Presentation: Impulsive Messiness
By: The Rev. Ben Day
One Sunday while serving as the Curate at an urban Atlanta congregation, I was confronted by the matriarch of our parish community as she exited the nave. “You preach the same sermon every time I come to church,” she said, “try changing it up once in awhile.”
I have never been one to avoid confrontation or to shrink in the face of what I think is unjust criticism, so without missing a beat or stopping to consider what I was about to say, I responded, “Well ma’am I only preach that sermon when I see you come in the door. I will change my sermon when you change your bad attitude.”
The lady turned and glared at me, and then in a moment of pure grace, burst out laughing, as I stood shattered and humiliated by what I had just blurted out.
I would like to think that I have matured a great deal as a person and a pastor since then. But I was reminded of that moment again when I read today’s text recalling Jesus’s presentation in the Temple. The years of seminary coursework on pastoral care, all of the hours spent studying on family systems theory, the interpersonal work of CPE, learning to be a “non-anxious presence…” As I stood in the doorway of the parish, none of those things appeared in my mind or inspired grace to come from my mouth.
The gospel explains that Simeon prepared too. It was revealed to him that he would live to see the Messiah appear during his lifetime. He knew to expect it and be vigilant. But as I read his response in verses 29-32, which is sometimes called the “Song of Simeon,” I wonder whether he might have been a little caught off guard by what he holds in his arms?
We learn that he is led by the spirit to the Temple that day (v.27), but upon meeting the child, he takes him in his arms and offers an elegant but visceral description. Not just a description, but a proclamation. And not just any proclamation either, but also a prophecy. And the holy family is amazed.
The content, though, can’t be that amazing. Simeon is at least in part paraphrasing Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary (Luke 1: 32-33), and Mary proclaims as much as Simeon does in her own song, the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55). But the Holy Parents are “amazed” nonetheless. I am left to believe it must have been a scene to behold–Simeon’s offering of praise. Because what it lacks in original content must have been made up for in tone and style. An elder in the temple confirming all that you have been told, and all that you hoped and believed. A soul bearing description with pure wonder and praise – that would amaze!
Reading the lesson in this light, with a bit of theoretical imagination, I became aware of its subtle but strong connection to my own experience that day, standing in the doorway to the parish nave in Atlanta. Sometimes no amount of preparation or vigilance can prepare us to confront what stares us in the face. Our impulses and emotions are part of the journey of discovering the incarnate presence among us. Moments when we go off script and turn ourselves over to the messiness of our impulsive selves, we can discover new things concerning our relationships to God and one another. For me I discovered grace. For Simeon, I think it was wonder and praise. In a world that seems to market test and choreograph everything, including an increasing amount of its religious activity (see Megachurch culture), I am encouraged. Impulsive messiness matters.
The Rev. Ben Day is the Rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Kennesaw, Georgia. Married to Amanda, they have a 16mo son, a Border Collie, and a German Shepherd. Life is far from dull or boring in the Day family, or at Christ Church.