Texts: 1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26 •
In his video commentary introducing the bible study series Manna and Mercy, Alan Storey, a Methodist pastor from South Africa, presents the story of another young pastor, Dave, and the lesson his son taught him about what happens when people lose their Jesus. This young pastor recounts a day at the playground with his four-year old child:
So when my son was about four years old one day I said, “let’s go to the park.” He asked, “can I bring my Bible?” I said, “sure.” So I put my books in a bag and he put his Bible in a bag and we came to the park.
I sat on a bench and read for a while, and he played with a little girl. I looked up after about 30 minutes or so, and I saw that he was on top of the jungle gym and the little girl was down below, playing in the mulch. He had his Bible in a tote bag, and he was aiming at her head through the bars of the gym. He dropped it and it fell and hit her in the head, and she started wailing and her mom got up and came over and I got up and came over. Her mom said, “oh, it’s OK, it’s just an accident. I said “no, I saw what happened, it wasn’t an accident.”
So I called my son down and he came up to me, kind of sheepishly, and I said to him, “Leo, the Bible is an important book, and if you’re going to use it as a weapon and hurt people with it, then I’m not going to let you have it. So I took his Bible and I put it in my bag. He looked at me for a few minutes. I could see the gears working in his head, and he twisted up his face in fury and said, “you can’t take God’s word away from me!” And every parent, and every child… it was complete silence in the park. Everyone was looking at us, and he gave me the worst tongue-lashing a four year old has ever given me. He said, “you’re supposed to be a preacher! You’re supposed to teach people about God, not take the Bible away from them!” and on and on. So I said, “if you’re throwing a tantrum, we’re going to have to leave.”
So, as we were walking out of the park, this little ten year old boy was holding open the gate for us, and he was looking at us as we walked by, and Leo was shouting at me, “you wicked, wicked man! You can’t keep me from learning about God!” And the little boy was just looking at me, his eyes were as big as dinner plates, and thinking, “what kind of man is this, that would take the Bible away from a child?”
I think Leo and I both learned a lesson that day. I hope that he learned that you’re not supposed to use the Bible as a weapon, and I learned that, when you tell people that, they get mad at you.
“You can’t take God’s word away from me!” the boy shouted. Less than a week ago we gathered in this sanctuary on Christmas morning to celebrate the nativity of our Lord, the birth of the baby of Bethlehem, the Word made flesh. We have been waiting so long for this child, this Word, this light shining in the darkness, so it’s completely understandable that we may have grown possessive of him. It’s true, you can’t take God word away from God’s people, but that doesn’t mean you won’t lose your Jesus from time to time.
I don’t remember the first time I noticed my Jesus was missing, but I remember one of them. I was a year or two out of college, and I’d stopped going to church. After I’d come out, I assumed that Jesus and the church didn’t have much good news for me and people like me in the LGBTQ communities. Then I stumbled across a book by Robert Goss, a former Jesuit priest who’d earned a doctorate in Comparative Religion from Harvard University and was a member of ACT-UP and Queer Nation, both radical LGBTQ organizations who came to prominence at the height of the AIDS epidemic in the United States in the late 80s. The book was titled, “Jesus Acted Up: A Gay and Lesbian Manifesto.”
Standing in the aisle of a gay bookstore in Boston, I thumbed through its pages wondering to myself, “what do these words even mean, ‘Christology’ and ‘liberation theology’ and why haven’t I ever heard them before?” I’d spent my whole childhood in church. I was sure I knew exactly who Jesus was. He was the Son of God, born of the Virgin Mary, who died for my sins and the sins of the world. He didn’t discriminate against women or Samaritans, he healed the sick, and he was often in trouble with the church. But here was this book by a priest and a scholar who put Jesus’ name next to the names of radical and non-religious queer organizing communities mobilizing people with AIDS for power and change as if the two naturally belonged together. I felt a little dizzy. Where had my Jesus gone?
Have you ever lost your Jesus? Can you recall how disorienting it was? It happens all kinds of ways. Sometimes, like with me, we lose our understanding of who he is. We hear new interpretations of the meaning of his life and ministry, or his death and resurrection, and it feels like everything we’d been taught before has become untrustworthy. Sometimes it’s our ability to feel his presence, his nearness, as we pray — once taken for granted, but now lost and confusing, even terrifying. Sometimes we lose our Jesus because we’re simply surrounded by too many other voices, and we can’t hear Jesus above the din of so many other “content streams” — news, entertainment, the workplace, the marketplace, the streets.
Mary and Joseph had an annual holiday tradition not so different from the one many of us have just celebrated. Each year at Passover they would travel in a group from Nazareth to Jerusalem. Though the mode of transportation and the terrain were completely different, I suspect some features of holiday travel haven’t changed that much. You pack and repack the donkey or the car. You double-check to make sure you’ve remembered all the gifts for all the people you plan to see and stay with while you’re away from home. You make sure there’s food for the road and toys or travel companions to keep you occupied throughout the journey.
It was on their way home, after the holiday, on a day like today, that they realized they hadn’t actually seen Jesus in a while. They’d been so busy with the packing and the gifting and the eating, but when they stopped and took inventory, they realized they didn’t know where Jesus was. They’d lost their Jesus.
Church people like to notice that when Jesus is found, he’s found in the church. I think it’s good that we notice this, and I think it’s helpful for us to remind ourselves and one another that when your Jesus is lost, a good place to look is the church. We’ve got the stories, and the histories, and the sacraments, and the small groups. We work hard to foster as many meeting places as we can for each of us to encounter Jesus once again in the ways he reliably shows up: in the Word — read, preached and sung; and in the sacraments — touching our skin and filling our stomachs.
We should also note, though, that when Jesus is found in the church he is listening and asking questions. The learned people of the temple, the ones who — like me, and maybe you as well — thought they already knew the whole story, are amazed at how his listening and his questions bring new ideas and understandings and possibilities to light. This is a reminder to all of us, but particularly to those of us called to teach, that the Spirit needs our silence as well as our voices, so that questions can be asked and people can be listened to.
I think finding Jesus is a life-long process. I don’t think we ever truly get there, or get it right. When we start to think we’ve got Jesus nailed down, then we start to drop him on other people like that young boy on the playground. Our answers and our understandings become leaden and freighted down with our own histories and hurts. They can even injure those we try to share them with.
But losing Jesus is a life-long process too, and one I think we’re called to risk over and over again. It was confusing and disorienting for me to discover that the Jesus I knew as a child had, somehow and somewhen, gotten mixed up with a community of HIV-positive radicals, even atheists! I kept reading, finding more and more words I didn’t understand, until finally I had to call one of my childhood pastors and ask her to explain them to me. She told me there was an entire field of religious studies concerned with the many ways people understand the meaning of Jesus, called “Christology,” a topic within the larger field of systematic theology. She suggested that I might enjoy studying the topic more deeply, perhaps at a seminary. I wasn’t ready to hear that quite yet, but a seed planted many years before got some fresh water that day.
We all need to lose our Jesus from time to time, even our religion. I think Jesus knows that. Perhaps it’s even why he wanders off from time to time, leaving our prayers unanswered, our spirits restless, our minds troubled, our hearts yearning. Because in missing him, we begin the process of looking, and once we begin to look we are more open to what we may yet discover.