It is truly embarrassing how long it has been since I last posted anything. In my defense I was finishing up papers in my never ending process of Ordination in the UMC.
I wanted to share my sermon from this past Sunday because it was surprisingly life giving to write, and therefore hopefully surprisingly life giving to read/hear.
As we enter this new year, let us let go of what has been weighing us down, and embrace what brings us life.
Sermon 12/30/18 Luke 2:42-51 and Colossians 3:12-17
For those of you who do not know me well enough yet, there is something you should know about me… I love school. Well maybe not high school, but college more specifically. I love the idea of a place devoted to the task of learning… learning that requires humility, questioning, critical thinking, the willingness to admit we don’t know everything, and the willingness to see the world through someone else’s eyes. My dream vacation would be to visit as many colleges as possible, and just sit in on classes, learn, and pretend like I went there. But enough about me… I tell you this because it should give you some measure of how much I love this week’s scripture, and because today we get to see Jesus in that exact same place… learning, questioning, thinking critically, and beginning to see the world through the eyes of Jewish law…
What is interesting is that this is the only place in the Gospels that we get to see Jesus as an adolescent. The other gospels skip these “lost years” and jump to his baptism and ministry. Why is that? Now, there are many theories as to why, but they are all speculation… so instead I wanted to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. We see Jesus as a baby… a sweet, innocent child… and then as an adult… a wise, calm, patient, justice seeking man… and the link I began to see here is that these are depictions of a man who is pretty easy to love. With his miraculous birth, and later unwavering wisdom and commitment to God, how could we not praise this idyllic behavior and praise God’s holy name? What we don’t see is God as a teenager… now I don’t know about you… but I find it sometimes pretty difficult to love teenagers… and just so I am not accused of hypocrisy, I will also admit that my sister and I were not a basket of roses during those years either. But it is because those are rough years! They are embarrassing, they are clumsy, and incredibly vulnerable years! It is a hard phase of life to love, both in others and in ourselves. But they are also necessary because they are deeply formative years. Through experiential trial and error, those years provide much much learning…they play a critical part in creating the beautiful faces I see before me today. The richness of life and of all of your stories comes from your journeys, your curiosities, your lessons learned, your lessons still being learned, and your vulnerable moments, not just from your end goals.
That is why I am so thankful for this glimpse of Jesus, sitting at the feet of his elders… it is a glimpse of his journey, his lessons learned, and a reminder of the humility of Christ. Here is God almighty… sitting at the feet of Jewish leaders, eagerly asking questions and being excited about the very faith he embodies! Did you ever stop to wonder why Jesus wasn’t just born with all of his wisdom, knowledge, patience, and mercy? I mean, if God can miraculously conceive a child through Mary, it is definitely not out of God’s reach to make that child a genius baby. Obviously there were some “genetics” at play that already made him freakishly wise and independent, but I also believe that there was some “nurture” involved too. We see it in the efforts of his parents, the presence of the Jewish leaders, and probably in friendships he made as a young boy too. All of these “nurture” moments remind us that someone can know all the facts in the world, but without humility, without remembering that they too were once students, shaped by the people around them… it can do more harm than good.
It makes me think of a professor I once had while in seminary at Duke. She had recently joined the faculty there and began to teach one of our big lecture classes. Now I was still in my first year, and was coming from a sociology background… It was like drinking from a fire-hose. I was still learning the lingo and getting used to this new world full of made up words that always made my Microsoft Word so angry whenever I wrote papers… I was sensitive to the fact that I somehow didn’t know everything everyone else knew… and in came this new professor. She always wore her Oxford robes to teach in (I am guessing so that we never forgot she went to Oxford), and if someone asked a “dumb” question (God forbid you did not know something) she would shame you in front of the entire class for not knowing! We all looked around at each other going… “does she not know that we are at a school?? Where we go to learn things? Where questions are part of the process?” Her shaming tactics made it an unsafe place to truly embrace what we were learning, and so instead we all worked from a place of fear… learning the facts so she wouldn’t call us out but simultaneously missing out on the opportunity to fall in love with the material.
So when I read this scripture… It is a beautiful reminder to me that even Jesus was a student… that God wanted to live authentically with us, so much so, that instead of imbuing Jesus with the knowledge of the universe, left some space to be a human… to wrestle, question, and grow like we all do… these experiences are crucial to remember because they show us how life-giving it is to have a safe space to ask questions, to be vulnerable with one another, especially in places of learning… but these experiences also help remind us to also have patience, forgiveness, and empathy for those around us… for we are always learning, every single one of us… and that is not shameful at all but empowering and exciting!
It is also beautifully subversive… because we live in a society of experts… sports experts, pet experts, medical experts, weather experts…. We have created Doctoral degrees so that we can proclaim to the world.. “I am an expert at what I do”… we rarely see these experts doing the work, the learning, the late nights to get there, all we see is the finished product, the plaques on the wall, and so it begins to create this feeling of shame within us, or at the very least embarrassment for not knowing certain things, for not achieving our own status of expert in life… but our God sees right through that false sense of grandeur… our God does not love us because we are experts… in fact it is the opposite, God loves us because we will always be God’s children… because we will always be lifelong learners. How else are we to keep our faith alive?! We should always be learning new things from and about our world and our faith. Through seeing Jesus here, as a twelve year old, disobeying his parents, and being so enraptured by the teachings of his Jewish faith that he spends three days in the temple?! We are reminded that our God wants us to be that in love with the world, that in love with God… because that is how in love God is with us.
In our other scripture, Colossians 3:12-17, we are shown instead what God would have us aspire to, what God would have us seek expertise in… compassion, kindness, humility, patience, love, forgiveness, harmony, and gratitude. Phew… that is a high bar… and one that I am inclined to think is even harder to obtain than a Ph.D… God knows that this goal is a bit of a moving target, so the author even includes in verse 16 “teach and admonish one another in all wisdom”… we were meant to rely on one another, to have the humility to learn from one another, not beat each other down with the knowledge we managed to obtain before them… this section of Colossians is entitled “new life in Christ” because the author is claiming that through Christ, things are being made new…it is emphasizing that while our laws and traditions are holy and important guides, our faith was never meant to become stagnant. We see this exact trajectory play out within the life of Christ, because while we see him here, learning, growing, and loving his faith… we also see him 20-ish years later in the same temple, flipping tables and driving out the people because they have stopped learning from their faith… they instead began using their faith traditions to extort money from people, and gave themselves the power to delineate who was and who was not holier than thou.
Jesus does these things later on because we had stopped learning from our faith, we had fallen out of love with God, and in love with our own sense of significance. We had lost our childlike state of being… lost our willingness to question, to sit at the feet of one another, to be vulnerable enough to grow, and our ability to be in awe of a God who seeks relationship with us.
Both of these scriptures are reminding us today that we are constantly growing out of and learning from the old, while growing into the new. And what a beautiful time to be reminded of that as we prepare to begin a new year in just a few days. So I pose this question to you: What life giving teachings have become stale for you? What has begun to feel like co-opted confinements weighing you down rather than waking you up to the beauty of this world? Where has your faith come alive? Where has the energy and excitement of this youthful Christ shown up in your life? I encourage you as we enter this new year, to take stock of what’s going on inside you and really be honest with these questions. Like Christ, let us learn to be faithful stewards of our living faith, rather than experts… let us remember what it was like to fall in love with learning, to fall in love with the teachings of Christ. Let us have the humility to acknowledge that we will always have that awkward teenager inside of us, questioning any and all authority while also believing in an idyllic world… but let us also have the humility and vulnerability to admit that we need that teenager. I never thought I’d hear myself say this… but I would like to thank all of our teenage years because they taught us how to learn, how to adapt, how to question, how to fall in love… and may we never shame that beautifully and divinely childlike part of ourselves, for that is in fact exactly who God calls us to be. Thanks be to God. Amen.