Preaching the Great Ends of the Church
#3 – The shelter, nurture and spiritual fellowship of God’s children.
Primary Scripture: Luke 2:41-51
When I first asked for a pet (beyond the outside dogs that we had growing up) mom sent me to the library. I looked up the kinds of animals my friends and classmates had – fish, cats, turtles, guinea pigs, gerbils…
I’d bring home the books, looking at all the pictures, especially the cute baby ones. But Mom would cut to the chase, asking me about the “Care and Feeding” section…
- Where does it sleep?
- What do you need for its bed or cage or whatever?
- What do you feed it?
- How much exercise does it need?
Of course, the most exotic pet my brother and I might think about was a colony of Sea Monkeys we saw advertised in comic books and kids’ magazines. Fast forward a couple of decades, and Paul and I are the parents asking about the “Care and Feeding” pages on websites that encourage families to welcome hedgehogs and sugar gliders and hermit crabs into their homes.
All I have to say is “Thank goodness for plain old dogs…”
Of course, if we back up a bit – to the months before we first became parents, Paul and I did a lot of research on the care and feeding of small humans. This has become quite the industry, with plenty of debate over things like…
- What’s the safest place & position for babies to sleep?
- How do you keep them safe in the car?
- What should they wear?
- How often should they eat?
- Is it really better to breastfeed?
- Do you really need to use special laundry soap?
I hear – from some of you even – that I needn’t look forward to that changing.. that you spend a lifetime parenting. The questions just change…
Mary and Joseph could probably relate. The passage from Luke today is really the only glimpse into the life of Jesus we have between those early scenes in Bethlehem and the start of his ministry almost 30 years later.
Luke tells us Jesus is 12, which is right on the verge of becoming a man in the Jewish tradition. The family had been on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, along with as many people as could leave their small towns and villages.
It was a 2-day walk from Nazareth, so they likely stopped at the mid-point to set up camp with the others in their caravan. By then Jesus would have had younger siblings, Mary might even have been carrying a baby or watching a toddler – her own or someone else’s. Jesus would have been walking with other boys his age (less likely girls), and they would probably have had someone’s eyes on them most of the time on their way to the city.
After the festival, the travelers would have gathered into caravans and bands, based on what direction they were headed, with Mary and Joseph joining their extended family and community on the way back toward Nazareth. After a full day’s journey, as they set up camp at the midpoint, one of them finally noticed.
I always imagine the conversations between Mary, Joseph and the others followed the familiar “I thought he was with you… “ “And I thought he stayed with you…” pattern that most every parent or babysitter has endured.
They hurried back to the city – which meant another full day of travel. They searched all over the city for three days. So from the time they left for home, it had been five days. Seriously. 1 out, 1 back, 3 in the city. 5 Days.
They found him in the Temple. We don’t know what drew them there… maybe someone was talking about a boy hanging out there and they thought it was him, maybe it was one of those God nudges. Whatever led them to the room, they finally found their precious and precocious man-child in the presence of a bunch of teachers who couldn’t say enough good things about him. “He was amazing… Wise beyond his years…. Filled with insights.”
And he was in deep trouble.
Mary and Joseph were astonished, our scripture says. I suppose they were… But astonished could also have been translated as overwhelmed.
That feels closer to right to me… overwhelmed with frustration, fear, anger, joy…
overwhelmed with exhaustion… relief….
overwhelmed with the realities of parenthood.
The exchange that follows might have been a little more colorful than Luke described, as well. Mary speaks first – possibly because she knows that Joseph won’t be able to speak without words that would cost the family a small fortune in sacrificial animals and a long period of confession and repentance.
So Mary dives in. “What were you thinking, Jesus? You knew we were leaving! We have looked all over the place for you…Seriously… Your dad has aged 5 years in the past 5 days. What were you thinking? Were you thinking?”
Jesus, implacable, possibly oblivious, but definitely straight to the point. answers her questions with one of his own… “Why didn’t you come straight to the temple? You know who I am. You know why I am with you. Where else would I be, besides here… in my Father’s house… doing the work of God, my Father?”
Luke says they did not understand what he was saying to them. Or maybe they understood but still felt overwhelmed, imagining how it would only get worse as he got older and became a man.
“Let’s just go home, son”
Luke tells us Mary treasured these things in her heart. I suspect that means “Mary resolved never again to trust messengers who start the conversation by saying Be Not Afraid”
Mary and Joseph found themselves doing exactly what every fully human parent has done since God invented belly buttons… The did the best they could do, given the circumstances. Under these capital-u unique circumstances, Mary and Joseph would probably have given anything for more clarity on the care and feeding of a young messiah.
They started with the basics, assuring that he had shelter – safety, a home, protection from Herod and the slaughter of the innocents, and even before the manger in Bethlehem Joseph assured that his fiance and their unborn son would not be harmed, standing beside her as the pregnancy became obvious.
They brought Jesus to worship. They kept sabbath as a family and prayed and followed the customs in their home. They nurtured his curiosity and emerging faith. They assured that he knew the community- his extended family and those with whom they shared history and heritage as children of Israel.
Clearly, they were doing something right. Jesus felt right at home among the teachers, and the teachers welcomed him, took time to listen to him, and allowed Jesus to stay for a full five days.
The church is called upon to do exactly what Mary, Joseph and the teachers did – provide for the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God.
The church is all about the care and feeding of Christ’s disciples. We tend to think primarily of the older generations passing on our wisdom to those who come after.
Before recounting the works of God for the people of Israel in Psalm 78, the psalmist explains why the stories and the law are to be told and re-told to each generation:
Give ear, O my people, to my teaching;
incline your ears to the words of my mouth.
I will open my mouth in a parable;
I will utter dark sayings from of old,
things that we have heard and known,
that our ancestors have told us.
We will not hide them from their children;
we will tell to the coming generation
the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might,
and the wonders that he has done.
He established a decree in Jacob,
and appointed a law in Israel,
which he commanded our ancestors
to teach to their children;
that the next generation might know them,
the children yet unborn,
and rise up and tell them to their children,
so that they should set their hope in God,
and not forget the works of God,
but keep his commandments;
and that they should not be like their ancestors,
a stubborn and rebellious generation,
a generation whose heart was not steadfast,
whose spirit was not faithful to God.
In order to live as children of God, we must recall and recount for one another who God is and was and what God has promised… not only in the covenants in the Hebrew scriptures, but in the new covenant… through Christ Jesus.
But when we speak of the children of God, it’s not just about age… Young or old, all who call upon Jesus as Lord have access to God the Father. We have been adopted. We are sons and daughters, co-heirs with Christ.
That one word – ALL – means that the Church must resist the temptation to rebuild the walls that Christ has broken down, the temptation to believe that some of God’s children are more or less worthy than others.
That is the challenge of being the beloved community, of taking seriously the commandments to love God and to love our neighbors, here in the room, outside these doors and around the world.
Jesus came for all – thus, the church must proclaim that good news to all, just as the church must pursue justice and pray for the welfare of the city on behalf of all who live therein.
So just how does the church – the Body of Christ – provide shelter and nurture? We get a picture of what God desires in Deuteronomy 10:
12 So now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you? Only to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, 13 and to keep the commandments of the Lord your God and his decrees that I am commanding you today, for your own well-being. 14 Although heaven and the heaven of heavens belong to the Lord your God, the earth with all that is in it…
17 For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, 18 who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. 19 You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
Certainly last Friday, this building was a sanctuary from the lightning and the pouring rain for those men, women and children who came for a hot lunch. They were cared for, nourished physically. They were prayed for and made to feel welcome. There was laughter and fellowship, There was a sweet spirit in Ranson Hall for that hour or so.
Those folks have heard they are welcome on a Sunday. Many of them are already children of God. Some of them might not yet make that claim.
But I wonder, in addition to a physical presence, how might this church provide a canopy of faith, a shelter of grace, under which we could all come together and experience God’s presence in and among one another?
How might we make this place a home for faith?
A place where hunger for God is sated?
A place where thirst for love and hope is quenched?
What do we need, what do we yet require – among ourselves and among those who would come alongside us- so that all might experience welcome when they come as strangers, and so that all might offer hospitality as the former stranger becomes part of the family?
I’m afraid I don’t have a lot of answers, not yet … but in our conversations about this congregation and its history, I am beginning to see patterns that make me think these are the right questions to ask…
And here’s a big one… How might we take advantage of the relationships and fellowship that are so foundational to this congregation?
How might we together explore the scriptures more deeply and begin to wrestle honestly with issues that might otherwise divide us?
How might our younger members share what they have learned and experienced as followers of Jesus, just as he did with the teachers and leaders in Jerusalem…
What work might God do through and among us, if we moved beyond social connections and into a deeper spiritual fellowship? The kind of fellowship that can weather disagreements because we have spent time in prayer together. Because we have heard one another’s stories, laughed with one another, and carried one another’s sorrows. Because we have chosen to cast off judgment, sarcasm, jealousy and fear so that we might embrace honesty, compassion, empathy and trust.
What might God do in and through a community of faith that is truly committed to being shelter, offering nurture, and establishing spiritual fellowship that is open to all?
I don’t know… But I have to say, that is exactly the kind of church I want to be part of.
Part of the paperwork I had to submit in preparation for ordination was a Spiritual Biography- a one page description of what had shaped me and led me to understand my call to ministry. Thinking back and looking forward, I could see that I am shaped by community – by being part of a community that cares for and feeds this child and all God’s children. Here’s how I described it:
As a child, going to church was like going home. We gathered to play and sing and enjoy great food. People who loved me told stories of how Jesus loved people everywhere, including right there in Central Texas. Church was where we shared bread and juice and lit candles. It was also where I learned to articulate my faith, including the understanding that God had work for me to do.
Church still feels like home; only now, it is where I get to wrestle with scriptures, put on my preaching shoes and do the work God made me to do. We gather to pray and sing and share covered dishes. We tell our stories of God’s provision. We light the advent candles and put out the tenebrae candles. And the church doors are open whenever and wherever we embody and proclaim Jesus’ deep, fierce love for all people.
I feel right at home in a church, so church feels like home. This church feels like home.
I’m not alone in my desire to experience that feeling in church, or my desire for all God’s children to feel at home. And this desire is nothing new.
Listen to this portion of a prayer from James McClure, president of McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, at a service of dedication for a church in 1904:
My soul’s desire and prayer to God for this church is that its heart may be like unto the heart of God, that heart that loves every child of earth… O that this church may be bigger than any one creed, sect or class or race of color. May it be so big that any human being may feel at home here, may draw nigh to God here. May it be the mission of this church to tell every person in unmistakeable terms how dear they are- preciously dear – to God, and then to live those words in the magnanimity of its welcome, the warmth of its fellowship, and the generosity of its devotion.
I don’t often ask, but can I get an Amen?
In your mercy, Lord, hear this as our prayer for this, your church. Amen.