Coming of age in the house of God | 16 February 2014

Text: Luke 2:41-52

If you were a young Lakota Indian, around the age of our jr. youth, you would soon be setting out into the wilderness on a Vision Quest.  You would undergo a process of purification in a sweat lodge with a holy man, and would then be led out to an isolated place chosen by the community elders.  You would be left alone in that space with nothing more than some ceremonial offerings.  You would not have food or water.  For the next several days and nights it would be your task to listen.  To watch.  To pray.  To wait for a vision.  A sign, or a voice, or an object of significance from your natural surroundings which would direct your path for the years to come and mark the transition from childhood to adulthood.

If you were an Apache girl of this age you would undergo the Sunrise Ceremony.  You would be painted with clay and pollen, which would stay on your body the entire four days that the ceremony lasts.  You would go through physically demanding tests of strength and long periods of dancing.  You would be given instruction in the areas of self-confidence, sexuality, and healing.  Each dawn, you would pray toward the rising sun in the East.

If you were a Jewish young person, age 12 for girls and 13 for boys, you would undergo your bat or bar mitzvah, which means “daughter or son of the commandment.”  After the ceremony you would be looked on as being responsible for following Jewish law and commandments.

These might be considered strange events if it weren’t for the fact that rituals like these have been pervasive throughout time in cultures around the world.  Different parts of the human family have found great value in clearly marking that otherwise fuzzy boundary between childhood and adulthood, forming rituals and practices that enable the young person and the community to know that a change has happened.  A new stage of life has been entered.

Mennonites believe that baptism is a vital step in one’s faith walk, which occurs for us after one has come of age, but we don’t have a statement on exactly when one comes of age, and we do not have a common practice or ritual to mark that time.  Plus baptism is a ritual of choice, while entering the tween and teenage years gets imposed on all of us, whether we like it or not.  This year our congregation is beginning what we hope to be an emerging tradition among us, a Coming of Age Sunday, to be observed when we have a group of young people around the age of 12-ish.  This year we are including the whole jr youth group to get things started.

Since December they have been working on creating personal notebooks about themselves, and today they will be presented with those notebooks which include some key additional material:  blessings, prayers, words of encouragement, naming of their gifts, from you all, to carry them into this next stage of life and help guide them.  We will not paint their bodies or send them out into the wilderness, or even make them recite Torah – although they did a nice job reading from the gospel.  Instead, through the words in these notebooks and this service, the voices of the community, we hope to give a blessing for the years ahead.

We also recognize that our culture has named an important phase of life that happens between childhood and adulthood – adolescence.  And so this Coming of Age ceremony marks that transition from childhood to adolescence, a time when the body and mind and soul will undergo miraculous transformation, and a greater sense of identity is formed.

And so – Quinn, Steven, Phoebe, Maddie, Micah, and Jack – here we are.  When we met together two weeks ago we talked about how we form our worship services around scripture, and we studied a couple options for the scripture – to place your own experience within the broader story of the Bible.  You chose for today the story of the boy Jesus in the temple.  One of the great things about this story, and one of the things that drew you to it, was that this is a story in which Jesus is pretty much your age.  Unless you’re an infant, between the ages of 30 and 33, or an adolescent, you don’t have stories of what Jesus was doing when he was your age.  When I turned 34 I remember thinking that I had made it through my Jesus years and managed to not get myself crucified.  When you outlive Jesus, what’s next?  I guess it was time to come and be the pastor at Columbus Mennonite Church.

This story of Jesus in the temple is the only story we have in the Bible of an adolescent Jesus.  The only one.  There’s a twelve year gap from infancy to this story, and an 18 year gap from this story to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.  This of course leaves room for all kinds of speculation, and so a couple hundred years after Jesus’ birth a person or group of people wrote The Infancy Gospel of Thomas which tells different fanciful tales of Jesus’ childhood.  This includes harmless things like young Jesus making birds out of clay and then making them come to life, and useful things like stretching a piece of wood to make it the right size for his father Joseph who is making a bed for him.  It also includes stories of Jesus being a bit of a childhood bully as he curses a boy who then turns into a corpse, and he makes some people go blind – although he does end up reversing those things.  It makes one wonder if JK Rowling took some inspiration from this infancy gospel when she was writing about Harry Potter during his first couple years at Hogwarts.

I mentioned that Jewish boys come of age and become accountable to the law at the age of 13, and so the only story we have in the Bible of Jesus between birth and adulthood is one of him just on the cusp of making that major transition out of childhood, age 12.  This is about the time when something changes, when something’s different.  Because every other year, Jesus had gone with his parents and cousins and friends to Jerusalem for the Passover, celebrating the time when their people were delivered out of their slavery in Egypt.  He had gone with them, celebrated with them, and gone back home with them.  Every year it had been like this.

But this year was different.  He went with them like usual, celebrated with them like usual, but this time, when they go to leave, the whole clan of them, Jesus doesn’t go back with them.  The phrase Luke uses is that Jesus “stayed behind in Jerusalem,” which makes it sound like this was not just a Home Alone kind of situation when he didn’t know his family was headed out without him.  When he was in that fuzzy place between childhood and whatever is next, he stayed behind, apart, and did not go back home with his family.

This probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise to parents.  Psychologists have taught us that this is exactly what is happening at this point in life of human development.  There is that wonderful time of sheltered safety within the confines of parental love and home, and then the child, no longer quite a child, ventures out, and their sense of self starts to expand beyond just their own family.  They start searching for answers and their own identity beyond the household, and they enter those formative years we have called adolescence.  They come of age.

Mary and Joseph had skipped out on their college intro to psychology course and assumed that Jesus would be with them this year like all other years.  But he isn’t.  He’s not with them, he’s not with relatives or friends, and they head back, on foot of course, to Jerusalem, no doubt having plenty of time to worry themselves sick along the way, which Mary will be quick to remind Jesus when they do find him.

Where they find him is in the temple, the house of God.  And what he’s been doing, as Luke tells us, is “sitting among the teachers, listening to them, and asking questions.”  Listening to them.  And asking questions.  It’s a good time of life to ask questions.  It’s a good time of life to listen more deeply and more widely than you’ve ever listened before, for what this world has in store for you.  For who you are.  For who God is.  I wonder what kinds of questions Jesus was asking to those teachers in the temple.  I wonder what kinds of questions you will ask to teachers in this place of worship?  We want this to be a place where questions, even hard and impossible questions, are welcome.  Because Lord knows us adults have a question or two about how it all fits together.

Jesus refers to the temple as his Father’s house.  “Did you not know that I must be in my father’s house?”  Another translation reads, “Did you not know I must be about my Father’s business.”  This after Mary told him that she and his father had been searching for him “in great anxiety.”  There is an expansion going on in the awareness of Jesus that his identity goes beyond that of just his mother and father, and is connected to this Universal Spirit we tend to call God and which he so intimately referred to as his father.

One of the things I find remarkable about you as a group is that of the six of you, five of you are adopted.  That’s kind of amazing.  This would usually put you in the minority, but here, in your group, you are the strong majority.  I don’t know what that’s like, to be adopted, but I imagine that the questions of identity and belonging that all of us have to ask along the way can be especially intensified for you.  This may be difficult at times, or it may put you at an advantage in this journey of coming into a sense of self-hood and who we are in God.  Because you already know that you are more than just the household that you have grown up in.  You have been chosen and surrounded by love, and you know that there’s more to your story.

Jesus makes this step of defining himself as more than just the product of his parents, a step we all must take, and finds his ultimate identity in the loving parenthood of God.  Later on in his life there’s a time when Jesus is speaking to the crowds and someone tells him “Look, your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to talk with you.  And Jesus points to those gathered around him and says, “Here are my mother and my brothers and sisters.”  (Matthew 12:46-50)

I would like to invite you to think about what it means to be a child in the house of God, with the house of God being not a temple, or this building of worship, but the whole creation.  You belong to God, you belong to this planet, and your sense of you who are will continue to expand as you listen and ask questions.

When we open ourselves up to this path, to this possibility, there are two directions this can go.  One is that we feel that we don’t belong anywhere.  We know we don’t quite belong completely just in our home and immediate family, we know we’re more than that, and we don’t know what is our place in the world.  We don’t belong anywhere.

The other direction is that we begin to feel that we belong everywhere.  We are no longer limited to just one place, just one group, one set of people telling us who we are.  We have a deep sense of being a beloved child of God, and all things belong to God, and all things belong us, and we belong everywhere.  Here, there, everywhere, are our brothers and sisters.

There are very few things that are certain in life, but I am almost certain that a good part of life, especially the coming of age years, will consist of going back and forth between these two.  I belong nowhere with no one.  I belong everywhere, with everyone, and I am loved by God.

And parents, and we as a congregation, can become like Mary, who, in her own process of growth and trust in Transcendent Love, moves beyond anxiety, and “treasured all these things in her heart.  And the child increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.”