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Parenting a Savior

Luke 2.41–52

The movie Home Alone came out 30 years ago this Christmas season, and when it first came out I absolutely hated it. I was in high school, and I thought it was the dumbest movie ever… “Really? No one notices that the kid is missing until they get on the plane? And there is NO ONE in the whole city of Chicago that you know that you can call to run over there and check up on him? And then the robbers show up and they have to be the dumbest people on the planet. And then the kid does all of this stuff to them that is totally unrealistic…I think I read a few years ago that he actually would have killed them half a dozen times or at least rendered them unconscious.” From the day I first saw it, I hated the movie.

But then, I had kids. And thought, “yeah maybe.” I have definitely been distracted enough to lose track of my kids. And kind of get it that in a pre-cellphone, pre-What’s App  world, it might be tough to get in touch with anyone back home. And definitely understand how children can outsmart fully grown adults! I still think it grossly unrealistic, but I hate it now a little bit less.

And so, as soon as I read this text in the Two-Way, you may not be surprised that the first thing that I thought was “Home Alone: The First Century Edition.” We’ll call it a prequel. Here are Mary and Joseph, on a big trip with their preteen son, when they realize that they left him behind. Again, no cell phones, and it takes a whole day to get back to look for him. So, depending on how you count it, it is somewhere between 3 to 5 days after they last saw Jesus before they find him again. And, like Kevin in Home Alone, Jesus is doing just fine. He is sitting with the teachers and astounding them with his answers. Apparently he has found some food along the way, found a place to sleep, and he doesn’t even really notice that they were gone. In fact, he has a bit of a Kevin moment when his parents find him…”wouldn’t you know that I would be here? This is my home.”

And the conversation and interaction here is just a little bit uncomfortable, isn’t it. You read it and you think, “should he be talking to his parents like that?” and then you think, “should they be talking to the Emmanuel God Incarnate on Earth Messiah like that?” And the whole conversation is a bit awkward and uncomfortable. Which is like every day in the house with a 12 year old!

I mean, awkward conversations are a part of the deal, right? You have probably heard people use the language of “The Talk” with their teen kids. And that comes in different forms. Parents have to have uncomfortable talks with their children about sexuality, and relationships. Sometimes it is the kids who have hard conversations with their parents about their sexuality. Parents who have adopted their children wait until the right moment to share that with their sons or daughters. Parents of color have to talk to their kids about how they will be treated differently. But can you imagine the conversation that Mary and Joseph have to have…” Son, when you were a baby, some things happened: there were a lot of angels and a miraculous birth and an old man and woman in the Temple…and, well, you are the Messiah.” In fact, some might suggest that this is the moment that “The Talk” took place, that Jesus was clearly understanding that he was different and that he related to Joseph as father differently than other boys and girls relate to their fathers. Here, Jesus is making sense of who he is, and maybe Mary and Joseph look at each other, and remember the events that took place 12 years earlier and think “it’s time.”

Luke captures that moment, with all of its awkwardness and complexity, and fully human and fully divine. The Gospel captures Mary and Joseph in their attempt to help Jesus figure all of this out. It takes guts for Luke to include this story in his Gospel. No other Gospel writer tells a single story between Jesus’ birth and his ministry. Only Luke tells us about adolescent Jesus.

And scholar Amy Robertson says it is actually pretty brilliant. Robertson does ministry with youth and children, and so this looks pretty normal to her. She points out that the story captures the awkwardness and uncomfortable nature of the work of differentiation in adolescence. Of what it looks like for a 12 year old to differentiate from his parents. Robertson borrows a metaphor for parenting during this age: it is like teaching a child to swim… and as parents, you are the side of the pool. If you have watched kids learn to swim, one minute they are clinging to the side of the pool, holding on for dear life. And then next moment they are pushing away from it, pushing off to get as far away from it as possible. And it is in that awkward, back and forth, holding on and pushing away, that Mary and Joseph and Jesus find themselves. Mary and Joseph have to feel a little bit like the side of the pool here. Jesus is pushing away, differentiating from them as he associates with the learned scholars of the Temple. And talking to them in ways that sound a lot like how a 12 year old talks to his parents. Yet, by the end of the passage, it says that he returns home and is obedient to them. He clings and holds on, even as he pushes away. It feels like the words of Simeon to Mary from last week are already coming to fruition, that parenting a Messiah will feel like a sword piercing your soul.

But there is another dynamic to this parenting that is meaningful here. Mary and Joseph are clearly acting as primary parental voices here. But pay attention to the fact that parenting roles here are not only biological, but relational. Out of all of these people, only Mary is blood-related to Jesus. In particular, scholar Robert Williamson, Jr. tells us notice the teachers of the law. These teachers usually get a bad name in the Gospels, and for good reason. When Jesus fully rejects their traditions and outgrows their faith, they take it personally and get defensive and eventually react violently and murderously to a fully grown Jesus. But here, they are an example of the right way to help parent a child. If you look again at the text, it is clear that they are talking to Jesus not as know-it-all adults, but are actually learning alongside, or learning from Jesus. This was the scholarly standard of the day, the midrashic tradition, where instead of sages giving wisdom to acolytes, teacher and student learned together. And so, instead of brushing away this child from their midst, they take the time to listen and learn from him.

I think that Luke includes this story very intentionally. Remember, he is teaching the congregations of the Early Church how to be church. How to be people of faith in this new world order of Jesus. To do that, he holds up these examples of wise parenting examples. Mary and Joseph as “side of the pool parents” willing to suffer the discomfort of raising a Messiah. And the teachers of the law as humble, open, teachable figures. Luke is talking about what it looks like to learn in the Family of God.

And I think he has a word to teach us, as well. What if we learned to parent like Mary and Joseph and these teachers of the law? What if we learned to offer the same hospitality? Now, I get it…Jesus is different. Our children are not the Messiah. But Luke understood that, but still included this story for a reason, and I think that reason is more than academic and theological. It is pragmatic and pedagogical. Luke is teaching us how to teach. He seems to want to show us what it looks like to teach and learn in God’s family.

I shared a few weeks ago about a book that I finished reading by Henri Nouwen titled Reaching Out. Another chapter that I didn’t even bring up last time was his reference to the parent-child relationship as one of hospitality. He suggests that a helpful way to look at parenting is to see ourselves as hosts and children as guests:

The awareness that children are guests can be a liberating awareness because many parents suffer from deep guilt feelings toward their children, thinking that they are responsible for everything their sons and daughters do. When they see their child living in ways they disapprove of, the parents may castigate themselves with the questions: “‘What did we do wrong? What should we have done to prevent this behavior?”  and they may wonder where they failed. But children are not properties we can control as a puppeteer controls his puppets, or train as a lion tamer trains his lions. They are guests we have to respond to, not possessions we are responsible for.

Nouwen, who never had any biological children of his own, came to spend much of his life in a home caring for developmentally delayed adults. He came to parent these adult children in profound ways. And so it is meaningful to see Nouwen describe his understanding of parenting, especially as he describes it in terms of hospitality.

Let me offer today, as we begin a new year together, that Luke’s invitation to learn from the children in our midst was an invitation given to his first readers, and to us,as well. Will we grow to understand our care for the next generation as an act of holy hospitality? Will we learn from Mary and Joseph about what it looks like to offer ourselves as the side of the pool? Are we willing to learn from children and youth in our midst, and not in a condescending way, but in the way that these teachers did? Remember that when I stand up at a baby dedication and hold a newborn child in your midst, I am dedicating the child and the parents, and you as the congregation. You are joining the parents as spiritual parents…aunts and uncles and grandparents. It is a beautiful picture of what it looks like to parent God’s children together.

One final beautiful picture that shares this truth. When we studied this passage in the Two-Way last week, one of the participants shared an amazing story about their own adventures in parenting. I have omitted the names to protect the innocent, but got permission to share the story with you. It seems that there was a grand opening for a new department store, so mom brought her young daughter to the opening to find it a crush of people. Her daughter was amazed by the sights and sounds of the new store, and wandered off, much like Jesus did from his parents. Of course, pretty quickly mom was beside herself looking for her daughter, but the crowd pressed all around them. It wasn’t until the little girl saw a familiar face, a lady from her church…from our church…who happened to be working at the department store that day and saw the little one. Because she knew the little girl…and because the little girl knew her, she came to the woman and together they were able to find mom. Because that little girl knew who her family was, knew where home was, mother and daughter were reunited in a happy and tearful reunion.

Today, you are invited to be like that Baptist saint who knew that that little girl was a part of her spiritual family. To show hospitality to all of God’s children, young or old. And to celebrate that the coming of the Messiah was good news for us all.

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