Delivered at Ames UCC
on January 1, 2017
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
Sermons are written to be
heard rather than read.
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at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays.
I was a literature major in college. That meant I got read a whole lot of books that I loved. But I also had to take a class on poetry. I remember the day we talked about Emily Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for death.” It felt like we spent an hour on the first stanza:
Because I could not stop for Death–
He kindly stopped for me–
The Carriage held but just Ourselves–
Our professor kept asking what it meant. We kept saying, “She didn’t want to die. But death came anyway.” Which it does. But she kept at us: “What else? What else?” She seemed, to me, disproportionately excited to look for more meaning within those 20 words.
I know I passed the class, but I remember feeling dense and dimwitted throughout. Poetry confused me and I felt like I was never “getting it” or getting it “right.”
Twenty years later, I can say the experience of being Christian can feel the same. As people who are seeking the divine, in part through Christian scripture, we can also feel dense and wonder if we will ever get it “right” or know what our scripture “really means.”
Look at today’s portion from the gospel community of Luke, for example. It begins with Jesus being presented as an eight-day-old newborn to the temple in Jerusalem.
When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”
The passage implies that this presentation is a required religious purification ritual for the whole family. But it wasn’t. Ancient Judaism did not have any such requirement. Luke makes this false connection by pairing it with a quotation from God’s instruction to Moses in the wilderness in Exodus 13. Yes, God asked for first born sons to be dedicated to service to God, but that was never implemented as a formal religious purification ritual rule.1
Women did a forty day period between delivery and a ritual, which is detailed in Leviticus 12, but Mary is only a week out of the barn. And there was no requirement for the fathers of newborns.
Saying that it was time for “their” time for purification, meaning the whole family’s, is not historically accurate.
So what does that mean? What does the story mean as told and what does the discrepancy between story and history mean?