Ken Russell's 2006 New Year Sermon
A Letter From Simeon
I received a letter from Simeon on Thursday - fastpost. His Christmas letter. Well, not literally from Simeon. ( the mind boggles at the thought of that - 2000 years in the post would be quite a record wouldn't it, especially for New Zealand Post, and I doubt whether there would be even one language expert in New Zealand that could translate it anyway! ) More correctly, I should say my letter was from a modern-day Simeon. ( My idea. Not his!)
I will not mention his real name, though from a long and well remembered ministry in the deep south in a prestigious Presbyterian Church, some of you would recognise his name if you heard it, , and you might even, like me, have had the privilege of knowing him.
But I will continue to call him Simeon. I knew Him as a colleague in the seventies, and then caught up with him in the far north twenty yrs later where, again, he had a ministry that is remembered with great affection. He's older now. Indeed, he celebrated his 90th birthday this week
In his letter Simeon reports he gets breathless with even the slightest expenditure of energy. Even unscrewing the top of a bottle of tonic water, he says, is a struggle! He doesn't hear or see so well, and his appetite has diminished. . . . .all real concessions from a man who throughout a long life has been known for robust good health and remarkable fitness.
But this week's letter was no tale of woe. Indeed, I am not at all surprised to discover that the same Simeon character I've respected for so long is sparking well.
So how do I remember Simeon? A minister who was known in a 17 year ministry for fresh, relevant, deep and often unconventional insights into the truth of the gospel - he attracted people who knew they would be challenged, even disturbed by his preaching - yet at the same time, an impish man with a twinkle in his eye, a bubbling sense of humour, and a huge love of people. While ostensibly a shy man, he came alive in community, whether inside or outside the Church.
He was a catholic, liberal, ecumenical and inclusive Presbyterian, - a rarer breed these days - often snubbing his nose at pretentious authority, asking uncomfortable questions, and rocking boats that many of his contemporaries preferred to keep safely moored in calm untroubled waters..
He was one who believed implicitly in his own intuition, and was not easily swayed by others who claimed the mandate of the majority.
It was totally in character when in the early days of the Sea of Faith in this country, Simeon became a member, sometimes traveling long distances to sit at the feet of some of the most visionary and radical of scholars who came to New Zealand, exciting contributors to the ongoing world wide debate on the all important question of "Who was this Jesus, really? How much of what the gospels tell us about Jesus of Nazareth is authentic Jesus, and how much is tradition, even hearsay?"
For Simeon it has been a lifetime quest to probe those questions , . . . a clue to which, for the discerning reader, is in the wording of his Christmas greeting to his friends
Christmas - the birth on earth of one of deep deep wisdom, whose penetrating message, and memorable life, are truly good news . . Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ of Israel . . .Come on, sound the trumpets, let the Celebrations begin!
By comparison, I know a lot less about the biblical Simeon, and what I do know probably needs demythologizing anyway. Luke has Simeon making huge connections between Jewish prophetic history and Christ as the long-awaited Messiah - which was important for the early Church, as most were Jewish.
Simeon stands in the Gospel story as a very old man, one who loves God above all else, learned in the faith tradition of his people, and faithful in his service at the Temple. But he had never joined the priesthood, standing apart from the powerful ordained brotherhood and the equally powerful levitical bureaucracy. If there was a Sea of Faith, acting independently of the religious establishment, Simeon would have been in it.
And in circumstances of which we are largely unaware, on an otherwise undistinguished occasion, Simeon comes into contact with a young couple from Nazareth, Joseph and his wife Mary, and their son Jesus, visiting the Temple for the purposes of the ritual purification following childbirth - but let's not go down that track!
Call it the leading of the Holy Spirit - as does Luke - or call it intuition, - but Simeon seizes a moment in time, a stellar moment of incredible inspiration to identify in that child, Jesus, the personification of everything his long intuitive journey of faith has pointed to . .
- call it a "eureka" moment, - an "I have it" moment of rare insight but it was enough in due course to send Simeon contented to his grave!
I have tried to imagine the inner thought processes in old Simeon's mind . . . .
"Yes, a child. Not a ready-made man - not a warrior - not a professor - not a priest not a person of power and influence . . . but a CHILD, to grow in a human family, to learn the ways of humanity, to live our life, to dream our dreams, to suffer our sorrows, to die our death . . . A CHILD, OF COURSE , just as Isaiah visioned 500 years ago . . . .
But Simeon, the seer of rare imagination, was doing much more than indulging in sentimental wishful thinking for this Jesus child. There's nothing na•ve or sentimental in his vision for what this child will be and do if he dares to be faithful to the commission that Simeon foresees will fall upon him. As Mary and Joseph hear the saintly old man's prophecy, they must wonder whether this mantle of responsibility will be something they can possibly embrace - or whether in their own interests, they should take their child, and run, and like Jonah before them, take the next slow boat to China, or Patagonia, or wherever, to escape . . . .
"this child" says the old man " is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel - he will be a sign that will be opposed - the inner motives of those who oppose him will be revealed - and looking directly at his mother Mary, the hardest word of all " and a sword will pierce your own heart as well."
Did you ever hear a presbyter courageous enough to look into the eyes of a mother whose first child was brought for baptism, and utter a word like that. . . . . it's not the way you win friends and influence people, but it's a reminder, if we need one, that the gospel is many things to many people, but seldom, if ever, a recipe for a life of strawberries and cream.
Did you hear the repeat interview yesterday morning of Kim Hill and Merv Brown from Wanganui. Merv Brown, - now well into his 80's, but still very coherent - I remember from Bible Class days, was often a leader at our Easter Camps in the post war years, and at that time was a member of the Riverside Community at Lower Moutere. Little did most of us realize at that time what Merv had been through during the war years as he followed through on his deeply felt pacifist commitment to Jesus Christ as a member of the Methodist Bible Class movement of those years - deemed a coward and a traitor by the authorities so committed to the war effort, he spent pretty much the entire duration of the war in detention, given backbreaking and soul destroying tasks - anything to hide and punish a conscience that would not repent of a commitment to one - who in Merv's vision - was then, and remains, the Prince of Peace, a commitment not to be compromised, a way of living that meant for him and hundreds like him in New Zealand at that time, an experience of isolation and loneliness, their own experience of the cross. I had the feeling from Kim Hill in the interview - she whose ascerbic tongue so often conveys cynicism and agnosticism - I had the feeling she as the interviewer recognized she was on holy ground, and this was a man to be respected.
Luke the Gospel writer, of course, wasn't there to witness this well remembered encounter in the courtyard of the Temple, but as the remembered stories were assembled from the verbal traditions on which he was so dependant . . the "song of Simeon" took shape . . . the Nunc Dimittus as the latin Church fondly named it
Lord, now let your servant depart in peace
According to your word;
For my own eyes have seen your salvation
Which you have prepared in the presence of all people,
A light of revelation to the Gentiles
And glory for the people of Israel.
Bruce Prewer's little poem sums up Luke's Simeon pretty well
The very old
will hang on by a thread
for some special event;
maybe a family wedding,
reunion of old army mates,
a new grandchild's advent.
Simeon was old
but not ready to die
until hope found relief;
waiting for truth revealed
full of such faith and love
that beggared old belief.
At last it came
into his very arms,
his heart beating joy-wild;
with a sigh of sweet content,
letting go now, in peace,
he handed back the Child. î B D Prewer 2001
Luke gives Old Simeon the credit for one of the most fundamental claims about Jesus which you and I, members of the Jesus Church 2000 years later, treasure and re-affirm on this New Year's Day . . . . The good news this child Jesus would give to the world is for all people. Not for the Jews alone. For ALL PEOPLE . Not for any particular religion, or Church. Not for any exclusive class, but for all people regardless of race, colour, gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation. It was explosive good news at the time the gospels were written. It led to revolutions. It rocked the foundations, as still it does today when it is released in the face of arrogance and pride. That was Simeon. If there's a list of Gospel heroes, that elderly far-sighted seer must be on the short list.
If I have a New Year wish for our community, and indeed for the wider community to which we belong, it is that in 2006 the Simeon voices in our midst might be heard more clearly. Who are these people?
They are people like the original, who think boldly and imaginatively outside the square. It is unlikely they have featured in the New Year honours. The are the Evan Lewises of the church who before it was popular to do so quietly fashioned a website to allow other Simeon's to speak to the world. They are voices inside and outside the established Church, they are in aid agencies, in the media and in universities. They are people like Greg Hughson, quietly spoken, but patiently effectively using his chaplain's influence across a multi-discipline campus for peace, tolerance and understanding. They are visionary voices, poets, singers, writers, hymn writers like Colin Gibson, Shirley Murray and a host of others, replacing the old and largely irrelevant hymnary of 100 years ago with new hymns for a new day. Some are elderly voices, counsels of experience and tolerance, hoary with age, maybe, but stunning in their integrity and a quiet authority you know is from God. Others are younger. (Yes, not all of today's Simeons are old and tired) - their vision makes them urgent and impatient for a better world, activists for the poor, the down trodden, and the whales, unwilling to meekly comply with the status quo that perpetuates the injustice that makes for war and warmongering. The Simeons of this world are by definition not written in large letters in the headlines. They are not famous or powerful - but thank God they occasionally, like the Simeon of Luke's Gospel, step out from the crowd, and point the way to God's truth and God's future. In this new year, nurture them! They are treasure in our midst.
The Simeon of my letter added a postscript, which I share with you as yet another word of wisdom
He who knows not, and knows not that he knows not, is A FOOL. Spurn him.
He who knows not, and knows that he knows not, is AWAKE. Teach him.
He who knows, and knows not that he knows is ASLEEP. Waken him.
He who knows and knows that he knows is A LEADER. Follow him!