Sermon: Recognition

December 31, 2017
Luke 2:22-40

In the fall of 1985, I was a brand-new student at a new school – well, new to me. As part of orientation, we in the incoming class were supposed to pick up our lunch in the cafeteria and then go eat… somewhere.

As it happened, I didn’t know where.

So as I stood holding my tray looking awkwardly about, hoping to spot a familiar face when they were nearly all new faces, I was stunned and grateful to hear a voice call my name, adding the words, “Over here.” I turned to see one of the few faces I did know: that of the Dean of Students, Dr. Joseph O’Donnell. He got me (and a few others, I suspect) to the right place.

I had been recognized.

What impressed me that day and continues to this one is that Dr. O’Donnell had met me only once before that day. I’d visited the campus about four months before and he’d shown me around.

Four months later, he was able to see the back of my head and call me by name. That’s being recognized. I was astonished.

Imagine how Mary and Joseph felt to hear the words of Simeon and Anna. They with their baby looked no different from countless couples coming to the temple in Jerusalem to perform the rites required after a child’s birth. The gift they presented – two turtledoves – is the one specified for people who were poor, which was most of them. Simeon and Anna must have seen countless poor families like theirs over the years.

And both, for no reason that Mary or Joseph could see, recognized them, recognized their child. Their words confirmed once more the promise Gabriel had given Mary, confirmed as Elizabeth had done, confirmed as the shepherds’ words had done.

They – their child – had been recognized.

There are people with a talent for recognition. Dr. O’Donnell was not the only one I’ve known. Dr. Paul Sherry, former President of the United Church of Christ, also has it. I met him at a Conference meeting in Maine, and when I next saw him a couple years later, was astonished to discover that he could recognize me. I recognized him, of course, but I had the advantage that there was only one President of the UCC, and there were thousands of UCC pastors.

It meant so much to me to be recognized.

Some people crave the public eye, and some people avoid it. Some people yearn to have honors and trophies, and some would gladly pass it up. Some people bask in the glow of public recognition, and some endure it because it goes with the work, or the game, or the task that means so much to them.

But I think nearly all people crave recognition from someone. What’s the line repeated over and over again in the movies: “He (or she) doesn’t even know I exist.”

In the movies, it’s all about romance, but it doesn’t have to be about romance, does it? The question is: does this potential friend, does this potential lover, does this cousin or auntie or teacher or coach or co-worker or supervisor, does this person recognize me? Do they know my name? Do they know my work? Do they know what’s important to me and what’s unimportant? Do they show any signs of caring?

Recognition is that first glimmer of caring.

Recognition can be uncomfortable. It must have been for Mary and Joseph. They were in the Temple in Jerusalem, the seat of King Herod’s power, with people talking about their son as Messiah. Messiah. That made him a pretender to the throne, and a danger to the person sitting on it. In Matthew’s gospel, that story reached Herod’s ears, and forced the family to flee.

They could not have been comfortable hearing their secret revealed.

At its deepest, recognition penetrates secrecy. You’ve known people, I’m sure, who always seemed to know what you were thinking, or always were ready for what you were about to do. Parents of adventurous infants learn quickly to keep an eye on which direction their child is headed; they recognize the dangers. Siblings often manage to discover the ways in which they can really irritate their brothers or sisters, often just with a word of phrase. They recognize the sensitive spots.

And close friends, dear family, can see the hurts, the fears, the insecurities beneath the look of confidence. They recognize the sensitive spots and they bring comfort as best they can.

Recognition feeds that caring.

In medicine, recognition is the first step toward healing. A doctor who knows what’s going on has a much better chance of successful treatment than one who doesn’t – or worse, thinks they know what’s going on. The television show “House” made diagnosis, not treatment, its central drama. They based it, in fact, on Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes mysteries. Instead of a “Whodunit” the question became “Whatdunit” – for this fictional patient’s condition.

Recognition begins healing.

Recognition also begins the struggle against evil. Simeon and Anna recognized the one to redeem Jerusalem, but they also recognized Jerusalem’s need for redemption from the powers that occupied and oppressed it. Simeon warned Mary about the opposition that would arise to contest this Messiah’s legitimacy and power: “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed” – that is, that the inner thoughts of many will be recognized.

And Simeon’s final, sad, and perceptive warning: “A sword will pierce your own soul too.” For thousands of years, artists have returned to the image of the body of Jesus held by his grieving mother. “A sword will pierce your own soul too.”

Simeon recognized the power of evil and its ruthlessness. He recognized what it would do not just to Jesus the Messiah, but to Mary his mother.

Yet he and Anna rejoiced. Because they also recognized that with the arrival of this child, that we all live in the recognition of God. Psalm 69, the apostle Paul, and John the author of Revelation all use the image of a name written in “the Book of Life.” That means that God recognizes us. Knows us. Values us. Cares for us. Heals us. And joins us in that struggle against evil.

We are recognized.

So let us go see who we can recognize, and for what. Look for evil as this year begins, but look also for good. As Paul wrote to the Philippians, “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

More to the point, recognize them in others. Support them in others. And nurture them in yourself.

Look also and recognize the need, the wants, the hopes, the dreams, and the barriers. As the great Howard Thurman wrote (in his poem “The Work of Christmas,” in The Mood of Christmas and Other Celebrations) and we’ll sing his words at the service’s end:

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.

Recognize the need. Recognize the work. Recognize your call.

Amidst it all, know this: You are recognized. You are valued. You are healed. And you are loved: by God the Creator, God the Redeemer, and God the Sanctifier.


Listen to the Recorded Sermon:

Please note that the sermon as prepared in this text and as delivered in this recording differ. These things happen. Every week, actually.

The image is The Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, a 12th century work of an artist in Georgia.

Categories Sermons | Tags: , , | Posted on December 31, 2017

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