PS. I apologize for any unconventional punctuation, grammar, etc. I was never an English major, after all, and this was originally meant to be spoken...
Lost in the Temple (Newton Version)
Rev. Adam Tierney-Eliot
For many of us, the holidays require quite a bit of packing and unpacking. Starting around Thanksgiving and continuing on into the New Year there are family outings. Ones often farther than a days drive.
In my family, for example, we pack up the van and go to Maine to visit relatives. It is where I’m from, after all, and half of my family still lives there. Into the car go the pies and the presents, the spare clothes, distractions for the kids on the way. On the way back the presents have been replaced with other presents there are leftovers, too. All of this has been somewhat haphazardly stowed in our haste to go south.
Given our haste it should not be surprising that there have been times when I have forgotten some crucial item. Sometimes it is something small, like car keys. However, somewhat less frequently, we drive the long miles back to our home only to find a message on the answering machine: “Son, you forgot your dog”.
You cannot ship a dog. You have to go back.
Now, just maybe this sort of thing has happened to you, and if it has (even though few of us have probably forgotten our children) it is hard not to sympathize with Mary and Joseph. In fact, many of us may be feeling the same way these days. After a long trip and a big holiday it is natural to feel a bit tired--Maybe a little less festive than we felt just days and weeks before
In anticipation of our plans and observances. After all the highs and lows that the holidays bring, it is hard to return to the regular, everyday world
Maybe this is why Joseph and Mary got a little confused and forgot one of their children back in Jerusalem. In their defense, the Bible tells us that they did have other kids and they were moving in a group of friends and relatives. Also, Jesus was a teenager at the time--testing the boundaries of his home life, exploring the new freedom that comes with that advanced age. But, of course, they eventually figured out that he wasn’t with any of their friends returning to Nazareth.
Three days of travel and frantic searching ensued until there he was--in the Temple. “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” His parents probably could have killed him just then and the Bible says that they “Did not understand what he said”
When we read this passage in the context of later orthodox theology it seems merely to be another reference to and reinforcement of the literal divinity of Jesus. In this context he appears to be rebuking his earthly parents by claiming one father (God) above another (Joseph). But upon closer inspection, this doesn’t really make sense. The fact is--If that is all it was--the Mary and Joseph of Luke’s Gospel Would have understood exactly what Jesus had said. After all, they had just had their fill of the heavenly hosts a chapter before.
No, there must be something else going on here. The famous religious educator Sophia Fahs, (who wrote today’s responsive reading) also wrote a book about Jesus back in the 1940’s that has a slightly different, more human take on this same moment. If you are curious, I am sure that there are probably some old copies still in the Sunday School.
“How astonished they were when entering one of the cloisters among the pillars [of the temple] they saw their son, sitting quietly, with older men all around him listening to the rabbi! They heard Jesus ask a question. They trembled lest the teacher become annoyed by their son. But the teacher listened with interest and answered the boy’s question respectfully, and Jesus was…absorbed in what the teacher was saying.”
“[later Mary asks] ‘Son, why have you behaved like this?’ [And Jesus responds] ‘Mother, why have you been looking for me all over the city? Did you not know that I would be right here in the temple?’…So Jesus’ dream of being with the great teachers to listen and ask them questions came to an end.”
To Fahs this story has a practical and understandable message. Jesus was a special child--as all children are. He was one who asked questions about the world around him and about his faith. He wasn’t always understood, but listened closely to the beat of his own drum. Instead of arguing with Mary and Joseph he seems genuinely surprised that it took so long to find him.
He tells them, in essence, “This is who I am! You know that! Where else would I be?”
And where else would he be at the end of one of the holiest times in Judaism. Where else would he be? No wonder they didn’t understand. No wonder we do not understand. After all, in our day at least the religious aspects of the holidays can, and do take something of a back seat to all the other seemingly (but not really) central events like big feasts, family get-togethers…packing and unpacking presents.
Jesus didn’t come for the festival, for the celebrations and the food, for parties with old friends and new. He didn’t show up for the excitement, for all the many secular joys of a time like this in the capital city. Nor did he come to Jerusalem to merely go through the motions of religious observance, to make the appointed sacrifices, to pray the required prayers and be done with it.
No, apparently not.
He came to listen to the old rabbis, to learn about his faith of all things and, in his own way, as a young person, to contribute to the discussion. To ask questions, to air his doubts. Where else would he be?
In fact, this moment of conversation—helping to fill the gap between his infancy and his ministry--gets at the most fundamental aspect of his faith. The theologian Harvey Cox, in his book When Jesus Came to Harvard, points out that “Jesus was a Rabbi…[Jesus] never delivered an easy answer to a hard question but, in time-honored rabbinical fashion…would not allow people to escape the responsibility of making their own decisions”.
One thing that Jesus teaches us in this moment is that real religion expands and contracts as we human beings inhabit it and discover more about ourselves and our world. Sometimes we must abandon (or at least modify) the ways of our elders--To follow new dreams and develop new ideas. Still, even as Jesus leaves his parents he encounters other teachers. For the core of our faith is always the same--whether we are Buddhist or Christian, Jewish or Muslim, or any other of the many responsible varieties of belief that exist today.
Religion can seem complex. This is, in part, by design. It is the design of those who wish to establish a system of right and wrong belief--to define us and them. However, to the reformer--reformers like Jesus and like the other prophets of the past and the present—the goal is to cut through the layers of doctrine, to gather in the shadow of the temple and to talk, to exchange ideas. For them the goal is the simple and understandable faith
Now, there is a difference between simplicity and shallowness. When we seek out the Divine we are searching for something that is profoundly simple. It is also amazingly deep and mysterious
Chaung-Tzu (The ancient Taoist philosopher) writes about the Tao, “how deep and still its hiding place. Without this stillness, metal would not ring…the power of sound is in the metal and Tao in all things. When they clash, they ring with Tao and are silent again. Who is there now to tell all things their places?”
This stillness that Chang-Tzu writes about is something we all participate in, though we may have different names for it. When Jesus sat with the rabbis at the temple he was acknowledging this stillness and the place where he most felt connected to it.
Of course, there have always been those who are so invested in the smallest particulars of religious doctrine that they are unwilling to let them go. From our own tradition, there is the story of Theodore Parker who once observed that “Anyone who traces the history of what is called Christianity will see that nothing changes more from age to age than the doctrines taught as Christian and insisted on as essential to Christianity and personal salvation.” The Church, to Parker, was meant to change with the times and with the growth of our human body of knowledge. Churches, however, (both liberal and conservative) move slowly--as does any community so linked to the past. Even when they do move, there is always some disagreement as to the direction.
The first minister of the Eliot Church in Natick, MA (The church that I now serve) was the Unitarian James Thompson, who refused to exchange pulpits with Reverend Parker—as did others. This is considered quite the insult then and now (so it’s a good thing you invited me). Thompson’s refusal, in Parker’s words “Decides my course for the future”.
Parker became increasingly estranged From many of his fellow Unitarians for his then-liberal views. Still, it would have seemed strange to Parker to have modified his opinions merely to stay in the good graces of his colleagues. “I should laugh out loud,” he wrote sarcastically, “To catch myself weeping because the Boston Clergy would not exchange with me!”
This kind of compromise would have been strange to Jesus, too
“Prophets are not without honor except in their own country and their own house”
There is something else that this story of the Temple tells us about the nature of our faith. It lies in the timing. In this story Passover is finished for the year but Jesus and his teachers are still there--still preaching and praying, teaching and learning…and arguing. The mature faith--the simple faith--doesn’t wax and wane based on the cycles of the season. The hard and rewarding work continues.
Now some people worry about putting the Christ in Christmas. No doubt there is somewhere a catalogue of all the perceived infractions—the ground lost to forces of secularism--that occurred this past year. Maybe instead we should be concerned with putting the life and teachings of Jesus and all the great and true prophets to work in this world, every day of the year. That is a New Year’s resolution worth keeping.