Sunday, December 27, 2009

The First Sunday of Christmas [Year C] - December 27, 2009 (Luke 2:41-52)

One of the most popular gifts opened this Christmas at our house was a doll that my parents gave to Laura, our 19-month old. It blinks, drinks a bottle, laughs, and even snores. Clare, our 3-year-old has latched onto it rather quickly, even though it is her sister’s gift. It is Laura’s baby, but she will need to share it with her sister, who cradles it and loves it and takes very good care of it.

Here we are, three short days after Christmas—three short days after our own “oohing and ahhing” over the baby in the manger—and we’re presented with another manifestation of our Lord and God most of us rarely consider: the Pre-Teen Jesus. It is perhaps a little strange to ponder a pre-teenage Jesus, one who is clearly no longer a defenseless, cooing infant, wrapped in swaddling clothes, but who is also not yet the charismatic and critical adult Jesus. He’s there, in-between, still under the guardianship of his earthly mother and father, but, by the by, becoming aware of his special relationship to his Heavenly Father, as well. True, Jesus is given to us, but as he grows we’ll need to learn to share him with his Father, too.

Of all the gospels, only Luke provides any information about pre-teen Jesus in this short account of his family’s yearly trek to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover when he is twelve years old. It becomes the only bridge we have between the early Nazareth days of his youth and the more well-known years where he wanders around Galilee and Jerusalem, challenging people with the good news of God’s kingdom.

If we are a bit unfamiliar with the pre-teen Jesus and don’t know what to do with him, we are plenty familiar with some of what we see in this story: a young man testing his parents’ boundaries and causing them considerable anxiety. A precocious youth displaying a mind and will of his own. A young scholar in the making, thirsty for the knowledge of the elders. A thoughtful boy who shows obedience to his parents. And while this flimsy eleven-verse bridge is all we have linking the two Jesuses we know much better, it does offer some stability and comfort to learn that the Lord Jesus did live there, for awhile, in those often-painful, but very exciting in-between years. Isn’t it somewhat fascinating to consider the God of Heaven and Earth making his way not only through the manger and then the high courts of Pilate and Caiaphas, but also through the obscure, undocumented days of a boy growing up in some border town? It makes you wonder how God might be working even now in the obscure, undocumented days of children everywhere.

That is essentially the topic addressed by the watershed book, Soul Searching: the Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, researched and written by two sociologists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and published in 2005. In it, the researchers develop the first and most comprehensive study of the current religious and spiritual trends and practices of teenagers. They do so by conducting hundreds of in-depth, one-on-one interviews and thousands of written surveys with teenagers all across the United States, covering as many socio-economic and religious backgrounds as possible.

The book mainly breaks down their findings into statistics and observations that can be rather tedious to wade through, but occasionally they work in an anecdote from one of their interviews. We meet “Joy,” a 15-year-old who drinks and does drugs under the nose of her parents who barely know her or her 23-year-old boyfriend. “Joy’s” take on God is vague, at best, perceiving him as a distant, nondescript figure who doesn’t really do much. Then there’s “Kristen,” whose way to a remarkably strong faith comes about after her father’s tragic suicide and her mother’s struggle to keep the family afloat. The stories are compelling, but the researchers’ two main findings are less so. Namely, they present that the great majority of teenagers in America are frustratingly inarticulate about what they believe about God and that the average American teenager follows whatever religious practices her parents have introduced her to and has not thought too deeply about them. As a teen, myself, I figure I would have been in the same category.

This does not appear to be the case with Jesus, who is discovered in the temple as a twelve-year-old, wowing the elders with his answers. This also does not seem to be the case among our own youth at Epiphany, at least from my perspective. Our youth readily participate in all kinds of youth activities, service projects, Bible studies, and worship roles, often boldly praying aloud before their peers. Nevertheless, the book does paint what I suspect is a fairly accurate, albeit worrisome, picture of religious and spiritual trends in our youth today. I am also confident that the God who is the Father of Jesus is, indeed, present and active in the lives of teenagers everywhere—just as he is present and active in everyone’s lives—whether or not they know how to look for him or whether or not they can articulate it. It’s a question about learning where to find him.

That, I believe, is the mistake that Mary and Joseph make in this morning’s story. Their mistake is not in their failure to keep track of him, but in not understanding where he might be found. The whole scene is quite easy to imagine, especially considering how extended Middle Eastern families often operate. The whole family clan had likely gone up to Jerusalem for the Passover, a big caravan of uncles and aunts and cousins, more distant relatives, and probably a couple of unrelated Nazareth townspeople, to boot. Children of all ages would have tagged along, too, fulfilling the ancient decree. Most likely they would have wandered back and forth between relatives and friends, the adults caring lovingly for whichever children happen to be near them at the time. Last Sunday something similar happened here at Epiphany when Laura, our nineteen-month-old, headed right out an open door, making her way for the parking lot. Before we even realized she was out of sight, a loving adult scooped her up on the sidewalk and brought her back inside to us.

For several hours, it’s no big deal that Mary and Joseph haven’t laid eyes on their son, but after a full day goes by with no sign of him, they start to wonder which relative or friend might have him. They search through the whole caravan to no avail before deciding to back-track to Jerusalem, taking another day in the process. “Where could he be?” they worry and wonder. Luke does not tell us each and every place they search, but apparently they take another whole day scouring the city before they happen upon him at the Temple, of all places, holding forth with the learned elders who reside there. Mary and Joseph are astonished and a bit annoyed with his behavior. “Why have you treated us like this?” they ask. If Jesus had a middle name, they probably used it at this point: “Jesus of Nazareth, don’t you know we were searching for you with great anxiety?!?”
It’s Jesus’ reply that makes me wonder whether Mary and Joseph shouldn’t have first considered the Temple, whether Mary and Joseph should not have approached this whole scenario with a bit more faith, deeper understanding that their son is also the Son of God and therefore they are sharing him. He is taking time to strengthen that relationship. “Why were you looking for me?” he simply asks them. “Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know that I would be here, in my Father’s house?”

Jesus, you see, is never really lost, in the sense that he doesn’t know where he is. Jesus never gets himself lost, not here at the age of twelve, nor as an adult when he’s hanging out with ordinary fishermen and tax-collectors. Jesus, to be sure, always knows exactly where he is and our mistake, in our spiritual and religious lives, is thinking that we can always find him when in reality, he has been given to do precisely the opposite: to find us.

It boils down to what the ancient Christians called “the scandal of the particular”: that a universal, all-knowing and all-powerful God who sits at the helm of the universe and all eternity would somehow unite himself with a particular individual and with all the baggage that accompanies that. Just as it may be difficult for us to imagine Jesus as an adolescent, at that stage where they still need the hugs and authority of human parents but can’t always admit it, it is difficult for the world to understand that God has identified himself with this particular, first-century Jewish individual. It is a stumbling block for quite a few that the divine and eternal would choose to tangle itself up with the human and the mortal. As a result, the world will offer up dozens upon dozens of tantalizing option for encountering God never considering that God would stoop this low to encounter us.
And yet, that is what God is doing in Jesus of Nazareth. That is what God is doing in this precocious boy from a small border town. That is precisely what God is doing in the temple with this kid named Jesus.

So, if search we must—and we will certainly feel that urge—let us not do it half-heartedly. One early church theologian, commenting on this passage, said that “the search for Jesus must be neither careless nor indifferent, for those who seek in this manner will never find him” (Origen of Alexandria, On Luke's Gospel 18, 2-4: GCS 9, 112-113). Let us do it with great anxiety, as if our whole life depended on it, as if our hopes and dreams of what is to be was linked to being found in his embrace.

But let us do it in places where we know he frequents. Where might you suggest we start? In the manger? Well, I think we’ve got that one down pat. In the temple of worship, with God’s people? In the words of a Scripture that is ancient, yet somehow also new? In a frugal meal of bread and wine? What about the cross? Could we find him there, seeking us out in death? Seeking us out to forgive? And then, after three long days…when we’ve grown weary with our anxiety, weary with the trials of life, what about looking for him, at long last…in the…tomb?

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

image: "The Dispute in the Temple" Simon Bening, 1525-30

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Third Sunday of Advent [Year C] - December 13, 2009 (Luke 3:7-18 and Philippians 4:4-7)

Getting ready for Christmas makes a house feel like a home. That’s what I’ve learned over these first weeks of Advent. Pull out a stocking or two, string up some garland, and—presto-change-o!—the place is yours.

As many of you may know, my family moved to our new house in Glen Allen just before Halloween. Once the trucks dropped off our stuff, we began frantically moving and arranging furniture and unpacking boxes and storing away household items so that we could be ready to host our families at Thanksgiving. Things had been coming together nicely, but it really didn’t start to feel like “home” until we took out those boxes labeled “Christmas decorations” that we had packed away in Pittsburgh last year and began strewing their contents all over our house. And it was funny: almost instantly, we felt more settled. When, in the midst of it all, we decided the house needed still a little more Christmas—“right that very minute”—we simply made a quick trip out to Target or Home Depot for more lights or an extra extension cord…I mean, a green extension cord…I mean, a longer green extension cord…a longer green extension cord for outside use.

Decorating. Many would say it is an indispensable part of this Advent season. We don’t just decorate our homes, but our churches, our places of work, our classrooms, even our cars. I had a friend in high school who used to wire a living wreath to the grill of her car. Whatever it is, it seems we can’t properly experience the holiday without it. That is the essence of John the Baptist’s preaching this morning, but it’s not decorating he’s talking about. His message is repentance, and it appears we can’t properly experience Jesus’ arrival without it. It is indispensable.

Repentance is, simply put, a change of direction. Derived from the two Greek words for “change” and “mind,” repentance implies a turning around, a shifting in mindset. John’s appearance in the wilderness is not simply another sign that Jesus is right around the corner, like a another figure we add to the nativity scene as the big day approaches. Rather, John comes preaching a specific message that teaches us how to receive the Lord. When Jesus comes, it appears that things will shake up a bit. Jesus’ kingdom will kind of turn things as we know them upside down, make the world look somewhat different, and John’s message of repentance, if heeded, will involve changing some things about ourselves so we are aligned with that new world.

In order to make his point, John goes a little overboard on the imagery, if you ask me. He’s got an ax and some trees, stones, a winnowing fork, water, fire—a big hodge-podge of rather intimidating farm tools, all employed with John’s trademark fire-and-brimstone gusto. A winnowing fork was this broom-shaped tool that a thresher used in order to separate the grain of wheat from the chaff, those bits and pieces of the plant that could not be eaten. The winnowing fork would toss the wheat into the air, and the grain would fall to the ground, while the chaff would get caught by the wind and blow away. If collected, chaff made great tinder.

Whether it’s that image or the ax at the root of the tree that works better for you, John’s point is still the same: Jesus’ arrival and his reign among us herald a change. We stand to be prepared for this change, not in a way that suggests Jesus will only love us if we repent, but in such a way that our lives comes to reflect the magnificent turnaround Jesus is going to bring. In other words, it’s time to get out the decorations and make this place look like his home.

And what for decorations? What is this garland and stockings with which we deck the halls once we’ve heard the good news that he is on his way? The crowds actually ask John this, point-blank. His response is, “Take your extra coats, clothes, food, and give them to those who have none.” At least try to even things out a bit. Let loose of greed and gluttony. And there’s even better news for those who, up until now, thought they were all but excluded from the kingdom: tax-collectors and soldiers, corrupt and prone to collude and cohabitate with the occupying military power. As it turns out, Jesus’ arms will be open for them, too. This is a gracious kingdom, where even sinners will have a place.

So, instead of unpacking our Christmas boxes and stringing lights around our homes, a more appropriate way to embody repentance would involve handing over our extra boxes to those in need. Getting ready for the gift of Christ and stoking the holiday spirit might not, after all, entail a quick trip to Target for more tinsel, but rather making an extra stop in the Target parking lot to drop some more change in the bell-ringer’s red bowl.

In light of that, consider the amount of “decorating” that has gone on at Epiphany over the last couple of weeks. Cots are set up for our CARITAS guests in the fellowship hall where they will receive shelter for a week. The sign-up sheets for the duties have filled up rather quickly. Shopping lists have also been made—checked twice—for the giving tree in the Commons, which will dispense gifts to those in our area in need. Over the past few weeks, the women’s circles of the congregation have collected household items for St. Joseph’s Villa. And one of our members has asked for pairs of old shoes to send to a young man down in the South side named Juma Semakula.

Juma has a dream to fill up an entire cargo container of old shoes to send to his native Uganda where millions of poverty-stricken children and adults go shoeless. He got the idea after coming to live in America and occasionally seeing old shoes tossed out in peoples’ trash cans. Thinking that any shoes are better than no shoes for those with bare feet, Juma decided to send as many as he can back to his homeland. He estimates it will take 30,000 shoes to fill up one. Our congregation alone donated just around 200 to his cause. That’s as if everyone at this service gave one pair of shoes to folks half a world away. “Bear fruit worthy of repentance,” John says, and I suppose he would have considered a cargo container full of shoes to be one of those fruits. Maybe he would have considered all of our Advent decorating for what it is: outwards signs of an internal mind-shift that takes place in us, a realization that when Jesus comes to reside here, a holy change takes place. The lame walk, the blind see, and all sinners come to have a place at the table.

But it’s very important to realize that we show forth these signs of repentance chiefly not out of a sense of fear, although John’s frightening farm implements might arouse that emotion in us. The winnowing fork and the ax at the tree may serve their purpose, but I take to heart the words of Paul and the prophet Zephaniah this morning, too. Ultimately, you see, we begin embodying this change of the kingdom, we undertake the words and actions that prepare this place for Jesus out of a sense of joy.

We are joyful for the hope he brings. We are joyful because he comes and makes room in his kingdom for even for us. God is not obligated to do so, but he chooses to have us there. That is the point about these stones in John’s sermon. If God wanted, God could make his kingdom out of the stones on the ground, raising them up, instead of us, to be his children. Rocks could take our place! It could be a rock standing here wearing the fancy Egyptian Advent stole! Yet God, in spite of our hard-headedness, in spite of our stubbornness against bearing fruit, still opens the kingdom to us, still hands us his body and blood, still dies on the cross to release us from sin. And this, my friends, is a joyful thing.

I remember a conversation I had with a close friend a few years ago about his conversion to Christianity. He was a fellow worker with me in a refugee relief program, and I had come to know him as a very thoughtful and committed person of faith, but apparently he had not always been so. He had grown up in a home that did not adhere to a particular faith. He would probably have categorized his religion as “agnostic,” but, he said, his family had never really given much thought to church or religious matters, especially after the tragic death of his father when he was young. One day I finally got the courage to ask him what it was—or what combination of things it was—that caused him to accept the Lord Christ. Why he had changed his own mind about what he believed? Had someone sat him down and explained the story of Jesus? Had he been intellectually convinced of the truth-claims of our faith? Had he, like Paul, “seen the light” in some dramatic, life-changing fashion? His answer was none of those. He said that during his years at the university, he had come to know a group of Christians who met together to worship and pray on campus. As he observed them, he came to realize they had joy in their lives. He said to me, quite plainly, “I wanted that. I wanted that joy in my life, and I eventually came to the conclusion that Jesus was ground in which their joy was rooted.”

Yes, Jesus is near. In fact, he is making the rounds here this morning…at the table, in the words of Scripture, in the forgiveness proclaimed embodied. So, spread the joy. Haul out the holly, especially in Juma’s fashion, 30,000-shoes-strong. Haul out the holly…in CARITAS-style. Instead of exchanging fruitcakes, how about exchanging fruits of repentance? And, as you decorate in the manner of John the Baptist, hear the words “Given for you,” and—Lord have mercy—be ready for a turnaround. Presto-changeo, the place will be his!

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.