Ordinary prophets and Claire’s rock

God’s blessings are dispatched by ordinary prophets. This is our purpose, our vocation, as a church community so that we can be the “Anna” and “Simeon” to say a child’s name before God. We are here not just for ourselves, but for a grieving mother who shows up on a Monday night with rocks painted in her daughter’s memory.

Sermon on Luke 2:22-40 / Presentation of Our Lord / by the Rev. Tracey Kelly / preached to the congregation of St. Francis Episcopal Church, Great Falls, VA / February 2, 2020

Ordinary prophets

Good morning. I’m going to join together two different stories, and I’m going to share why I think the connection is important to us as a church community. I’m going to talk about the story Simeon and Anna, two ordinary prophets waiting at the Temple for Mary and Joseph to arrive with their infant son. And I’m going to share with you the story Claire’s rock.

Forty days after (and including) Christmas brings us to February 2. Today. That is why today is the Feast of Presentation of Our Lord. Jesus was a newborn, only 40 days old, when Mary and Joseph made the 5-mile journey from Bethlehem, to Jerusalem, to present him in the Temple.

Luke’s gospel depicts Joseph and Mary are devout, faithful people. When their son was 8 days old, they circumcised him and named him before God, in accordance with Jewish law. At 40 days, they go to the Temple to perform two ritual sacrifices. First, the purification after childbirth[ 1] in accordance with the laws of Leviticus. Second, the presentation of a first-born son to the Lord. [2]

The Presentation reaches back through the generations to the time of the Passover and the Exodus, when God claimed the first-born sons. The ritual connects this family with who they are as a people of God. It places the baby firmly within the history of his ancestors, within Gods’ grasp.

Anna was elderly. The gospel tells us that she was married only seven years. If she was married at age 15, then she would have been widowed at age 22. She has been a widow for more than 60 years. The gospel doesn’t tell us if she had children during her brief marriage, but it’s possible that she did and that her children have already grown and died.

And so, Anna grows old waiting at the Temple, fasting and praying for the redemption of Israel.

Simeon, the gospel tells us, was righteous man. He has a remarkable relationship with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit reveals to him that he would live long enough to see the Christ.

And so, Simeon grows old, waiting for the salvation of Israel.

Imagine this scene at the Temple. High up above the city’s rooftops, the temple complex was large, with ornate courtyards and porticos. The Temple was the holiest place on earth. It was the meeting place of God and the people. It was there that mercy and forgiveness could be found. It was there that worship and thanksgiving were offered. It was there that two elderly people waited.

Imagine a young man and a young woman walking through the outer gates, a baby swaddled against her body. The courtyard was crowded and busy and loud. But the two elders noticed their arrival.

Simeon approaches first. He takes the baby into his arms. The presence of this long-awaited child stirs up the joyful song he offers to God. “My eyes have seen the salvation!” He blesses the young parents. Imagine him looking into Mary’s eyes and offering these haunting and prophetic words: “One day a sword will pierce your soul too.”

At this moment Anna steps forward. She takes a deep breath and speaks of the child to all who would listen. But I wonder if she first spoke a word of comfort to Mary, from one childless widow to a future widow who will lose a child.

I am struck by the multigenerational aspect of this story. Anna and Simeon are ordinary people in the crowd of the faithful. They are a generation, or two, older than the young parents. They have wisdom to share.

Anna and Simeon have faithfully waited for the arrival of this child, the one who would fulfill God’s promises. And they are the witnesses to his presence. God’s blessings are dispatched by ordinary prophets.

Claire’s Rock

Last Monday evening, a young woman showed up at St. Francis. Bob MacKichan was here with the Boy Scout troop and noticed her and approached her to talk with her. Bob called me at home and said, “Tracey, there’s a young woman here who lost her 9-month-old daughter three weeks ago. She wants to know if she can leave a rock with her daughter’s name on it, somewhere on our property.”

Now, let me be clear. Bob did not need my permission to allow her to leave a rock in our yard. Bob was deliberating and gently putting her into conversation with a priest. He knew I would ask: “Bob, is she standing there next to you? Can you hand the phone to her?”

And he did. This is what I said to her: “Of course, you can leave a rock. Or, if you’d prefer, you can come by tomorrow and you can tell me about Claire. We can walk the grounds together in the daylight and find the perfect spot for her rock, and if you like, we can say a prayer together.”

On Tuesday morning, this young mom came by with her 2-year-old son.

This young mom and I sat in the pews, while her son colored pictures, and she told me all about Claire. She pulled out her iPhone and showed me photos of Claire and videos of Claire smiling and giggling. We talked about dying and death, and grief and hope.

We walked through the exit door, outside onto the grounds. Her two-year-old followed us with a garden trowel that I had put in his hand to “help” us. We prayed. We cried. And now out in gardens are two of Claire’s rocks, painted pink with her name.

I’m telling you this story with the mother’s permission and blessing. I said that I thought it would mean a lot to all of you. I said that I believed it was important to name Claire out loud in the midst of this congregation.

Ordinary prophets like us

This is what I believe. I believe that every child should be named and presented before God. I believe that every child has a place within the history of God’s people. I believe that this is why we are here as a church community.

Our identity as a church hinges on who we serve and how we respond. And even though all of us, myself included, sometimes slip into thinking of ourselves as consumers of church, as recipients of grace… We know better…  it’s not all about us.

This is why we face the challenges of keeping the buildings intact and the doors open. Our church buildings and grounds provide a visible presence and witness that Christ is here – right here! – in Great Falls. 

This is why we fund our various ministries; this is why we show up on Sundays to hear the word of God and gather around the altar to take Christ into our hands.

We are here not just for ourselves, but for a grieving mother who shows up on a Monday night with rocks painted in her daughter’s memory.

We are here so that we are prepared to comfort a grieving mother and say something about what God is doing for Claire, and what God is doing through Claire, right now. This is our purpose, our vocation, so that we can be the “Anna” and “Simeon” to say this child’s name before God.

Because God’s blessings are dispatched by ordinary prophets, like us.

This is my invitation to you this morning. Be attentive to the people “arriving at the temple” and see like Simeon. Share the good news like Anna. I invite you to go outside and find Claire’s rocks. Pick them up, hold them in your hand, and say her name out loud to God: “Claire Elizabeth Aldrich.” And place them back onto holy ground.

[1] Lev 12:2-4, 6

[2] Ex 13:2, 12, 16; 34:19; Num 18:15-16

© 2020 Tracey Kelly. Published with permission from Sally Aldrich. All rights reserved.

Written in memory of
Claire Elizabeth Aldrich
April 14, 2019 – January 7, 2020

“Our hope is that anyone reading this will please hold their children extra tight. For Claire, for our family.”

To read about Claire’s journey see this article from the Washington Post.

Photo credits: Photos of Sally and Claire Aldrich provided by Sally Aldrich. Cover photo: “Sally Aldrich with Claire at the family’s home in Great Falls, Va.” (Ariane Audet). “Sally and Claire” (Family photo). “Claire’s rock,” (Tracey Kelly). “Franciscans finding Claire’s rocks” (Tracey Kelly). “Claire smiling in the sun” (Family photo).

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