A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on February 2, 2013 (The Presentation)
Encounters in elevators are rarely memorable. People generally stare up or down. There may be a nod of gratitude if someone holds the door or a grunt of thanks if someone pushes the right button for you or perhaps a mutual eye roll if the elevator seemingly stops at every single floor on the way back down to the lobby. Occasionally there’s a bit of drama if someone yells “hold the door!” and the person in the elevator pretends not to hear and watches the doors close just before the person makes it in (not that I’ve personally been guilty of this mind you).
But for the most part no one acknowledges anyone else. Which is fine. You get on, you get off, you get on with your day. The only real excitement I’ve ever seen in elevators takes place at the climax of Bruce Willis movies or in the occasional music video (Aerosmith’s “Love in an Elevator” comes to mind).
Sorry to disappoint you but even after all this build-up, I don’t have a particularly stirring elevator story to share with you this morning. But I do recall an elevator encounter that I’ll never forget. Not a word was exchanged but an epiphany of sorts took place for me inside an elevator just north of Chicago at Evanston Hospital. My wife Bryna and I were leaving the hospital for the first time after our first child, Ben, was born. We were both still in that very new parent mode, looking around furtively and thinking, ‘My God, they’re actually going to let us leave with this thing?’ And I remember getting onto the elevator holding this tiny, two-day-old infant and at the floor below ours the doors opened and a very elderly gentleman slowly crossed the threshold to join us on our ride. He was obviously leaving the hospital after some sort of procedure — maybe he’d gotten some good news or bad.
But as the elevator descended to the lobby I couldn’t help but just stare in wonder at both Ben and this man. They would never again be in the presence of one another, at least not in this life. They would never speak. One was at the dawn of his life, the other at the twilight. They had nothing in common except their shared humanity and a shared elevator ride six months before the advent of a new millennium. And yet there they were, one beside the other in a powerful moment of intersection between two lives. For a brief instant these two children of God had encountered one another. The old had met the new. They shared a moment of time and space on this earth. What were the odds, given the great stretch of humanity over all time, that these two people would ever occupy the same space at the same time?
I was jolted out of this reverie soon enough as I found myself struggling to install a car seat for the first time (it never did get easier). But I thought about this encounter in the context of the meeting between the aged Simeon and the newborn Jesus that we just heard in Luke’s gospel. The old met the new. The wait for the messiah was over. Old man Simeon could depart this world in peace. God’s promise had come to pass; he had seen the Savior.
Now, please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not suggesting that the man in the elevator thought my son was the messiah. But there is something mystical about the old and the new coming together if even for a moment. Mary and Joseph with the newborn Jesus had made the journey to Jerusalem to fulfill the ancient Jewish Law. As you know, since this is a community that actually celebrates Candlemas every year — and it is a privilege to be with all of you this afternoon — it was actually twofold: forty days after the birth of a firstborn child, the woman who had given birth was required to enter the Temple to be declared ritually purified. While the newborn child was presented to the Temple priest with an offering as a declaration that the child ultimately belonged to God.
When they arrived, Simeon, who spent his days hanging around the Temple with great anticipation of the Messiah’s arrival, held this child in his arms and praised God for fulfilling a promise: that Simeon would indeed see the messiah before he died. The sense of peace he felt at being able to let go of this life in peace and serenity and in the assurance of salvation must have been overwhelming.
Yet he found poetic voice and we are left with the gift of the Nunc Dimittis, that song of Simeon that resounds with the clarity of peaceful fulfillment and profound joy. At one level the “Nunc,” (as we used to call it when I was a choir boy in Baltimore — go Ravens) is a model for holy dying. This is the way we would all like to bid farewell to this mortal life — at complete peace with God; without regrets; with nothing but hope for the future.
It’s hard not to feel at least a bit envious of Simeon’s sense of peace as we stand on this side of the Kingdom. Sometimes we’ve watched loved ones slip out of this world in deep serenity. At others we’ve seen them fight death with bitterness and regret and a lack of faith. It’s hard not wonder how we will one day face that situation.
And we all spend a good portion of our lives running around, trying to get things done, seeking an elusive sense of peace through all sorts of things. Like food and drink, success at work, relationships, the subtle exploitation of others. In time we learn that these all lead to a fleeting peace rather than the deep, abiding one that only comes through faith in Jesus Christ. Everything else is mere mirage that leaves us with an ever greater void at the very depths of our souls.
But here’s a secret about this life of ours: we too can share in that peace that Simeon knew. We can share in it because our eyes have indeed seen the Savior. You and I already know Jesus. He has been made known to us in the breaking of the bread and the blessing of wine; he has been made known to us through the power of Scripture; he has been made known to us through the liturgy of the Church; and he has been made known to us through the gentle breath of the Holy Spirit. And through our relationship with Jesus we can know the sense of peace that Simeon knew as he prepared to depart from this life.
We don’t know how the rest of his days played out but if there was ever a gravestone that could authentically claim the inscription “Rest in Peace,” it was Simeon’s. We tend to take that phrase for granted — so much so that it’s almost become a cliche. At Halloween we see fake gravestones in front yards sporting the letters “RIP.” I’m personally hoping that by about 10:00 pm tonight I’ll be able to say RIP to the San Francisco 49ers. But when you walk around a graveyard and look at those old gravestones, it’s Simeon’s peace that we’re invoking. It’s not a feel good, think nice thoughts, kind of peace. It’s this radical peace in the Lord of which Simeon’s soul sings.
But we’re not ready to put an inscription on our gravestones quite yet. So instead of “Rest in Peace,” I think a more apt charge for you and me would be to “Live in Peace.” To live in that peace that passes all understanding; that peace that defines us; that peace that, while often elusive, is always offered to us through faith in Jesus Christ; that peace that we are called to share with one another both in church and in the world.
The reality is, we’re the lucky ones. Because we don’t have to wait until the twilight of our lives to finally meet the savior. Unlike Simeon, we don’t have to wait until the end. We can live with this sense of peace throughout our lives. We can live with it because we know Jesus; maybe not entirely, maybe not fully, but we know Jesus just enough, right now, to accept his offer of peace. You and I are Simeon in younger bodies and that is a great gift from God. Simeon died in peace, but we, we can live in peace. Thanks be to God and amen.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck