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The Last Place You Look

The Reverend Matt Gaventa

June 18, 2017
Luke 2:41-52

A Reading from the Gospel of Luke

Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents[a] saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he said to them. Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart.

And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.

So this is the Home Alone of Gospel stories.

Those of you of sufficient age will likely remember Home Alone, the blockbuster Hollywood comedy starring Macaulay Culkin as an eight-year-old who gets improbably left behind when his family leaves for their Christmas vacation. He then has to figure out how to survive on his own in their large suburban Chicago home while mom and dad scramble to find their way back, and, of course, hijinks ensue. But if you have not seen the movie, this may not sound like a great setup for a comedy. I mean, as a parent, I can imagine few things more terrifying than then thought of inadvertently getting on a plane, leaving my child behind, and then being unable immediately to return. It’s not comedy material. It’s nightmare material, it’s child protective services material. It’s hard to imagine a real-life version of this story in which the parents end up neither in custody or in intense therapy — but what we get instead is actually a sequel in which this entire ridiculous turn of events happens all over again. It’s almost as if this is a Hollywood story not particularly interested in trauma or grief or loss. It’s just trying to tell a story about a precocious kid who gets into some wacky adventures and grows up a bit too fast.

Which is what I mean when I say that our scripture this morning is the Home Alone of Gospel stories. It’s the only Gospel story we have of adolescent Jesus, and, in true Macaulay Culkin fashion, he’s a little precocious, and he grows up a bit too fast. Luke says that every year Joseph and Mary would take Jesus to Jerusalem for the Passover festival, but on this one particular year, as they begin to return home, Jesus stays behind, and Joseph and Mary don’t realize. After all, they’d be traveling with a large group of pilgrims, and it might be easy to lose your own child in the crowd, or to assume he’s with friends, but after a day’s travel they realize he’s missing, they start looking all through the crowd but it’s too late, he’s been left behind. And again, as a parent, this story is nightmare fuel. It’s therapy fuel. Joseph and Mary return to Jerusalem, and search three days for Jesus, and I can’t imagine. When they finally find him, of course, in the temple, sitting among the leaders, listening and asking questions, Mary asks the question on all our hearts, ““Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” Which is what you ask if this is a drama about parents who have lost their child.

But it’s not. It’s a coming-of-age story. It’s a family movie. It’s a comedy, about a precocious kid who grows up too fast. It’s about a kid who finds himself unusually gifted and in the right place at the right time. If they made this movie today, they’d call it “Temple Kid” or “Baby Rabbi” or something equally vapid, but the underlying assumption would be the same: look, this kid is a natural. He’s running circles around his elders. He belongs here, he’s always belonged here. “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?,” Jesus replies, which is a pretty mean thing to say in a drama about a missing child but I think it comes off cute when the precocious 12-year-old says it with a grin and a shrug. “I belong here. I’ve always belonged here.” “I must be in my Father’s House,” he says, turning the knife a little bit in Joseph’s back, but again, kids say the darnedest things. Because of course if he belongs in that temple, if he’s always belonged in that temple, then this whole separation isn’t on him; it’s on his parents for not being able to find him in the first place. “Why were you searching for me?” Jesus asks. You should have known exactly where to look. Of course I was at church the whole time.

They find Jesus in a church. This should not be overly surprising. I’ve known more than a few churches in my life, and I am reasonably convinced that you can find anything in a church if you look hard enough, because churches generally do not maintain a discipline of throwing things away, and because churches believe fervently in the hope that we might be able to use that thing again later on. In every church I’ve ever known there’s at least one closet containing Christmas pageant supplies that haven’t been used in a generation, but they live in hope. In every church I’ve ever known there’s at least one drawer containing spare parts for a printer that died ten years ago or spare toner for a copier that has long since moved on to the great Office Depot in the sky. In my former church we hid our generations of church stuff in the basement underneath the sanctuary, in cardboard boxes full of deprecated directories and old Youth Sunday props. And then alongside those cardboard boxes we would regularly store the goods donated to the annual preschool yard sale, the problem of course being that it was occasionally difficult to tell the difference between the old junk folks had donated to the yard sale and our own library of church “treasures.” I should tell you that in my manuscript “treasures” is in quotation marks.

And I suppose, of course, that we could have cleaned it out. We could have had a big church clean-out day where we emptied the church of all of those miscellaneous telephone cords and old office supplies and half-used packs of multicolored construction paper. But then instead we would tell ourselves, and I know you see this coming because I think most of us have a junk drawer that we don’t clean out, instead we would tell ourselves that we might need that stuff at any time. And in fact we very well might. That church was not just a church, it was also a preschool. And it was not just a preschool, it was also a community gathering space. And it was not just a community gathering space, it was also a concert hall. And it was not just a concert hall, it was also an office. That church was half-a-dozen things to half-a-dozen different groups of people and so of course the reason you could find almost anything there at almost any time was because you very well might need to find almost anything at almost any time because you never entirely knew what you were going to need.

Even in Jesus’s time. Quite famously, the temple in Jesus’s time is not just a temple. The Jerusalem temple in which Joseph and Mary find their precocious son is the hub of Jewish cultural activity under Roman imperial rule; it’s a community gathering spot; it’s a marketplace; it’s a trading floor; it’s a social hall. I can only imagine the amount of junk hanging out in the closets of the 1st-century Jerusalem temple. And of course some of it isn’t pretty at all. After all, the Gospel stories spare little sympathy for the authorities of the Jerusalem temple. The same priests with whom this precocious adolescent Jesus sits in today’s reading will be endlessly threatened by his teachings, endlessly sycophantic to the whims of empire, and endlessly capable of putting their own interests above the interests of their people. This temple can do all kinds of things, and not all of them are noble, and not all of them are holy, and some of them are downright violent and corrupt. Which means that the surprise in this text isn’t that Mary and Joseph find Jesus in the church. After all, you can find anything in a church. The surprise is that

Jesus chooses the church as the place where he will be found.

Jesus chooses the church. Jesus chooses to be found in the church. I find this absolutely remarkable; after all, it is the very chief priests and officers of the temple who will in Luke’s Gospel conspire to have him arrested and killed and yet time and time again starting even here in his adolescence Jesus chooses the church. In find this absolutely remarkable; after all, there’s a lot of junk in our closet. It’s no secret that the church’s history is imperfect at best, violent and corrupt at worst. When Europeans sent armies crusading into the Holy Lands, the church was there, and when colonists drove the native tribes of North America almost to extinction, the church was there, and when merchants sold the bodies of African men and women into slavery, the church was there. Even here and now let’s admit that the church continues to be at best a rather mediocre force for good in the world, a place where too many feel unwelcome, a place where too many feel silenced, a place where too many have been wounded and hurt and turned away. I’m not at all convinced that the church of 2017 is any more noble or upright than its ancestors in Jerusalem; there’s something so pervasively and frustratingly human about the ways in which we seek our own self-interest time after time after time.

Just like it was then, and so it is now, the church is so many things at once, and the truth is, you can find anything in a church: you can find joy and laughter, you can find anger and grief, you can find hurt and loss, you can find violence and corruption, you can find all the best of us and all the worst of us and on the whole I don’t know if that’s a very good pitch for why we come here every Sunday. It is little wonder that we live in a moment where church attendance is on the decline while searching for Jesus has never been more popular. If you’re looking for the peace of Jesus Christ, you’re hard-pressed to find it in denominations long-adrift in discord and fracture. If you’re looking for the love of Jesus Christ, you’re hard-pressed to find it in churches whose doors remain closed to far too many. If you’re looking for the justice of Jesus Christ, you’re hard-pressed to find it in churches who have turned such deaf ears to the cries of the poor and the oppressed. For all those who journey alongside Mary and Joseph in the desperate quest for this child of God, the church as it has always been might very well be the last place you look.

And still. Jesus chooses to be found here. Which means we have work to do, and it begins now. This summer at UPC, we’re going to spend some talking about church — getting to know one another, learning about one another, and, hopefully, finding the Jesus who chooses to be found here in this place. Today’s Scripture reading is the first in a summer-long series of stories about church, about who we are when God calls us together, about the terrible and wonderful things that God’s people do when they gather together in worship, from difficult stories like Jesus driving the money-changers out of the temple to light-hearted ones like that time when Paul’s preaching puts his audience to sleep and one of them falls out a window. Alongside these stories, we’re going to spend the summer hearing from the ministries in our own church, starting today, when representatives from two of our session committees will stand before you in just a few minutes to articulate how it is that they feel called to this specific work. Every week, we’re going to hear testimonials from your church leaders as we journey to discover God’s work in this place, to discover God’s call on this place, to discover this precocious teenager making this temple his home. We are on a quest to find Jesus here in this place.

This journey won’t always be easy. It won’t always be obvious. The church has never been the most obvious place to find Jesus. But it’s also a journey that we begin in hope. It’s a journey that we begin in faith. It’s a journey that we begin in the sure knowledge that Jesus wants to be found here — “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s House?” Somewhere behind all the cardboard boxes. Somewhere underneath all the plastic storage tubs. Somewhere nestled among the Christmas pageant supplies or lodged alongside the leftover office supplies. Somewhere in the basement, or somewhere in the closet, or somewhere in the breaking of the bread, or somewhere in the pouring of the cup, or somewhere two or three of us have gathered, or somewhere we have opened ourselves to the least of these, or somewhere we have loved one another as Jesus loved us, or somewhere and everywhere the church in all its Pentecostal power seeks to serve God and love God and follow God and search for God even unto the ends of the earth, or maybe just sitting here on the steps of the chancel listening and asking questions. This Jesus is waiting to be found. This Jesus is waiting to find us. Let’s go be found together.