Sunday, December 30, 2012

Sermon: "Jesus: The Early Years"

Rev. Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church Of Amherst
December 30, 2012
Luke 2:41-52

“Jesus: The Early Years”

It’s every parent’s nightmare.
You and your family have traveled a long distance to a far away and bustling metropolis, and being small town people in a big, big city you’ve spent the entire trip with your eyes locked on each other and never straying more than an arms distance away. On the busy city streets and when exiting crowded theaters and shopping areas you clutch your children’s hands tightly, weaving your way through the crowds single file or in a huddled group, making sure no one gets pulled away by the constantly changing current of strangers moving all around you.

And then it happens…. you let your guard down, just for a second, or someone lets their hand slip or has their attention diverted by some curiosity or attraction….and suddenly one of you is gone.

In that worst case scenario that every parent experiences at some point in their life - in shopping malls, grocery stores, and amusement parks – you experience that gut wrenching feeling of dread in the moment that you realize that your child is no longer in sight.

You begin a frantic search of your immediate surroundings, hoping to find him or her hiding behind a clothing rack or wandering down the candy aisle or standing amongst other children crowded around a man selling balloons.

But as your search area widens and still your child is no where to be seen your mind begins to assume the worst – playing out scenarios of a possible child abduction, or at best picturing your crying child wandering around frightened and hopelessly lost, as you spend many heart wrenching minutes or hours searching for them and anticipating their return to your waiting arms.

It’s amazing how quickly the panic sets in, in that moment that you realize that your child is gone.
It’s amazing how strongly your heart can leap in your chest when you look at the spot where they last were and it registers that they’re no longer there.
Even if the very next second you catch sight of them standing only a few feet away or just behind you, you can’t help but let out a sigh of relief because thankfully, the loss you felt in that moment was only temporary.

Even if we’ve never experienced that moment as a parent, many of us may vividly remember a time when we were lost or strayed too far from our parents as a child.

That’s the moment that Luke captures for us in his gospel story this morning.
That feeling of dread, that breathless moment of experienced loss and fear that catches in our throat, and is ultimately followed by a sense of overwhelming relief when the one who was lost is found.

This scenario played out a little differently for Mary and Joseph.
According to Luke’s gospel, they were on their way home after the Passover celebration and had traveled a full day away from Jerusalem before they realized that the 12-year-old Jesus was no longer with them.

Now if you were traveling with say 28 teenagers in three passenger vans, it’s understandable how you might miscount and mistakenly leave one behind. Just ask our youth group advisors about our trip to New Orleans.

But Mary and Joseph had only one child, or possibly 3 or 4 if we accept that Jesus had brothers and sisters, which is still a reasonable number to keep track of, and yet it was a full day before Mary and Joseph noticed that their adolescent son was missing.

Which is actually not that unusual given the context. They were traveling in a large group of family and friends, most likely with the woman walking separately from the men. Mary probably assumed that Joseph had Jesus, and Joseph probably assumed that he was with Mary.
It was only when they came together at some point and sought him out amongst their family and friends that they realized that no one had seen him since they left Jerusalem.

We can imagine what that walk back to Jerusalem must have been like for these frantic parents.
It was a full day’s walk, and they may have done it all on their own, unless their family and friends chose to backtrack with them. 
And as much as we like to revere the holy family as being saint like and beyond reproach, there was undoubtedly some anger and blame being tossed around on that long walk back, as with each passing hour mother and father alike grew even more worried and fearful of what could happen to a 12-year-old boy left to fend for himself in a big city like Jerusalem.

Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph searched for Jesus with great anxiety, for three days, before they finally found him.
And they found him in the safest place that he could be. Sitting in the Temple amongst the rabbis and teachers, listening to them speak and asking them questions, as any 12-year-old boy preparing for his Bar Mitzvah might do. 

When Mary caught sight of her son she didn’t glide up to him with her halo aglow and bless him for taking his first steps towards fulfilling his destiny as Emmanuel – God with Us.
Instead she did what any mother would do after searching for her lost son for three days - She yelled at him.
Especially after she found him safe and sound and seemingly oblivious to all the trouble and worry that he had caused.

“How could you worry us like this?” She said. “Your father and I have been searching for you with great anxiety…how could you treat us with such disrespect?”
Jesus responded of course with wisdom beyond his years….or with sarcasm, depending on how you read it.
“Why were you searching for me?” he said, “Did you not know that I would be in my father’s house?”

In other words, why didn’t his parents just assume that he would be in the Temple – in God’s house?
Had they forgotten that their son was destined for greatness?
Did they forget about the angels who announced his birth and appeared above the manger in Bethlehem singing Glory to God in the Highest?
Did they forget that God was Jesus’ father, not Joseph?

Well, apparently they did.

If we step outside the story for a moment and look at it in the context of Luke’s gospel, we realize that Mary and Joseph are not behaving like parents who know that their son is THE Son of God.
Some scholars wonder if Luke stumbled across this story of Jesus as a 12-year-old and chose to include it in his Gospel as a transitional story, as a link between Jesus’ birth and adulthood, without giving thought to the fact that it seems to clash with the nativity story, which presents Mary and Joseph as being fully aware of the Divine nature of their son.

Here Mary and Joseph behave not like the parents of God incarnate, but instead like any parent with a lost child might behave.
They fear for his safety, they have no idea where he could have gone, they don’t trust that he has the power and the ability to look after himself.

But even if Mary and Joseph remember the fanfare that surrounded their son’s birth, perhaps they have seen no hint of his being different or special since that day.
Maybe Jesus grew up as any child did, with skinned knees and a fear of monsters under the bed.
Maybe he didn’t ace every test in school or change his lunch time water into wine - or chocolate milk - as might be expected given his adulthood powers.

Maybe he was just like every other little boy, albeit with a more curious disposition and a keener interest in scripture than other boys his age.
The truth is we don’t know what Jesus was like as a child.
Although it may interest you to know that we do have some ancient stories in our Christian tradition that speculate at just that.
We have four gospels in our New Testament – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – but as some of you may know there are other gospels that were written about Jesus that didn’t make it into our Bible, for various reasons. Some were written too long after Jesus death to be considered accurate, others contained theological inaccuracies as decided by the 4th century Council of bishops who assembled our Bible, and others were thought to be too fantastical or too speculative.
One such gospel is The Infancy Gospel of Thomas, which dates to the second century, and includes stories of Jesus as a young boy.

The gospel writer here wondered how the miraculous powers that Jesus possessed might be expressed in the hands of an immature 5-year-old child.

If any of you have ever seen the Twilight Zone Episode where a young boy discovers that he has special powers to heal or harm at will but he does not yet have the judgment to control those powers, then you know where this is going.

The Infancy Gospel of Thomas portrays Jesus as a precocious five-year-old who gets into all sorts of mischief.
He creates toy sparrows out of clay and brings them to life so he can watch them fly away….on the Sabbath, much to the chagrin of the Temple elders.

In school, he refuses to recite the alphabet when asked to do so by his teachers.
He tells them that they lack a true understanding of the meaning of the alpha and the omega as it pertains to God, and he calls them hypocrites and fools.
I wonder how many hours of detention he got for that.

And in one tragic yet humorous episode, Jesus and another young boy are playing on a rooftop when the other boy falls to his death.
The boy’s parents accuse Jesus of pushing the boy off the roof, as Jesus had been known to strike his playmates down in anger over the slightest transgression. But here Jesus professes his innocence and then proceeds to bring the other boy back to life so the boy can tell his parents himself that Jesus did not cause his death.
Maybe now we understand why the Council of bishops chose not to include this gospel in the Christian canon.

Given that we have only one wildly speculative account of Jesus childhood in this later gospel, and only one biblical portrayal of Jesus as a 12-year-old in the gospel Luke, we could say that Jesus just didn’t do much as a child to draw attention to himself.
It was his ministry as an adult that made him stand out and caused people to take notice…and in those three short years, he changed the world.

What this story in Luke’s gospel tells us about Jesus, is that while he may have been born into greatness, under the blessing of a heavenly angel, he didn’t assume that greatness right away.
He grew into it.
Luke ends his story of the 12-year-old boy Messiah by saying, “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.”

As Jesus grew older, he grew wiser and he grew in his understanding of God and his understanding of his fellow man.
And he took baby steps, and child steps, and adolescent steps to get there, just as we all do.
Even the Son of God had to sit at the feet of his teachers and his parents and his peers to learn what it means to be a good person and a Godly person in this world.

And even the Son of God can worry his parents when he wanders too far from their loving reach.

One of our greatest fears when we lose sight of our children is not just that they will come to some harm, but we fear that we’ve seriously failed them as a parent.
We failed to protect them from harm. We failed to keep them under our constant watch and care. We let them wander off and allowed them to find trouble or allowed trouble to find them.

Mary and Joseph discovered that right around the age of twelve, their son was destined to wander off and take his first steps towards finding his own way in the world. He was beginning to assert his own identity and name who it is that God had called him to be…and their role as his parents was to give him enough space to allow him to do just that.
As much as they wanted to clutch him tightly and never let him out of their sight, he was as much a child of God’s as he was a child of theirs, and there would come a day when they would need to let him go, and give him space to grow.

Now, we all aren’t born into this world like Jesus was, beneath a chorus of heavenly angels, but God has chosen, named, and called each and every one of us to be a blessed child of God.
We may not project the image of Godliness that Jesus did in his lifetime or walk perfectly in his footsteps, but we’re called to devote our lives to walking in the way of God as best as we can.

And that can be a scary thing to do…which is why throughout our lives we assume the roles of both parent and child.
Sometimes clinging to the parts of ourselves that we can’t bear to let go of or let out of our sight, and sometimes wandering off down unfamiliar streets all on our own, trusting that God as our father and mother will come find us if we wander too far astray.

Like Jesus, we’re all searching for greater wisdom, of God and each other, and we’ll find that God’s house and the community we find there are the bearers of that wisdom.

And like Mary and Joseph, we’re all searching for Jesus, and we’ll find him right here too, in God’s house, in God’s community, and in the lost and found pieces of our own gentle hearts.


Sunday, December 16, 2012

Sermon: "This Little Light of Mine"

Rev. Maureen Frescott
The Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
December 16, 2012

John 1:1-18; Isaiah 12:2-6; Phil 4:4-7

“This Little Light of Mine”

In the beautiful Black Hills of South Dakota there’s a natural attraction known as Jewel Cave, which contains 160 miles of underground caverns.
For the benefit of the many tourists that flock there every year, there are guided tours that carefully navigate the forty flights of stairs that descend deep within the cave.  
There are lights that hang on the walls of the cave to ensure that no one loses their footing on the way down, but at various times during the descent the tour stops and the lights are turned out, leaving the group in complete darkness. Not even a shadow or the outline of the person standing in front of you can be seen. This is done to demonstrate how dark it actually is inside an underground cavern, but it also serves as a reminder that without light, even a tiny pinpoint of light, our eyes will never adjust to the darkness.
We could be down in that cave for five minutes, five hours, or five years and never see our hand in front of our face.
But all it takes is the smallest amount of light to allow our eyes to adjust and to eventually be able to see once again.

The season of Advent marks the time that we spend waiting for the light to return to the world.
We await the visible light that comes with the Winter Solstice on December 21st, as the days begin to grow longer and the time we spend in darkness grows shorter.
And we await the spiritual light that we welcome into the world on Christmas day, the day we celebrate the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

But while we celebrate this time of waiting for the light to return every year, in reality the light of Jesus is always with us. We may dim the lights during Advent, but the light is still there – in the light of the Advent candles, and in the light of God that we carry within us.
 So it may be hard for us to imagine what life would be like in the absence of that light.  To feel the disorienting fear of standing in an underground cave in absolute darkness, trying desperately to see our hand in front of our face.

I suspect that many of us came here this morning hoping to find some sliver of light to penetrate the darkness that has descended upon us over the last several days.
Many, if not all of us, are still reeling from the traumatic event that took place on Friday morning, when a 20-year-old man walked into an elementary school in Newtown Connecticut and murdered 26 people, including 20 children, all of whom were first graders, aged 6 and 7 years-old.

There is no part of this that makes any sense.
There is no motive or rational reason why anyone would commit such a violent and heart breaking crime.

But in the coming days as the media and the behavioral experts pull this young man’s life apart, looking for clues as to what may have caused such darkness to emerge from within him, and as we continue to hear the stories of the heroic acts of teachers and administrators and children who saved the lives of others by sacrificing their own, we’re still left with this numbing, and gnawing pain inside of us that screams out for an answer to the question, “Why?”

Why are 26 families faced with the horrific task of burying their children and their loved ones - at this joyous time of year or at any time of year?

Why would anyone come to believe that their pain, their anger, or their fear provides them with a justifiable reason to take the life of another, let alone the lives of 20 innocent children?

Why wasn’t more done beforehand to prevent this from happening, and why aren’t we doing more to prevent this from happening again?

We demand answers to these questions but we also know that these questions are not easily answered or cannot be answered at all.
In the same way that we scream out to God in times of pain and loss demanding to know why God allowed this to happen, we throw these anguished questions out into the air and watch them dissipate without receiving a satisfying response.

As human beings we know all to well what it is to grieve, to feel awash in waves of sadness, anger, frustration, and disbelief.

Whether we’re grieving the senseless murders of the children, teachers, and staff members in Newtown; or a personal loss caused by the death of a loved one; or the loss of life that our world suffers every day through the forces of violence, poverty, disease, and oppression,
we all have those times in our lives when we feel like we’re standing in a cave with all the lights turned out, and we’re desperate to find something, anything, that will help us find our way out of the darkness.

It may seem ironic that on this third Sunday of Advent, we light the candle of joy.
It may not sit right with us that the lectionary texts for this Sunday from Isaiah and Paul tell us to “Shout aloud and sing for joy” and “Rejoice in the Lord always” regardless of the sorrows that befall us.

It may leave a bad taste in our mouth in the same way that watching the evening news with its detailed stories of death and destruction leaves us questioning our faith in humanity and in God, and then we change the channel and some earnest television preacher tells us not to worry, that all will be well if we just smile in the face of hardship and hand our troubles over to the Lord.

This “let go and give it up to God” style of faith works for some but not for all.
In the midst of our pain we may feel pressured to prematurely search for reasons to be joyful because we believe it’s what God calls us to do.
But where can we find space for our pain and our suffering if not in the presence of God?

The prophet Isaiah tells us to “Shout aloud and sing for joy” but it may surprise us to know that when he spoke these words, he wasn’t speaking in a time when the Israelites were basking in the glow of the Promised Land.
In fact, he spoke the words in a time of national humiliation.
The people of Israel had been carried off into exile.
Their homeland was gone and their Temple — the visible sign of God’s presence and blessing — had been destroyed.
And it’s probably safe to say that when the Babylonians invaded Isaiah’s homeland, property was plundered, homes and businesses were burned to the ground, and many people were killed, including innocent children.    Yet in the midst of all this pain and suffering Isaiah was singing out with joy.

In a similar way, Paul urged the people of Philippi to set aside their worries and to rejoice in the Lord regardless of the trouble they found themselves in.
And like Isaiah, Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians in the midst of very trying circumstances.
Paul was arrested and imprisoned on four separate occasions during his missionary travels, serving a total of seven years in jail, the last of which ended with his execution. Paul wrote his hopeful letter to the Philippians while he was incarcerated.

We can just imagine him sitting on the cold dirt floor of a dark, underground prison cell, chained at the ankles, his back pressed against the rough stone walls, scratching out his words of encouragement on small scraps of papyrus, and using the slim shaft of sunlight that filtered through the bars of a window high above, as his only source of light, and his only source of warmth, at least for a few hours during the day.
But it was when the sunlight moved on, during the hours of dusk and darkness, that Paul turned to his true source of illumination and warmth - the love of God, and the light that God sent into the world in the form of Jesus Christ.

Both Paul and Isaiah experienced tremendous loss and grief in their lives, yet they both had the audacity to speak not only of rejoicing, but also of living in any circumstance with confident hope in a loving and gracious God - a God who is always present even in the midst of the pain, suffering, and tragedy that is part of our human experience.

Rejoicing over the fact that God is present with us in our pain does not mean we are to negate or push aside the very real and deep human emotions we feel in the face of grief, rather the joy we find in God’s presence is meant to be the sliver of light that penetrates our darkness.

It’s not about flicking a switch and moving from sadness into joy, from darkness into daylight. Instead its about finding hope in that sliver of light, finding comfort in its presence, and having faith that it will grow in brightness as our brokenness begins to heal and our pain begins to lessen.

There is no time limit on how long it should take us to begin to outwardly express joy after experiencing a loss, just as there is no right way to grieve.

One thing that we learn about each other in the wake of traumatic events is that we all process these events and our grief differently.
Some of us are prayers and prone to contemplation and we find comfort in coming together in reflective silence and prayer.
Others are doers and activists who find comfort in lifting up the root causes of a tragedy and proposing solutions to prevent it from happening again.
Some of us cry in sorrow. Some of us shout in anger. Some us just feel numb.
Most of us do and feel all three at some point.
Healing comes in finding a space for all the ways in which we grieve, and allowing others to do the same.

Regardless of how we grieve, we never walk through our pain alone.
John’s gospel tells us that God’s light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will NOT overcome it.
There is no circumstance we might find ourselves in, and there is nothing that can happen to us that will leave us standing completely in the dark.
Even in the darkest of tragedies there is always a pinpoint of light for us to focus on, just enough to allow our eyes to adjust to the dark and find our way out.

In the wake of the horrific shootings in Newtown, one of the most shared inspirational quotes on social media sites on Friday was not from the Bible or from a well-known spiritual leader.  It was a quote from children’s television host Mr. Rogers. In response to the question of how to explain traumatic events to children, Fred Rogers said the following:

When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.' To this day, especially in times of 'disaster,' I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers - so many caring people in this world.

One of the less talked about byproducts of well-publicized violent crimes is that these crimes raise the level of fear in our already fearful society, and this can warp our perception of the world and cause us to feel like there is more evil around us than good.
We should not minimize these extreme acts of violence when they occur, but there is so much joy and good in this world that often gets overlooked.

On Friday, the actions of one person took 27 lives and sent thousands of others spiraling into overwhelming grief and sadness. But out of that sadness hundreds of police officers, EMS workers, grief counselors, pastors, teachers, and parents stepped forward to help. Hundreds of thousands more have come forward to show their support in solidarity and in prayer. 

Look for the helpers.
Perhaps that's where we find the Joy in this third week of Advent.
Not in the pain, but in the response to the pain.

The light of God flows through us and illuminates the dark corners of our world.

In two weeks time we will celebrate the birth of Jesus, the physical manifestation of God’s light who serves as a beacon and a model for us all.
Our voices will lift up in song, and joy will flow from our hearts,  as we welcome Emmanuel, God with us, who comes to us in the smallest and most vulnerable form possible - in the squealing cry of a newborn baby.

In the meantime, may we continue to find solace in the season of Advent.
As we cling to each other in the darkness, offering hugs and prayers to those who need them, continuing to work for justice, and lighting candles to bring joy, peace, hope, and love, into a world that is in need of them all.

God’s light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it.
Let us rejoice in the Lord, always.


 Art by Jeremy Collins - Little Red Guy Drawings
"Dear Parents At Sandy Hook"