Ryan Tobin

In the Name of Jesus Christ, the true and holy light that is never overcome by darkness, Amen.

Today is a special day of celebration for the church. We are celebrating the dual holidays of Candlemas and of the Presentation of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple. I know that many of us are also looking forward to the celebration of Superbowl Sunday later this afternoon. It also happens to be Groundhog Day – – and in my home town just outside of Berks County, Groundhog Day is a serious celebration. The Pennsylvania Dutch spirit is rekindled on this day – – Grundsaudaag – – with a special festive event known as a Fersommling. This a celebration of Pennsylvania Dutch culture, featuring food, speeches, music, and the Deitsch language. (Those who are caught speaking English must pay a fine of one nickel for each offense.) At the end of the celebration, the gathered community offers prayers to God – Prayers of thankfulness that their culture has survived another year, and prayers of hope asking for favorable weather for planting and growing crops.

In truth, it is not surprising that so many holidays are celebrated at this time of year. The full weight of winter’s oppression – – darkness and coldness – – has settled on the community. We begin to wonder how soon spring will come. One might get the impression that the dark and the cold might not release their grip on us. It is in times of great darkness that we begin to yearn for the light.

The Christian festival known as Candlemas had its beginnings in the Gospel reading from Luke that we just heard. When Jesus is brought to the temple by Mary and Joseph, the Holy Spirit leads Simeon into the Temple to see Jesus. Upon seeing Our Lord, Simeon bursts into song as he identifies Jesus Christ as the one who would be a light to all the nations. The Church would bless candles for the people, a significant symbolic act that would serve to remind people that the light that illuminates their homes comes from God

The other aspect of today’s religious celebration is the festival known as the Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple. As we heard from the Gospel, Jesus was brought by Mary and Joseph down to Jerusalem to fulfill the Jewish law that required firstborn children to be redeemed by a sacrifice.

And sacrifice is a very important word here. Bear in mind the ancient context that the Holy Family was operating in. We know that there were no cars or highways; their journey to Jerusalem was probably made on foot. Travel was dangerous. Visiting a big city like Jerusalem would certainly be expensive. And Paid Time Off had not been invented yet either – – so the family would have been losing income by making this trip. In every way, this observance was a big sacrifice for this poor family.

Luke, our Gospel writer, emphasizes this story because he wants us to learn a lesson about Jesus and his family. That message is as follows: Jesus was a good Jewish boy, from a good Jewish family, who did all of the things that good Jews do. While we do not have much of a record in scripture about how the Holy Family lived their life – – but the fact that they were willing to sacrifice so much to satisfy the demands of the law surely leads us to think that they would be equally careful in following the other laws of the Torah.

Our second reading today, from Hebrews, describes Jesus the messiah as one who came down to earth to live a fully human life – – fully human and fully divine. It even says that Jesus had to become like his brothers and sisters (that’s us) in every respect. And if Jesus was like us in every respect, he must have learned about God and religion from his parents and from other adult role models. That’s what most of us did – – for most of us our faith in God stems from the beliefs and actions of our parents. 

I mention Jesus’ learning because there is yet one more event on the calendar for today; that is Theological Education Sunday. Theological Education Sunday is a day for churches to consider how Theological Education plays a role in the life of their parish. (Indeed, it is the celebration of Theological Education Sunday that has brought me into this pulpit today. For those who do not know, I myself am in my first year at seminary.)

When we think about the term “Theological Education,” most of us think that that is something that is reserved for the clergy, and those who want to become clergy. But the term can, and does, apply to every Christian. Each of us has beliefs that answer questions like:

  • What God wants us to do in this life?
  • How should Christians pray to God?
  • What is the best way to care for the sick and the homeless?
  • What actions constitute sin, and how do we avoid them?

And there are thousands of other questions we could mention. But your responses to these sorts of questions are based on your theological beliefs that have been shaped and formed through your own theological education. You don’t even have to be a Christian for this to be true. Garrison Keillor (of Lake Wobegon fame) once wrote that “everyone in Lake Wobegon is Lutheran – – even the atheists. It is a Lutheran God that they don’t believe in.” You have already been engaging in theological work, without even knowing it. I invite you to reflect on the source of your own theological education, and how they affect your belief or your disbelief.

For me, my theological education began with my parents and my home church (St. Philip Neri in Pennsburg). I learned about the difference between right and wrong, the importance of being charitable, and the importance of having God as the center of your life. Many years later, my theological education resumed when I first started to attend at this church 7 or 8 years ago. It wasn’t just what was preached in the pulpit that got to me. What I learned at St. Stephen’s was that Christians in this place are really living into the commandments that Our Lord specified.

Jesus said that of all the laws and ordinances found in the Old Testament could be reduced to just two: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and soul, and love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus said “On these two laws hang all the law and the prophets.” (The term “law and the prophets” would have meant the entire Hebrew Bible.)

My theological education began in earnest when I first walked through those red doors. I found a community that was actively engaged in mission work in this city that serves the homeless and the hungry. I found a community that committed itself to establishing a school where children can learn that God loves them and that they can get along despite differences in race, culture or social status. I found a community that created an intentional community so that young people can serve the needs of this city. I found a community that, week after week, prepares flowers, linens and hangings, music, ministry schedules – – and even sermons – – all to glorify God and to draw all the people who attend closer to God.

I also found a community that accepted me with open arms, never questioning who I was. A community that was willing to entrust me with leadership roles to guide this Cathedral into the future. A community that identified and understood my call to ministry even before I was able to understand it.

Don’t get me wrong – – I think Theological Education is a good thing. I think everyone here should consider engaging in Bible study, courses at the Stevenson School, attending Adult Forum, and other activities that increase our knowledge of God. But no amount of studying will ever be able to teach us how to follow those two great commandments of Christ.

This cathedral church is truly carrying the Light of Christ into a world that seems to be getting darker and colder. The world needs Christ, now more than ever. And Christ needs us to spread his redeeming love for this world far and wide. When I reflect on the hundreds of young students who have been transformed by attending St. Stephen’s School, or the dozens of Sycamore alums who have been bringing the lessons learned at the house to new and exciting endeavors, or on the many programs where we provide the disadvantaged with food and shelter and warmth – when I reflect on these things, I know that the light of Christ burns brightly in this place. So let us shine our light into every dark place, so that the world may know the love and the glory of our God.

Let the church say Amen.