Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Sermon: "They Grow So Fast"

Scripture Intro - Luke 2:41-52

A few days ago, on Christmas Eve, we heard stories about Jesus’ birth.
Next Sunday we will celebrate the Epiphany and the arrival of the Wise Men from the east. Yet on this first Sunday after Christmas, the lectionary gives us a story about Jesus as a twelve-year-old adolescent.
Boy, are those wise men in for a surprise.

Luke is the only gospel writer to include a story about Jesus’ childhood.
He uses it as way of transitioning between his long narrative about Jesus’ birth and the story which marks the beginning of Jesus’ ministry as an adult – Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist. Luke included this story of Jesus at the age of 12 possibly because he knew his readers would be curious to know what happened in Jesus life in between these two monumental events. Perhaps Luke wished to show us that Jesus, like all of us, experienced a transitional stage in his life; that he didn’t just wake up one day as a fully formed agent of God.  That he too, needed time to grow into the person that God had called him to be.

Here is the story from the Gospel of Luke. Listen now for the Word of God:

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. 

Rev. Maureen R. Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
December 27, 2015 – First Sunday of Christmas
Luke 2:41-52

“They Grow So Fast”

In many Christian traditions, including the Catholic tradition in which I was raised, the first Sunday after Christmas is known as the Feast of the Holy Family. 
This is the day where Mary, Joseph, and their brand new baby, Jesus, are lifted up and celebrated as the model human family – coming together to live a loving and faithful life before God.

We have Mary, who despite being young and poor and unmarried showed incredible courage and said “Yes” to giving birth to the son of God.
We have Joseph, who did the righteous and honorable thing by marrying Mary instead of shunning her, and protecting and caring for her all the way to Bethlehem.
And we have Jesus, the Holy Child, the son of God, who was born perfect and sinless and destined to save the world.

That’s a model family that we all can aspire to emulate, isn’t it?
Easy peasy.

The reality is, despite our best efforts and our desire to have the perfect family, we all can’t help but fall way short of the mark.
And the one time of year that those shortcomings can become most evident is when families come together to celebrate Christmas.

On Christmas Eve we may put on our Sunday best and head off to church with visions of our family gathering around the Christmas ham the next day, opening presents and sharing laughter and joy.
But outside of Hallmark cards and holiday movies, there aren’t many family Christmases that end up that way.
Inevitably, something or someone fails to live up to the ideal that we carry in our heads.
A gift fails to arrive in time, the Christmas ham comes out too salty or too dry, and the kids (and adults) are over tired, over excited, over fed, and prone to meltdowns.

I remember my own mother trying so hard to make Christmas live up to everyone's expectations.
This is even more difficult to do when you have ten children.
But every year, she’d cart us all off to midnight Mass, and listen to us gripe about itchy dresses and choking neck ties.
She put up with 4-year-olds who got up way too early on Christmas morning, and 14-year-olds who refused to get up before noon.
She endured the inevitable fights over who got bigger or better presents and the tears that flowed when the one thing someone had asked for or HAD to have was not under the tree. 
And every year, we’d sit down at the table to a Christmas dinner that my mom had spent days planning for and preparing…..and half way through the meal she’d scream, jump up, run to the kitchen and return with a plate of smoking dinner rolls that had been burned as black as hockey pucks.
Every year.  

The Holy Family is held up as the ideal family – for good reason.
Not for their holiness, but for their humanness.
Because despite our tendency to depict Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus wearing halos above their heads – in icons, stained glass windows, and in the image we have of them in our minds – in many ways they were human just like us.

The gospel reading we heard today is evidence of that. 

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

For a Passover pilgrimage, this was not unusual.
They were likely traveling in a large group of family and friends, 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 - perhaps at a town along the way - that they realized that no one had seen Jesus 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 journey, 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 walk,
as 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 the Messiah.
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 with wisdom beyond his years….or with sarcasm, depending on how you read it.
He said, “Why were you searching for me?
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 who their son was?
Had they forgotten about the angels who announced his birth singing Glory to God in the Highest?

Well, apparently they had.

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, and they don’t trust that he has the power or the ability to look after himself.

But even if Mary and Joseph did remember the fanfare that surrounded their son’s birth, perhaps to them he was all too human in every other way.

Maybe Jesus grew up as any child did, with skinned knees and a fear of monsters under the bed.
Maybe he slammed doors and threw temper tantrums over meaningless things as children are prone to do.

My sister-in-law has seven children under the age of 12.
Earlier this week she wrote on Facebook: "Child number 5 is throwing a tantrum this morning. Because it’s Tuesday and she doesn’t like Tuesdays."

Another friend posted a picture of her toddler crying and lying spread eagle on the floor. She commented, “He ate an entire package of mini muffins and then got upset because someone had eaten all the mini muffins.”

The truth is we don’t know what Jesus was like as a child.
And we don’t know what Mary and Joseph were like as parents apart from this one story when Jesus was 12 and a few others that took place just after he was born.

But it’s likely that this Holy Family – this human family - was far from perfect.
Especially when placed in the context of their larger family.  
Like many of us Jesus had uncles and aunts, and cousins and siblings.
I’m sure none of them was perfect either…especially when they gathered together at the holidays.

Likely some had a tendency to drink too much or complain too much.
Some were too judgmental or held others to unreasonably high expectations.
Some were always poking their nose where it didn’t belong or creating drama out of thin air.
Some likely hadn’t spoken to each other in years because of some past argument, insult, or slight.

Sound like any family you might know?

Forget the “Hallmark Card” scene that others strive to recreate,
for some, the Christmas season is approached with feelings of dread,
because of all the emotions that get stirred up when families come together.

And for those who are estranged from their family, or never knew their family, or have outlived their family, celebrating a holiday that is culturally awash in images of family – right down to the Holy Family at the manger – is difficult indeed.

But maybe that’s the point.
Mary and Joseph were far from home – and far from their family - on that cold winter’s night in Bethlehem.
All they had was each other….and God.

And on that long journey back to Jerusalem, as they argued and fretted over the safety of their missing son, again, all they had was each other….and God.
But in both instances they had much more than that.

In Bethlehem they had shepherds and wise men and a generous stable owner.
And in Jerusalem they had rabbis and teachers and Temple members who kept their son safe and engaged until they arrived.

Regardless of connection by blood or by name, family can be whoever stands by us, comforts us, or comes to our aid when we’re in need.
Our work family, our church family, the friends we’ve had since school, and the people in the community we live in – can sometimes be nearer and dearer to us than our own flesh and blood.

The Holy Family is a model for the human family.
Not the perfect family, but the real family – with all its flaws, scars, and tribulations.

The Holy Family is also something to be revered in its uniqueness, and held up as something we were never meant to be.
There is only one Mary and one Joseph – one mother and father who nurtured and cared for the incarnate God.

And there is only one Jesus – one prophet, teacher, messiah, who dedicated his life, and gave his life, to the belief that this world is God’s world, and that God’s love, flowing through us, is the solution to every affliction we face.

The Holy Family is a human family,
and in many ways their story is our story,
but their story is also worthy of setting up on a pedestal on this First Sunday after Christmas.

After all, it’s not every day that God is born into the world as one of us.

And just knowing that God knows what it’s like to enjoy and endure being a part of a family, should ease our concern that our family is not the perfect family.

Even Jesus got annoyed with his parents, and they got annoyed with him.
But the love they felt for one another was steadfast and unconditional.

As is God’s love for us.

Thanks be to God.


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