Friday, December 30, 2005

New Year's Day

I guess we’ve all seen that New Year’s cartoon where the old year exits stage right, battered and bruised, while bouncing baby New Year enters, blissfully ignorant of what lies ahead.  Usually the old grandad makes some wry comment in passing.  I guess I look at a cartoon like that with a mix of feelings – who would envy the new arrival when we know what’s in store for it!  - But at the same time there’s a twinge of excitement – who knows what the New Year will bring?  We recognise all the frustrated hopes and the hurts of the year gone past and who can resist hoping that the new year will be different – why not get excited?  We’ve got a blank slate in front of us!

It’s a clever analogy isn’t it? It plays on the all too familiar problem of the young and the old not really understanding or appreciating one another – in a society that idolises youth, the wisdom and experience of age is all too easily overlooked – and looking from the other direction it’s easy to be cynical about the enthusiasm and brash optimism of young people!  The old and the new seem to be in opposition, never really learning from one another.

Nowhere, I think, is this more evident than in the life of the church.  Partly it’s about the different style that young people bring to worship, the preference for informality, movement and music that we can see really clearly in some of the non-mainstream churches, but which is also making headway in our own Anglican tradition – but at a deeper level it’s about how we understand and talk about the mission of the church, always connected at one end to God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ – to the historical bedrock of our faith – and at the other end is always searching for new ways of interacting with an unfamiliar cultural landscape.  And here too, the church I think finds itself torn between the old year and the new year – the desire to preserve and cherish the tradition of the church on the one hand, and the need to connect with the currents of contemporary life and culture, on the other hand.  Critics of the old claim that the liturgy of the church – the Eucharist itself that informs us who we are – has become inaccessible and incomprehensible to people who wander into our worship.  Other Christians are equally anxious about the danger that newer expressions of the church might lose touch with the depths of Christian spirituality in an effort to connect with modern culture. 

Here in our own parish I think we are right at the coal-face of all this.  Certainly, when I look back over the last 12 months of our parish life I can see much that has changed, for example with very different services of worship and new ways of doing the Eucharist at 12.00 o’clock with the Open Door Café community and more recently at 6.00 pm with our small contemporary service.  We have also made a number of quite significant changes to the physical layout of our church, mainly in the front garden which really is starting to look like an informal and attractive Australian outdoor gathering space.  All this is going to make it possible for us to try new ways of connecting with the culture we live in.  Maybe the biggest – and scariest – possibility that lies before us is the ABC childcare centre project – to be quite honest I think this has the potential to affect quite fundamentally how we work as a parish and what sort of things we do – because it’s going to introduce a whole new set of relationships with families and child care centre staff.  These things are exciting and forward-looking, and I have to say that I am proud to be the priest of a parish that has been able to catch this vision of what could be.  But it’s not plain sailing is it?  And I think for all of us who love the church and who love the depths of our tradition and history, there’s also some anxiety about facing times of fundamental change.

Today, after the wonder and miracle of Jesus birth we find ourselves back in the realm of practicality – and addressing this same, age-old question – what is the relationship between the new thing God is doing in Jesus, and the ancient and life-giving traditions of the people of Israel.  Because this baby - in whom we invest so much hope - is born into a culture and a society that has some expectations, and we are told that Jesus’ parents, do everything that is required of them under the law. 

I think the very first thing we need to notice about the story we read this morning is that it doesn’t happen by accident – or even because any of the people in the story planned it.  The encounters between Jesus’ family and the old folk in this story – Simeon and Anna – happened firstly because the Holy Spirit guided and prompted them.  How many times in this reading does Luke repeat it?  Simeon is in the temple firstly because of the Holy Spirit’s leading – Jesus’ parents bring him into the temple because they faithfully observe the requirements of the Jewish law.  God’s coincidences aren’t coincidences at all, but the leading and the activity of God’s Spirit at work in our world.   

Thinking about what I would preach about today – New Year’s Day – I was struck by how the encounter between Simeon and Jesus is so different from the way the cartoon figure of the old year shuffles past the baby new year.  Simeon and Anna don’t represent the old ways giving way before the new ways, the old religion being superseded by the new – rather, we see the faithfulness and the holiness of these old folk finding its completion as they recognise in the child Jesus the fulfilment of God’s promises.  The writer of the gospel emphasises continuity between the prophetic voices of Israel’s past and the radical new experience of God’s presence in Jesus of Nazareth.  Luke doesn’t see the old story and the new story of God’s people as being in opposition, but instead sees their grounding, their promise and their fulfilment in one another.

The second point I want to pick up on in this story is that the context of God’s blessing in this story is Joseph and Mary’s faithful observance of Jewish religious ritual.  This story confirms that Joseph and Mary are poor folk from the bush – the instructions in Leviticus chapter 12 say that if parents can’t afford lambs they can substitute pigeons or turtle-doves as a sacrifice.  But even if they are country bumpkins, Joseph and Mary do it ‘by the book’, observing the requirements for Jesus’ circumcision on day 8 and the purification ritual 33 days later.  Luke emphasises the importance of ritual – not as an end in itself but as a way of interacting with the holy in day-to-day life.  I think this is something for us to think about in our own de-ritualised century in which much of our daily life has been hollowed out of meaning – as the pace of life reduces the opportunities for everyday rituals like family prayer and Bible study, or grace before meals gives way to the more secular ritual of a TV dinner – this exchange in the temple reminds us that the everyday experiences of life are filled with God’s presence.  By celebrating the goodness and mystery of God’s presence in Jesus of Nazareth within the simple and familiar container of ritual, God’s promises are allowed to shape the unknown potential of human love and relationships.  We as a church, facing times of change and new possibility, must allow ourselves to be shaped in the same way, in the powerful and simple rituals of the breaking of bread and the pouring of wine, the pouring out of the water of baptism, the reading of Holy Scripture, the rhythms of the church year.  God’s new thing for us grows out of this simple celebration of the holiness of life.

The last point I want to make is this – that the blessing of the child Jesus in the temple reminds us that God’s blessings for us, too, are known in community.  Mary and Joseph could have fulfilled the requirements of the law by staying at home and just sending their pigeons.  Simeon and Anna could have been holy at home.  But the name that that is given to Jesus in the temple ‘God saves us’ – only becomes meaningful as we experience the reality of it in our life together as a community of faith.  This child represents not just our individual hope or the hope of a Sunday morning congregation but the consolation of Israel – the hope and dreams of a community of faith.  And this is what it means to be the church as the old dodderer of 2005 hands over to the gurgling baby 2006 – just as the past and the future in this story are brought together in the temple and find their fulfilment in one another – that by praying and dreaming and working together we at Belmont might also become a community of faith rooted in the past but journeying toward the future.