Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Sermon For December 30, 2012

The Audacious Savior
Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he said to them. Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor. Luke 2:41- 52
A child is lost. Even though the child is divine, the parents, Mary and Joseph, must have some typical parental reactions. First comes panic. “My boy must be scared to death wandering around all by himself, lost and hungry and cold in the big city. Or maybe our fears have come true. Maybe he's been kidnapped. Maybe he's been hurt . . . or worse.”

Then comes anger. “Why did he do this to us? Didn't he know how worried we would be? Didn't he realize how much trouble he would cause us, making us turn around and go back to look for him. Just wait till I get my hands on that kid.” Maybe you’ve heard a parent utter an angry threat about a child who is a lot let Jesus-ey than Jesus – something like, “If he’s not crying when we find him, then I’ll give him something to cry about.” Or the modern parent who says, “I'm going to make it clear to him in no uncertain terms that his behavior was very inappropriate and that he's old enough to make more responsible choices.”

Then comes the guilt. “Why didn't we take better care of him? How could we have left without checking to be sure that he was with his uncle and aunt? If he's hurt, it's really our own fault.”

It’s been the same with parents from time immemorial. Can’t you feel these parent’s emotions as they journey back to Jerusalem to find their lost son: sheer panic, seething anger, gut-wrenching guilt? They arrive in Jerusalem and the search begins. For three long days they look for him. They ask strangers on the street: "Have you seen a gentle and mild, blue-eyed, waspish-looking boy with dirty blond hair, dressed in a shiny white robe with a halo over his head?" They check all the first century fast food places and toy stores -- everywhere a twelve-year-old boy might hang out. Then finally they see him, in a house of worship, of all places. First they breathe a sigh of relief. He's safe! Then the anger comes back full force.  He's just sitting there among the teachers and elders, listening and asking questions. “Where have you been, young man” the mother scolds. The parents don’t know what to do with the sharp, simple answer they get from Jesus: "Why were you looking for me? Didn't you know that I have to be about my Father's business?"  The conversation breaks off abruptly. Awkward!

Bible expositors tell us that the interpretation of the story goes like this: As a child growing up at home, Jesus honored and obeyed his father and mother. But now that he’s 12 years old, life changes. Jesus has just been through his bar mitzvah. He outgrows his childhood and his identity as the son of Mary and Joseph, and is growing into his destiny as the Son of God. Now he has to choose between his responsibility to his earthly parents and his responsibility to his heavenly Father. And given that choice, he must forget his parents, no matter how much anguish it causes them, to serve God. Eventually, he submits to his parents and goes home. It may difficult for him to submit to those who aren't as intelligent, or as spiritually aware. They can be so annoying. But it is also necessary for Jesus to listen to his parents even if he is the Son of God. The call is there, but it is not yet time to fulfill it. He must wait, learn, grow, and prepare himself for that time when he will enter into his ministry.

I am uncomfortable with this idea of Jesus rejecting his earthly family’s values in order to fulfill what God wants – that somehow Jesus has to break the 5th commandment and dishonor one set of parents in order to make another parent figure happy. Is this really what is happening -- Jesus is being loyal to his family, but not until after having established that his true allegiance is to God, which supersedes even the love given to his family?

What if Jesus, in his own way, was being true to Mary and Joseph? Instead of rejecting them and their values, what if Jesus is honoring them by fulfilling what he has learned up to this point? And what about the parents, here? They are trying to fulfill God’s aims, too. What if being about God’s business isn’t about panic, anger, and guilt? What if, for Mary and Joseph, being about God’s business is raising a child with that balance of righteous insolence and holy reverence; respect and audacity – even if the kid is the Son of God.

I don’t know what it’s like to be like Jesus. But I know something about parenting. And this text has me asking, what might it mean for caretakers and children, for families of all kinds, to believe that we must be about God’s business? It might mean that caretakers and teachers would teach children, and children would learn from their caretaker and teachers, that God is not just the God me and my family, but the God of all other families too; a God who loves and cares for the people outside our little family circle as much as for the insiders’ a God who wants the welfare and happiness of others just as much as ours. It might mean making it the business of our families to respect the value and dignity of every human life—including, of course, the value and dignity of each of us in our particular family, but also the value and dignity of the life of all other people as well: people like us and people different from us, people of our own race and social class and religion and people of other races and classes and religions, people who are the friends and people who are the enemies of "our people" and our nation. It would mean respecting and defending and protecting the value and dignity of all human life.

And, following in the steps of twelve-year-old Jesus, it might mean that we ourselves find that middle way between respect righteous insolence and holy reverence – that WE show some spiritual audacity. As a parent, the episode of a na├»ve and lost child makes me writhe in cathartic agony. But as someone who likes Jesus quite a bit, I think the boy has a lot of pluck. As he matures, he shows some boldness. Some fearlessness. Some courage. He’s not afraid to confront misunderstanding. He’s willing to take the lessons he learned from his home and put them into action. It’s all good. Considering all he will go through, he will need all of that.

I put a quote by Dr. Mitzi Smith in the bulletin. She writes, “Sometimes I have put my feet up, when I should have ‘put my foot down’; I've said ‘yes’ when I should have said ‘no’ and said ‘no’ when I should have said ‘yes.’ Good news: It is never too late to change! For me, that’s the lesson of this text, for those who are teachers and those who are still learning.

I think it’s a lesson we celebrate as we honor the 150th anniversary of the singing of the Emancipation Proclamation. The Proclamation was, in the words of Frederick Douglass, "the first step on the part of the nation in its departure from the thralldom of the ages." The five-page document declared that slaves in the rebel states were free, provided them with the support of the U.S. government, declared that freed slaves should be paid a wage, urged freed slaves to abstain from violence except in self-defense, and publically declared that all suitable freed men would be accepted into the armed services to fight in the war. However, many argued that the proclamation didn’t actually free any slaves or destroy the institution of slavery itself—it still only applied to states in active rebellion, not to the slave-holding border states or to rebel areas already under Union control. In reality, it simply freed Union army officers from returning runaway slaves to their owners. The power of the Emancipation Proclamation was how Lincoln used it to reframe the narrative of the Civil War. Instead of being about state’s rights and union, with one document, Lincoln turned it into a war to end slavery. The Proclamation was a “yes,” after many, including Lincoln himself, had said, “no” so many times before. The proclamation was an act of audacity – a chance to practice righteous insolence and holy reverence.

When the Emancipation Proclamation turned 100 years old, African American writer James Baldwin lamented freedom’s celebration.  Writing amidst the upheavals of the civil rights revolution, Baldwin gazed upon the racial landscape of early-1960s America and saw a sobering and ongoing nightmare. Baldwin wrote, “You know, and I know that the country is celebrating one hundred years of freedom one hundred years too soon.”

It’s difficult to hear Baldwin’s words today and not feel uncomfortable and embarrassed about our own narratives of progress. A half century later and 150 years further still from Emancipation, solutions to racism’s historical legacies and contemporary currency continue to elude us. Particulars have changed, but less so than many of us would like to believe. Social and economic marginalization of millions of poor Black urbanites in many places is as bad—or worse—than ever. Urban joblessness and underemployment is pervasive.  Assaults on voting rights fall disproportionately on the poor, especially the Black and Brown poor. The list goes on and on.

At the same time, some people deny we even have a racial problem in American society. I hear people say we’ve moved “beyond race,” and that we live in a “post-racial” nation. Sometimes I hear people say that those who are truly enlightened no longer “see” race. After all, the argument goes, ours is a society without formal barriers to access, a place where anyone with a brain and a work ethic can make their way. We have a Black president to prove it -- an accomplishment that marks our collective maturity on issues of race.

We need to be careful. The idea of a post-racial nation is an exaggerated narrative of social progress. Racism’s historical legacies and contemporary impacts continue to shape our culture, economy, and society in profound ways. The deep wounds that racism cuts in our social fabric bleed heavy.

What might happen if we take the lead of the boy Jesus from our text today? What might happen if we ask the right questions and listen with reverence? What might happen if we had the audacity to defy cultural expectation and look for the presence of God the places society has deemed as the least likely places to experience the sacred – especially when it comes to racism? As a congregation, we need to keep thinking, talking, and doing something about racism because it touches us all and because we are far from a solution.

I received a small book called The Peace Book by Louise Diamond a few weeks ago. She says that diversity – and the tensions and prejudices that go along with it, can enrich us or destroy us. And there are some moves we can take to continue to be aware.

First, we notice our prejudices. We become aware of how our assumptions feed negative stereotyping and replace those thoughts with more positive, respectful beliefs.

We also need to be sensitive to the legacy of hurt. Sometimes, those in the dominant culture don’t understand why others need to talk about their histories of pain. We need to be aware of the fact that pain makes people vulnerable to signs of disrespect. If we can we aware of the legacy of pain, in ourselves and in others, we can reduce the risk of hurting others.

Diamond suggests that we practice curiosity.  Find someone who is different from you. Learn about that person’s culture and history. Ask about holidays, foods, and customs. Discover areas of commonality.

And learn about your own identity. Sometimes we forget that to others, we are the ones who are different. What aspects of your identity might you share with others to widen their perspectives?

I will add something to Louise Diamond’s list. It’s time for some courage when it comes to fulfilling God’s aims for the world. It’s time to put the compassionate wisdom we have learned from our elders into practice. Parents and grandparents, teach your children. Adult mentors, lead those who are growing into maturity. Church, teach the community and show the world that individual justice, freedom, happiness, success and security cannot be separated from justice, freedom, happiness, success and security of all people.

We refuse to gloss over history but see the pain and hear the suffering of others. We build a world where our stories and languages and cultures are valued, where our wounds are healed by deliberate listening. We strive to know and respect our differences and make possible the highest expectations for humanity. We do the work of liberating ourselves from hatred – beginning in the modest places of our longing souls and always reaching out – with our words, our actions, our prayers, our love and our hands – to all souls – to all souls. This is how we can be made whole again. This is how the world can be made whole again and all her people one.

And to those who are looking for Jesus in all this, the Audacious Savior answers with another question: “Why were you searching for me? I am doing God’s business. If you want to see me, then look for the presence of God and go there. If you want to find me, then go where God is going and do what God is doing.” We know where Jesus has gone. The question is, what do we do once we find him?

“James Baldwin’s America and the Paradox of Race” By Simon Balto, December 3, 2012, http://www.progressive.org/james-baldwin-america-paradox-of-race
Guthrie, Shirley C., Jr., "Jesus' Family and Ours," Journal for Preachers, 1987.
Louise Diamond. The Peace Book. Bristol, VT: The Peace Company, 2001. 45-56.

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