Simeon was a normal person who, after a long life, was able to see salvation, salvation given, as we are told in Luke, to ALL people. And that salvation, holding that baby in his arms, finding the peace of knowing that salvation has come to the world and for the world, he now feels he has finished his tasks here on earth, completed what he came to do, and he asks God to then let him go, “you may now dismiss your servant in peace.”
As we approach New Year’s eve, I often think about what tasks we have yet to do, what we have yet to accomplish here in this life time that will then allow us to go, when it is our time, in peace, work completed, job done, accomplished, finished, a whole life, bookended with a call and a response, created in love and allowed to move forward in peace. New Years is often a time of reflection. We reflect on our past year, but we can also use it as a time to reflect on the whole of our lives. What have been your life lessons? What has been your life calling? It usually is not just one thing, but I think God does call each of us to certain tasks in our lives. I also think there are specific tasks for each life - they are not always the same for every person. They are not always obvious, not always clear, but we have a call, or multiple calls, a reason to be here. Sometimes that reason is something that carries us through a long life, sometimes it is something that we have to learn over and over again. And sometimes it appears to be learned or accomplished and finished early on.
Do you know what you are being called to do in your life? To help you think through this, let me give you some examples. I think I've had several life lessons, or things that I have found myself called to do and learn. One of my life calls has been to be an adult. While others are called to learn to surrender to God, to let go of their egos and allow God to be the driver, I find that every time I pray for God to tell me what to do, I hear God calling me in turn to take some risks and chances and make my own decisions, some of which will be good and others which won’t, which I will just have to learn from. I hear God telling me to trust that God will be with me in those choices, but that God will not make them for me. I’ve had other callings or life lessons as well. Such as facing my judgments. Every time I have judged someone, it comes back at me, and I find I have to deal with that, face that, in my own life. For example, I used to judge women who didn’t know what their husbands were up to. We hear stories in the news about men who have several wives in different towns and I always judged them – “how can you not know what your husband is up to?” Yeah. Thanks, God. I don’t judge that anymore. What are your life lessons? They usually are not things that come easily, but they are deep calls to us to be the best and most whole we can be, for God, for others and for ourselves.
As people reach the end of their lives, I am often asked the question, “Why am I still here? Why haven’t I been able to die? Has God forgotten me? I feel done here, so why hasn’t God taken me?” My answer is always the same. “There is something still left here for you to do. Our job then is, with your time left, to figure out what that is.” Often a person is not able to completely name what that is, what is left undone, what needs still to be done. But I have watched people at the end of their lives and I find it is often an amazing time of coming to terms with their lives, of reconciling relationships, of making peace with what has been and with what is.
As I reflected on this, I thought of Thornton Wilder’s book, “The Bridge of San Luis Rey”. The book begins with these words, “On Friday noon, July the 20th, 1714 the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below.” This collapse began an intense search into the “why” of that strange tragedy. In particular, a monk was convinced that if we were to look at the five lives of those who died, we would see that each life was at a place where something had been concluded, that each life was “done” in some profound way, that God’s hand was in the bigger picture of the collapse because their callings, their purposes, their “jobs” here on earth was concluded and so it was simply time for God to call them home. It is a question that many ponder. Does everything happen for a reason? Or at least, do we die at an appointed time? Is there a bigger pattern and bigger picture that determines the very hour and even minute at which we will die? Or does God call us home when our jobs here are done? When we have finished our “tests” or our tasks and done what we are called to do, learned what we have been asked to learn? In many ways, the story doesn’t actually answer the question about providence, destiny and fate. In describing these lives and where they were at their final moment of death, the story causes the readers to explore more fully their own beliefs. But it does so while leaving more questions than answers. Towards the beginning of the book, Wilder says this about whether or not their fates, their lives and their deaths are determined, “Some say that we shall never know and that to the gods we are like the flies that the boys kill on a summer day, and some say, on the contrary, that the very sparrows do not lose a feather that has not been brushed away by the finger of God. “
But more to the point of this sermon, the book ends with these words, “But soon we shall die and all memory of those five will have left the earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”
Under all of our calls, under all of our life lessons, there is a bigger call, a deeper call. It is to listen and follow God. It is to follow Love, since that is what God is. It is to bridge and reconcile and heal all of life with that Love. Thomas Merton put it this way, “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone."
Sometimes the distinction between loving God for our own happiness and loving God for God is a subtle difference. “God, help me to find what it is you are calling me to do,” is really a question about me. It is a question that invokes God, but it still is about me. “God, how can I serve you? Where would it be most helpful to you for me to be and what would serve you and your people and your world the most for me to do in that place?” is slightly, but profoundly different. That difference, between turning to God to make our lives whole, and turning to God so that we might serve God and help God make the world whole, that is the difference between asking God to be with us, following us in our journeys, and following God.
Simeon has seen love incarnate. He has seen it, recognized it, allowed it into his heart. He followed God in his call. He had been given a task, and that task is seeing, recognizing and proclaiming who Jesus was. Anna, too, had that task. Their proclamations were about love, were about Jesus. And having finished their work, they were ready to depart. They found their calling. They did it. And as Simeon declared, he was then made ready to cross that bridge of love and to be dismissed in peace.
How are you called to follow the way of Love? How are you called to serve God with eyes of love rather than fear? As we enter the New Year, my hope for us all would be to move more fully into a commitment to loving God and serving God with our whole beings. It is the call, the meaning, the resolution that matters most. Amen.