When I was about twelve years old, my family took a vacation to Canada. We were going to Prince Edward Island or Nova Scotia or somewhere and the way we got there was by taking a long ferry ride on a BIG boat that we drove our car onto. It was a stormy day and the seas were rough and everyone on the big boat was feeling a little grey and lackluster. I don’t really understand how this worked, but somehow once this ferry was far enough out in the water, it also transformed into a casino. So, let’s recap: long trip, big boat, adults distracted by seasickness, 12-year-old boy, casino.
Apparently, back then for some reason 12-year-olds weren’t allowed to gamble with adults. And a staff member directed me to the kids’ gambling section filled with a bunch of no-guts, no-glory slot machines deemed harmless enough for children. No thanks. As of that moment, the only gamble that interested me was the one where I snuck into the real casino and pulled the arm of a real slot machine. In a crowded commotion of queasy adults, I snuck past the guards and into a dark, smoky corner of slot-machine heaven – where no one would ever find me.
Apparently, back then for some reason the parents of 12-year-olds would get anxious when they couldn’t find their child anywhere on a boat in rough seas. If you’ve ever become separated from your child or from a child you were close to, I’m sure you can sympathize with how my mother was feeling at that time or with how Mary and Joseph were feeling when their slightly more wholesome 12-year-old snuck off to the Temple rather than a casino.
We have a number of stories about Jesus as an adult. We have a few about him as a fetus or a baby. But this is only story in the Bible about the boy Jesus. In the flow of Luke’s Gospel, this is a brief peek at adolescent Jesus between the narrative of his birth and the explosion of adult activity that immediately follows it. It is a brief peek at (what the author of Luke maintains was only) a momentary moment of Jesus’ childhood rebelliousness – a rebelliousness that also becomes a window through which we get a glimpse of the child Jesus’ extraordinary destiny.
But even though this is a story about the young Jesus and even as it foreshadows the powerful ministry ahead him, it is as much a story about his parents – a continuation of the focus on the holy family that we heard so much about on Christmas Eve. After this, Mary will only be mentioned once more in Luke’s Gospel and when she turns up, Jesus will reject her. This is the last story we have in which Joseph is mentioned at all.
When I saw my mother’s tears and my father’s scowl, I decided strategically that this was not the moment to ask for more quarters as I had planned when I snuck back out to them. My dad went off to let the captain know that I had not, in fact, fallen overboard. And my mom just held onto me and cried. Moms, right? She told me that she was afraid that a gust of wind might have blown me into the ocean, and I rolled my eyes, and still do, but I also felt for the first time that this whole growing up thing was really taking a toll on my poor mom. So, when she made me promise that I would never do anything like that again, I said OK, even though I felt myself starting to be called out from the security of my little family into that bright, neon, flashy, risky gamble called the World.
Even after living as an adult on my own for years, my mom’s maternal instincts have not disappeared. In my early thirties, she and my father came to visit me here in New York City where I was well established. After dropping my parents off at their hotel one night, mom suggested that she and my dad should walk me the three blocks back to the subway to make sure I got on OK. These instincts and this tension will always be with us.
Not just as the holy family, not just as parents, but as Christians cherishing the baby Jesus who has just been born to us again, we have similar instincts and experiences. Being among the first shepherds to kneel down at the manger, or wandering with the Wise Ones following a star and a hope, or feeling Jesus conceived and born within us anew is a profoundly powerful, emotional, and intimate experience – one which our instincts and our faith seem to say we should hold onto, guard, protect, and not ever lose sight of. It’s easy to understand how, sometimes, Jesus, The Light of the World feels like MY light; an infant light so precious and so precarious in the darkness which threatens to overcome it that I must protect it from the world. And after all, if Jesus is my personal savior, shouldn’t he stick close by? When I was saved wasn’t there a non-compete clause? Isn’t Jesus mine, all mine?
Jesus, this story continues to go, is pure and simple. The world is fallen and complicated. And so there are places that our pure and simple boy ought not to go. Reductionism is an approach to understanding everything by breaking all things down into their constituent and relevant parts and classifying those things accordingly – dinosaurs are reptiles not marsupials, all whales are mammals not fish, gravity is the relativistic curvature of the space-time continuum and not a force.
Now there’s nothing wrong with this when appropriately applied. Reductionism is an essential part of science. But it has become such a part of how we think in a world where all of us right now are being GPSed and Google mapped by our smart phones to an exact coordinate on our pews that precise Reductionism has become one of the great articles of modern belief – a belief that even the nonmaterial, nonempirical world should be readily classifiable – a belief which has reinforced some of our less mature theological tendencies to want to pin God down onto an easy-to-read, simple-to-understand periodic table. We want to be able to say with objective accuracy about Jesus or our own spiritual journey: here, but not there; this, but not that. If Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us, a Reduced Jesus inevitably becomes God with us, but not with them. This, but not that. Here, but not there.
When we reduce Jesus, we need to guard him. In the same way that we sometimes feel it would be best to surround our children with armed security officers to protect them, we feel it becomes necessary to surround Jesus with Christian soldiers ready to do battle to defend him where he is and conquer the places where we have determined that he isn’t. But the baby Jesus was not born in a fortress surrounded by legions of soldiers. He was born in a barn; he had been laid down in a feeding trough, into a perilous world, surrounded by shepherds.
When I was a kid, I learned to draw by reading comic books. So, whenever I drew people they were covered with bulging muscles and shooting death rays out of their eyes and things like that. This tendency even made its way into my religious art. My boyhood Jesus was a ripped and powerful superhero. Perhaps, it’s comforting to think of Jesus as Superman or Hercules – the kind of guy sent into the world to “clean house.” Wouldn’t it be nice if that’s what Jesus had been doing when his parents found him in the temple – kicking butt and taking names? “Do you know who I am? A small demonstration of my powers perhaps?! Look out world, here I come!” But instead of displays of power, Luke says Jesus was simply sitting there among them. Instead of stealing the show, the text says that Jesus was listening – listening and asking questions. Fear says to us, “This poor sucker doesn’t stand a chance out there.”
Jesus, Mary and Joseph have just learned, has come not to be born only into their hearts, into their family, but to be born into the whole world and to everybody. Let’s face it – it’s risky and it might be heartbreaking to be a part of a family like that. Let’s face it – we don’t like everybody! But in the Temple Jesus identifies his true parentage, and steps beyond the traditional boundaries of family into the big messy family of all of us – a whole world that Jesus has come not to conquer, but to make himself available to, to sit with, to listen to, to ask questions of, and to serve.
Beloved Broadway, one of the things that inspires me about this church is that we know that Jesus is out there in the world. And, for the most part, we’re glad he’s out there, mixing it up. We trust that Jesus is not just at work in the churches, but everywhere. And we know that Jesus is there to offer up whatever he can give – not to try to force people to be evangelicals, or Republicans, or congregationalists, or anything like that, but to offer them the love and the riddles and the story to hopefully guide them to being more generous, more peaceful, more just, more a people for others.
Jesus pops up in surprising places. Gandhi read the Gospels, encountered Jesus deeply, and rejected and criticized the Christian church because of that encounter. I recently stumbled across the poetry of Anna Margolin, considered to be the greatest Yiddish language poet of the 20th century – and there in one of her poems was Jesus the wild Jew. A dear spiritual companion of mine had a powerful vision of Jesus during a psychedelic ayahuasca ceremony. We know that Jesus is out there in the world. And, for the most part, he has our blessing. Good for you!
One of our jobs as a Christian church is to tell Jesus’ story. And closely related to this job is a second job, to live out Jesus’ story in the world today. And I think that as a historic, progressive Christian church in New York City – one of the greatest, most diverse cities in the history of the world – our mission is to seek out and live out Jesus’ story in this amazing city. In this amazing city that has so much to offer, so many opportunities, so many paths, so many stories, Broadway UCC can show the world where and how Jesus is at work in this time and place. Where is Jesus lost in New York City today? Where has he gotten himself off to? And what is he doing? How has he shown up exactly? How is his gospel making a difference?
We trust that Jesus is all mixed up in our great city, in ways that are simple and straightforward, and in ways that are mysterious and complex. But if someone new came through the door this Christmas and said, “Take me to see him! Show me the place where they have laid him!” or “Let’s go searching for him over there,” or “Maybe if we follow that star, I wonder if we’ll find him?” I wonder, I wonder if we would be ready to take them out into the world where our faith tells us that Jesus is at work. I wonder if we’ve put our energy and resources into the right places to be able to tell the story of what Jesus is doing up and down Broadway, in our city, in our time.
My Christmas and New Year’s Resolution this year is to help us to get out into the world where our faith knows that we will find Jesus at work. Let’s connect with a neighborhood association or a nonprofit organization or a movement for justice, let’s listen to them and ask questions, and then let’s offer up the resources that we have to be good neighbors and partners to them. The world needs us – it needs our time, our talent, and our treasure, sure, but more than anything, our neighbors need neighbors – people to love and rely on.
And then when the hungry world shows up at our door and says, “Where’s God in all this mess? Tell me, is Jesus real? What’s the point of all your prayers? Where’s the beef in all your beliefs?” we can say to them, “Follow us out the door, and down the way a little. We’ll show you where to find him. He’s not lost. He’s just over here.”