A Product of Our Environment

Isaiah 61:10-62:3 | Galatians 4:4-7 | Luke 2:22-40

Jeremy Richards

I recently finished reading some of the most beautifully written books I’ve ever read: The Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante. These 4 books trace the tumultuous friendship of Lenu, the narrator, and her friend Lila through most of their lives, from the time they’re children, until they’re in their 60s. I had heard a lot about these novels from numerous friends, and then Brie read them and told me how good they were, so I decided it was time to read them myself.

I did come to love them, but it was hard for me to get into the first novel, because so much of it was spent developing the context in which they lived: a poor neighborhood in Naples. But as I continued reading, I came to see that this context was vital to the story because you cannot separate Lenu and Lila and their friends and family from the environment in which they grew up. The neighborhood became a kind of third central character in the story, second only to Lenu and Lila. And if it was a third character it was more of an antagonist than a protagonist.

Much of the story is about Lenu’s attempts to escape her old neighborhood and her friendship with Lila. Because in many ways Lila becames the embodiment of Lenu’s neighborhood. She is poor, unpredictable, and at times violent, like the neighborhood. Lila is unable to escape the neighborhood and spends her whole life trapped within its confines, while Lenu is able to become educated and find love and work outside the neighborhood.

And yet, despite all of this, Lenu cannot escape the neighborhood, or her friendship with Lila. She is constantly pulled back into that place and that friendship. And despite the unpredictability and turmoil that she encounters in her neighborhood and with Lila, she is most at home, she is most herself, in that place and with that person.

The Neapolitan Novels are perhaps an exploration of context more than anything else. The books explore the way Lenu’s neighborhood and the people who inhabit it shape her in ways that she can never truly escape. She is who she is because of her enivornment.

This is true for all of us, as well. For better or worse, we are products of our environment. This became glaringly obvious to me over the Christmas holiday. As many of you know, Ben moved in with us a few weeks ago, and he was present for pretty much all of our Christmas traditions, from decorating the tree to participating in the church’s Christmas Eve service, to spending Christmas Eve, Christmas, and the following days with my family (which is no small feat). During this time, I found myself constantly saying to Ben, “In my family we do this this way…”

Christmas is a time when the ways we have been shaped by our contexts become apparent, both as a society and as individuals and families. We put trees inside our house and put the most kitschy, gaudy ornaments on them, and all over our homes – inside and out – which makes no sense outside of the context of Christmas. We participate in traditions that are unique to the families we grew up in. For example, growing up, my family always got our tree the day after Thanksgiving. We would go out into the woods nearby, find the right one, and cut it down. Then we would leave it in the garage to let the snow melt off, and go inside and have a specific chicken and cheese chowder my mom always made. Then, the next day, Saturday, we would bring the tree inside. Someone (usually me) would have to get down in the crawl space and pull out box after box of Christmas decorations. We’d spend most of the afternoon decorating not just the tree but the whole house. Then, at the end of the day, when everything was in its proper place, we’d watch a Christmas move, usually The Christmas Story, by the light of our new Christmas tree.

As we become adults, we keep some of our old traditions and start to develop new ones of our own. For example, this year my family started a new tradition: an annual cribbage tournament! (Phil won this year, but next year it’s mine). If we’re in a serious relationship with someone else, they often bring certain traditions with them, and we find ways to blend the two together. As Brie and I prepare to have our first child, we’re starting to think about what traditions we want to start.

While we probably don’t think too deeply about many of our traditions, especially around Christmas (they’re just fun!), traditions say a lot about us and about how we see the world. And even more importantly, the people we are in community with, the ones we learn these traditions from, especially when we’re young, help give shape to our understanding of ourselves, others, and the world we live in.       

Maybe it’s because I’m preparing to be a father, but I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the way our environments shape us, so I was struck this week by the fact that Jesus is also born into a certain environment, and before he can even say his first words he’s being shaped by the traditions, culture, religion, and people that surround him. Jesus doesn’t do anything himself in this story, and yet we learn so much about him and who he will be by watching those around him.

Our reading from Luke might be a little too familiar to many of us, so we don’t realize how different Jesus’ world is from our own. Just look at the first three verses, and how strange they are to us: “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.’”

Now, does any of that sound “normal” to any of us? How many of you, after you had your first child, had a “time of purification?” How many of you took that child to a different town  to present them to God? How many of you offered a sacrifice to God for your baby?

All this reminds us that Jesus didn’t appear out of a vacuum, but was born in a specific time and place and into a specific religion, and there are people around him, from the very beginning, who will influence him. He has devout Jewish parents who follow the Law of Moses. He meets elders, Simeon and Anna, who take him in their arms and speak blessings over him. From the beginning Jesus is part of a community with its own traditions and customs, and those traditions and customs shape him. Throughout his adult ministry he will draw heavily on the Law and the Prophets and the stories of Israel and their God, all of which he learned from his family and his community.

As I mentioned, it seems like this theme of environment or context and the way it shapes us has been coming up over and over again for me. It’s caused me to think about our church, and the way the people, culture, and traditions of our church shape us, especially in light of the fact that we welcomed new members today. It’s humbling to think that, whether we know it or not, we are influencing one another – we are being shaped by our common life together.

It’s also a bit scary. What if we mess up? We’ve all heard enough stories of bad church experiences to know that churches have done serious damage to many people. I was recently reading a short biography on Philip Yancey, and he’s quoted as saying, “I write books for myself. I’m a pilgrim, recovering from a bad church upbringing, searching for a faith that makes its followers larger and not smaller.”[1] How do we make sure that we’re not a church people have to recover from? How do we practice a faith that makes its followers “larger and not smaller?”

The first answer is that there’s no way to make sure of those things. No fool-proof way to be the church. We probably will mess up. I once heard a church planter who said when he and a small group of friends started their church they wanted to be a church that didn’t hurt people, and over time they realized that inevitably they would hurt people, not intentionally, but we are all broken people, slipping and sliding and falling our way through life, as a community and as individuals. Fortunately we’re slipping, sliding, and falling in the grace of God. Hopefully we won’t do in irreparable damage, though. Hopefully we’ll be a church that shows grace, so that we’ll also be shown grace when we miss the mark.

But there are some things we can learn from our reading from Luke today that will help us know how to be a good church, how to create an environment that will build people up, not tear them down, make people “larger…not smaller,” to quote Philip Yancey.

The first is that the community Jesus was born into was seeking God. Joseph and Mary travel to Jerusalem to present Jesus to God. When they arrive, Simeon, a “righteous and devout man,” takes Jesus in his arms, but his words aren’t initially directed toward Jesus, or even Mary and Joseph. They’re directed toward God, “Now, master, let your servant go in peace according to your word, because my eyes have seen your salvation.” Anna’s response is similar. She’s a prophet who never leaves the temple and commits herself to prayer and fasting. When she sees Jesus her first response is to praise God, “She approached at that very moment and began to praise God…” They all see God as central to all that is happening, and they praise God for the blessing of Jesus.

There are communities all over Portland that are based on common interests. There’s a Facebook group for any and every sport, hobby, activity, and interest you can think of. And many of them are great. There is, of course, nothing wrong with these kind of communities, but what makes faith communities unique is…their faith. As a church, we aren’t simply a social club, but a gathering that meets on Sundays and throughout the week to seek the presence of Jesus, to experience the hope and joy that are found in him, and to share that love with one another and the rest of the world. We are like Mary, Joseph, Simeon, and Anna, who are all united by the presence of Jesus in our midst.

The second thing we can learn from our Gospel reading about being a healthy church is that everyone’s voice matters. When Mary and Joseph come to the temple, they’re probably just planning on doing their duty and then getting out of there and back home, but then some unexpected characters appear on the scene. Simeon, that crazy old guy who’s always wandering around the temple saying he’s going to see the Christ before he dies, appears and prophecies over Jesus, speaking a profound word to these new parents. Then Anna, an old widow, appears and also recognizes him as “the redemption of Jerusalem.”

If we look beyond our Gospel reading this morning, we see that there are other characters involved as well: the angels proclaim the coming Messiah, the shepherds witness his birth, the Magi come from far away to bring him gifts.

We all come to Jesus from different places, with different backgrounds. We have had different experiences, which have shaped us in different ways. Sometimes we might not recognize Jesus in our midst, but someone else will, just as Simeon and Anna recognized Jesus. Even when we do see him, we never see all of him, and so we hope that, as a community, some of us will see different aspects of who Christ is and what he calls us to, so that we can get a more complete picture. We need everyone’s perspective.

Third, a healthy church recognizes the beauty of its unique customs and traditions and beliefs, but doesn’t do so in an exclusionary way. Simeon meets Jesus in the unique context of Second Temple Judaism, and he sees Jesus as a fulfillment of his people, Israel’s, hopes, but he sees the salvation promised extending beyond just the Israelites to the Gentiles. He says, “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.”

We believe in the unique person of Jesus Christ – fully human and fully God. Our hope is founded on a specific person, and this person and the Scriptures that testify to him and the wider work of God, shape us in unique ways. Over the centuries, the Church has developed traditions and rituals like communion, baptism, Sunday morning services, prayer, and Scripture reading that, we hope, form us into disciples of Jesus Christ.

But that hope in Christ, and the traditions we practice, don’t come at the expense of others’ religious, traditions, and practices. Like Simeon, we believe the salvation brought by Jesus is for all peoples, those inside the bounds of our faith, and those outside. It’s not for us to judge where others stand with God. Our hope and prayer is that our religious tradition will fill us with love for all people, of all religions, not just our own.

As a church, I believe we’re on a good path. In many ways we’re already doing our best to be a healthy, God-honoring church, but there are always “growing edges,” new frontiers God is calling us into, ways we can become more devout followers of Jesus.

May our shared life together continue to shape us into the hands and feet of Christ. May we continue to be a church that seeks Jesus among us, that honors the voices and opinions of everyone as we seek the Holy Spirit together, and that sees the Good News of Jesus Christ as Good News for everyone, whether they come to our church on Sunday or not. And may we become more like Jesus as we travel together.


[1] https://philipyancey.com/about