Sunday, February 2, 2014

2014.02.02 Holy Scripture: Proclamation and Story

Holy Scripture is holy precisely because we can’t pin it down to any one point of view, no matter how hard we try—and oh, we try, oh we try.  

Scripture is made up of proclamation + story. The proclamation is always the same, something like, God is still around, faithful. For Christians, the proclamation is Jesus Christ is Lord, and no other—not Caesar, not your money or possessions, not your best beloveds or your passions, not your work or works, not even your religion. 

I'd say that Christians dare to proclaim that Jesus is Lord, exactly because in that birth, life, suffering, ignominious death, and beyond, we perceive God's faithfulness and thus we have hope, no matter what.

Hope is my favorite spiritual gift and virtue.  It is vast, spread beyond what can be known, always open-ended. Hope embraces all things, all the contrasting complexities of life, all futures, and all possibilities—the holy and the unholy. Hope can see in the dark.

Biblical stories are vehicles, accompanying the singular proclamation. They tell us how real people live the proclamation out with hope. The proclamation has power, yet so also does the story itself. We often discover that our own stories find place in these ancient stories. 

Take the story in Luke’s gospel (2:22-40) about Mary, the young mother of Jesus coming to the Temple, as tradition demanded, to dedicate her firstborn son to God, in remembrance of how God  had delivered all the firstborn sons of Israel from death at the hand of King Herod. 

Envision a new young mother, probably exhausted and anxious but obedient to the demands of her religious tradition. She likely felt possessed by a love too consuming to describe, a love that made her also feel possessive. Mary, I’m sure, felt excited and nervous as she clutched her child. Probably most of us have felt such possessing/possessive love for someone or something. You could crush it with your ardor.

Enter old Simeon, a very old man, stranger to Mary. He took the baby from her arms, blessed him, and then in an aging cracking voice chanted a strange old hymn as he rocked the babe in arms.  
    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.

What was Simeon saying? He continued with a grim, fearsome prophecy: this child will open the hearts and minds of the people (a dangerous thing to do) and many will oppose him. And . . . a sword will pierce your own soul too, dear woman.

How horrifying to Mary. What does this mean? Where in this story would Mary find hope?

Perhaps in the figure of Anna. Anna, a much ignored figure in scripture and sermon, is 84. She was married and widowed after just seven years. She’d never left the Temple—60-some years of worship, prayer and fasting. That’s faith! Anna came forth after Simeon to praise God and prophesy the redemption she’d recognized in the child.  

Anna was a woman who had experienced crushing grief, yet she held onto her hope in God and God’s faithfulness. She’d survived “hell” and kept hope. Without knowing it then, Mary saw in Anna all the virtues she herself would need going forward. I think the presence of Anna brought hope into Mary’s heart.

I knew an Anna once, an old salt who had lived long by the sea; it was in her bones. She was raspy and grouchy and often preachy. She had received a mail order degree in theology from Oral Roberts University—very conservative. Like the biblical Anna, she hung out around the church most days. She took the Bible literally, every word. If it weren’t in there it simply weren’t! She and I were of different minds yet we both loved the stories, and we could chuckle together. 

One day this contrarian told me as she pounded her fist into her hand: “Ya know. I was dead set against the ordination of women.” (I braced myself.) She continued, “But I converted.” (I felt inflated, imagining myself part of her conversion.)  “Ya know what changed my mind? It was old Anna in the Temple. I read that story over and over. I thought to myself, ‘Well, if an old timer like that could come into the church and preach prophecy then I guessed it was okay for all women to speak in church.”

An old woman—a story—a light—a hope—a christ—our God.