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Faces of Our Faith: Anna

The Rev. Bart Smith
World Communion Sunday (October 7, 2018)
Luke 2:21-38

When the time came for their ritual cleansing, in accordance with the Law from Moses, they brought Jesus up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord. (It’s written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male will be dedicated to the Lord.”) They offered a sacrifice in keeping with what’s stated in the Law of the Lord, A pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.

A man named Simeon was in Jerusalem. He was righteous and devout. He eagerly anticipated the restoration of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. The Holy Spirit revealed to him that he wouldn’t die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. Led by the Spirit, he went into the temple area. Meanwhile, Jesus’ parents brought the child to the temple so that they could do what was customary under the Law. Simeon took Jesus in his arms and praised God. He said,

“Now, master, let your servant go in peace according to your word,
    because my eyes have seen your salvation.
You prepared this salvation in the presence of all peoples.
It’s a light for revelation to the Gentiles    and a glory for your people Israel.”

His father and mother were amazed by what was said about him. Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “This boy is assigned to be the cause of the falling and rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that generates opposition so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your innermost being too.”

There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, who belonged to the tribe of Asher. She was very old. After she married, she lived with her husband for seven years. She was now an 84-year-old widow. She never left the temple area but worshipped God with fasting and prayer night and day. She approached at that very moment and began to praise God and to speak about Jesus to everyone who was looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.

Imagine with me for a moment what Anna was like…

Something that will help with that is the sketch the artist did of her, which you can find on the front of your bulletin.

The first feature I notice is her hands.

They’re clasped in prayer. Wrinkled with time. Maybe even callused with the years. 84 years was no small achievement in those days! She’s brought her hands lose to her mouth—maybe in awe and wonder. Maybe in shock that “it had finally come to pass,” that era of redemption for Jerusalem.  Maybe because her words failed her at that precise moment and she didn’t know what else to do than to whisper a quiet “hallelujah.”

Her hands that had been balled up into fists over the decades praying for her people, Israel. Her hands that had been lifted in prayer day and night in the temple courts, open as if to expect at any moment that God would emerge as God had promised. Those hands that maybe had opened up to others, relying on the kindness and generosity of temple worshipers for sustenance (she was widow, you see, and had been for the vast majority of her life).

Who do you think she looks like?

She kind of resembles Mother Teresa (now St. Teresa of Calcutta) doesn’t she? Well, that’s intentional. In the journals that have gone along with this Faces of Our Faith series, in this week’s entry on page 32 the artist, Lisle Gwynn Garrity, writes,

“When drawing this image I referenced photographs of mother Teresa because I imagine her, like Anna a few centuries before, having eyes for the divine and devoting her entire life to pointing it out for others.”

I can see that in her eyes—can you?—those eyes for the divine.

They’ve been trained for, I don’t know, 60+ years, 60+ years of prayer, of cultivated attention to look for the divine, to anticipate the Holy showing up, to look for some sign, however small, of God finally breaking into the world. Those eyes…

Lisle writes:

“Perhaps Luke knew that those on the outside seemed to have the nearest access to Jesus. Those on the margins saw what others could not yet see. They knew without really knowing, because it was the kind of knowledge that shifts the chemistry of your heart.”  

Anna is typical of many in Luke’s gospel in that she sees what God is up to in Jesus before the powerful do: shepherds, people who are poor, demon-possessed, outcasts, Gentiles. Anna was a widow. It was hard to find someone more marginalized in that day and time than a widow. No status. No one to provide.

Yet she was also a prophet, Luke tells us, a prophet who never left the temple but prayed day and night. And right after Simeon she is the second person to prophesy over this child.

She sees something in him that others, maybe even his parents don’t.

She sees something in the baby boy that many will never see, what many later refuse to see.

“She saw and she knew, so she lived out her days giving thanks for the promise of a world made new.”

Lisle observes that Luke could have left her out. He almost did! She gets just three verses, 36-38. At best she gets a brief moment of recognition, but otherwise she’s still a minor character. But to be fair, every character in these first few chapters of Luke’s gospel is a footnote to Jesus, the Messiah; that’s why the gospel was written after all, to tell a story of how God came into our midst.

Though I have to say that I observe a pattern here in the text and in life in general: the world glides past the likes of Anna. The world ignores Anna and moves on to other things.

How often does this happen? In what senses does this happen?

Well, I see it when the elderly are seen more for deficiency—what they lack—than their gifts which are honed over decades of living, experiencing life, and learning lessons from it.

I was in a workshop once with an expert on Generational Theory. Maybe you’ve heard of it. It’s a theory that understands human behavior in the social environment according to certain age cohorts: the Greatest Generation, the Silent Generation, Baby Boomers, Generation X’ers, Millennials. Nobody can seem to agree on what to call the next one up. iGen (as in iPhone, iPad, and other Apple products? Generation Z (because they might be the last)? This expert on Generational Theory pointed out something that is very striking to me: for the first time in human history, or in its most pronounced sense in human history, the younger generations know significantly more about the technology that is shaping civilization than the older generations; in other words, knowledge is passed up instead of down. We’re at a point in our culture at which seniors are decreasingly the deposits of wisdom they once were. We’ve swapped the wisdom of lived experienced and of mediated knowledge for information accessed at our fingertips. Internet technology isn’t all bad—please understand me, that’s not what I’m saying, I’m no luddite—but consider how it’s altering our social relations. What does “Anna” know? We’ve got Wikipedia.

A colleague of mine who served a church in another state told a story about her youth group. They wanted to get engaged in activism, they wanted to do something in the face of injustice. “We should talk to Carl,” she suggested. “What does Carl know?” they scoffed, “Carl’s like 100 years old!” So she showed them a picture of the Pettus bridge in Selma, Alabama. There was Carl in the photograph… getting trampled.  It turns out Carl knew a thing or two about social change.

In what other ways is “Anna” ignored?

When the stories of women aren’t believed. When their experience is disregarded and a man’s version of the story is accepted because it is in the interest of the “powers and principalities of this world.” [1] That’s a whole other sermon…

“Anna” is passed over in the church, too, the temple of our day, the very institution she has spent her life holding up with her presence and her prayers. In the push for welcoming visitors, she’s passed over for the ever-coveted young family, a husband and wife with 2.5 children. Her face doesn’t make the portrait on the wall (that’s for the pastors, right?) because it’s “leadership” that demands attention, not teaching, visiting, serving on Session, organizing.

Throughout the ordination process, potential pastors are asked to talk a lot about our experiences of church, and sometimes we’re asked about the people who were influential in our vocational journeys. It didn’t occur to me until this week that I have never given credit to the Edenfield sisters, the twins who worked the nursery in my grandparents’ church for decades upon decades; or to my Sunday school teachers; or to the Director of Christian Education at First Presbyterian Church, LaGrange, Georgia, Emily Parrish, whose “blood, tears, toil, and sweat” probably had more to do with my faith formation than the pastors whose names come up time and time again.

Who has been an “Anna” for you, a face who comes to mind from your journey of faith?

Who is someone who’s maybe not a “headliner” in the official version of your life’s story, but who has in her/his/their own way prophesied for you a future that others might not have seen in the moment?

Who has had eyes for the divine and perceived the divine at work in you?

In an increasingly siloed society, a culture in which our deeply entrenched individualism allows those other evils, ageism and sexism, to fester, it’s our hope here at St. Mark’s that we can foster a different sort of interaction.

Maybe you’ve heard us toss around the words “intergenerational” or cross generational a lot this year and maybe that might sound like church jargon to you, but the intention behind it is for us to create a different kind of space than the other ones we’re normally in. Whether that’s making sandwiches for hungry folks, playing music in worship, marching together in the streets, being together in small dinner groups, or learning the stories of our faith, we hope to do all of that together.

In the journal entry for Anna, Lisle writes:

“Perhaps being at the end of her life helped [Anna] to see the world with eyes sharpened for the holy… Perhaps being a prophet made her both patient and persistent, trusting that the right moment to share her wisdom would, indeed, come.”

That’s one thing church is supposed to be: a place where we sharpen our eyes for the holy, where, at the right moment, we can share wisdom with one another.

How else do we notice when Christ has come into our midst, but through other people?

I’ll close with a story from preacher​ and professor ​I​ ​know,​ ​Tom,​ ​who led a retreat for pastors in our presbytery last year. [2] Tom loves​ ​to​ ​tell​ ​a​ ​story​ ​about​ ​an​ ​experience​ ​he​ ​had​ ​at​ ​church​ ​when​ ​he was​ ​10​ ​years​ ​old.

He was​ ​miserable​ ​the​ ​Sunday​ ​afternoon​ ​his​ ​mom​ ​dropped​ ​him​ ​off​ ​at​ ​the​ ​church​ ​and​ ​said,​ ​“I’ll be​ ​back​ ​in​ ​two​ ​hours.​ ​That’s​ ​about​ ​how​ ​long​ ​it’ll​ ​take”​ ​as​ ​she​ ​peeled​ ​out​ ​of​ ​the​ ​parking​ ​lot, kicking​ ​up​ ​gravel​ ​behind​ ​her.

He​ ​had​ ​a​ ​sinking​ ​feeling​ ​in​ ​his​ ​stomach​ ​as​ ​he​ ​shuffled​ ​his​ ​feet​ ​downstairs​ ​to​ ​the​ ​cold,​ ​musty church​ ​basement​ ​where​ ​Miss​ ​Inez​ ​Macklemore​ ​sat.

She​ ​was​ ​ancient,​ ​according​ ​to​ ​Tom. Tom​ ​knew​ ​exactly​ ​where​ ​she’d​ ​be​ ​that​ ​day–the​ ​third​ ​Sunday​ ​School​ ​room​ ​on​ ​the​ ​right–which​ ​is where​ ​Tom​ ​thought​ ​she​ ​must​ ​actually​ ​live,​ ​since​ ​she​ ​always​ ​seemed​ ​to​ ​be​ ​there. The​ ​room​ ​was​ ​sparse. There​ ​was​ ​a​ ​chair for Tom at the table.
On​ ​that​ ​table​ ​sat​ ​a​ ​Bible,a​ ​box​ ​of​ ​gold​ ​stars​ ​and​ ​a​ ​children’s​ ​catechism​ ​that​ ​Tom​ ​was​ ​there​ ​to recite.

Without​ ​a​ ​word,​ ​she​ ​motioned​ ​for​ ​him​ ​to​ ​sit​ ​down​ ​and​ ​she​ ​started.

Who​ ​made​ ​you?”

“God!”​ ​Tom​ ​squeaked.

A​ ​long,​ ​bony​ ​finger​ ​plucked​ ​a​ ​gold​ ​star​ ​out​ ​of​ ​that​ ​box,​ ​pulled​ ​it​ ​over​ ​a​ ​lizard-like​ ​tongue​ ​and stuck​ ​it​ ​in​ ​that​ ​catechism.

Why​ ​did​ ​God ​make​ ​you?”

“For​ God’s​ ​own​ ​good​ ​purpose.”

Back​ ​and​ ​forth​ ​the​ ​questions​ ​and​ ​answers​ ​went​ ​and​ ​the​ ​fire​ ​of​ ​pride​ ​burned​ ​in​ ​Miss​ ​Inez’​ ​eyes because​ ​down​ ​there​ ​in​ ​that​ ​basement​ ​of​ ​the​ ​church,​ ​she​ ​and​ ​Tom​ ​were​ ​about​ ​the​ ​most important​ ​business​ ​in​ ​the​ ​world.

As​ ​an​ ​adult​ ​now​ ​in​ ​his​ ​70s,​ ​Tom​ ​reflects​ ​that​ ​while​ ​he’s​ ​been​ ​a​ ​lot​ ​of​ ​places​ ​and​ ​learned​ ​a​ ​lot​ ​of things​ ​since​ ​that​ ​day​ ​in​ ​the​ ​church​ ​basement,​ ​he’s​ ​never​ ​learned​ ​anything​ ​more​ ​important​ ​than that​ ​God​ ​made​ ​him​ ​for​ ​God’s​ ​own​ ​good​ ​purpose. And​ ​Miss​ ​Inez​ ​played​ ​a​ ​role​ ​in​ ​that​ ​understanding. Miss​ ​Inez,​ ​like​ ​Anna,​ ​helped​ ​Tom​ ​to​ ​see​ ​that​ ​truth​ ​so​ ​he​ ​could​ ​live​ ​into​ ​it​ ​as​ ​he​ ​grew older.

Let us give thanks to God for the “Annas” among us now and those who have been there for us in the past. Let us give thanks for those people the years have trained to see what’s most important, what’s most enduring, what is most true in us.

Featured image: “Anna the Prophetess” by Lisle Gwynn Garrity with A Sanctified Art LLC. Used with permission.

[1] Ephesians 6:12, NRSV: “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

[2] The Rev. Dr. Thomas G. Long is an ordained Presbyterian Church (USA) minister and was the Bandy Professor of Preaching at Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta. He shared a version of this story at a Macedonian Ministries retreat in Green Valley, AZ on April 28, 2018.