January 15, 2017
Church of Peace, UCC
Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield
Many Ages, One Spirit
(first in the series Many and One)
“So don’t be afraid to go back and look for Jesus. Because that’s how we’ll find him. Then who knows, maybe everything will work out…” And that is the sermon I could be preaching today if only, if only we could clip out three sticky verses from the middle of the story.
Imagine if the story went like this instead: Every year Jesus’ family goes to Jerusalem for the festival of Passover to remember the story of the exodus. Now when Jesus is twelve years old, he decides to stay behind in Jerusalem, but his family doesn’t realize he’s not with them. (They’re traveling by caravan with all their relatives and friends. There are cousins everywhere!) Surely Jesus is somewhere in the group. But after the first day, nobody has seen him. So do not be afraid to go back and look for Jesus. Except of course, that’s easy for me to say. Their child is missing.
It takes three days. If you’ve ever had a child go missing for thirty minutes and felt your world turn upside down, you can imagine how Mary and Joseph were doing after three days. This is when they find Jesus sitting in the temple, and this is when it would be perfectly lovely to just cut out the next three verses. The distraught parents find their lost child, jump to verse fifty one: Jesus went back with them to Nazareth and was obedient to them, the Bible says. Mary treasured all these things in her heart. Jesus increased in wisdom and years, and in divine and human favor. See this way, we get a happy ending. I could stand here and say, “Don’t be afraid to go back and look for Jesus; that’s how we’ll find him.” And that would be that.
Except of course, something important is missing.
After the three days of searching, there are three verses in the middle of the story. What happens is the Prince of Peace gets into a fight with his mother right in the middle of the Temple. So what kind of hope is there for the rest of us…
Friends, today we’re beginning a new sermon series on diversity and unity. So often in conversations about diversity, we hear statements that begin with phrases like “In spite of our differences” or “Even though…” Even though we are different from each other, we are one in the love of God. Even though we’re aware of our diversity, we pay more attention to what we have in common. Okay.
For the next seven weeks, I encourage us to challenge the premise that begins “In spite of…” or “Even though…” What if diversity is not something we have to put up with? What if our many differences could actually be our best gift? What if working across these differences is much harder than it seems? And much more hopeful than it seems…
One of the ways in which we’re different from each other is by age. In our twenty-first century American culture, this diversity of ages can be a problem for a couple of reasons.
For one thing, we might experience tension between generations. Now the tension itself has been going on for generations, and maybe it’s been going on forever. There’s a peppy song from the nineteen-sixty musical Bye Bye Birdie that pokes fun at the grumbly, grumpy stereotypes. It goes: “Kids! I don’t know what’s wrong with these kids today? Kids! Who can understand anything they say…Why can’t they be like we were, perfect in every way? What’s the matter with kids today?”
The song is joking, but half a century later, you can still hear the complaints. Ah, those Baby Boomers are so entitled! Ah, those Millennials are always on their phones! And look, there are meaningful differences between the generations. And there are grumbly, grumpy stereotypes. This is one reason why it is difficult to live in community with people of all different ages.
Another reason is that in our society, some age groups experience more privilege than others. Research suggests it is increasingly difficult to be between the ages of fifty and sixty-four. One reason might be that folks in this age group are often pressed between caring for children and grandchildren and caring for aging parents at the same time.
I would argue that in our society, it is especially difficult to be an older adult. Very old people are excluded from society’s (false) image of “normal.” They experience significant changes in their bodies. Older people think about death a lot.
In our society, it is especially difficult to be a teenager. Tweens and teens are excluded from society’s (false) image of “normal.” They experience significant changes in their bodies. And of course, adolescents and teenagers think about death a lot.
It’s no wonder we find comfort in sticking with our own age group. No wonder we’d prefer to avoid the conflict between generations. It would be so easy to give in to the tendency to stick with the people who share the same memories and the same outlook. The problem in doing this is, something important is missing.
Something important happens when we get to know someone who is from a different generation, when we turn around, and go back and find each other, even when doing this, is what makes for a fight.
In our Gospel story this morning, after three days of searching, Mary and Joseph find their twelve-year-old learning and teaching in the temple. The Bible says, “All who heard him where amazed at his understanding… When his parents saw him, they were astonished.” Because can you even imagine…
So Mary starts in: “Child why have you treated us like this?! Your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety!” That’s when our Lord and Savior answers back: “Why were you searching for me? Didn’t you know that I would be in my Father’s house?” Because you see Mary’s son is not just smart. He’s a smart…mouth.
And oh you guys, Jesus’ mom just doesn’t get it. There is such a sadness in verse fifty: “But his parents did not understand what he said to them…” You can hear it ringing in the air. With a sigh too deep for words, Jesus goes back with them. As though there is something important in the going back. There’s something in the fighting with each other that turns into fighting for each other. But first we’ve got to go back.
The good news is this going back for each other is something we learn here. One of our greatest gifts, as a church, is the opportunity to actually get to know someone who’s from a different generation. A lot of us spend a lot of our lives surrounded by people in our own age group or people in our own families. Church is different. The real question is not, “Do you have a lot of young people in your church?” It’s “Does your church have a lot of people who truly care for young people?” And you know we have that here!
Of course the truth is, it is difficult to build meaningful relationships across generations. It’s one thing to know someone’s name, but to really strike up a friendship with a fourteen year old, or a forty-four year old, or an eighty-four year old, that can be a struggle. If you ever tried this you know it comes with a cost. I can promise you, it also comes with extraordinary gain.
Look, I know it is difficult for older people to come to church. There is a real cost. It’s not easy to get up so early and find transportation to get here. Then there’s the getting into the building, the new and strange language in the hymns, the sitting for an hour, the wrestling with questions of your faith. The gain is connecting with other people. It’s remembering the people who have gone before, seeing your friends, getting to know younger people and learning the love of Christ in each other.
Of course, it is difficult for teenagers to come to church. There’s a real cost. It is not easy to get up so early and find transportation to get here. Then there’s the finding a place to sit, the old, strange language in the hymns, the sitting for an hour, the wrestling with questions of your faith. The gain is connecting with other people. Coming to church is an act of kindness for your grandparents and a chance to get to know older people and learn the love of Christ in each other.
When we get to know actual people who are older than us and actual people who are younger, then we don’t have to be afraid of the fight between generations. Because of course we’ll bump into those places where we don’t understand each other. Of course we’ll hear ourselves say “You just don’t get it!” and we’ll be right. When we really get to know each other, the risk is not that we might fight, it’s that we’ll have to go back. Because this time it’s not just that some kid has gone missing. It’s that he could’ve been my son.
See the kingdom of God is not divided into age groups; the way in is together.
Jesus went back with his parents even when they didn’t understand what he was saying. This didn’t ruin ministry for him. Twenty years later, people were bringing babies, and wobblers, and toddlers to Jesus so he could bless them. The disciples tried to send them away, but Jesus said to the disciples, “Hey! Let them come unto me…” as though somewhere along the line there were adults who listened to Jesus when he was a child, as though Jesus’ parents went back for him and welcomed him home even while they were fighting.
So do not be afraid to go back and look for Jesus. Because that’s how we’ll find him, that’s how we’ll find each other. You can believe, whatever your age, we will go back for you. May it be so. Amen.