Carla J. Bailey, Senior Pastor
A meditation given at
The Church of Christ at Dartmouth College
A congregation of the United Church of Christ
When I was nine or ten, my parents left me in a filling station some 300 miles or so from home. We were driving back to northern Wisconsin from a Christmas visit to my grandparents’ home in Illinois. There were seven of us in the station wagon, one kid in the front seat between mom and Dad, three in the middle seat, and one in the way back, tucked in among the suitcases and the presents and the bag of sandwiches and thermoses full of milk. That’s where I had been, asleep, when we stopped for gas. Everyone was already out of the car when I woke up and no one saw me go in to use the bathroom. I came out of the bathroom to see our family station wagon driving away from the station. The station owner jumped into his truck to try to catch my dad but it was too late. Apparently, an hour or so later when the time came for all the kids to change traveling positions, my brother looked into the back and asked, “where’s Carla?” I know I was not nearly as traumatized by the incident as my parents were, especially when my brother got into all kinds of trouble for telling me they had left me there on purpose.
If someone a hundred years from now were to write the story of my life, each event would be interpreted through the lenses of the writer’s purpose in writing the biography. Let’s say the writer of my future biography wants to emphasize my heretical nature, or the dangerous idiocy of my interpretation of the Scriptures. The story of having been left in a gas station would be told in a particular way. Or, giving a more generous slant to my biographer’s intent, suppose the purpose of my biography is to show that I am a fiercely independent person who goes my own way, free of the influences of parents or siblings. Then the left-in-the-filling station story might be told a completely different way.
There is only this one story recorded in the gospels about the years between Jesus’ birth and his arrival on the banks of the river Jordan at age 30. Jesus’ at age twelve, has come to Jerusalem with his family to celebrate Passover. It’s a chaotic holiday. Jesus and his parents are separated, as probably hundreds and hundreds of families were. When his parents finally realized he’s not with their relatives on the journey home, well, you know the rest of Luke’s story.
When we became parents, any of us who have become parents, from the first moment of the arrival of the new little person in our lives, every cell, every fiber of our being is marshaled to protect their lives from danger. Even so, children still get hurt. They get enticed. They get sick. They wander off. Once, at a shopping mall, Warren and I each thought the other had control of 4 year old Joseph. When we each discovered that he was missing, a brief, intense search ensued. It could have turned out tragically. In fact, he had wandered into a Radio Shack, enticed then as he still is by all manner of electronic bells and whistles. He probably doesn’t remember the incident. Warren and I can replay every second of it.
I was a child who chafed at every parental restriction imposed upon me. I remember loving this story as a child, not because it demonstrated how wise Jesus was as he sat in the temple asking questions but because it showed how savvy Jesus was for getting out from under his parents’ watchful eye for three days! Jesus, the patron saint of every defiant child! But the Gospel writer Luke probably didn’t intend this story to reinforce the wanderlust of wayward children. Rather, the story is here to tell us that Jesus was ordained from conception to be the Messiah, that even before he was bar mitzvah’d (which is why it was important to include his age as twelve), Jesus was asking questions of the temple teachers, that it was amazing what he already knew at such a tender age, that he wanted his parents to understand that, of course, he would be in God’s house, that he was obedient to them, in honor of the commandment concerning parents, that he grew in wisdom, as he grew in years, until the day his public ministry began.
But I think of the twelve year old Jesus who gave his parents the fright of their life as a precocious little peanut whose parents walked that tightrope between protecting their brilliant and fiercely independent child and nurturing and nourishing that divine calling that grew in him day by day.
Evil is a mysterious thing, mysterious and terrible and everywhere. The world is a dangerous place for children, from neglect to war to hunger to disease, it can easily feel to even the most enlightened of parents that we need to keep our children home and protected until we are confident they will make good decisions themselves. Of course, that didn’t work for Jesus and it probably wouldn’t work for our congregation’s children. And what parent would say that the choices Jesus made as an adult were the ones that would keep him safe. They weren’t. He made dangerous decisions when he was an adult. And if he hadn’t made them, if he had chosen to protect himself from the powers and principalities aligned against him, how would we know that God hates oppression? How would we know that God is with us in every battle against injustice? How would we know that we are never alone?
God bless the precocious little peanuts of this world. God bless them every one. Amen.