Sermon delivered by Dale Ann Gray, on Sunday, December 29, 2002.

The Unexpected Messiah

Eileen Davis was my voice teacher at Ohio State. She had a sign on her door. It read, "Everyday it's the same old thing… breathe, breathe, breathe." I had a chance to experience that in fuller way earlier this month. Five hours a day of seated meditation for seven days at a Meditation Retreat Center in Vermont. Five hours a day focused on my breathing. Five hours a day of trying to keep my attention in the present. What is more present than my continual breathing? My heartbeat. … I could focus on that for a while. It gently rocked me at about 70 beats per minute. I could co-ordinate my breathing with my heart, two beats inhale, two beats exhale. Was I controlling it, or was I noticing a natural pattern? Hard to tell. Five hours everyday spent in silence, being present, breathing… Two beats inhale, two beats exhale … for five long hours everyday.

If I think THAT was difficult, imagine Simeon breathing for at least 60 long years… waiting… waiting… for the consolation of Israel. Why did Israel need to be consoled, encouraged, comforted, saved? For more than 60 years, Romans had occupied Israel. Armed and armored Roman centurions overran Jerusalem. Their inescapable presence dominated daily life from the market place to the temple. They would "civilize" Jerusalem, bring true religion to these who rejected their pantheon, show them what virtue is to be found in a republic. Rome was the great "I," while her conquered subjects became, by definition, "Other."

Some in Jerusalem were old enough to remember the brief period of self-governance prior to the Romans. I'm guessing that Simeon was one of those who was a young adult, or an impressionable teenager when the Romans arrived. He watched life change. He saw women dart into doorways, out of the way of the conquerors. He witnessed the cruelty of Herod the Great, the puppet king, as scores of Rabbis were slaughtered in a futile attempt to Helenize the Jews. As innocent children were massacred, Herod protected his reign, his prestige, his position, his kingdom, his livelihood. He the great "I," his countrymen the objectified "other." Simeon must have mourned the loss of purity and zeal when nominal Jews, Gentile converts in name only, were made priests in the temple. He stood helpless while the Romans demanded and received a special tax levied on Jews to excuse them from compulsory pagan worship. A devout Jew, even the poorest of the poor, paid … or worshipped false gods.

Legend has it that the devout and just Simeon was the son of the famed and learned rabbi, Hillel, and the father of St. Paul's teacher, Gamaliel. True or not, we can imagine that Simeon studied the Hebrew Scriptures and saw in them God's promise of deliverance through the anointed one. This Messiah, this Christ would deliver Israel, vindicate her righteousness, restore her glory, and bring her captors to justice. Every valley of poverty, hunger, and slavery would be exalted; and every mountain of indifference, domination, and oppression made low. And the crooked priests, governors, merchants, and kings would be made straight; and in society, home, and synagogue the rough places …plain. For the mouth of the Lord had spoken it! For THIS messiah, Simeon waited.

Today, Simeon's throughout our community, and world await God's deliverance. It would be a facile application to identify with Simeon. We could go there. Let's indulge for a sentimental moment. We, like Simeon, have been led here by the Spirit of God. We, like Simeon, have seen the salvation of God. All we need do is open our eyes to see it, recognize it, grasp it. But, I'm afraid, that is all the deeper we can go. The analogy ends, it has no root. No, in this Gospel story, WE are not Simeon.

Have we, as Christian Americans, been overrun by a foreign government? Have we watched our pastors be gunned down by corrupt rulers? Have we witnessed the state ordered brutal mass-murder of children two years old and younger? Must we pay a foreign occupying country for the right to worship as we please? Have we been forced, against our will into servitude? Have we yearned for 60 years for the promised Messiah to deliver us from foreign tyranny? No, we are not Simeon.

On the other hand, have Americans set foot on foreign soil in an attempt to control it or its people? Have we imposed our culture on other lands? Have we forced our form of religion on followers of another? Have Christians, if not in this country, our European ancestors, murdered Rabbis, Imams, Buddhist monks, and Hindu clerics in the name of God? Are we the great "I," and the rest of the world "Other"? Must we continue to expand our influence in order to support our own opulent life style? Do we, the richest country in the world, over-consume? Have we ever bought a new inexpensive hand made quilt, or hand stitched Persian rug? … the sort that only tiny hands can stitch? Do we, through our purchases, enslave women and children the world over? Do we, by frequenting Taco Bell, ensure that migrant tomato pickers in Latin America never earn a living wage? No, we are not Simeon.

Empire is not limited to countries and governments; it extends to family, church, workplace, and community … to any place where power is used OVER people instead of FOR people… to any place where the deluded "I" reigns supreme.

Did you see the article on the cover of last Friday's Metro section of the Dispatch? "Messiah is Victim of Policy." Just four days before the performance, Kathy Wallace, my friend and choral director at Fort Hayes High School, was forbidden to perform Handel's Messiah. I taught high school choral music for nine years, so this headline caught my attention, and the story broke my heart. The concert was to occur right here, at First Congregational Church. The religious nature of the text led to its demise, a result of a lawsuit filed by the ACLU against the Columbus City Schools. For nine consecutive years, the Fort Hayes Metropolitan Singers have performed Messiah. This year "Messiah" was "unexpected"? The article reads, "In place of Handel's Messiah, school officials had suggested that the Metropolitan Singers perform songs such as Frosty the Snowman and Jingle Bells." Choral directors must now submit their concert repertoire to a committee of district officials for approval. The article goes on to say, "the performance or study of religious music must be `based on sound curricular reasons' and not to `manifest a preference for religion or particular religious belief.'"

To declare that a High School Choral Director as reputable, as capable, and as accomplished as Kathy Wallace, could not without the aid of a committee, determine that the study and performance of Handel's Messiah WAS based on sound curricular reasons, … is painful. To suggest instead that students indulge in such pabulum as Frosty the Snowman adds insult to injury. It defeats the purpose of education, and is not based on sound curricular reasons. Are they honestly suggesting that the study and performance of one of the most difficult choral works of the Baroque era is NOT based on sound curricular reasons? School officials censored the students' efforts, depriving our community of a marvelous concert by one of the best high school choirs in the state. We can let them know that we still want to hear this unexpected Messiah.

These school officials are not so different from us. We all have our little fiefdom to protect, OUR realm of authority, OUR kingdom of control, OUR prosperity to guard.

God showed Simeon a better way. Simeon SAW the salvation of the Lord. Simeon glimpsed the in-breaking of the Rule of God. Simeon witnessed the incarnation of the one who fills all in all. Did Simeon fully understand what he was shown? Probably not. He EXPECTED a Messiah who would end the Roman occupation.

Any righteous Jew was familiar with the term "the Lord's Messiah," "the Lord's Anointed," a phrase that referred to God's chosen servants whether they were prophets, priests, or kings. In referring to a human being, no self-respecting Jew would have spoken of "Christ the Lord," "The Anointed Lord," words reserved for God alone. No one expected GOD to be revealed in Jesus. No one expected the Messiah also to be Isaiah's Suffering Servant. No one expected Jesus to take on the suffering of the world. Yet, THAT was the better way… providing a transparent window into the heart of God. Jesus, by living in complete openness to God, showed us the true nature of God; and Jesus, by living in complete openness to humanity, showed us what it truly means to be human. Jesus' very life was the heartbeat of God. Jesus inhaled the suffering of the world. Jesus exhaled relief, and healing. Two beats inhale, two beats, exhale. (pause) In Jesus there was not the great ego that excluded "the other," there was no withdrawal from human pain, no delusion of a false independence. There was only "ALL," there was only GOD.

Jesus had divine power, but did he ever use it OVER people? No, he always and only used it FOR people. For the sick, the dying, the dead, the outcast, the marginalized, the slave, the prostitute, the sinner, the oppressed. Jesus gave dignity, forgiveness, restoration, health, and wholeness to the Simeons of the world, those who had long awaited fulfillment of their deepest yearnings.

Simeon saw the salvation of the Lord. But that salvation came in an unexpected package. God was revealed but only as GOD would be revealed… in a promise of God's abiding presence … in the unexpected… in a baby, a divine human, born in a stable, attended by the breath of cows and sheep, in a child who taught the teachers, in a man who never backed away from the call of humanity, who never repented of God's call on his life, who stood and died for not recanting, who never saw the rejected as "other," who embraced radical solidarity with all suffering. THIS is the better way. THIS is the unexpected Messiah.

THIS is Jesus… Christ the Lord! We have seen the salvation of the Lord. Everyday we have the opportunity to listen to the heartbeat of God. Everyday we are indwelt by the breath of God. Two beats inhale, two beats exhale. Whether it is a friendly nod to a neighbor, a prayer for peace, or a choice not to support tyranny, slavery, and injustice, we, by the power of the Holy Spirit of God, can live out the fullness of the unexpected Messiah even in… no…especially in our own community.

I saw it happen right here on Christmas Day. I saw God at Bethlehem on Broad Street. I saw God in the kitchen preparing plates of turkey, green, dressing, and mashed potatoes and gravy. I saw God down in the library offering free long distance phone calls. I saw God wrapping presents. I saw God dressed up like Santa Clause holding children and giving gifts. I saw God singing in our sanctuary. I saw God in the natural rhythm of the day.

But, I also found the unexpected Messiah on Christmas Day. God sat in these pews. God trudged her way up this aisle, fatigue and worry on her face, four small children in tow. God MADE the long distance phone calls. God ATE the turkey dinner. God sat on Santa's lap. You should have seen God's face light up when he opened his teddy bear and hugged Santa!

God has given us great power through the Holy Spirit, not to be used OVER people, but FOR people, not to withdraw from the suffering of this life, but to enter into it in the name of Jesus… to find the natural pattern imbedded in all of life… two beats inhale, two beats exhale… God has given us the power of the Holy Spirit to be present in the moment… as present as our breath. As present as the Spirit breath of God who hovered over the waters of creation. As present as the Spirit breath of God who breathes into our nostrils the breath of life. As present as the Spirit breath of God who is ever near, but only as God chooses. As present as the Spirit breath of God that is the longing of all humanity, and the destiny, of all creation. Amen.

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