Astonished and Amazed

I have gotten in trouble for a sermon once. 

When I say ‘in trouble’, I don’t mean that someone had a question or wanted to have a conversation about something that they disagreed with. 

When I say ‘in trouble’, I mean that I was pulled aside after the service and given a lecture about how what I preached was dangerous and wrong. 

I have gotten in trouble for a sermon once. And it was a children’s sermon.

Now, what I had said to the kids was that you don’t need permission to do good. You don’t need permission to love someone, or be kind to someone, or to stand up for someone.

And what this particular parent heard was, “You don’t ever need permission to do anything… you can do whatever your want.”

I don’t have any children of my own, but I can understand how that might not be a message that you want your child to hear. Sometimes, it’s important to get permission. And, when it comes to children and their parents, it’s important to be clear about what sorts of things need a parent’s permission and what sorts of things don’t.

So… I stand by the message of that children’s sermon. You do not need permission to do good. You do need permission to do other things. And one of the things that you probably should get permission for is staying in Jerusalem after the Passover festival when your parents are heading home.

Let me back up a little bit.

In today’s reading from Luke, Jesus is twelve years old.

We don’t get many stories about Jesus as a child. The gospels tend to jump from the nativity story—if they have one at all—straight to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry when he’s around thirty years old. 

That’s a big chunk of time to skip. And there are countless theories about what Jesus was doing during that time. There are people who think that he was a carpenter with his dad. There are people who think that he traveled to India to learn the wisdom of Eastern sages. There are people who think any number of other things.

But when it comes to the stories that we have in the Bible, this is the one that we hear about Jesus being a kid.

Every year, his family would go from their home in Nazareth to the temple in Jerusalem for the Passover festival. According to ancient sources, there would have been a huge number of people—millions of Jews—from all over the area in Jerusalem for the Passover. They would made their sacrifices at the temple, celebrate for about a week, and then head home.

And this year, like every other year, when Passover ended, Mary and Joseph joined up with the other travelers heading in the direction of Nazareth and started their journey home. And they assumed that the twelve-year-old Jesus was somewhere in the group.

And, after about a day, they realized that Jesus was… not so much in the group.

So they went back to Jerusalem and looked for him. And, after three days, they found him at the temple… listening to teachers and scholars, and asking questions, and answering their questions. And everyone was amazed at his understanding and his answers.

Everyone was amazed at his understanding and his answers.

It is easy to believe that, in this moment, with Jesus surrounded by teachers and scholars, questioning and answering with the best of them… it is easy to believe that, in this moment, Jesus is special.

And of course Jesus is special. He is the Word become flesh. He is the Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one being with the Father, through whom all things were made. Of course he is special.

But he is also not the only young person to sit around a group of adults and amaze them. I know that because I have met the young people in this church: the kids who come forward during our Time with Young Worshippers, the young people in our confirmation class, and youth who were part of our Christmas program. 

Week in and week out, I am blessed to see our young people do amazing things.

And it isn’t just our young people.

It’s Malala Yousafzai, who was blogging about her life in Taliban-occupied Pakistan for the BBC; who was shot for her activism; and who went on to found a nonprofit organization, write a book, win a Nobel Peace Prize, and become a tireless advocate for the right to education.

It’s the kids from Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school in Parkland, Florida, who endured unimaginable tragedy. And who responded to that tragedy by organizing rallies, giving interviews to magazines, appearing on television, and becoming tireless advocates for better gun control. And who have done that while making sure to include voices from other, less privileged, communities.

It’s Sophie Cruz, an eight year old American citizen whose parents are undocumented. And who has passed notes to the Pope, spoken to President Obama, and given speeches at rallies in support of Deferred Action for Parents of Americans.

And, so many years ago, it’s Ruby Bridges, being escorted to William Frantz Elementary School by U.S. Marshalls. The first black student at an all-white school in New Orleans.

And it’s so many others. I won’t even try to list names. While people my age (and older) are complaining about the kids being on their phones all the time, and constantly playing Fortnite, and listening to Dear Even Hansen all the time; actual young people—ordinary young people—are changing the world.

Young people are in the temple… listening to teachers and scholars… asking and answering questions… and being amazing.

When Mary and Joseph find Jesus at the temple, they are astonished. And Mary says to Jesus, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.”

And Jesus answers her, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

Jesus is no baby meek and mild. He is a soon-to-be-teenager.

“Where did you think I would be?” he asks, “What did you think I would be doing?”

And he’s right. Almost thirteen years earlier an angel had visited Mary and said to her,

You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.

She knew what kind of son she would be raising. Where did she think he would be? What did she think he would be doing?

Every young person who has tried to change the world has been asked that question: why are you treating us like this? Why are you adding to our anxiety? 

And some have faced much worse. Malala was shot. I’ve read the things that have been written about the kids from Parkland. People threatened to kill Ruby Bridges… to her face… every day… while she walked to that elementary school in New Orleans.

“Why are you treating us like this?” people ask, “Why are you adding to our anxiety?”

And we know the answer. If we raise our youth up right…

If we teach the the lessons that the author of Colossians asks us all to learn. Be clothed with compassion and kindness and humility and meekness and patience. Be clothed with love. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly. Teach and admonish with all wisdom. Sing with gratitude.

Let the peace and word of Jesus Christ, son of the Most High, who was once a twelve year old, at the temple, amazing the teachers and scholars, live in you.

If we raise our youth up right… what else do we think they would be doing than making the world a place of greater compassion and mercy and justice and love? If we raise our youth up right… where else do we think they would be than on the front lines of the issues that will affect them for the rest of their lives?

What else would be expect them to do… than be Christ-like?

When Mary and Joseph found Jesus at the temple, they were astonished.

And—the scripture goes on—after Jesus answered them, they did not understand what he said to them.

And—the scripture goes on—after they took him by the hand, and they all went home to Nazareth together, Mary treasured all these things in her heart.

There are going to be times when our youth ask permission for the things they should ask permission for. And there are going to be times when they don’t. And there are going to be times when we think they should have asked permission, but when they really shouldn’t have had to.

There are going to be times when we can give wisdom to our youth. And there are going to be times when those of us who are a little bit older need to clothe ourselves in compassion and kindness and humility and meekness and patience… and listen to the wisdom of our youth. They are, after all, learning much more than we’ll ever know.

And we will have the chance to be amazed at their understanding and their answers; to watch them grow in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor; and and to treasure all of these things in our hearts.

We’ll have the chance to let a child lead the way. Hallelujah. Amen.

It’s Been a Hard Week

This sermon was delivered at First Congregational United Church of Christ in DeWitt, Iowa, on February 25, 2018. The scriptures for this sermon are Genesis 17:1-7 and Mark 8:31-38.

It’s been a hard week.

As many of you know, my dad hasn’t been doing well. He’d had dementia for a long time. He’s been in a memory care unit for years. He had a Transient Ischemic Attack — which is king of like a stroke but not a stroke — a few weeks ago.

And, earlier this week, he passed away.

There’s a line from a song that’s been going through my head for a while. I think the song is about a breakup, but the artist is clever, so it might be about something else. The line goes: I saw this coming, but still I am caught by surprise.

It’s been a hard week. You’re not seeing me at my best.

At the same time that my dad took a turn for the worse, I was supposed to be starting a new job as your pastor. I was so excited to come to my new office and meet with Pam and go to a council meeting and start getting to know all of you. I’ve been looking forward to this for what feels like ages. And I know that life here has continued while I’ve been gone.

It’s been a hard week.

In today’s gospel reading, it’s a hard moment.

Jesus has been preaching and teaching in the Galilean countryside. Just a moment ago, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” Then he asked them, “Who do you say that I am?” And they answered him, “The Messiah.”

And that declaration — that “You’re the Messiah” — matters. Peter has a very clear and very common idea about who the Messiah is and who the Messiah is supposed to be. The Messiah is supposed to be a great king. The Messiah is supposed to liberate Israel from foreign rule. The Messiah is supposed to restore Israel to greatness.

And so, when Jesus starts saying that he must suffer, and be rejected, and be killed, and rise again, Peter is angry. That’s not the way things are supposed to go.

And Peter takes Jesus aside and begins to tell him… something. We don’t know what he said, but it must have been something like, “It’s not supposed to be this way. You’re wrong.”

And Jesus explodes: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

And he calls the crowd over — like everyone needs to hear just how wrong Peter just was — and gives them the bad news.

Anyone who wants to follow Jesus has to pick up their cross and follow him… to suffering, to rejection, to death. Do you want to save your life? You will lose it. Are you willing to lose your life for Christ and the gospel? You will save it.

It’s a hard passage. It’s a hard message. And it’s been a hard week.

But the hardest thing about this week hasn’t been my dad. And it hasn’t been missing out on a first week that I was looking forward to.

It’s been this: I knew that I would be preaching from this pulpit, across the street from a high school. And lurking in the background — in the back of my mind with that song lyric — is the fact that a week and a half ago a young man walked into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida and reminded all of us that we are dust, and to dust we will return.

This wasn’t the first school shooting.

Marysville Pilchuck High School was four years ago. Santa Monica College was five years ago. Sandy Hook Elementary School was six years ago. Northern Illinois University was ten years ago. Virginia Tech was eleven years ago. And since I’ve skipped so many already, I’ll skip so many more and end with this: Columbine High School was almost twenty years ago and it wasn’t the first school shooting.

And, of course, there have been so many more that haven’t been in schools.

For most of my life, the question has not been if this will happen again, but when and where. We see it coming, and still we are caught by surprise.

And, I’ll be honest, I am a little afraid. I’m afraid that there will be a day when I have to call the pastor at Newtown Congregational Church right near Sandy Hook Elementary School, and ask how I am supposed to do my job — how I am supposed to be a pastor, how I am supposed to comfort a community, how I am supposed to preach the gospel — in the aftermath of a tragedy like that.

It’s been a hard week.

But we knew that coming in, didn’t we?

Jesus told us that, while Christian life may have joy and gladness, it is not a life of comfort. We have to take up our crosses…

…for the sake fo Christ and the gospel.

…for the sake of the widow and the orphan and the alien.

…for the sake of the hungry and the thirsty and the stranger.

…for the sake of the naked and the sick and the imprisoned.

…for the sake of everyone who cries out for justice.

We have to take up our crosses. We can do that with joy and gladness. But we do that knowing that we are risking suffering and rejection and even death.

But here’s the thing. The cross isn’t the end. Even in Lent, the cross isn’t the end.

When Abram as ninety-nine years old, God came to him and told him that he would be exceedingly fruitful. A nation would come from him. Kings would come from him. And he would be called Abraham, ancestor of a multitude. And he was ninety-nine years old.

And Abraham laughed.

It must have seemed so unlikely. It must have seemed so impossible. How could Abraham, who was ninety-nine, and Sarah, who was ninety, have a child? How could they be the ancestors of a multitude?

But it happened. Old age is not the end. The cross is not the end.

Abraham had to have faith that God’s promise to give him a people would be realized. Peter had to have faith that Jesus’s promise that he would rise would be realized. And we have to have faith that God’s promise to us will be realized.

I don’t know what the world of that promise — what a world of justice and mercy and abundant life — will look like. But I know that world will only come about if we take up our crosses, in faith that suffering and rejection and death are not the end of the story, and work on making that world here and now.

A world where we have had the last school shooting will only come if we take up our crosses and support the leadership of the young people who are working for change.

A world where we have had the last mass shooting will only come if we take up our crosses and have hard conversations about the place of guns in our society.

And that might be uncomfortable. That might be hard.

But we knew that coming in, didn’t we?

It’s been a hard week. It’s been a hard week for me. It’s been a hard week for some of you. It’s been a hard week for the students, faculty, and staff of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. And it’s been a hard week for a community in Florida that lost too many of its children on Ash Wednesday.

And no matter how hard it is, on the other side of suffering and rejection and death is new life. On the other side of Lent and Maundy Thursday and Good Friday is resurrection.

No matter how hard it is, on the other side of suffering and rejection and death is new life. On the other side of Lent and Maundy Thursday and Good Friday is resurrection. Click To Tweet

But to put that another way… on this side of new life is plenty of discomfort. On this side of resurrection are hard times. And the only way to get from here to there is to pick of my cross and follow Jesus.

My thoughts and prayers are with the people of Parkland, Florida, and everyone who suffers from violence. I’m going to think about what to do. I’m going to pray for the courage to do it. I’m going to pick up my cross. And I’m going to do my best to live for the Lord. Amen.

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