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Lift Those Babies High

Jarrett McLaughlin

“Lift Those Babies High”

December 29, 2019

Luke 2:21-33

 

Scripture:

After eights days had passed [following the baby’s birth], it was time to circumcise the child, and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, [Mary and Joseph] brought [Jesus] up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him.  It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.  Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,

“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,

according to your word; 

for 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.”

And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him.

Sermon:

Week before last I attended Kirk Club.  It’s a Wednesday gathering for our 4th and 5th graders designed to help bridge young people from Children’s ministry into Youth ministry.  It being so close to Christmas we had a number of appropriately themed activities.

There were some holiday Minute-to-win-it games.  There was a knock-down, drag-out game of Christmas Song Pictionary and my team may or may not have airplaned around the room in a victory dance when we guessed “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.”

We also read a book telling the Christmas story and then Nancy challenged the students to tell the Christmas story in their own words – the first volunteers had one minute to tell it, but by the end the challenge was to tell the Christmas story in 20 words.

Angel told Mary baby. Born in Bethlehem Stable wrapped bands of cloth.  Shepherds visit.  Wise Men follow star gold frankincense myrrh.

When you only have 20 words you must choose carefully – only the highlights.  If I were a betting man, I’d wager that ol’ Simeon from our story today wouldn’t even come close to making the cut.

Truth be told, he is a minor character and one we don’t know much about.  We don’t know if he had a family himself, children of his own…he is there for this one shining moment before disappearing from the story altogether.

But what we do know is that he had been told by the Holy Spirit that he would see the Lord’s messiah before he died.  On cue, as soon as Mary and Joseph bring baby Jesus in to the Temple, Simeon scoops the child up in his arms and pronounces this blessing:

“my eyes have seen your salvation, a light for revelation to the Gentiles

and for glory to your people Israel.”

And that’s it.

That’s all we get about Simeon – a promise and a blessing.  We don’t know how much longer he lived after this; we don’t know how he spent his days leading up to this moment, either.

What I really want to know is how did he know Jesus was the one?  Did he look at this baby and say “Wow – that baby is something else?”  I do wonder…I also wonder if he had any clue at all.  Maybe he was just guessing, really.

A Presbyterian minister in the United States named David Steele wrote a short piece wondering about Simeon – and I printed it on the front of the bulletin for today.  He writes:

“This preacher, claimed that Simeon,

had pronounced the very same blessing

over all the babies presented to him in the Temple.

He was kidding me, of course.

But when I read the blessing

And thought about it,

I began to wish he was right

About Simeon … and those babies.

And I began thinking about our babies.

And I wished someone,

Some Simeon,

Might hold my grandbabies high … and yours as well…

The born ones and the not yet …

Proclaiming to them with great conviction,

“You are the saviors of the world!”

Meaning it so absolutely

Those young’uns would believe it, and live it,

And love it,

And make it happen!”

I wonder what it would be like to take up the tradition of old Simeon – to hold every child up high and boldly proclaim – YOU ARE GOD’S SALVATION – A Light To All The Nations.”

What if we said that – and believed that – about every single child?

Did you see that advertisement put out by the National Alliance on Mental Health this Christmas?  The camera slowly zooms in as Santa Claus sits on a lonesome rooftop, re-thinking out loud about the naughty or nice distinction.  It’s a brilliant monologue:

“I think I did this all wrong.” Santa begins

“It started with good intentions – a way to motivate behavior, codify gift giving, streamline deliveries.  But Naughty or Nice!?!

As if some kids don’t have enough to worry about without me judging them without context, without perspective, without any doctorate in psychology – honorary or otherwise. 

Reducing these growing, varied, intricate beings to some binary code – to this or that.  Naughty or Nice.  Did I condemn every kid who already felt like a misfit toy?

Maybe there was something I missed

Isn’t it just as possible that they are nervous or nice,

uncomfortable in their own skin, or nice;

“I’m angry and I don’t know why” or nice;

“my impulses are beyond my control” or nice.

 Hurting or nice?

And who cam blame them…with the news, the lockdown drills, the internet.  The world is bearing down on them…and we expect these kids to, what, speak when spoken to. 

It’s only taken me a thousand years but I think I finally see it.  These kids – they’re not naughty or nice.  They’re kids.

I do wonder what it would be like to take up the tradition of old Simeon – to hold every child up high and boldly proclaim – YOU ARE GOD’S SALVATION – A Light To All The Nations.”

But you don’t have to be Santa Claus, knowing when every child is naughty or nice, to understand how difficult that can be.

Every child is so unique – each one wired so differently from the next.  It can take an incredible amount of effort, patience, acceptance and unconditional love to be a Simeon.  It also takes a certain openness to being surprised as well.

When I was a younger man I spent a number of months living at a home for orphans in Haiti – it was called Zel Espwa, which means “Wings of Hope.”  You may be familiar with it – your outreach dollars support this ministry and have for many years.  What sets this home for children apart from many others is that every child at Wings of Hope has from some kind of disability.

Some have cerebral palsy and so could not move much on their own, others have seizure disorders or  Down’s Syndrome.  But it is a community that chooses to define these children by their possibilities, rather than their disabilities.  Their mantra is the old African proverb “If you can walk you can dance, if you can talk you can sing.”

In my time living there – I developed a particular affinity for these four girls who had some of the most severe disabilities.  Their names were Celeste, Funa, Esther and Hope.  Not one of them could stand or walk on their own – they were in wheel chairs.  Both Celeste and Hope have died in the years since I lived there.  But in my house there is a painting by a Haitian artist – it was a gift to me when I left – and it is a painting of four girls dancing in a circle, holding hands.  I named each one of those girls in the painting Celeste, Funa, Esther and Hope.

A couple years ago I received an email from Wings of Hope sharing this incredible story:

“Wings of Hope had a very special and unexpected visitor today” the email began.  “A mother came looking for her daughter, a daughter she had not seen in more than 16 years. She called the child “Daphnee”, but no one at Wings goes by that name, so she searched for a familiar face among the family.

Seeing none, a staff member named Gary showed her pictures of the children, past and present. When she saw a picture of Hope she exclaimed “Daphnee!  My Little Girl”.  This mother had found her child, in a way.  Gary took her into the office of the director who broke the sad news that Hope – or Daphnee – had died the year before.  The mother was heartbroken.

Hope was left outside the front gate at Wings of Hope in 1999, basically in the middle of the street. The Wings staff woke one morning to find her there surrounded by many people.  No one would touch the child  – In Haiti, to touch an abandoned child was to assume responsibility.  But the Wings staff picked her up and brought her in and took care of her…they gave her the name “Hope” and she became a part of the family.  She was incorporated into the Dance Theater where she, too, was lifted high in the air and given the chance to take part in the dance.  It was one of the few things that made her smile.

Hope was severely disabled.  She did not walk or talk and did not interact with others. She was locked in her own world.  After talking with her mother today we know that she was not always like that.  She was born healthy.  She walked and talked and played, like any other child. When she was two years old she developed a high fever and suffered a massive seizure that damaged her brain, leaving her severely disabled.  Her parents gave her to an aunt to watch over her.

Who knows why, who knows what she told the mother, but it was the aunt who left Daphnee at Wings of Hope.  And then in 2010 the aunt died in the earthquake, but the mother discovered that her daughter had been taken to Wings of Hope.

It took a long time for her to get up the courage to go – what would they think of her, that she didn’t love this child, that she had abandoned her, she was scared to go but her love won out – and so she resolved to put aside the shame and go in search of her lost child.  She was of course heart broken to learn that Daphnee had died.

This is not a story with a happy ending, it’s not at all picture perfect.  But I have to imagine that it helped for this grieving mother to see pictures of Hope loved and cherished against all odds – pictures of her daughter included in the Dances they perform – where, she, too, was held up high in the arms of countless Simeons, blessed as a sign of God’s salvation.

And it’s not just in Haiti – but I can say without hesitation that in every single Church I have ever served, there have been saints who could see the potential in the most unlikely children – who would pronounce words of blessing, acceptance and unconditional love over them.

So maybe I don’t have to wonder what it would be like to take up the tradition of old Simeon here because I have seen countless Simeons hold children up high and boldly proclaim – YOU ARE GOD’S SALVATION – A Light To All The Nations.”

How did Simeon know this was THE baby he had been waiting his whole life for…how did he know that Jesus was the one to bless.  I kind of like the idea that he didn’t know at all…that he just played the numbers and assumed every single child he saw, held and smelled, any one of them – every one of them – could be God’s salvation.  That he blessed each one of them until he finally got to Jesus…and that he kept on going the next day after, and the day after that – a continuous shower of blessing – until he had no more days left to live.

I like to think that in whatever time that he had, old Simeon made enough space for every child to matter.

Because after all, isn’t that what it means for God to come to us in the form of a baby – because every child should matter, because every child does matter…even those, like Hope, who can’t walk on their own two legs or speak a word with their own lips.

“My eyes have seen your salvation” Simeon said as he took Jesus in his arms.  For every child to hear and receive that blessing, and to believe it…now that would be something else…wouldn’t it?

Jarrett McLaughlin , Pastor

Email: jarrett@upcch.org

Phone: 919.929.2102 ext. 112

Bio:

Jarrett grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina where he had a pretty regular childhood – riding bikes around the neighborhood, muddling through school, trying to play various sports (emphasis on try), going through a phase of wearing lots of black in high school, and through it all, always finding a place of welcome in the Church. Jarrett became a “traitor” to his NC State traditioned family when he went to UNC-Chapel Hill for college.  Missing youth group terribly, Jarrett quickly discovered Presbyterian Campus Ministry where, in addition to exploring his call to ministry, he also met Meg. After college, Jarrett served as a youth minister for one year and then spent another year traveling, spending a great deal of time in Port-au-Prince, Haiti living in community with disabled children at Wings of Hope. He then went to Union-PSCE Seminary (now “Union Presbyterian Seminary”) and then went on to serve as an associate pastor for mission and young adult ministry at Village Presbyterian Church in Kansas City.  In June of 2013 Jarrett and Meg accepted a call to serve as co-pastor Heads-of-Staff at Burke Presbyterian Church. In July of 2013 they learned that they would be expecting. In August of 2013 they learned they would be expecting twins.  In September of 2013 they moved and told the Church all of this on their second Sunday. Jarrett is very much looking forward to NOT repeating that pattern as they accept the call to serve University Presbyterian Church. When not engaged at Church, Jarrett enjoys running and hiking.  He is also an obsessive music fan intent on keeping up with independent music of all kinds – reading blogs and record reviews, scoping out live shows and constantly spinning tunes in the car, home or office.  Most of all, Jarrett has a deep passion for the Church as a place of radical welcome and hospitality and tries his best every day to honor the ways he has experienced that in his own life as grace upon grace.