December 30, 2018
First Sunday of Christmas, Pastor Javen Swanson
Today’s scripture readings: Colossians 3:12-17; Luke 2:41-52
I remember one day in seminary when daily chapel included an opportunity for worshipers to anoint one another with fragrant oil. During the service we passed around seashells that held the oil, into which we dipped our thumbs to take the modest amount needed to smudge the sign of the cross on each other’s foreheads. It was a tender—and very civilized, neat, and tidy—gesture. After the service, just as the next class period was about to begin, Oby, who at that time was my classmate and fiancé, took one of the shells full of oil and, before I even knew what was happening, anointed my head the way anointing is described in the Bible; he poured a whole shellful of oil over my head. It saturated my hair and ran down my face onto my clothes. It felt like my whole body reeked of whatever spices had provided the fragrance. I was stunned—and furious. I remember snapping at him, “What are you doing? I’ll have to go to class like this!” I will never forget how his face morphed from euphoria to dejection. He intended it as a gesture of love. To this day, he remembers being overcome suddenly by a powerful urge to offer me a special blessing, to which I responded with resentfulness and disgust. The fact is, I did go to class looking and smelling ridiculous, and I was resentful and disgusted. But my anger prevented me from recognizing this “special blessing” for what it really was: an act of love and an offer of grace.
Looking back, this is just one in a whole series of episodes in my life when my own concern for decorum and respectability has hampered grace; when my desire to blend in and not to attract too much attention has thwarted a more profound experience of the divine. Maybe you can relate to that impulse to keep up appearances, to do things the way they’ve always been done or the way they’re supposed to be done, or to look the way you’re supposed to look, rather than being open to something new and following the Spirit’s lead in a different direction. Maybe you can think of times when you were captive to dutiful habits and patterns that foreclosed the possibility of unexpected encounters with the divine, or when rigid adherence to protocols snuffed out grace.
I sense this kind of tension in today’s Gospel reading. When I read this story, I am struck by the contrast between Mary and Joseph’s understandable anger and anxiety and Jesus’ single-minded focus on learning in the temple.
In this story, Jesus and his family have gone to Jerusalem for Passover. For Jews, Passover is the biggest festival of the year, like our Holy Week and Easter Sunday. At that time, it was the custom for every Jewish family in all Israel to get on the road and head toward Jerusalem. Mary and Joseph take Jesus with them each year, and they travel with friends and extended family in something like a caravan. Children play around, chasing one another through the crowds. Adults walk and talk along the road, watching over whatever children are around them. After the festival is finished in Jerusalem, they return to their homes in the same way.
But Jesus isn’t with Mary and Joseph when they get back on the road to Galilee. I’m sure he was there when they left, and they assumed he stayed with the group of travelers. But now they can’t find him anywhere. Any parent who has ever lost a child, even for a few moments in a department store, can speak to the panic that Mary and Joseph must have felt. In fear, they retrace their steps, trying to find him. They go all the way back to Jerusalem, and desperately search for Jesus everywhere. Finally, they discover him at the temple, hanging out with the rabbis and teachers there. And you can hear the hurt, confusion and anger in Mary’s question. “Why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been looking for you everywhere!” Those of you raising young teenagers might recognize the tone I hear in Jesus’ response. It’s almost like he puts the blame on them. “Why were you searching for me? Didn’t you know that I would be in my Father’s house?” These are sharp words. It turns out things weren’t always perfect in Mary and Joseph’s family either.
Of course, Jesus’s parents were right to be worried and upset. What parent would respond any differently? They have a responsibility for Jesus’ safety and they are committed to his well-being. And yet, Mary and Joseph’s very understandable anger prevents them from really seeing and understanding the amazing scene playing out in the temple. In this case, doing things the way they’re supposed to be done actually gets in the way.
I wonder how often this dynamic plays out in our own lives, that doing things the way they’re supposed to be done prevents us from seeing what God is up to. This story about the boy Jesus in the temple also makes me wonder whether children might be the ones best equipped to show the rest of us where God is at work—the ones who are least committed to the status quo, least beholden to established patterns and expectations about how things are supposed to be done. Maybe children are the ones who can help the rest of us shed our concern for decorum and respectability, and to overcome our reluctance to rock the boat.
Maybe you heard about Greta Thunberg, the 15-year-old girl in Sweden who staged a two-week protest earlier this year on the steps of the Swedish Parliament in Stockholm to demand action on climate change. Her action was especially controversial because it meant that for two weeks she was missing school. In response to critics, she said, “What am I missing? What am I going to learn in school? Facts don’t matter anymore, politicians aren’t listening to the scientists, so why should I learn?” Predictably, as any good parents would, Greta’s parents wanted her to give up the protest and go back to school. In fact, many adults condemned her actions. But one of her teachers did express his support. He said in an interview, “Greta is a troublemaker, she is not listening to adults. But we are heading full speed for a catastrophe, and in this situation the only reasonable thing is to be unreasonable.”
And then there’s 11-year-old Mari Copeny, better known as Little Miss Flint. Three years ago, when she was just eight years old, she wrote a letter to President Obama asking for a meeting with him in Washington, D.C., to discuss the water crisis happening in Flint, Michigan. The president did one better and flew to Flint to meet with her there instead. Since then, Little Miss Flint has raised over $115,000 to provide bottled drinking water to residents, who still don’t have clean tapwater. But that’s not all. She also started the Dear Flint Kids project, giving people all over the world an opportunity to write letters of encouragement to children living in Flint. She raised money to throw a huge Christmas party and provide thousands of gifts for underserved kids in her hometown, and she raised even more money to host screenings of the movie Black Panther for low-income African-American kids, so they would have an opportunity to see a movie that features superheroes who look like themselves. Mari’s mother told her early on that she would need to “work 20 times harder than most adults because [she is] a kid and adults just don’t take kids seriously,” but she was determined not to allow adults to stand in her way.
What is it that inspires children to speak up when the rest of us are silent? Maybe it’s that, as one commentator wrote, the “concerns that keep adults silent simply don’t register with children. There’s little fear of reprisal in the actions of Greta Thunberg, no difficulty speaking truth to power for Mari Copeny. There’s no need to curry favor with the crowds, no addiction to the abuse of one’s power nor temptation to take advantage of the weak, no anxiety about the radical change that would be demanded. Adults have more hesitations.”
I still think back on that day in chapel when Oby poured a shellful of fragrant oil over my head and wonder what in the world he was thinking. And yet, one of the things I appreciate most about Oby is his sense of childlike boldness; his ability to push me beyond my hesitations and beyond the boundaries I set for myself, so my eyes can be opened to new possibilities—to the ways God might be at work in surprising and even disruptive ways; to the ways God appears, even when it catches us off-guard, even when it makes us angry, to offer blessing.
David Crouch, “The Swedish 15-year-old who’s cutting class to fight the climate crisis,” in The Guardian, September 1, 2018,https://www.theguardian.com/science/2018/sep/01/swedish-15-year-old-cutting-class-to-fight-the-climate-crisis.
Katie MacBride, “Getting to Work With Little Miss Flint,” in Shondaland,March 22, 2018, https://www.shondaland.com/inspire/a19485789/getting-to-work-with-little-miss-flint/.
Clair Mesick, “Prophets Among Us—1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26 and Luke 2:41-52,” on Political Theology Network, December 27, 2018, https://politicaltheology.com/prophets-among-us-1-samuel-218-20-26-and-luke-241-52/.