Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Plausibility of the Possible

"Hope is believing in the Plausibility of the possible over the necessity of the probable." (Mimonides. 12th century)

The reading from Luke follows the young holy family from the birth we celebrated just a few days ago to the ritual infant dedication at the temple today. Everything seems to be going according to planned. According to Jewish custom, the infant was presented before the assembled crowd, a sacrifice of two turtledoves was made (sound familiar), and the family about to depart. The rite of dedication and purification seemed complete. But just as the young family was about to leave, something unexpected happened.

An elderly man, by the name of Simeon entered the temple and swept the infant Jesus into his arms. Holding Jesus high he recited a poetic, prophetic thanksgiving to the babe, saying, “My eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared of all peoples, a light to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”

And as they stood in awe at this revelation, yet another prophet entered, Anna, a woman of great age and tremendous devotion. And she too, like Simeon took the child in arms and offered up a prophecy, naming the child not as Jesus, son of Joseph and Mary, but as the very redemption of Israel.

Now this passage should be familiar to us for we read it just a few months ago at the christening of Endelyn Jean. If you remember, we came to see that this event was not simply a mere cultural or ritual dedication. Rather what happened here was something much more significant…it was a naming and calling forth of Jesus as the person who he would grow to be, as the Messiah, the Chosen One, the Liberator, the Savior of all nations.

While Mary and Joseph had merely come as duty to offer a sacrifice in God’s honor for the birth and life of their firstborn child, now something more was happening. More than just bestowing a given name upon the child, more than being raised as a sacrifice and offering to God, more than an act of devotion or praise, now Jesus was being called into the future, named by strangers as the savior, the messiah. If you remember, we understood this action as was a prophetic calling into being.

This naming was a calling forth of Jesus’ identity, a calling into being of Jesus’ self, and a call into the future of what was to come. Rather than compel the child to do or be something the parents or society desired, the prophetic blessings was a lure into a future not completely known, yet bursting with possibility and potential. Naming Jesus in this way, both Simeon and Anna bestowed upon the child a living hope for the future. Full of expectation and promise, this dedication was more than just a static offering of praise to God, more than an act of reverence for the past, it was participation in the living hope that is God. It was the belief in something more than the tiny infant they saw. It was the hope beyond the frail limbs and the wrinkled skin. It was a dream beyond imagination.

It is ironic that the ones to predict the future are the ones of the past. Imagine for a moment, Simeon and Anna, standing with the tiny babe in their arms. The contrast must have seemed stark…the soft, tender skin of the child embraced by elderly, wrinkled hands, weary and worn by the ages. We are told that after merely holding the infant, Simeon declared that now he can die in peace, for he has seen the salvation that is to come. We might imagine that the old man is overcome so completely by the prophecy, so consumed by the joy that snatching an infant from its mother’s arms seems perfectly acceptable. Perhaps we envision him jumping and dancing, giddy and laughing, or perhaps we see him astonished and transfixed in wonder. Or perhaps the joy is so intense the most he can manage is to stare at the child with tears flowing as he takes in salvation for the first time in his life. Holding the child and believing in the possibility of redemption is all Simeon needs.

Both Simeon and Anna seem to find their greatest hopes and dreams fulfilled in this child, yet we must ask ourselves, what have they really seen, after all? We who read with the advantage of 2000 years of hindsight, understand immediately the significance of proclaiming this child the savior. But, how in the world would Simeon and Anna have had any knowledge of this? John Stendahl reminds us ,

“All they could see was a little child, a powerless, speechless newcomer to the world. Whatever salvation this baby might work is still only a promise and a hope; whatever teaching the child might offer will remain hidden for many years. Nothing has happened yet. Herod still sits on his throne and Caesar governs from afar. The world looks exactly as it did before.”

Simeon and Anna, both well advanced in age would not live to see the fulfillment of their prophecies in Jesus. They would never know if what they proclaimed that day ever came true, yet, they believed nonetheless. There they stood in grateful wonder at the future held so tenderly in their hands. The promise of this child was enough. Despite all signs to the contrary, Simeon and Anna believed. You see they for us today embody hope “as the plausibility of the possible as opposed to the necessity of the probable.”

Indeed what was the likelihood of a child from Nazareth being a light to the Gentiles and a savior to the Israelites? Wasn’t the Messiah to be a strong, powerful warrior, who would liberate the Israelites from the political captivity of the imperial powers, who would right the wrongs of the past and replace foreign rule with an unending reign of the House of David? And yet, Simeon and Anna see in this tiny, vulnerable babe, the one who will be both the savior of Israel and a light to the Gentiles, the ones who have oppressed the Israelites for so long. Come to think of it, it’s not a likely scenario at all and yet, Simeon and Anna believed, nonetheless. They believed in the plausibility of the possible and not the necessity of the probable.

Perhaps we might be tempted to take this as one more redaction from the later writers of the gospel, as evidence of their writing in the history they wished to be…and perhaps it is. Yet, the story remains powerful for us. For what more do we have now than Simeon and Anna had then? John Stendahl reminds us that,
“We too are people who have seen something, but not its full unfolding…What we have, in a sense, is hardly more than they had. We have the scriptures that school us in hope and attentiveness. We have stories and covenants and signs. We have moments, or the memory of moments, when the tender compassion of our God has come close enough to see and feel. We have something like the shepherds would have had, recalling all their lives a night of mysterious glory, or like what the magi brought back to their homelands, a vision of a different kind of king and kingdom. Their eyes had seen the glory of Israel, the light for the nations. We have that as well, though for us the world has resumed its accustomed form and, in the light of day, seems largely unsaved and unchanged.”

What does it mean for us to believe in something we have yet to see the fullness of? How can we like Simeon and Anna give ourselves to a promise not yet tangible, one that goes against all our expectations and past experience? What does it mean to let go of the shields and walls we have built to protect us from the pain of disillusionment and disappointment and believe in the goodness we proclaim at Christmas? To believe in the presence of God dwelling with us even in this world that seems at times so cruel, so broken, so bitter?

How can we learn like Anna and Simeon knew that the past does not determine our future…that what was, is never what must be? How do we free ourselves from the tyranny of the probable to embrace the promise of the possible?
Sometimes it takes a little child to teach us, doesn’t it?

James was a fifth grade student who had struggled his entire academic career. The neighborhood schools had labeled him as learning disabled and as a fifth grader who still could not read, that label might have seemed apt. And yet, James had bigger dreams for himself. He would tell his mother his dreams of going to college to study and learn, to become a doctor to help others. Most days his mother would just sigh and smile, “That’s nice, James.” But what chance could her child have of becoming a doctor when he could not yet read?

It was then that James and his mother met Maggie, a friend of mine who was starting a new charter school in the city. Maggie had been canvassing the neighborhood to invite students to enroll for the fall. Door by door, home by home, she talked with children and their families about the possibilities of this new school, a school where standards would be high, the learning rigorous and the results phenomenal. She told tales from other charter schools half way across the country and the success they achieved…95 % perfect attendance, 100% passing standardized tests, 90% of graduates going to college. She wove visions of dedicated teachers, rich resources, and diligent students. Yet the more she talked, the more it seemed the doors closed in her face. This type of school was just not possible. Not here. Not now. Parents and kids alike could not imagine such a place. Uh-uh. Not possible.

And then she knocked on James’ door. From the moment Maggie began speaking, James was entranced. Perhaps, like Simeon on that day long ago, James glimpsed his own future and he believed. James’ mother was not so sure. Why should this school succeed when the dozens of neighborhood schools around it had failed? What would be different this time? But Maggie promised… “It will be different. I promise you that with hard work and dedication, James will not only be able to read by the end of the year, he will be able to pass all the state tests.” Maggie didn’t know James, but she believed in his potential nonetheless. Only after weeks of pleading by James, did his mother finally relent. “You know,” she told Maggie, “I don’t expect any change whatsoever. But, if my boy wants to try this. Well, what can I do?”

And so that fall James enrolled. The child who could barely sit still long enough to eat his supper, the child who had been kicked out of more schools for discipline problems than anyone could imagine, the child who in the fifth grade could not read, became one of the best students Maggie had ever known. He came to school every day an hour early at 7 AM for special tutoring so he could stay in his grade level and stayed every night until 7 PM so he could get help with his homework. He came to school on Saturdays and spent extra time periods working with teachers to stay at grade level and when the standardized test results for the sixth grade came in that year, Maggie called in James and his mother to report the scores. “James, we have received your test scores and I am pleased to tell you that you passed every single section!” Before Maggie could get the words out of her mouth, James’ mother had jumped clear out of her seat and reached across the desk to grab and hug Maggie like she had never been hugged before. Literally, pulling Maggie from her chair, James’ mother exclaimed, “I never thought this was possible!” All the while James sat sill and smiled. He knew it was possible all along.

You see James saw something different in himself, no matter what teachers said, no matter what his past performance told him. And when Maggie came knocking at his door that day, James saw something amazing in her hope of a different type of school. James believed in the plausibility of the possible and not the necessity of the probable.

In James, we see our faith made real and our hope lived out.

This belief in the possible is not just something that we take for our faith lives…it is not a “shut up and believe” kind of message. This is not something we simply apply to how we read scripture or understand our faith tradition. This is about something much greater. It is about a way of being in the world engendered by our experience of the gospel that shapes and forms the whole of our lives. The message of the gospel itself is to believe in the plausibility of the possible over the necessity of the probable, isn’t it? In a world of violence, resentment, disappointment and grief it is no easy task to believe in a different world marked by peace, love, forgiveness, non-violence, and justice….isn’t it? And yet that is what we proclaim each and every week.

The question remains, how do we take our faith statements outside the walls of the church and begin to apply them to every aspect of our lives? How do we allow our optimism and hope, real hope, about the way the world can be to permeate our everyday actions in the world? How do we, like James, begin to see the plausibility of the possible in ourselves and the world, over the necessity of the probable?
This year, how will you live out the Christmas hope in your own lives? To what possibilities will you give yourself? In what dreams will you believe? What actions will you take to make the possible real in the world?

1 comment:

Tia said...

This is great!