Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Nurturing Divinity (sermon)

This is the sermon I preached at University Church Chicago on Jan. 10, 2016. 

First,  I’d like to get a quick poll in the audience.  How many of you are familiar with this story of Preteen Jesus? This is the only story in all of the Gospels in which we see Jesus between infancy and adulthood.  How often do we really think about the fact that the Savior of Humanity was once a teenager?  And this is the only story in which we get a glimpse of how Jesus became the Messiah. 

Luke 2:41-52
41 Each year his parents went to Jerusalem for the Passover Festival. 42 When he was 12 years old, they went up to Jerusalem according to their custom. 43 After the festival was over, they were returning home, but the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents didn’t know it. 44 Supposing that he was among their band of travelers, they journeyed on for a full day while looking for him among their family and friends. 45 When they didn’t find Jesus, they returned to Jerusalem to look for him. 46 After three days they found him in the temple. He was sitting among the teachers, listening to them and putting questions to them. 47 Everyone who heard him was amazed by his understanding and his answers. 48 When his parents saw him, they were shocked.
His mother said, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Listen! Your father and I have been worried. We’ve been looking for you!”
49 Jesus replied, “Why were y’all looking for me? Didn’t y’all know that it was necessary for me to be in my Father’s house?” 50 But they didn’t understand what he said to them.
51 Jesus went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. His mother cherished every word in her heart. 52 Jesus matured in wisdom and years, and in favor with God and with people.

This story gets at the heart of a significant theological debate, one that split the early Church.  Did Jesus display all the divine traits from birth (including omniscience—knowing everything there is to know), or did he learn?  The Alexandrine theologians focused on verse 47, “Everyone who heard him was amazed by his understanding and his answers.”  Surely this means that Jesus was teaching the teachers, revealing his divine knowledge of the Law and God’s mind!  But the Antiochenes  would argue that verse 52 negates this interpretation: “Jesus matured in wisdom,” meaning that he studied the Law and learned from the people around him. And we all remember that this debate was a hot topic at the Council of Chalcedon.  They resolved the conflict by declaring Christ to be fully human and fully God.  This story reveals that Jesus’ two natures didn’t exist in opposition to one another.  Jesus was born into and matured into his ministry.  Jesus is and always was God incarnate, but that divinity needed to be completed by human experience.

The author of Luke tells this story of Preteen Jesus to give us a glimpse of his journey to become the Messiah.  And what comes through for me is the importance of the Temple.  We are told that every year, Mary and Joseph took their family to Jerusalem for the Passover Festival—to the Temple.  Now the Temple was more than just a destination, it was the center of Jewish life during those festival days.  It was at the Temple that the entire community came together to pray, fast, learn, celebrate, and reconnect.  Although there may have been local congregations back home, it was at the Temple that ordinary Jewish people could dive into the Torah, when children interacted with Jewish scholars and rabbis. Perhaps that’s why Jesus’s parents made the long trek to Jerusalem each year for Passover, to ensure that he had the opportunity to learn from and engage with his faith community. Mary and Joseph began taking Jesus to the Temple when he was just a baby.  In the preceding story, Simeon and Anna, two elders of the community, saw that the hand of destiny was upon the baby Jesus.  It is in the Temple that Jesus is first perceived as being special. 

I want to take a moment to channel the spirits of Simeon and Anna.  I want to tell y’all what I see when I look at the children of University Church.  We’ve got some amazing kids, each called to something great.  Every Sunday, Hank* comes to the front to play the tambourine and sing his heart out. We can always count on Lucas to make a joyful noise unto the Lord.  Last summer, Maggie* and Christie* marched with us in the Pride Parade, and they were by far the most energetic and ecstatic of our group.  I wish we had video of Maggie* running back and forth, rainbow ribbons streaming behind her, high-fiving the onlookers, caught up in and spreading the joy of affirming her LGBTQ brothers and sisters. Just a couple of weeks ago, we had a youth lock-in, and this church was packed with adolescents.  Around three o’clock in the morning, I saw that Jack* had found a younger kid who had been alone for a while and Jack* started playing cornhole with him.  To see that kindness and patience—at three o’ clock in the morning—was just the boost I needed to get through those last five hours.  We have been blessed to hear Cathey's* poetry and Allie's* voice. We have been privileged to accept communion from Brian* and to get big bear hugs from Anna*.  Do we adults realize how lucky we are to have these amazing kids at University Church?  Do our kids know how awesome they are?  They are living breathing testaments to the divine potential granted to each one of us at birth.  It is something to behold.

Now back to Luke and what the author want us to know about Preteen Jesus in the Temple.  This year, the year Jesus visits the Temple at twelve, is special. Otherwise it wouldn’t have made it into the Gospel.  This year, Preteen Jesus decides to willfully disobey his parents and stay behind in Jerusalem. Something was happening within him, probably the same thing that happened to all of us at that age: Jesus was beginning to explore who he was.  Maybe he was beginning to feel the stir of his divinity, the call of his vocation.  Maybe he was experiencing that special type of doubt and curiosity that marks adolescence.  Preteen Jesus wasn’t satisfied with the lessons he learned that year in Passover Bible School and wanted to know more.  He had questions.  He had doubts.  And he knew that in the Temple, he might not find answers, but he would find guidance.  Jesus thirsts for guidance so much that he risks his parents’ censure to stay behind. And so he ducked his traveling party and sought out the elders and the teachers.

I want to give special props to the elders in this story.  Passover had just ended; you know that they were tired.  But these teachers did not wave Jesus away, did not direct him to the children’s area, didn’t say, “good question, maybe we’ll talk about that next year.”  They sat with him.  They listened to him.  They let him ask questions, let him challenge their understanding of the Law.  Even though the Passover festivities were over, even though all of the special kids’ activities and lessons were finished, those teachers stuck around to answer the questions of this twelve-year old boy.  For three days.  Jesus’s divine nature had not yet been revealed; those teachers weren’t making a special exception for the Messiah—they would have done the same for any adolescent.  To guide and nurture the younger generation is a divine responsibility, one that the Temple elders took seriously.  And what they found when they conversed with this boy, well, it was something to behold.

“He was sitting among the teachers, listening to them and putting questions to them. Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers.”

And the teachers gained just as much insight as Jesus did in these discussions; they too matured in wisdom.  Anyone who has ever taught children’s Sunday school can relate to these elders, having truth revealed by unlikely messengers.  Just a few months ago, I was leading one of the Bible Studies we had here on Tuesdays, and I was blessed to spend the evening with little James*.  We talked about the first creation story; we got a big sheet of butcher paper, a box of crayons, and we drew the seven days of creation. In coloring with James, I rediscovered the wonder of it all; Creation is awesome—in the literal sense of the word.  We couldn’t fit it all onto the sheet of paper, we couldn’t even keep it in the order of the story!  At the end of the lesson, when I was reiterating that God created all things good, James hit me with a question that I still can’t answer: “then why did God create bad people?” And just like that, I was reminded that for all of my seminary training, I still have a lot of learning to do.  That wisdom and challenge came from a 5-year-old.  God’s revelation comes to the young as well as the old; we need the younger generations to show us what experience and years often obstruct. 

Luke reminds us that these interactions are important for all of us, adults and children. It was through these conversations, this support of his questioning and learning, that the Temple elders helped Jesus “mature in wisdom.” Their guidance, patience, and knowledge helped shape Jesus’ understanding of the Torah and the limits of human interpretation of God’s Law.  I believe that this is what Jesus was referring to when Mary came back to fetch him.  “Didn’t you know that it was necessary for me to be in my Father’s house?” Didn’t you know that this is where I will learn how to be the Messiah?  And, like Mary, we can always find Jesus at the Temple at Passover, he returns year after year.  Following this pattern he “matures in wisdom.”  Sometimes to learn, sometimes to teach, sometimes to turn tables.  He returned up to his very last days.  Jesus loved the Temple and the community he had there, loved it so much that he came back to transform it.

I can never sufficiently thank the congregation that raised me back in Texas; they made me who I am.  Even though it was a new church plant, Grace Presbyterian of Round Rock always made sure that there was youth and children’s programming.  Sometimes it was the church intern, sometimes it was volunteers from the congregation, but someone convened youth group every week.  Someone ensured that there was a space for us to ask questions, to fellowship with other people our age, to learn about our religious traditions and texts.  Every year, the adults in the congregation pulled together a mission trip to Mexico so that we could learn about the importance of living out our faith through service.  All the kids knew that when something big happened in our lives—when we got a part in the school play, when we got into college, when we got our first jobs—we had better announce it in church because the adults were waiting to congratulate us.  We knew when we were going through a difficult time in school, when we were having trouble at home, when we were in the depths of that teenaged angst, we could find support and love in our congregation.  And while my most transformative experiences happened after I left Texas, the foundation of my faith and my identity was laid at that church. 

My greatest hope for this congregation is that we can continue the legacy of the Temple for our University Church kids.  How many of you were here for the last Sunday of Advent, when our children sung “Do you Hear what I Hear” and danced the benediction?  It was really something to behold.  We have so many children here, of all ages.  We have been entrusted with them, we are charged to be for them what the Temple was for Jesus.  And it is an exciting time to be a young person at University Church.  This year the Guatemala delegation plans to take youth from our church down to Saqja’; I am so excited for them to learn about what it means to be in faithful partnership.  I see the growing friendships in children’s church and I get choked up.  I flashback to my own youth group, which got me through the best and the worst of middle and high school; I desperately want that experience for these kids.

My greatest fear is that we will repeat the mistakes of so many churches and faith communities by siloing off and devaluing children and youth ministry.  I was a millennial in seminary for the past four years, so I have heard the handwringing of the capital-C Church about decline in membership, the “loss” of younger members when they leave home.  And I can tell you that it’s not because my generation has lost faith in God, it’s because they’ve lost faith in the capital-C church.  I have heard countless peers tell me that they grew up in churches, but left because the Church wasn’t open to their questions and doubts, or the only person who took an interest in them was one minister-who was paid for that work—or because they were separated from the adult congregation for every event except Easter and Christmas.  It is no longer routine practice in our churches to nurture that divinity—there are barely any classes in seminary that prepare clergy for this ministry.  We at University Church be vigilant and intentional as we continue to grow.  We must make space in the life of this church for our young people.

A lot has changed in the past 2000+ years, but as Luke reminds us, the need for a faith community in children’s lives has not.  The story of Preteen Jesus reiterates that each one of our kids is already the spitting image of the Divine, but that they still need the care of us as they mature in years and wisdom.  We must recognize and celebrate our kids’ divinity, nurture it, engage it, learn from it. Our children and youth need a community to guide and accompany them—they need a Temple.  It’s up to us to decide whether or not to be that Temple.  We have the privilege and the charge of walking with our young people as they explore their identities and discern God’s call on each of their lives.  It’s a divine responsibility.    

*all names of children in the congregation have been changed

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