woman is portrayed as the more positive example of a person of faith. The women are not only more receptive to the message, they are more willing to act upon it, with Elizabeth realizing that her cousin is carrying the messiah and praising God for this blessing and Anna spreading the good news. The waiting has been worthwhile! A messiah has arrived, as Simeon recognizes, but, as the prophetess Anna demonstrates, a new era has dawned, and it’s time to act, not relax.

 

 

III. We have said, in this Christmas-time sermon series, that you might be—or should own if you haven’t—a self-identity as a spiritual seeker if you find yourself a misfit, spiritually speaking, among those with whom you come into contact; if your orthodoxy is less significant to you than your orthopraxy; and if your traditional theological beliefs have come in your life to fail you completely. Today, I add another trait/experience to the list, and the fifth and final item in the sequence will be the center of our thinking on Christmas Eve. Today, fourth on the list of five: you might be a seeker—or you should be—if you realize that what you seek doesn’t have to drop instantaneously into your lap to be confirmed as spiritually worthwhile or significant. We may well realize that there is something more out there for us, as well as for others who seek, but we’re going to have to wait and/or work to get it or to get there.

 

Some of us are looking for a pivotal leader—perhaps, a messianic figure. That is exactly what this season is about for many traditional Christians. The world, whether the world realized it or not, was looking for Jesus when his birth delivered him into the service of struggling humanity. In addition, the world is looking for a new appearing of Jesus to close down this chapter of human history since we, it appears to many, have made such a huge mess of things that we are beyond repair.

 

Looking for a better time and/or a better way is fine—sensible even. But have you noticed that most of the messianic figures who have contributed greatly to the betterment of humankind did not think of themselves as messiahs as we said about Mandela earlier; rather, they are much more inclined to roll up their sleeves and get busy with making the world the kind of place it needs to be and has the capacity to be if only people of good will, selfless at least to some degree, will join in and make it so.

 

Have you heard, or do you remember, how the adult Jesus identified his mission—what he saw himself doing? He laid it out at the very beginning of his public ministry, and to hear or hear again what he had to say on this subject we turn, again, to the Gospel of Luke: When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” That didn’t sound like a mission to make him rich and famous.

 

Just think about the kinds of people he’d have to spend most of his time with in order to accomplish his mission. Also, though, take note of his motivation. It was internalized. He wasn’t looking for anyone else to come along to help him or to mobilized forces that would excite people to join him in trying to accomplish a set of improbable changes. At the end of his life, he had made a huge difference in the lives of countless poor people and prisoners, but the poor we still had with us; same with prisoners. Jesus didn’t have Simeon’s experience of being able to relax because God had raised up some great person to pick up where he, Jesus, had left off. He certainly couldn’t keep preaching as Anna did. Those of us who are seekers influenced by the teachings of Jesus have no precedent other than to keep working and hoping for little pockets of positive difference made. No rest for the weary seeker. Anna and Simeon do, however, give us models for actively looking ahead, despite the odds, to a better day. Amen.