I love our Gospel passage from Luke for this morning for a couple of reasons. First it is the only story we have from the time between Jesus’ birth and infancy and the start of his public ministry. But I mostly like it because it is so reflective of life as I experience it.
We have two parents and a boy on the cusp of adulthood. They have travelled together to keep their religious commitments as a family. Appropriately for his age, Jesus has been given some freedom to go about on his own, but clearly his parents are expecting him to not go too far from the family. However, it finally dawns on Mary and Joseph that Jesus has taken more freedom and liberty than they were expecting, and they can’t find him anywhere. After 3 days, 3 DAYS, they find him. The writer of the Gospel of Luke is a person of few words, so we don’t hear anything about what Mary and Joseph are feeling, but I have to think they were beside themselves. I know I freak out if I can’t locate one of my children in a store for a few minutes. 3 days would probably kill me.
We do know they felt something, because when they find Jesus they say, “Child, why have you treated us like this?” And Jesus responds, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” In other words, “Mom, Dad, what’s the big deal? I can take care of myself. I’m just fine. Chill out.” How many times have you who have parented adolescents heard a similar response?
It is a tale as old as time. Children growing up and spreading their wings. Parents struggling to adjust to this emerging adult and their new role in relation to this emerging adult. The children need to grow, the adults are scared. In many ways the parents need to grow just as much if not more than their children. It is hard to let go of the role of parent as it was.
So, I completely get Mary and Jospeh’s reaction to Jesus’ absence. It is difficult to let go of what is safe and familiar. Up to this point, Mary and Joseph have been able to keep Jesus safe. Now they are entering a new stage of their relationship with him, a stage in which it is time for Jesus to begin to take on a new identity, the son of God. He is not rejecting his parents; he is simply creating a new and different relationship with them. For Jesus this is movement forward that he must take, for Mary and Joseph this involves loss—loss of identity, loss of comfort, loss of safety, loss of control.
For me this is a story about spiritual growth—Jesus, Mary and Joseph’s. All three are in a process of leaving their comfort zones. All three are being called or challenged to let go of what is safe and familiar in order to move to a place where they can grow into the love and likeness of God. And authentic spiritual growth almost always involves letting go of something. Jesus is letting go of his previous relationship with his parents in which they sheltered and protected him. He is moving into a new relationship with God and his community, in which he sits with others and questions and challenges and learns. He isn’t rejecting his parents, but he needs to go out into the world and learn from others. He needs to find his own thoughts and his own ways. Mary and Joseph have to let go of Jesus so that he can find his own way. They can no longer be the center of his world.
And for me this is the journey for all human beings, parents or not. Life is a process of constant movement and growth—or at least life lived at its best is. Whether we like it or not we are always being called to let go of who and what we were that we might be able to grow into what God is calling us to be. Just when we think we’ve figured this life of ours out and settled into a comfortable identity, things shift and change. Sometimes the shift is a welcome one, as it appears it was for Jesus. Jesus was ready willing and able to go out into the world on his own and to begin taking his place in his community. Sometimes the shift is painful and not so welcome, as it appears it was for Mary and Joseph who are afraid for their boy who is swiftly growing into a man. There was probably much they enjoyed about being parents of a young child and they are not so sure they are ready to give that up.
But they can’t stay where they were, or they can’t stay there and be happy. Sure, they could come down hard on Jesus and try to strictly control his comings and goings, but they would be preventing his growth. They would be preventing him from becoming the person God is calling him to become. They would be hurting Jesus and depriving the world of the teacher and savior that it needs. And ultimately, they would be hurting themselves, because in hurting their son, they would hurt their relationship with him, and life would become miserable and painful for all three.
Isn’t this the way life works for all of us? Sometimes we face times of change that are welcome and exciting: marriage, the birth of a child, a welcome new job, a new home. These are times of growth and opportunity. And sometimes we face times of change that we did not ask for: death, loss of a job, change in a relationship, divorce, aging, ill health, pandemics. These are also times of growth and opportunity, but they often do not feel that way. Mostly these times can feel like times of set back and loss and therefore times to be resisted. That is a normal and natural reaction. Nobody likes change they didn’t ask for. But the change comes whether we want it to or not. And the more we resist and cling to our pre-change identity, the more painful the change becomes.
Paradoxically, if we can work through our painful feelings, our grief and anger about the change we did not ask for, and eventually let go of what was, we can embrace what is to be and find ourselves in a deeper, richer and more meaningful place than we ever knew we could be. Paradoxically it is the times of change that we never wanted that can bring about in us the greatest spiritual growth, if we are able to let go of what exists no more.
This is true for individuals, and it is true for communities too. We are living in a time of enormous and often unwelcome change. The pandemic has changed our world forever. The changes that almost 2 years of living with a fast moving and sometimes deadly virus has brought about in us are not going to go away. We see the world differently. We experience the world differently. We cannot undo this. We cannot get back individually or communally to the world as it was before COVID became a daily part of our lives. Even when the virus subsides and is present but not a crisis, we cannot return to who we were before. Some will try, and their suffering will simply be prolonged or increased. And God is not calling us to return our previous way of being. God is calling us to face our losses and grieve them, and then to look at who we are now and to figure out what that means. The pandemic has cracked us open, and this is not the bad news it might seem. Sometimes the greatest and best growth only happens when we’ve been cracked open and have no other choice except to change.
And this is true for the church as well. It has become abundantly clear to me in the past few months that the world is not what it was when I joined you 2 ½ years ago as your rector. I am not sure I really know what the world is yet, but I do know that we as a community need to look honestly and bravely at who we were and where we are now. We need to determine the things that will no longer work for us because the world is not what it was. We need to grieve the things that need to be let go of, and we need to spend a great deal of time discerning what new ways of being church God is calling us to. When I can get a little more of a handle on where we are, I will be asking you to join me in this work. In the meantime, I hope that you will join me in holding us all in prayer in this in between time when we haven’t quite let go of what was and we are unsure of where we are going next.
And have faith. This is a difficult time, and God is present with us. We may not know exactly what God is calling us to do and be, and the unknown can be a little scary, and we know that God is walking with us every step of the way. And during this in between time, let us be like Mary and treasure all these things in our hearts and be like Jesus, growing in wisdom and in divine and human favor. For nothing can separate us from the love of God. Amen.