First Sunday after Christmas

Sermon for First Sunday after Christmas, Sunday, December 27 2015, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
1 Sam 2:18-20,26; Ps 148; Col 3:12-17; Lk 2:41-52

Years ago, my daughter saw an occupational therapist whose practice was in the basement of a church of another denomination, up in North Toronto, and I used to see their Sunday school materials on the walls when we came in. I’ve always remembered one sheet of poster paper where they had clearly done an exercise asking “What do we know about Jesus as a child?” The very first sentence under that heading, which I think could only have been devised by the teacher, read, “Always did what his parents told him.”

This stands in awkward contrast to today’s reading, the one canonical story we have from Jesus’s childhood, in which—leaping dramatically forward in time from his birth a few days ago—we see our Lord and Saviour behaving like what he evidently was at the time, a precocious and difficult twelve year old, who runs away from his family while they’re visiting the big city, hangs around on his own for three days getting into debates with the Temple authorities, and when his terrified parents finally locate him, responds, in effect, “You’re not my real dad!”

The idea of Jesus as mild and meek and obedient to his parents is embedded in a surprising number of Christmas carols and improving stories, but it really doesn’t match up with this Gospel or with anything in the other Gospels—where we don’t see stories of his youth, but we do see a relationship with his family of birth which is prickly at best, sometimes downright angry. Clearly, there was also loyalty—the church remembers that Mary was at the foot of the cross, and the brothers of Jesus seem to have played a significant part in creating the first communities which recognized the crucified and risen one as the unexpected Messiah. But the idea that Jesus was a model of familial obedience and compliance is really quite unsupportable.

Of course, there is more going on in this story than the mere event. That the boy Jesus was missing for three days is significant; clearly, Luke intends here to foreshadow the crucifixion, those later three days when he seemed lost, not only to his parents, but to life and to hope. And yet in the end, not lost at all, but in the very place of God, doing the work of God in darkness and obscurity. And it was not so much that he would be found as that he would find us, that he would come to us in our own darkness and bring us into the light of new life.

The shadow of the cross lies over this little story, and it helps us to understand what it means, helps us to understand that the this boy’s behaviour was not just the thoughtless adventurousness of a very bright twelve year old (though, if we do believe that Jesus was fully human, it may have been partly that too). It was, rather, the foreshadowing of a life that was fully given over to God, a life of such obedience to the risks and terrors of ultimate love and sacrifice that the human, social rules of obedience faded into unimportance. And that is something we need to know. Neither in this story nor at any time in his life was Jesus even slightly invested in social obedience, in doing what was appropriate or usual or convenient or generally accepted. Jesus broke rules, he violated good manners, and sometimes he hurt people’s feelings, often he scared them. But all of this is embedded in a deeper and greater obedience—the need to be doing his father’s work.

Of course, social obedience and holy obedience aren’t always in conflict, and much of the time there’s nothing absolutely wrong with social obedience. Obeying traffic laws is almost always—unless, say, you drive an ambulance or a fire engine—a very good idea. Usually, there is nothing wrong with being polite and getting along with other people, and there’s often a good deal that’s right; embedded within social codes and good manners is a basic impulse of compassion and kindness. But we must never confuse social obedience either with goodness itself, or with holy obedience. We mustn’t mistake the relative and the absolute. And when they do come into conflict, we should never be in doubt as to what we must do. We must be doing God’s work.

I think of the lunch counter sit-ins at the beginning of the civil rights movement in the American South—multiracial groups of young people simply sitting together and trying to order lunch, while mobs screamed at them and punched them and poured ketchup over their heads. They were breaking the rules, yes. They were causing disruption and inconvenience, yes. But they were doing it because they—and mostly they were Christians and inspired by the Gospel—placed themselves under the the shadow of the cross and went out to do God’s work, to say that it was wrong to divide people by the colour of their skin.

I think of my colleague Vanessa Gray, a young Anishnabe woman from Aamjiwnaang, who last week turned off a manual valve on the Line 9 pipeline, which runs through her traditional territory, and then, with two friends, chained herself to the valve to delay the process of turning it back on. She and the other two are facing charges, now, of mischief endangering life—because they were trying to protect life, the life of a community threatened by massive industrial development and environmental devastation, the life of the planet itself. Breaking the rules, breaking the law. But doing it, non-violently and responsibly, because a greater obedience demands it.

It’s interesting to watch the early church sliding back into social obedience, at least in an ambiguous way. The section of Paul’s letter to the Colossians which we heard today is filled with fascinating currents of tension, as the two kinds of obedience sometimes reinforce and sometimes counter each other, with Paul not always sure which way he’s going. In some ways, what he’s talking about here really is a radical and challenging ethic, one of service, forgiveness, the foresaking of personal claims and personal honour. In some ways, it flies in the face of the culture of his time and of our own culture, which are so often preoccupied with the preservation of our own interests, the justification of our own cases. Understanding ourselves as members of a single body, our health inseparable from the health and wellbeing of all those around us, should change everything, should make us understand that when one person is hungry we are all hungry, when one is homeless we are all homeless, when one is imprisoned none of us is free.

And yet there is also, somewhere under the surface, a whisper of, “Oh, can’t you just be nice?” And in fact Paul’s very next line, luckily enough not part of our reading for today, is the notorious sentence, “Wives, be subject to your husbands.” Behave as society asks. Yes, we know that in Christ there is neither male nor female—but, you know, don’t take this too far. Let’s not get into trouble here. Always do what your parents tell you. Watching, through the letters of Paul and others, the very early Christian communities struggle with the reinstatement of social obedience can be a strange experience. In some ways it was something they needed to do to survive; sometimes strategic accommodation is what the moment demands. But it is too often mistaken for an ultimate value.

All too often, in our history, the church has written people off as “lost,” because they violate social norms which we’ve come to confuse with the gospel, with the work of God. Gay and lesbian and transgender people were written off by pretty much the entirety of the church for many generations, and still are by some. Those who have seemed, over our history, to be troublemakers—the women who didn’t know their place and stay in it, or the tiny handful of German Christians who resisted Hitler, or Oscar Romero of El Salvador, they were all at some point rejected by the majority of the church, not recognized as members of the body, they were all considered to be lost.

And yet we know see them, not as lost at all, but as the ones who had found the place where they needed to be and stayed in it, waiting for the rest of us to come back. As Jesus was never lost, as a boy in the Temple or as a man in the tomb—never lost at all, but always busy with work of finding us, of bringing us finally home.