[I preached this sermon at Epworth UMC, Columbus, OH on January 2, 2022. To watch the livestreamed sermon go to epworthkarl.org, click on “Worship,” and then on “Archived Worship Services.”]
My Facebook news feed has been full this week about a saint the world lost last week, and I’m not talking about Betty White; although I think she might qualify. One story about Bishop Desmond Tutu especially caught my attention because it dealt with what inspired Tutu to choose the career path he followed. “When Desmond Tutu was a child he would go after school to the kitchen of a small hospital where his mother worked as a cook. He would remain there, helping his mother and doing his homework until they both went home at the end of the day.
Several times a week, a young white Anglican priest named Trevor Huddleston would leave his bicycle behind the hospital and would then walk through the kitchen on his way to visit the sick, and when he did he always raised his hat to Desmond’s mother and said, “Good afternoon, Mrs. Tutu.”
This simple act of courtesy and respect toward his mother so impressed the little boy half hidden behind his mother that it profoundly influenced his entire future as well as the future of his native land. He knew he lived in a world where virtually all white people didn’t even bother to speak to blacks, much less show them respect.
He lived in a world where a black person had to step off the sidewalk to make way for a white person who might be walking toward them. Years later, Tutu wrote in his autobiography, “I wondered what kind of man this was and what kind of church he represented. And when I found out, I decided that I wanted to be a priest like him.”
In our Scripture for today we find Simeon and Anna who, like Bishop Tutu, knew who they were called to be. Simeon and Anna are the first people to recognize Jesus as the Christ without some angel telling them. Why these two old folks? Because they are the ones looking for God’s revelation. Other people, like us perhaps, were too busy to notice; they are like Martha, the sister of Lazarus and Mary. When Jesus came to their house Martha was busy in the kitchen, not doing anything wrong. We all love a good host or hostess taking care of us. But sometimes we stay busy to avoid stuff we don’t want to face – including Jesus. Maybe we’re afraid or embarrassed to face Jesus because he knows who’s naughty or nice? Or maybe we feel unworthy because we haven’t accomplished our purpose in life.
We all know that December is the month when even the biggest sports fan can overdose on football bowl games. And even if you aren’t a fan we all know that the purpose of a football team is winning the game-even if it means scoring 48 points as Ohio State did yesterday. And whether or not a team is achieving that goal makes all the difference in how it behaves. If the team with the ball is winning they will take as much time as allowed between plays. They run the ball instead of passing because an incomplete pass stops the game clock. Their players are taught to stay in bounds when they are tackled because that keeps the clock running between plays.
But if the team with the ball is behind that’s when the last few minutes of the game can take forever. That team calls time out as often as it can; they try to get out of bounds to stop the clock, sometimes even fake injuries or whatever they can do to stretch those last two minutes out as long as it takes to accomplish their purpose.
Simeon is like the team that is ahead. His life purpose is fulfilled when he sees the Christ child, and he says “Ok, God. I’m done here. Take me home.”
When I was in college 100 years ago my big goal after graduation was to buy a Corvette and go to California. God had different ideas, and I bought a Volkswagen and went to seminary. Simeon and Anna spent much of their time in prayer. They went to the source instead of buying into the popular notion of what the Messiah would look like; and that’s why they were prepared for God’s surprise. They understood that God’s revelation may not look like anything we expect.
The next story in Luke’s Gospel after this one tells us that Jesus knew his life purpose by age 12. That’s when his parents found him in the temple learning from the teachers because as he told them he had to be about his Father’s business. For most of us it takes a lot longer to discover our purpose. Anna Mary Robertson was 76 when she found her calling. When she did she painted over 600 famous paintings, and because of that we know her as Grandma Moses. When asked why she started painting she said, “I was too old to work on the farm and too young to sit on the porch.” Does that apply to any of us? I’ve looked everywhere folks and the word retirement does not appear in the Bible. Older folks in the Bible like Abraham and Sarai, like Elizabeth and Zechariah don’t get put out to pasture, they just get a new job description from God. My dear mother-in-law was wheelchair bound in her 90’s, and still asking what she could do to make a difference in God’s world. The secret is asking, seeking, and never giving up until we see the Lord. Then and only then can we, like Simeon, be content to let the clock run out.
Today is the second anniversary of the tragic death of a good friend of mine and yours. I want to honor his memory today. Bill Casto’s death was very painful in so many ways, but this text reminded me of Bill because in his “retirement” he found his purpose and passion in a relentless ministry to homeless people in Columbus.
I have two friends who have had near death experiences and both reported that they were told, “It’s not your time yet. There’s something more you need to do.” I believe trying to figure out what that one thing might be is asking the wrong question. What if we ask instead what we need to be? So many New Year’s resolutions or goals focus on things we want to do or not do, and we know what happens to good intentions before January runs out. Let’s think bigger this year, namely what is my purpose as one of God’s people? Who does God want me to be and does this action/word help me be that kind of person?
How do we know what that looks like? We discern who we are through prayer and sharing the journey with other pilgrims. Simeon did that and trusted God’s promise. Do we? Do I? Or do I get discouraged; disappointed that what I wanted I didn’t get for Xmas? Or I didn’t get that promotion I thought I deserved; didn’t get to take the path I wanted to take or realized too late that I missed an important turn off the freeway and have to go miles before I can turn around and correct my course?
How do we discern what our purpose is? Not some one time project or act, but an entire way of life dedicated to finding our purpose and aligning it with God’s will. Simeon and Anna had found theirs and were sticking to it. How did they know what to do? They were in the temple where they thought God dwelled. We know better. God is everywhere – in burning bushes and other miracles but more often in the still voice we can’t hear unless we really listen. Like Elijah God wants us to be still and know she is God and we aren’t.
That means tuning away from false promises like the prosperity gospel and its false prophets. In the word of the old hymn – go to the source – take time to be holy. I know, none of us feel very holy. We are fallible human beings who screw things up all the time. That’s why we get a do over with a new year. Let’s make 2022 the year we learn to forgive others and forgive ourselves. Life in God’s grace is not like football. In football if you fumble or commit a penalty you can’t undo it; it’s all there on the digital record of the game to be replayed in agonizing slow motion incessantly. And if you commit the unforgiveable sin of targeting you get thrown out of the game.
Not so with God’s grace. We get to go back to the drawing board or the huddle and call another play and hope it is the one sent into the game by God and not by the other team? I have always found deep meaning in the lyrics to a song called “The Impossible Dream” from “The Man of LaMancha”* from way back in 1965. The words still speak to our following God’s purpose.
“To dream the impossible dream
To fight the unbeatable foe
To bear with unbearable sorrow
And to run where the brave dare not go
To right the unrightable wrong
And to love pure and chaste from afar
To try when your arms are to weary
To reach the unreachable star
This is my quest
To follow that star
No matter how hopeless
No matter how far
To fight for the right
Without question or pause
To be willing to march, march into hell
For that heavenly cause
And I know
If I’ll only be true
To this glorious quest
That my heart
Will lie peaceful and calm
When I’m laid to my rest
And the world will be better for this
Oh, that one person, scorned and covered with scars
Still strove with his last ounce of courage
To reach the unreachable star.”
But we also need periodic rest while still seeking our purpose and fulfillment. None of us are super heroes or heroines. We need to take breaks from pursuing impossible dreams like exhausted nurses and doctors working with dying patients need time off. Worship and prayer is one way we can stop the merry go round and get off for a while – take a sabbatical. It’s there we can find the blessed assurance and be satisfied as Simeon was that his life purpose was fulfilled. Wow – for me that rings so true and so false at same time! Come on, God, how do I discern when I’m done? Is resting a way of letting go and letting God or is it giving up? The dilemma is that we only will really know when we have kept the faith, run the race, and finished the course.
So here we are on the threshold of a new year that feels a lot like the last two. I remember early in 2020 I kept a journal where I measured this darn pandemic in days, having no idea it would grow into weeks, months and years. I have been calling 2022 Ground Hog Year, after that classic movie “Groundhog Day.” But here we are again asking what our role is as people of faith in this new covid year? I have often begun the new year by praying the Covenant Prayer of Methodism founder, John Wesley. I’m going to invite you all to join me in praying that prayer, but I must warn you it involves maybe the hardest thing we can do, which is to surrender to God.
A Covenant Prayer in the Wesleyan Tradition
I am no longer my own, but yours.
Put me to what you will, place me with whom you will.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be put to work for you or set aside for you,
Praised for you or criticized for you.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and fully surrender all things to your glory and service.
And now, O wonderful and holy God,
Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer,
you are mine, and I am yours.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
Let it also be made in heaven. Amen.
*Lyrics to “The Impossible Dream” – composed by Mitch Leigh, with lyrics written by Joe Darion. The song is the most popular song from the 1965 Broadway musical Man of La Mancha and is also featured in the 1972 film of the same name starring Peter O’Toole and is also featured in the 2021 film Nobody.