Good morning!  What a joy to be with you all today. It is a gift to be able to be here to preach, in my home community that has been with me on my journey through so many twists and turns.  Thank you!

In my current adventure, I am helping start an alternative church called the Flame for the both the lesbian gay bisexual and transgender community, and for our allies who long for justice and inclusion.  It has been a fun and challenging journey.  I’ve never started a church before, you know! I am inspired by the folks in this very room who started the community of St. Andrew.

I’m also glad to be asked to preach here today, on this first Sunday of Christmas, with such a rich text in the Gospel of Luke.

Sometimes at our little start-up church, the Flame, we re-enact the gospel readings, so that we can hear different voices and listen for something new in the text. It can also be quite fun!  In lieu of that this morning, I will instead ask you to picture it, Jerusalem, a long time ago.  A young teenage mother and her partner, holding a baby who they will present to the Lord, as per custom.  They are faithful, but also poor, which is why they offer only two young pigeons, instead of a lamb. They are probably very tired. Perhaps Jesus looks beatific. Perhaps he cries throughout, as we have had some of our own wee ones do at this very font.

Cut to the town, where there is a man called Simeon, who is a faithful servant of God.  We often picture him as an old man. He has been living with hope for redemption and liberation in the time of Roman occupation and oppression. Perhaps he has undergone personal suffering too.  He is attentive to the Spirit of God, and is prompted that day to come to the temple, where he finds this young family.  He takes the child in his arms and is transformed by this encounter with the young Messiah.  Even though he doesn’t see anything before him but a powerless infant and a poor family, he is moved deeply and tells to God this trip to the temple was worth it.  He says, “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.”  Simeon proclaims God’s vision for redemption, which starts in Jerusalem, and extends to all.  Even to us here.

But Simeon also speaks a word of warning too: ”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.”

What does this mean?  Something that strikes me this week is that everything didn’t get all hunky dory once Jesus came.  He was born into poverty, fled as a refugee into exile, and was killed at a relatively young age by those in power in an effort to silence his scandalous talk of liberation and vision of God’s abundant love.  He rose again and conquered death for us, but even today we still live in a world of poverty, of refugees, of political violence and repression. We still live in a world where we grieve our own inability to provide for our children the kind of sustainable planet we dream of, where our friends are homeless and jobless and fighting illness without enough insurance.  We live in a world where we are longing for hope and looking for signs, and dreaming of an end to sorrow and death.

We live in a time in which Christianity seems divided against itself, as our country is. Jesus is indeed the salvation prepared for all peoples, but we don’t all agree on what that means or who is “all”.  Some of us may also be wrestling with big questions, or facing the weight of daily struggles.  Though Simeon proclaims God’s inclusive vision for redemption, he also foretells of the sword that pierces many of our souls, as we wrestle with this truth in a midst of a world of conflict, even within our own faith, or within our own hearts.

Tonight, at midnight, we have a symbolic changing of the calendar, and rolling from 2017 to 2018 can feel like a fresh start. Many of us take this time to reflect, to make resolutions and to examine our lives.  We also as a culture tend to recap the previous year, compiling best-of and worst-of lists for the year ending, and have dreams named or unspoken for the new year. Big questions, daily struggles, the swords that pierce our hearts, many of us are looking for signs of hope that leads to redemption, and longing for consolation. 

Mary has been carrying the spark of hope in her since the angel came to tell her about Jesus.  She proclaimed it as defiance in the words of the Magnificat. She has heard it echoed back to her by Elizabeth and Zechariah, and the witness of the shepherds and the angels. Rabbi Sharon Brous writes, “Hope is not naïve, and hope is not an opiate. Hope may be the single greatest act of defiance against a politics of pessimism and a culture of despair.” Mary is probably not surprised by Simeon’s joy at meeting Jesus.  But perhaps his dire statement gives her pause.  Perhaps she has taken Jesus back into her arms to comfort and reassure herself. 

Anna comes over, and we hear a little about this remarkable woman, prophet and preacher, who has spent much of her adult life serving God in the temple with fasting and prayer.  She sees the young Messiah and comes over to the group.  She began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.  She knew there was something special happening here, she is changed by the moment.

One of our traditions at the Flame is to lift up voices of people of color and queer folks.  I can hear an echo of Anna’s proclamation in the poem, “Now the Work of Christmas Begins” by African-American civil rights leader and theologian Howard Thurman.  He writes:

When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.

As I ponder today’s gospel, I have a few questions: Where do we hear the prompting of the Holy Spirit?  Where do we see hope?  What is the good news of God’s redemption we are called to share? How does our encounter with Jesus change us? 

These are pretty big questions with no easy answers. One of the things we do at the Flame when we gather is go around the room, and each person shares their name, their pronouns, and then a moment of joy, fun or laughter that they experienced in the previous week.  It is sometimes very easy to think of something, but in the reality of life, it is also sometimes very difficult.  In those moments, we try to find even the smallest moment of joy, such as a wonderfully flavored cup of hot chocolate, or the way the sun hit the leaves on the walk to church. Naming moments that bring us joy, fun or laughter can be a helpful practice. It can remind us to look for these moments for which we can be grateful, these moments which uplift us, especially when life is at its hardest.  For me, those moments, and the laughter, tears, and bonding we share when relating these anecdotes are a balm to the soul.

Perhaps we can do the same with the questions that rise from the text.  Maybe we don’t have the deepest, best answer, but we can find a small step into the conversation.  Maybe we can develop a practice of 1) listening for the prompting of the Holy Spirit, even in the unexpected, of 2) looking for hope, even the smallest signs 3) praising God, even if we are mad at God, and 4) sharing the news of liberation and redemption, even when it seems the most difficult.   [ticking off on fingers] [1] listening for the Spirit. [2] finding hope. [3] praising God. [4] telling others.  I need these reminders regularly, and this was a good Gospel text for me.  I forget this especially when I’m overtired, stressed out, overwhelmed, anxious, or not feeling well.  Perhaps you can relate.  But the promise is that God is in those times too!

God is so exuberantly in love with us, that God came to be born and live with us, and God remains present --with us, when times are scary or good, painful or fun. 

In this time after Christmas Day, on this first Sunday of Christmas, we may be exhausted with our wallets stretched thin and our hearts heavy with dread, or we may be well rested with full pantries and joyful expectation for the New Year.  Like Simeon, something prompted each of us to come to be with this community today. Like Mary and Joseph, we hear words spoken to those striving to be faithful in the midst of uncertainly, of new beginnings and wonder, of loss and hardship. Like Anna, maybe we are finding hope and love in our encounter with God, in the powerless infant, who meets us at the table, and the font, and the cross, and community, and in all parts of our lives.

The story of Anna and Simeon meeting Jesus is not about finding a magic baby who will suddenly grant all their wishes.  They are not suddenly rich, thin, and popular after meeting this infant.  But they are changed forever.  They are called deeper into their lives of discipleship, to proclaim the truth of God’s promise of redemption, and to join in sharing the good news.

My New Year’s Eve prayer for you is that you leave church this morning touched by the encounter with God who meets us here, who meets us wherever we are, who calls us to join in the liberation of God’s people, and who whispers to us, “You are Beloved. Hope is Alive”

In Jesus’ Name, Amen.