“Great Expectations”

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at All Saints Church, San Francisco, at the celebration of the Presentation of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple February 3, 2019.

Charles Dickens is one of those great names in English literature that everyone ought to know – at least if you study English literature. I can name half a dozen novels he wrote: Oliver Twist, The Pickwick Papers, A Christmas Carol, A Tale of Two Cities, Bleak House, Great Expectations – but I’ve never read any of them.

I mention it only because one of those titles popped up in my head when I began to think about the service today and the readings: Great Expectations. Great Expectations. I’ve never read that one either, so I looked it up on wikipedia and read a long summary and wound up confused. Great Expectations: I couldn’t tell who expected what or whether they got it or not. Maybe one of you can explain it to me at the coffee hour. I have great expectations that one of you knows.

Great Expectations. The title came to mind because this is a day of great expectations. We celebrate “The Presentation of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple.” Israel had great expectations. I have a Bible that allots almost a thousand pages to the Hebrew scriptures as most Bibles do, and it’s really all about expectations, God’s chosen people and their hopes and dreams. Great expectations. When they escaped from Egypt they had great expectations; when they crossed the Jordan into Canaan they had great expectations. When they chose David as king they had great expectations. And as the expectations fell short again and again, they re-focused their dreams and developed them into even greater expectations. If those dreams were not fulfilled, perhaps it was because God had something greater in mind.

The gospel today brings those expectations down to an elderly man and an elderly woman who have lived in hope – with great expectations. Simeon believed that he would live long enough to see the Messiah himself, to see the expectations fulfilled. I wonder what he expected. The Gospel tells us Simeon was “looking forward to the consolation of Israel” and had been promised he would live long enough to see the Messiah. And somehow he knew that this child was that promise. This child he somehow knew would be a “light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”

But specifically, specifically, what does that mean? A “light for revelation” and “glory.” Sounds wonderful, but what does it mean? I walk by a school yard when I walk down to the Sunset Library and there are often children out in the schoolyard running and screaming and young mothers – sometimes fathers – pushing strollers and carriages and it’s a scene full of hope. But those bundles of hope will soon be teenagers and great expectations become – shall we say – very complicated.

We’ve been three months now without a Rector here at All Saints – and I wonder what the expectations are. It used to be simpler when a Rector resigned or retired: expectations focused very quickly on the next Rector – who would have all the virtues of the predecessor and none of the annoying quirks. Now expectations focus first on an interim. I’ve often told the story of how, when I retired from Christ Church Bronxville New York after twenty two years as Rector the Vestry was given a choice of three interims to interview and one of them said he saw it as his mission “to help people with their grief work.” Whoever told me that, I said, “But some of them aren’t grieving.”

There’s a range of expectations in any parish. No priest totally satisfies everyone. They’re human beings; they have strengths and weaknesses. The weaknesses are where you come in. At some point, I expect, there will be a process to sort out expectations and needs, hopes and dreams. What could this church be if someone like Billy Graham preached here every Sunday – maybe full to overflowing? But I wouldn’t be here. If there were no liturgy and no sacraments would you still be here yourself? I wouldn’t.

So there’ll be a process to sort out the expectations, to winnow the great expectations and find realistic expectations. And somewhere out there is a priest who will come here in a year or two with her or his own expectations of you – – great expectations – and whoever it is will encounter the reality of a parish dedicated to music and liturgy and an outreach ministry that you and I believe in but that haven’t exactly drawn in all the people out there who need what we have and don’t know it, whose own expectations are shaped by an upbringing in a narrow-minded, old-fashioned Roman Catholicism or narrow-minded evangelicalism or broad minded-atheism and are not satisfied and do need what we have but don’t know it and can’t see it and we don’t know how to tell them.

We have great expectations: and you will have the opportunity to try to define them in a way that makes sense and find the priest who can help you find better ways to tell the world what’s here. And it won’t be easy. Why would you even want it to be easy? Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty… I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.”

I wonder whether anyone has thought of getting red baseball caps inscribed “Make All Saints Great Again.” All Saints was great when it confronted the aids epidemic, but no one would want to return to those years. I love history and I love this country, but there isn’t a single year in American history I would want to repeat. The shining city on a hill that Reagan used to talk about lies in the future if anywhere. I hope and pray we have better days ahead. I hope the best days of this parish are in the future also, but each of us may have a different vision of what a better future for this church might be. I think they will be the best years if they draw people together in a new and deeper and harder and costlier commitment, and the benefit may not be greater numbers but a deeper awareness of God’s love in your life and in this community.

Simeon somehow knew that he would not die until he saw the Messiah with his own eyes. And he did. But he wasn’t there when Jesus was baptized or when he called his first disciples or when he preached the sermon on the mount or when he was crucified or when Jesus rose again to life. Simeon had great expectations, but I doubt he even imagined any of what actually happened or ever pictured who Jesus really was. He had great expectations.

Simeon saw in Jesus “a light to enlighten the Gentiles” but I doubt that vision was widely shared. I doubt that vision was high on the agenda for most of Simeon’s fellow citizens. “The glory of your people Israel” – yes, but oddly Simeon gives that second place. It’s the light for others Simeon mentions first, and surely that was what happened. Israel for the most part failed to see in Jesus the expected glory, and the apostles went elsewhere and found a better audience in the Gentile world. When Paul thought about it he realized that it all made sense: the failure to find an audience in Israel sent the apostles out to the Gentile world where they might otherwise never have gone. What looked like failure at first was part of a larger plan. Failure in Jerusalem meant success in Rome. But even that success involved three hundred years of persecution. “The blood of the martyrs,” wrote one early Christian teacher, “is the seed of the church.”

Today the church is growing fastest perhaps in China where the government tears down churches and imprisons Christians. But the church there is growing. I read an article recently about churches – Roman, Catholic, Anglican, and Protestant – being closed in Canada, not because of persecution but because of indifference, because no one cares. That’s also happening here. I think people have very few expectations of the church these days. They see a President and government mired in corruption and blind to the real needs of real people and the most vocal and visible people who call themselves Christians supporting that program and no one visible speaking against it. They see human need – homelessness and hunger – in the wealthiest cities in the world – right here in San Francisco – and no effective human response. If people had great expectations of the church, I think they’d be here – but they’re not seeing or hearing anything that makes them hopeful.

So that’s where we come in. What do we expect – not that we could do – but that God could do through us? What might God do through us to make this church, all our churches, a light to enlighten the world around us and the glory and joy of all God’s people? Do we love God enough – know God well enough – to have great expectations? Are we ready to open ourselves to the power of God to change this church through us?

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