By Ellen Sims
Text: Luke 2: 41-52
Today’s Gospel lesson assures us that Jesus, even Jesus, had lessons to learn and mistakes to make and growth to experience. For those of us aspiring to follow in his ways, that’s good news. We get to—we need to—learn and err and mature. But inside today’s simple story about a spiritual child prodigy who continued developing physically, intellectually, and spiritually there is also an implicit and seemingly contradictory message: maturing in faith paradoxically requires recovering a childlike faith. It’s a both/and process. We advance spiritually even as we circle back (I won’t say regress) to a spiritual place that some have called a state of unknowing. (See online this medieval spiritual classic on contemplative prayer: The Cloud of Unknowing.)
I hope our Advent series on vulnerability has already primed us to look for a God who is the antithesis of coercive, manipulative power. The God we meet through Jesus chooses and exalts the vulnerability of a human infant. Then we glimpse this God in the story of 12-year-old Jesus meeting with the Temple’s scholars: Jesus listens, questions, learns from the elders. Put this thought clearly in your mind: Orthodox Christianity passes along to us the story of the humble God-Man visiting the Temple to learn from humanity.
Of course, the temple authorities not only imparted wisdom but also gained insight from the young boy in a reciprocal learning experience. Teacher and learner roles are blurred in this sacred interaction in the Temple. Hear again words from the spiritual we sang earlier: “Jesus in the temple, talking with the elders, how they marveled. Amen Amen!”
If we get too settled in our understandings; if we come to the equivalent of the Temple and are NOT regularly jarred from our moorings; if we are not at times amazed, even scandalized by a new thought; if we do not occasionally give our parents and elders a little anxiety while we seek sacred space that meets our needs; if year after year our understandings of God and God’s world remain the same—then we may not be “increasing in wisdom and in both divine and human favor.” That’s what Jesus followers do if they pay attention to this Gospel story.
In this new year, let’s be eager for what is new, what is growing and becoming.
In our continued celebration of Christmastide, let’s resist the tendency to keep Jesus in the manageable manger. Let’s allow Jesus to wander off —even though that makes it harder for us to keep up with him and makes us, like Mary, a little anxious.
The problem of keeping Jesus in the manger reminds me of a story I shared with you three or four years ago. Amazingly, you did not fire me after that sermon. So I’m going to see if I can get away with it again. From the Will Ferrell movie Talladega Nights comes a scene that satirizes our tendency to permanently infantilize Jesus. I’m quoting from the least offensive parts of a cinematic prayer that now lives in infamy. In this scene Ricky Bobby, a famous race car driver, is home with his family the night before a big race. They are seated around the dining room table that is stacked with boxes of fast food. He begins the blessing for their meal this way (and I’m just so sorry those reading this sermon will not hear my Ricky Bobby impersonation):
Ricky Bobby: “Dear Lord Baby Jesus, or as our brothers to the south call you, Jesús, we thank you so much for this bountiful harvest of Dominos, KFC, and the always delicious Taco Bell. I just want to take time to say thank you for my family, my two beautiful, beautiful, handsome, striking sons, Walker and Texas Ranger, or T.R. as we call him, and of course, my red-hot smoking wife, Carley who is a stone-cold fox. . . . Dear Lord Baby Jesus, we also thank you for my wife’s father, Chip. We hope that you can use your Baby Jesus powers to heal him.”
His wife Carley interrupts at this point:
“Hey, you know, Sweetie, Jesus did grow up. You don’t always have to call him “baby.” It’s a bit odd and off-putting to pray to a baby.”
Ricky Bobby: “Well, I like the Christmas Jesus best and I’m saying grace. When you say grace you can say it to grownup Jesus, or teenage Jesus, or bearded Jesus or whoever you want.”
Carley: “You know what I want? I want you to do this grace good so that God will let us win tomorrow.”
Ricky Bobby: “Okay. Dear 8-pound, 6-ounce newborn infant Jesus, don’t even know a word yet, just a little infant and so cuddly, but still omnipotent, we just thank you for all the races I’ve won and the 21.2 million dollars – woo!– love that money, that I have accrued over this past season. Also, due to a binding endorsement contract that stipulates I mention Powerade at each grace, I just want to say that Powerade is delicious and it cools you off on a hot summer day. And we look forward to Powerade’s release of Mystic Mountain Blueberry. Thank you for all your power and your grace, dear baby God. Amen.”
I know. Fourteen thousand things are disturbing about that prayer. To call that prayer sacrilegious is an understatement. But what an astute critique of our culture and popular theology. It’s the theology of this prayer that is obscene. Like a Flannery O’Conner character, Ricky Bobby jolts us into thinking about the ways we stunt our own spiritual growth by keeping Jesus in the manger—in a form we can control for our aims.
The Christmas Jesus is so much safer and makes hardly any demands on us. Love is the only gift we have to bring to the Christ Child, right? And who can help but love the child–in a sentimental sort of way? The wise men find him securely swaddled and speechless and confined to a sweet manger bed.
But some years later he has wandered off, so Joseph and Mary search for the 12-year-old Jesus “with great anxiety.” When you and I, centuries later, search for the grownup Jesus, we, too, may experience “great anxiety.” He’s elusive. Not so cuddly at times. He strays into new territory. Which should prod us on our ongoing spiritual journey.
But let’s not forget the paradox: the spiritual trajectory that marks our growth often routes us back to a place of unknowing. As one writer explains, “in order to know God, the Christian contemplative tradition insists on the ‘unknowing’ that is higher (or deeper) than conceptual knowledge. . . . Saint Thomas Aquinas claims that ‘the end of our knowing is to know God as something unknown.’” (Martin Laird, A Sunlit Absence, p. 139).
Richard Rohr explains it this way: “One of Jesus’ favorite visual aids is a child. Every time the disciples get into head games, he puts a child in front of them. He says the only people who can recognize and be ready for what he’s talking about are the ones who come with the mind and heart of a child. This is what we call “beginner’s mind.” The older we grow, the more we’ve been betrayed and hurt and disappointed, the more barriers we put up to the primal delight and curiosity of small children. We must never presume that we see. We must always be ready to see anew. But it’s so hard to go back and be able to say, ‘I don’t know anything.’”
Maybe the spiritual journey is more circular than linear. Or spiral. We circle back to recover some earlier perspectives (or unknowingness) even as we move forward into new territory.
Our spiritual growth depends, paradoxically, on regaining a child’s perspective. We have to regularly start anew. So each new year reminds us to get skeptical about what we’ve grown so certain of. Regularly we must question the knowledge we’ve proudly acquired and defended. We must become again that persistently -questioning child and reinterrogate all we’ve been taking for granted. This is not to say all the opinions and points of view we are operating from are wrong. But we need to turn fresh and honest eyes upon them, not so much to reverse opinions we’ve formed as to review our inner motives and desires and egoism. And be willing to begin again.
Even God incarnate became a child. Even the divine had opportunity to see life from an infant’s, a toddler’s, a 12-year-old’s, an adult’s perspective. It is sacred work to grow and expand one’s consciousness as well as one’s capacity for compassion. It is the task we are all here to do. It’s the task God incarnate undertook.
We want to imagine Jesus as consistent and unchanging. But the Bible reports that Jesus did change his mind and his heart at times—as, for instance, when he reversed his opinion of the Canaanite woman and finally consented to heal her daughter (Matthew 15:21-28). Maybe God changes, too. Scary thought. But if That-Which-We-Call-God encompasses us and all that is—and if we are changing and the universe is expanding—wouldn’t that God have to continue to expand and change to include all that growth?
The preamble to the United Church of Christ’s Constitution emphasizes the place for growth and change in the life of our denomination when it affirms “the responsibility of the Church in each generation to make this faith its own in reality of worship, in honesty of thought and expression, and in purity of heart before God.”
Next week in our 9:30 class we’ll have a brief overview of the history of the UCC from our Conference Minister. We’ll circle back to appreciate the roots of our denomination. The following week we’ll revisit early Christian history. To move forward we’ll return to an earlier time even as we then work “to make our faith our own,” a faith that can be lived authentically in our own time and setting.
Our new Free2Be peer teen support group for LGBT teens is one way we feel we are being both consistent with the compassionate ministry of Jesus even as we innovatively depart from earlier Christian ideas of ministry. We start with the basics—to be about our “Father’s/Mother’s business”—even as we carry out that business in fresh and bold ways.
Young, growing God, grow in us. This new year stretches before us with so much possibility and need, with some fear, with much hope. Be thou our wisdom. Amen.