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In Wisdom and In Years

Rev. Karen McArthur
Sun, Dec 30

First Sunday of Christmas
Colossians 3:12-17
Luke 2:41-52

Growing up is a challenge -- for all of us! I’ve read this text many times – it’s a part of the larger Christmas narrative that starts with angels and stars, shepherds and magi, dreams and gifts. Both Matthew and Luke provide a link between the baby Jesus and the grown man. For Matthew, it’s the toddler Jesus, echoing the story about when Moses was a year old. In Luke’s version, it is an episode about the boy Jesus just a year short of his bar mitzvah.

This story about the 12-year-old Jesus comes up in the lectionary every third year – in Luke’s year -- on the Sunday after Christmas. But this time when I read it, as the parent now of a teenager and a soon-to-be teen, it hit me: Luke must have had a teenager of his own. And Luke, like most all of us here today, was once a teenager himself. Thus he is able to tell the story from the perspective of the parents, the boy, and the rest of us, looking over their shoulders at this public moment of a private family temporarily separated from one another.

The story of the 12-year-old boy seems so real. He’s not quite the age for the Jewish bar mitzvah ritual that would recognize him as an adult member of the community, but he’s old enough to go off on his own now and then, and he’s old enough to talk back to his parents. You know that in-between age: they’re old enough to be independent, but too young to be entirely on their own, not yet aware of how their actions affect others, and not yet old enough to understand why a parent would possibly be worried. “You didn’t have to come looking for me. I was fine.” The boy has one foot in adulthood and the other in his childhood, excited about the world he is soon to enter, but very much still a boy.

Let’s change stories here (but I promise they’re related). Three weeks ago, I did something that managed to combine five things that I don’t particularly like: big crowds, bad traffic, professional football, overpriced concessions, and large quantities of beer. It was all for a good cause – our Dartmouth School Music Association staffs a concession booth at Gillette Stadium as a fundraising opportunity. It was good company with my fellow band parents. I could hear the roar of the crowd whenever Tom Brady connected with a receiver, or someone ran for a touchdown, which was quite often in that 42-14 football game. The concessions operation ran very smoothly, taking in about $10,000 and earning several hundred dollars for our kids and their music. Wearing my Patriots’ shirt, apron and visor, I sold hot dogs and pizzas, popcorn and soda, and beer -- lots of beer.

There were two sizes: large and larger (or at least that’s how it seemed to me.) The stadium rules were very clear. I had to take the customer’s ID and verify their birth date. There was a limit of two 20-oz. beers per customer at a time. (If you’re measuring, that’s more than half a six-pack). And the beer sales stopped a few minutes after halftime ended. Nonetheless, I wondered about all of the beer.

The next day in the newspaper, I saw that the state police had arrested a man for DUI after he hit a pedestrian in the post-game traffic. I looked at his name and town, and wondered whether I had served him the beer. If it wasn’t me, then it was some other well-meaning volunteer working to raise money for their school or church or community. No one would intentionally get a person drunk and then put them behind the wheel of a car in the dark in the middle of a whole bunch of traffic and pedestrians. But that’s what we collectively did. What is the individual’s responsibility? What is his responsibility to the community? And what is our responsibility to the wider community?

A few days later, when the Newtown event blasted its way into our lives, I asked this same question: is this just an issue of one individual who acted irresponsibly or irrationally? Was it totally – and only -- his fault? Or were there others who contributed to it? We didn’t load up his weapons and send him into that situation. Or did we?

There are two very different conversations going on in this country. One is about the availability of weapons, access to mental health care, and children and teens and adults becoming immune to violence on television, in movies and as a part of video games. The other is about stockpiling weapons and ammunition, financial profits, individual freedoms, and personal protection. It is yet another example of the division that seems to define our country these days – between individual responsibility and responsibility to the community. But I don’t think that’s all of it.

And it’s not only our country. India is dealing with – since there are children in the room, I’ll just say they’re dealing with what happened to a woman and her husband on a New Delhi bus. After the first incident in New Delhi, another couple had a nearly identical experience in West Bengal on their way home from work. Like here in this country, the crowds have gathered day after day, and there is hope that laws can change and a new sense of justice and community can prevail.

In these terrible situations in Newtown and New Delhi, we have come to realize that there are the perpetrators and the victims, but there are also the bystanders. Many bystanders. Many different kinds of bystanders. What is our responsibility to the wider community?

Our schoolchildren learn repeatedly about how to stop bullying. There are children’s books, and school assemblies, and art projects to design posters for school hallways. Since 2010, Massachusetts has had a comprehensive anti-bullying law that requires teachers and schools to report incidents of bullying. Most third graders can identify the bully, the victim, and the bystanders who let it happen or who can keep it from happening. And it’s working in many ways to reduce the bad behavior and make growing up a kinder and gentler time in our lives.

But what about the adults? Do we get it? Can we begin to detangle the multiple roles that people play in these situations? How do we contribute to the problem of violence in our society, whether it’s gun violence, or alcohol abuse, or any of a long list of abuses of power? What are the effects of our actions when we pay to see a movie that glorifies violence? What happens when we purchase products manufactured on the other side of the world? There are both cost of labor issues as well as environmental issues as we pay to transport those goods. What happens when we use more and more energy? How do we change our perspective so that we see both our own individual responsibility to ourselves – and our responsibility to the community?

I find myself having conversations with my soon-to-be-driving teenager about speed limits. My town has installed these speed limit signs that flash your speed back at you. Not the big trailers that the police move from one spot to another, but a small sign mounted on a pole. Sometimes it flashes “Your speed” “34” and a smiley face. Other times, it’s “Your speed” “42” and “Slow Down!” I talked with one friend who said she didn’t realize there was a smiley face possibility – she had never seen it …

Just because you are capable of staying in between the lines at faster speeds doesn’t mean that it’s safe. Speed limits are determined with many factors in mind. There could be a driveway around the corner, or an intersection over the crest of the hill. Speed limits are a part of our responsibility to the community. Similarly, wearing a seat belt not only protects the individual, but also protects the person’s family and friends who love them, and even the drivers of other cars. If someone is more hurt in an accident than they would have been had they been wearing a seat belt, then not wearing a seat belt could cause emotional pain to the driver of a car in an accident. Our actions directly and indirectly affect ourselves, our families, our communities, and our world.

Back to Jesus wandering off. From his perspective, he knew right where he was. He wasn’t lost at all. But his parents were worried. Remember, this was before cell phones. By the time they realized that Jesus wasn’t with them, they had gone a whole day’s journey. They started asking around among their friends and relatives. Finally, they traveled back another day’s journey and found their young adolescent in the city, in the temple, sitting among the adult teachers, enjoying the dialogue and debate. (It kind of reminds me of Mary, sitting at Jesus’ feet in the Martha and Mary story that Luke tells later.)

Can’t you just see it? Jesus – or you -- are so absorbed by the discussion, feeling so grown up, enjoying the attention, passionate and empowered, having the time of your life, in your element, thrilled. And then all of a sudden your mother shows up and calls out and pulls you back to yourself, “Child,” (not even “young man”), “Child, where have you been?” Jesus is more than a bit annoyed that his parents came back for him. But I wonder now where he slept? How did he manage for those two nights? Who fed him? How did his parents sleep those two nights before they found him?

Somehow, like every teen before and after him, he thinks it’s his parents’ fault for coming after him. He’s growing taller and wiser, but he still isn’t quite able to understand that his actions caused concern and inconvenience for dozens of people in his community. He’s not the only one. It’s something that we all can work on, each in our own way.

Happily, the moment of discipline appears to have been resolved. Luke reports, “He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them.” Was Jesus grounded? Was this the ancient equivalent of taking away his electronics? Either by his parents’ command or his own choice, he found his way back to the family of his childhood and its rules that had kept him safe and secure for his first twelve years. Did he come to understand what his parents and their relatives and friends had gone through? It’s one of only a few brief moments when we are able to see how Jesus and his family related to one another. And it’s a story of how a family and a community raised a young boy as he became a man who ultimately changed the world.

As we come to the end of 2012 and look ahead to 2013, I invite you to consider the choices you will make every day. In what ways are you a bystander? How do you, indirectly or directly, contribute to the community and the world around you? How do your actions, and purchases, and priorities make the world a better place? Or not? Are there ways that what you do has the inadvertent potential to harm someone else? Paul addressed this balance between individual choice and community responsibility when he wrote to the church at Corinth: “Therefore, if food is a cause of my brother’s falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause my brother to fall.”

If you make New Year’s resolutions, I invite you to find a way to make a difference, not just in your life but as a bystander in the world around you. I invite you to pray about the choices that you make each and every day. Never doubt that one person can make a difference. When I googled for Margaret Mead’s exact quote, I found three. It’s interesting that all of these ideas are a part of her philosophy:
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”
“The solution to adult problems tomorrow depends on large measure upon how our children grow up today.”
“One of the oldest human needs is having someone to wonder where you are, when you don't come home at night.”

May her wisdom show us the way forward in 2013 because part of growing up is learning about how our actions affect others. Jesus eventually learned that very well. May we teach that to our children, to our teens, and to each other in the year ahead. And “as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved,” may we “clothe [ourselves] with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience … and give thanks to God.” Amen.

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