Sermon for Christmas 1C: The Casual Bar Mitzvah

When you think of a 12-year-old boy, your mind does not automatically make the connection that he is a man…. old enough to get married, have children, and create a life for himself outside of his parents. And yet, in that time and place, it was custom. A boy became a man after his bar mitzvah, and even though the Gospel does not record that he had one, I like to call his “Q&A” session The Casual Bar Mitzvah, because indeed, that is how it presents. He wasn’t just a man, he was acting like it. He gave the other rabbis a lot to think about, and they were astounded at his insights.

But to me, this story does not hinge on his theological answers. It hinges on the way he clearly mistreats his parents and how frightening that must have been for them…. and when they finally find him, to be quite honest, he treats them like crap.

I am not a parent, so of course my frame of reference is going to be different than someone who has actually stood in a birthing suite and watched a tiny baby emerge, or someone who has actually been in labor. But the friends I have who are parents say that it is the end of life as you know it. That all of the sudden, it is the end of eight full hours of sleep and your heart being limited to your own body. I have no doubt that Joseph and Mary felt the same way. When you are someone’s child, it does not matter how old you are. Your parents are going to be protective of you no matter what. Passover was such a large festival that I don’t believe for a second that they forgot him- just that Joseph thought he was with Mary and vice versa. So, with their hearts walking outside of their bodies as they realize their child is missing, they rush back toward Jerusalem… and they are far enough away that it is not an easy trip. I imagine their panic growing as they cannot find him, and when they do, I picture frantic anger… the kind where both parents just come unglued with anger and relief.

Some theologians agree that there was nothing wrong with Jesus’ disappearance, that OF COURSE he should have been at the temple. That it was the start of his tempering fire. While that may be true, Jesus’ reaction was to minimize his parents’ frustration by saying, Why were you searching for me? Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” Oh, well. That makes it all better, then.

For Mary, it was in effect, saying that she was foolish. For Joseph, it was establishing that he was also foolish and in addition, a very clear “you’re not my REAL dad.” It was classic petulant tween, even though he was supposed to be an “adult.” Because he was a child by today’s standards, I can forgive him. But not right away. It takes time to heal from a wound like that. To me, this is expressed in a nice, clean way by Luke saying they did not understand what he was saying to them. Their worry was justified, and Jesus did nothing to comfort them in their distress… also a tweenage thing to do because they are not other-aware. They are not old enough to see how Mary and Joseph needed him to say that he was sorry for worrying them, that he loved them, that he wouldn’t just disappear again without telling them where he was going.

Alternatively, I am sure that they were proud of Jesus for his accomplishments in the temple, because they knew he was going to be a great leader someday… but that someday wasn’t here. The story says that Jesus went home with Mary and Joseph and was obedient to them. It does not say that he took his manhood and ran with it, even though he clearly could’ve. Mary and Joseph are also not recorded as saying to their 12-year-old that if he wanted to act like a man, he should move out and get a job. Forgiveness abounded, even though Jesus had done wrong.

Mary says that she treasured these things in her heart, but I do not believe it began that day, in all of her panic. The Gospel says it does, but what human on earth can be stung like that and not need to have time to get over it? When your heart walks out of your body and your children refuse you, it doesn’t go away easily. It stays with you internally just as much as the scars and stretch marks that show on the outside.

Her feelings must have been complex, because she could see her son taking his place among the great rabbis of his time. And yet, she still had a ways to go in order to get him ready. Tweens do not have the concept of community, that they can lean on their parents for help, because by then, they just want to do everything themselves. In 7th grade, my homeroom teacher had a sign on her wall that said, “hire a teenager while they still know everything.” Would it have been any different for Jesus? Would it have been even harder for Mary and Joseph to stand up to Jesus knowing that not only was he a man in the eyes of his community, he was also born to unite the people Israel? To me, it is the same as parents of average intelligence being born with a genius or a prodigy. They literally know everything, logically, anyway… but how do you get them to know that intelligence is not the only thing they’ll need to survive in the world? There’s enculturation and socialization to be done… and yet, how do you get those kids to accept help with all the things they don’t know versus all the things they do?

As adults, real ones and not 12-year-olds bar and bat mitzvahed, are we really any different? Are we able to accept help for all the things we don’t know, despite all the things we do? In pain, we tend to isolate and pretend that we are FINE, thank you very much…. while inside, there is a raging storm of emotion. There’s personal problems like divorce, poverty, death…. and plenty of situations that aren’t happening to us, but we feel they are. When someone shoots up a school, there is national mourning. When terrorist attacks happen, we wonder if our community could be next. We want to do it by ourselves, and when we don’t reach out, there is no room for grace.

There is no knowing what people will do to respond to your pain, and if you let them, they will. You will receive the gift of people trying to help you, and they receive the gift of having tried. People are not perfect, and sometimes they say the wrong things, which makes us wont to retreat even more. But if you retreat when people say the wrong things, you will lose the gift of hearing people say the right ones. You will not rise above the wrong things people have said, because you’ll realize they’re not saying the wrong things out of malice… they’re just human and don’t know what to do.

This sermon makes me go back to my youth group, who upon hearing that I’d gone through a divorce this year, held me in prayer and hoped for my joy. Because I had kids ranging from 12 to 18, I did not give them any details, but they knew them, anyway. Several of them had gone through their parents divorcing, and so they knew what it felt like without me having to say a word. They hoped I would have joy in the coming year, and I knew within myself that I did, and I didn’t have to look very hard.

I leaned on my community, and they caught me. In hearing about Jesus’ audacity in the temple toward his parents, I realized that I had true power in my hands in terms of leading my kids to be the adults I know they can be. I can help be responsible for their enculturation and socialization. I can teach them to care and to lean on each other when they need help. I have kids just like Jesus, who come to me with gifts beyond their physical ages. My challenge is how to give my kids the wisdom that Mary and Joseph needed to impart to their son, so that not only would he be the Son of Man, he would also have time to be a fallible human, as we all are.

Luke shows us Jesus’ humanness and the way his parents forgave him for it. It is up to us to follow Mary and Joseph’s example of unfailing love, both for our children and for the world around us.

None of us make it alone, but God, how we try.

What would happen if we just let grace and forgiveness happen? What would happen if we began to receive those gifts, and not in a surface-y way? What if we were able to see and reflect on them for the widow’s mites of hope that they are?

Mary and Joseph forgave Jesus for the way he hurt them. It is an example of grace handed down through the years from Mary and Joseph to Luke to us.

What would happen if we took it?

Amen.

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