Sermon for January 26, 2020: Walking and fishing in the light (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White):
Robin Williams used to do a routine called, “The Top Ten Reasons for being Episcopalian.” One of Williams’ most arcane reasons is, “because we have a color-coded calendar.” We do – and we are not the only ones. We share our multi-colored wheel of seasons with several other denominations. In addition, we share a schedule of Sunday scripture readings called “The Revised Common Lectionary (or RCL).” Using the RCL means that on any given Sunday, my mom in Connecticut and my Roman Catholic brothers-in-law in Virginia and Florida all hear the same portions of the Bible read aloud.
The RCL follows our liturgical (color-coded) seasons. During the current Season after Epiphany our gospel stories have been following Jesus as he grows from a baby into his full stature as the Messiah. Our psalms, Hebrew and New Testament scriptures are designed to complement the gospel narrative, fleshing out Jesus’s story and helping to explain why he came.
They also remind us of our similarities to the all people of God across time. In our recent readings, we have followed the stories of ancient people just like us who have struggled between faith and fear, hope, and despair, dark and light – people like those who first heard Isaiah’s prophecy. There is debate about who exactly these people were, but it is clear that they lived in a time of chaos, fear, and darkness. Isaiah’s words reminded them that God was with them – and that if they were patient light would shine on the faithful. As Richard Ward says, “With a faith rooted in the character of God, Isaiah forecasts new possibilities through human and divine effort, even when nations with imperial ambitions are wreaking havoc on the world stage.”
Sadly, we are still in need of Isaiah’s words today. Although we are fortunate to live in a wealthy and well-defended land, we are sometimes reminded that our peace and well-being are not assured. During the recent tension between the United States and the middle-eastern countries of Iran and Iraq, my college-age daughter went from posting cute animal pictures on Instagram to repeatedly checking national news feeds, expressing her fear that the world was going to end. I reassured her with what is perhaps the least comforting truth I could muster, “Don’t worry Kate. This has happened thousands of times before.”
This is not God’s fault; it is the nature of humanity. God does not visit evil on us; we make our own evil. The history of human life as told in our holy scriptures is how we repeatedly betray God and one another, putting our own devices and desires ahead of the common good. Miraculously, it is also and more importantly about how over and over again God has attempted to save us from ourselves, ultimately sacrificing God’s own self for our salvation.
But still the people will not accept God’s deliverance. Still we refuse to believe that such goodness exists. Still we choose fear over faith and darkness over light. This is why church is a good thing – because it allows us struggle together to understand and accept the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ. It’s also why the Revised Common Lectionary is a good thing – because it reminds us that the people of God have been dealing with the same internal and external conflicts for thousands of years – and that if we truly accept the gift of Jesus’s love and follow his way, our suffering will end.
But in order to be true disciples, we cannot just offer lip service to our God. Saying you believe in Jesus is not the same as following him. St. Paul makes this clear to the community at Corinth when he finds that they have been jockeying for position based on who had baptized them. It is not, he tells them, acceptable to claim the title “Christian” as a sign of superiority and separateness rather than humility and sacrifice. They must not argue about who is right, but instead be united in the same mind and the same purpose. That purpose, according to Paul, has little to do with rituals. It is “wrong,” writes Tim Sedgewick, “to identify Christian faith with…a particular understanding of baptism or with the beliefs and practices of a particular person or group. The gospel is given in the cross as self-sacrifice, giving oneself up in response to and for the other, the cross as bearing the burden of others…[and to do so] in joy and thanksgiving. To claim anything else empties the cross of Christ of its power.” Or, as Pastor John Pavlovitz puts it, “one of the markers of a life emulating Jesus, [is] a heart capable of being broken at the distress of other human beings around you: when they are hungry and hurting, when they are homeless and afraid, when they grieve and feel alone, when they believe they are unloved and forgotten, when tragedy befalls them and when injustice assails them. These things are supposed to move the needle within us if Jesus is present.”
This should be clear to us if we have been listening to the stories of the season after Epiphany, which is a time in which we are shown how God was made manifest in Jesus, bringing the light of salvation that God’s people so desperately needed. Our post-Epiphany readings show us what it means to accept the gift of salvation – what it means to follow Jesus. We see this in the actions of Jesus’s first disciples in today’s gospel. When they recognize Jesus’s call, they do not hesitate or negotiate; they do not pack their bags or empty their bank accounts. They follow him.
Christian faith is not just something you say you have; it’s something you do. And it is not easy. “The life of faith does not render us invisible, anonymous faces in the crowd. Instead we assume some personal risks in following God.” Notice that the gospel story does not end with the calling of the first disciples. It ends with what happens after they follow Jesus. It ends with the Good News being carried out and carried forth. It ends with the disciples acting in faith.
It is my belief that the people of Grace Martinez have been called as disciples of Christ to emulate his way and spread the Good News. Our mission statement calls us “to welcome, support, and serve all God’s people.” This means we need to constantly discern the ways in which we can expand our ministry and, as Jesus commanded, fish for people. Our property includes an upper lot, which stands unused. I believe that in a time and place in which many people are in need it is our responsibility as stewards of God’s creation to determine how we might use this asset to support our mission. For that reason, in 2020 we will embark on a discernment process which will help us discover God’s plan for that piece of property. We will not be alone. Some of you may have seen Saturday’s San Francisco Chronicle article entitled, “A whole new calling for sacred ground.” It details a trend that has spoken to my heart, a desire to welcome and heal rather than exclude and reject- a path to service rather than selectivity. The name that has been given to this movement is, “Yes in God’s backyard.”
I believe that during this time of discernment as we read scripture, talk, and pray together we will begin to see and follow Christ on a great adventure and to say “yes” to whatever God asks of us. That is, after all, the number one reason for being an Episcopalian. AMEN.
1Richard F. Ward, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Westminster Knox Press], 4, Kindle location 9802.
Timothy F. Sedgwick, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Westminster Knox Press], 4, Kindle location 10050.
John Pavlovitz, (January 6, 2020), “Christians are supposed to care about people,” in Stuff that needs to be said, https://johnpavlovitz.com/2020/01/06/christians-are-supposed-to-care-about-people/
 Maryann McKibben Dana, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Westminster Knox Press], 4, Kindle location 9897.
Children’s Homily for January 19, 2020: God is calling! (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White):
(Start with phone ringing). Oh no! Someone’s calling on my phone! Who would call me during church? (Give them a chance to answer and respond). (Sound of ringing. Look at children’s phone). Oh my goodness! Now that phone is ringing. Who could it be? (Give them a chance to answer and respond). Maybe it’s GOD. Could God be calling us? (Give them a chance to answer and respond). Do you think God calls us on the phone? (Give them a chance to answer and respond).Well, I would be pretty surprised to hear from God that way myself, but I wouldn’t rule it out.
Because here’s the thing: God does call us. What do you think about that? (Give them a chance to answer). It says so in today’s readings from the Bible. Who knows who Isaiah was? (Give them a chance to answer and respond). That’s right. Isaiah was in the Bible. He was a prophet. Who knows what a prophet is? (Give them a chance to answer and respond). A prophet is someone who speaks for God. Isaiah was one of God’s prophets a long time ago and in today’s story about him, he said that he was called by God before he was even born. What do you think of that? (Give them a chance to answer and respond). I know it might seem strange, but God knows us all just as well as we know ourselves, and God tries to talk to us all the time. How many of you have ever talked to God? (Give them a chance to answer and respond). What do we call it when we talk to God? (Give them a chance to answer and respond). That’s right – we call it praying! What kinds of things do we say when we talk to God? (Give them a chance to answer and respond). Good. That’s right. What else? (Give them a chance to answer and respond). How many of you take time every day to listen to God? (Give them a chance to answer and respond).
Now, how many of you have ever heard God talking back to you? (Give them a chance to answer and respond). That’s good because it’s kind of unusual for people to hear God’s voice talking to them the way we talk to each other, especially as you get older, but there are other ways you can hear from God. Who can think of some? (Give them a chance to answer and respond). Good. Sometimes God gives you a really strong feeling that it’s important to do something. Sometimes God sends someone your way who needs help and that’s God’s way of telling you that you need to help them. Most often, God talks to us through other people – people who are living and people who lived a long time ago, like Isaiah and John the Baptist. Who knows who John the Baptist is? (Give them a chance to answer and respond). He was a prophet like Isaiah – so he spoke for God – and he told his friends that Jesus was “The Lamb of God” – God’s son. When John the Baptist said that, it made John’s friends Andrew and Peter follow Jesus because when they heard it they knew Jesus was the right person to listen to.
Sometimes it’s hard to know who to listen to. Who are some of the people you listen to? (Give them a chance to answer and respond). Good. And how do you know that they are good people to listen to? (Give them a chance to answer and respond). Yes, your parents are good people to listen to, and they can help you to know who are other good people to listen to. Here are two really good ways to know whether someone might have something to tell you from God. The first one is that the people you already know and love and who are safe people to listen to tell you that it’s okay. That’s what happened with John the Baptist’s friends. And that’s why we have church – because all of the people here – this community of God – are here because they want to do the right thing like you do, and we figure out the right things to listen to and do together.
An even better way to know whether someone is saying something for God is whether it hurts or helps someone. God only asks us to do things that will help other people, so if someone tells you they are talking for God and then they ask you to do something mean or hurtful to someone else, then you know that’s not a message from God. Okay? (Give them a chance to answer and respond).
Now, here’s the most important part: when you get a call from God – no matter how you get it, you need to try to do what God asks you to do. Doing what God wants you to do is called answering God’s call for you. So, do you think that you would be willing to listen for God every day and, when you think you know what God wants and you check it out with your safe people, you can try to do that? (Give them a chance to answer and respond).You agree to try to answer God’s call for you? (Give them a chance to answer and respond). All right then, what do we say in church when we agree to do something together? (Give them a chance to answer). That’s right. We say “amen.” AMEN.
Sermon for January 19, 2020: The Lord called me (reworked from January 19, 2014) (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White):
“Almighty God, grant that your people may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory, that he may be known to the ends of the earth.” Amen.
I grew up in the Episcopal Church. My family was always very active in my home parish – both of my parents served on the Vestry, my dad was a Lay Eucharistic Minister, and I often spent my Saturday mornings doing Altar Guild with my mom. My older sister was one of the first female acolytes in the Episcopal Church, and I was the first female Senior Sacristan at my college, where I once had the privilege of serving alongside Bishop Desmond Tutu. As an adult, I have served in liturgical and church government positions in five different dioceses. But I never wanted to believe that I was called to ordained ministry. My goal was to become one of those fabulous and revered elderly church ladies who gets an amazing turnout at her funeral. Unfortunately, that’s not what God wanted.
When I was 25 and working in broadcasting, I began to feel very uncomfortable – as if I was not right in my skin. I went to see my parish priest and he suggested that I might have a call to ordained ministry and perhaps I should start doing some discernment about that. Instead, I went to Social Work school and became a social worker. Two years later, while working with chronically mentally ill homeless people, I started to get that “itchy” feeling again. This time I knew what God wanted, which I promptly ignored in favor becoming a psychologist. I figured that if I could keep upping the ante on “helping people”, I could get out of this whole “priest thing.” Ten years later, the inability to live in my skin came back – and this time it was so unbearable, that I cried out to God in frustration, “I give Lord, I give!” Almost immediately, the discomfort in body, the fear in my heart, and the questioning in my mind, stopped. Because, although I knew I was not worthy on my own merits, I realized that God had chosen me for her own reasons, and would be my strength.
My battles with my calling are not unique. It is so common for people who feel called to ordained ministry to avoid that call for as long as possible that they have a slang term for it – they call it “doing a Jonah.” Stories about people who run away from God’s call seem familiar to us because although we each have a calling, most of us have no idea what it is, much less how to go about fulfilling it.
St. Paul tells us in today’s Epistle that the grace of God has been given to us in Christ Jesus…so that [we] are not lacking in any spiritual gift.” In other words, we have everything we need to fulfill God’s call for each for us. The question is, how do we know what our calling is? We have to slow down and listen. We cannot hear God’s word when we are constantly “multitasking” in order to fulfill the obligations of our earthly lives. Today’s psalm tells us that we must wait “patiently” for the Lord. I know this is hard – but take it from someone who refused to listen to God for 25 years; God will get you in the end.
We must, says St. Paul, wait for Christ to be revealed to us. That means we have to open up the lines of communication between us and God. We have to pray – every day in every way. George MacLeod writes that “we are in touch with God every moment that we live…for the simple reason that God is life: not religious life, nor Church life, but the whole [of] life.” Every single thing we do shows God who we are and how we are called to be God’s hands in the world.
Today’s gospel says that John the Baptist was already baptizing before he even knew who Jesus was. “I myself did not know him,” he says, “but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” Andrew and Simon did not know Jesus either, but when they overheard John the Baptist, they followed Jesus. They didn’t know who he was or where he might lead them, but they went – because Jesus called them. I think that sometimes, like Andrew and Simon, we have to start following before we know exactly where we are going. As Bishop Yvette Flunder says, “Sometimes God will give you the what, but not the who, when, where and how.” That’s frightening – but not knowing the whole plan doesn’t mean we can ignore the parts we do know.
The good news is that we don’t have to search alone. Christians live in community for many reasons, including helping one another work through our doubts and fears – and remind us of the calling that we all share. The Book of Common Prayer tells us that “The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ…The Church carries out its mission through the ministry of all its members,,” because in order to fulfill God’s purpose for his creation, all of us are needed.
Tomorrow we will celebrate the life of a person who answered and carried out his call from God at a terrible cost. Six years before he was assassinated, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., preached a sermon called, “Love in Action.” In it he said, “One of the great tragedies of life is that men seldom bridge the gulf between practice and profession, between doing and saying. A persistent schizophrenia leaves so many of us tragically divided against ourselves…How often are our lives characterized by a high blood pressure of creeds and an anemia of deeds?…This strange dichotomy, this agonizing gulf between the ought and the is represents the tragic theme of man’s earthly pilgrimage.” As Mary Earle puts it, “We need to be living the Great Commandment, not just talking about it.”
This seems overwhelming. It seems like enough of a risk simply to cry out against the immoralities of this world. After all, we are small, the system is large, and many of us are already struggling to manage our own lives. It doesn’t feel fair that we should be asked to do more. But I’m going to share with you something that I am just beginning to understand: answering God’s call for you will not add to your burdens; answering God’s call will lift them. That’s because using your gifts to serve others gives us the chance to find out and be who we really are – and to get to know God better as well.
Our responsibility as part of God’s body the church is to figure out what it means for each of us to live our own lives as faithful Christians. C.S. Lewis said, “The work of a Beethoven, and the work of a charwoman, become spiritual on precisely the same condition, that of being offered to God, of being done humbly ‘as to the Lord.’” Your calling may not be that of an ordained minister. Your calling may not be as a civil rights worker. But you have a calling – a calling to do the work of God – and any work that you do to fulfill the will of God – any work that you do to love your neighbor as yourself – any work that you do that shines with the radiance of Christ’s glory – that is your calling. Wait patiently for the Lord, knowing in your heart that God is always provides us with the gifts we need to fulfill our unique ministries. We are God’s chosen. We have been called and anointed by God. We have been given as a light to the nations that God’s salvation may reach to the ends of the earth. We are blessed. AMEN
Sermon for January 12, 2020: I am a Christian (?!) (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White):
The current construction on our road may be a blessing in disguise, because so far it has prevented me from being able to accomplish one of my favorite goals: putting up a wayside pulpit. A wayside, or “street” pulpit, is a large signboard in front of a church that can be changed regularly. It can be used to highlight special services, inspirational quotes, sermon topics, and clever puns. Some of my favorites are:
“As you pass our little church, be sure to plan a visit. That way when you’re carried in, God won’t ask, ‘Who is it’?”
“Honk if you like Jesus. Text while driving if you want to meet him,” and
“Having Trouble Sleeping? Come in and listen to a sermon!”
The question, as one website points out, is “when the Church reaches out with a message to passersby, what are we hoping to accomplish? Is it outreach? Marketing? Witness? Is it a word of encouragement? Prophesy? Admonition? Or is it a variety of hospitality–a way to demonstrate that Christians can have a sense of humor and are a friendly people?” Or perhaps it is simply a shortcut way of letting people know who we are and what we believe.
It seems to me that it is becoming increasingly important for believers to do just this, as definitions and ideas that once seemed clear and indisputable shift more and more rapidly as we move further into the 21st century. Race, gender, sexuality, socioeconomic status – even our words for the clothes we wear no longer have the same meanings they did just 20 or 50 years ago. (For example, my son recently asked me to check out a pair of “skate shoes” he was interested in and I was really confused when the sneakers he brought over didn’t have any wheels). In this climate of rapid change, it is both arrogant and dangerous to make assumptions about what people think and who they are.
But it’s also hard to know when it’s okay to ask questions – or how to answer them. When I was a child, I was taught that it was rude to talk about politics, money, and religion because those were the topics that caused the most arguments – and polite people try to avoid arguments. Now the internet is filled with sites that exist solely so people can argue with one another, and the most acclaimed television show this year is about a vicious, greedy, double-crossing family – and it’s a comedy. On the other hand, one young parishioner recently told me that she doesn’t talk about church at work for fear of being stereotyped. I can understand. I have a clergy friend who recently went to a bar wearing his collar and someone, mistaking him for a Roman Catholic priest and assuming he was a pedophile, threw a drink in his face. Of course, no one wants to get a drink thrown in their face – or have their co-workers mistake them for someone who believes that God has a preference for a specific political party, but that doesn’t mean that we can afford to be ignorant about or afraid to express and act on our beliefs.
So, who are we and what do we believe? We don’t have to look far to find out. Class, please take out your Prayer Books (that’s the big red book with the gold cross on the front in your pew) and turn to page 858 to the explanation of Holy Baptism. Holy Baptism is the only membership criteria for Christianity. It is the way in which God adopts us and we become members of Christ’s body, the church. Now, turn to page 302 to the service of Baptism, where it tells us what we are asked to do as Christians. At our Baptism (or Confirmation) we agree to renounce both spiritual and worldly evil; fight our tendency to separate ourselves from God and other people, and to put our trust in Jesus instead of earthly treasures. Now, turn to page 304 and look at the Baptismal Covenant. If it is familiar to you, that’s because it is the words of the Creed we say every week broken down into questions and answers. It says that we believe in one God, who created all things. We believe in Jesus Christ, who, like God, loves creation so much that he lived and died as one of us. We believe that God wants us to be one community of belief and that God will forgive us for all of the wrong we do as long as we truly repent of it and amend our ways. It says that God wants us to live in a state of peace, love, and unity forever.
We know that our God is good and that our God does good. Today’s first lesson describes what it means to be a true servant of God. Although many people identify this passage as a description of Jesus, it could also refer to any community or individual who follows his way. Such leaders (or peoples) establish justice. They do not draw attention to themselves with shouting or ranting. They treat broken people with gentleness and kindness. They do not conceal or deceive, instead opening the eyes of the blind and bringing people who are imprisoned by fear and hatred out of darkness and into the light. The servant of God offers hope.
Stephanie Paulsell says, “The prophet offers a portrait of the kind of leadership we should expect from one called by God; patient, nonviolent, merciful. God’s chosen does not ‘execute justice’ by force… Isaiah’s portrait of God’s servant provides a genuine…contrast to contemporary models of leadership” because a real servant of God seeks to share his power with others and to provide the people with the blessing of peace.
The God we believe in does not do wrong things for the right reasons. God’s servant not only is not influenced by his own needs and desires, but willingly empties himself out in order to provide for others. Our God, according to Peter, is impartial. Peter knows this, because in today’s second reading he has just returned from a God-directed meeting with someone that he was deeply and fiercely prejudiced against – someone that Peter had always considered wrong and evil – someone that Peter resisted meeting because he feared doing so would contaminate him. But Peter found that God loves that person as much as he loves Peter – that God loves and accepts everyone who follows his way – that God is, in fact, generous and forgiving to all who ask.
Our God is also humble. Although he himself is worshipped by John the Baptist, Jesus allows John to baptize him to demonstrate his humility and solidarity with humanity. He does not claim the glory and might that are due to him. He does not take the opportunity to break or shake or split any of God’s creation. Instead, he chooses to empty himself of all sinful desires just as we are asked to do. In Jesus, “we catch a glimpse of what it means to be fully human, and in baptism we are offered the possibility of embracing our humanity.”
This is what it means to be a Christian. It means that (with God’s help) we will not just say we love God, but will demonstrate God’s love to others. It means that we will not just hate evil, but that we will actively resist it. It means that we must seek justice and peace not just for ourselves and those we love, but for everyone. It means we try to find and help the part of Christ that is in all persons, loving our neighbors – even those we have been taught to hate and fear- as ourselves. It means we will love and live in a Spirit of grace and humility, knowing ourselves to be beloved by God for and despite who we are. Or, as one wayward pulpit put it, “If God had a refrigerator, she would have your picture on it.” AMEN.
“Wayside Pulpits,” (January 12, 2013), Grace is Everywhere, http://www.graceiseverywhere.net/2013/01/12/wayside-pulpits/
Stephanie Paulsell, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Westminster Knox Press], 4, Kindle location 7937.
Steven D. Driver, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Westminster Knox Press], 4, Kindle location 8551.
Sermon for January 5, 2020: Beanie Babies (The Rev. Kathy Trapani):
In the late 1960s, after a failed career as an actor, Ty Warner of LaGrange, Illinois went to work for the Dakin Toy Company. Whatever he may have lacked in acting ability, he made up for it in his ability to sell. At the time, Dakin was the world’s largest manufacturer of plush toys (aka stuffed animals), and Warner was its top sale representative. Some years later, Warner had an idea that would change the course of plush-toy history. At the time, most plush toys were filled with stiff, rigid cotton. Warner wondered about a toy filled with plastic pellets instead, which would make it much floppier and more life-like. He began selling some of his creations on the side, but when Dakin got wind of it they promptly fired him. So, Warner decided to start his own toy company. He called it Ty Inc. And his product, which he launched in 1993, was
Beanie Babies. Beanie Babies were hand-sized plush toys filled with (you guessed it) beans (actually, plastic pellets), mostly in the form of different animals. Each one came with a name, a birthday, and an accompanying poem. They even had their own “personality traits.” Some of the first Beanie Babies included Spot the Dog, Squealer the Pig, and Patti the Platypus. These are
Prickles the Hedgehog and Freckles the Spotted Leopard. For the record, Warner’s competitors initially told Warner that his toys would never make it. “Everyone called them roadkill,” he later said. “They didn’t get it.”
What they did not know, however, was Ty Warner was a genius marketer and market manipulator. He priced Beanie Babies at $5.00 so that kids could buy them with their own money. But he only sold them to small gift shops and specialty stores and limited the number they could purchase, which gave them an air of exclusivity despite their low price. The strategy also created shortages, which drove up demand and also created a secondary collectors’ market. Then, in 1995, Warner began “retiring” certain Beanie Babies unannounced, which added to the frenzy surrounding them. At a market in Connecticut, for example, fanatical collectors trampled children in order to get their hands on the retired tie-die “Garcia” bear. By 1996, parents were
paying $10 to $20 for beanie babies that originally sold for $5, and collectors were paying hundreds and even thousands of dollars. Eventually, however, the bubble burst. Collectors realized that Beanie Babies were not as rare a commodity as they thought (far from it, actually) so they panicked and took to eBay. Selling whatever they had for whatever they could, they flooded and ultimately collapsed the market. And those who thought Beanie Babies were their road to riches were left with nothing more than some very cute toys.
As the parent of a then-eight-year-old daughter, I remember the Beanie Baby craze very well. My daughter loved Beanie Babies! Over time, she acquired dozens of them. But my daughter did not love them because they were in short supply or were collectors’ items or because she thought they might make her rich. She loved them because (1) they were soft, (2) they were cuddly, (3) they were very cute and (4) they were babies.
Let’s face it. There is something undeniably irresistible about babies – even those of other species. Kittens, puppies, goats, elephants – even baby Yoda of Disney’s The Mandalorian, with its big head and pointy ears is all the rage right now. People find him incredibly adorable. Have you ever wondered why? It turns out there is actually a term for it – kindchenschema, or “baby schema”: infants of many mammal species have a set of features such as a disproportionately large head and eyes that we humans are innately drawn to. According to several studies we react toward those features the way we do because we are hard-wired to want to take care of and protect babies which, evolutionarily speaking, increases their chances for survival. “It is our natural parental instinct to protect or at least feel connected to babies,” says
Joshua Klapow, a clinical psychologist. “This automatic, nurturing… response is hard-wired, keeps us connected to our young, and is generalized to the young of other species.”
The problem, as we all know, is that cuteness doesn’t last. Babies grow up. And the adult versions are not nearly as appealing. Lots of people love kittens, for example, but want nothing to do with cats. Baby Easter chicks grow up into noisy chickens. Piglets are pretty cute. Full grown pigs not so much. You get the idea. All babies grow up – even the baby Jesus. You may hear parents of older children say that, when it comes to being a parent, the days are long but the years are short. I wonder sometimes whether Mary is the one who said it first. It has been only twelve days since we oohed and cooed at the manger when we met the baby Jesus, all wrapped up in swaddling clothes, with shepherds and angels all around. Is it any wonder that people poured into churches at Christmas to catch a glimpse of that scene? What’s not to love? He is soft, he is cuddly, he is cute, and he’s a baby. We are hard-wired to be drawn to him.
But in the blink of an eye, Jesus is twelve. He is growing up. Our Gospel story marks the end of Luke’s infancy narrative which began, as you may recall, in the Temple in Jerusalem with Zechariah, the priest and father of John the Baptist. Luke’s is the only story in the canonical gospels about Jesus’ life between his infancy and the beginning of his ministry. Matthew, Mark and John are completely silent on his boyhood. But Luke gives us a transition story. Jesus is not quite an adult, but he is definitely not a baby anymore.
We last saw the Holy Family when Jesus was eight days old. In accordance with the Law of Moses his parents had presented him at the Temple, where they met Anna and Simeon. Then, having accomplished everything that was required of them they returned to Nazareth where, as Luke puts it, “the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was
upon him.” Now, they are in Jerusalem for Passover. When the festival is over, they return by caravan to Nazareth. But after a day’s journey Joseph and Mary realize that Jesus is not with them. And, unable to find him among their friends and relatives they go back to Jerusalem to search.
After three days Mary and Joseph find Jesus in the Temple, listening to the teachers and asking them questions. “Child,” Mary says, “why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” “Child.” In Mary’s eyes, that is what Jesus is – a child, a baby. But Jesus knows, as soon will the rest of the world, that he is so much more than that. “Why were you searching for me,” Jesus asks his mother. “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” An alternate, and perhaps better translation is, “Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s business?” Jesus understands his purpose even if Mary does not yet – to do the work of God the Father. He is growing into the adult Jesus that God calls him
to be, not the Jesus Mary and Joseph might want or expect him to be. But, to borrow from Ty Warner, “they didn’t get it.” Nor will most of the people around him.
The challenge, of course, is that because Jesus is about the Father’s business he was, and is, to most people, far less appealing. The prophet Isaiah describes it this way: “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He
was despised and rejected by others…” (Isaiah 53:2-3).
No, the adult Jesus on God’s mission is not cute. Neither is the business of God that he was sent to accomplish. It is no wonder that the world will set out to destroy him. They just won’t get it. And why is he so unappealing? It’s not just his looks. It is what he says and does. He challenges the religious and political authorities. He assaults economic, religious and social barriers. He crosses boundaries and subverts conventional wisdom. He asks people to give up
what they own and give it to the poor. He says things like “love your enemies,” and does things like turn over the tables of the money changers in the Temple. He teaches hard lessons, demands obedience, and hangs out with all the wrong people. As Mary once sang of him, he scatters the proud, casts down the mighty, and sends the rich away empty. He heals lepers and forgives
sinners. He is not what people are expecting or hoping or looking for in a messiah — especially those who are insiders, powerful, wealthy, or comfortable.
But do you know what people really disliked about the adult Jesus? He claimed that there was no scarcity of God’s love. There was no shortage of God’s grace. There was no boundary on God’s kingdom. God wasn’t “retiring” anything in order to create a demand for it. God was not limiting salvation to just the boutiques and specialty shops. Everyone was included. So, for those who thought that their living the “right” way, or believing the right thing,
or belonging to the right religion were their road to spiritual riches, everything came crashing down. Because God had flooded the world with love and forgiveness and salvation and grace. It was everywhere and it was for everyone. Sadly, some people, many people, still don’t get this. They don’t want Jesus to grow up. They adore the baby Jesus but the adult Jesus, not so much. But what Luke has given us here is not just a story about Jesus growing up. It is about Mary and Joseph and you and me growing up – into a more adult, more mature, more truthful understanding of who Jesus is and what he is
about. And when we contemplate who Jesus is, let us not forget that he is human. Because as a human Jesus is hard-wired to be drawn to people who cannot help or save themselves – in other words, the likes of us. Whatever we look like, whatever we do, however pointy our ears or big our head, he finds us absolutely, irresistibly adorable. And that is very good news!