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Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
It is not easy to preach on Christmas, and I’ll confess it is just as hard to preach on the Sunday after. On Christmas you struggle with toddlers impatiently tugging at their parents’ arms to head home and open Christmas presents. One Christmas, I heard a little boy say a little too loudly. “Daddy, has the preacher finished yet?” The father painfully whispered a little too loudly as well. “Yep, he’s finished. He just hasn’t stopped talking.” And of course, there are the usual critics. As Mark Twain once chided. “He charged nothing for his preaching. And it was worth it.”
The First Sunday after Christmas, however, offers its own set of challenges. Most often, you simply wonder whether anyone will be in church at all. As a missionary family in Lithuania, 15 years ago, our little family began the worship with just the four of us and the organist sitting in the organ loft. Ten minutes into the worship service, a curious tourist walked into the church. We were so excited about another worshiper, that I ran down, welcomed him, grabbed him by the arm and led him to the organ loft, and then started the worship service all over again. The poor fellow didn’t know what hit him.
There is another challenge as well. What should the theme of the sermon be? The 12 Days of Christmas offer a host of possibilities from triumph through tragedy. The First Day of Christmas tells the story of peace and good at Jesus’ birth, yet the second day of Christmas, December 26th is traditionally remembered as the Feast of St. Stephen, the first martyr of the church. It is a poignant reminder that there may be a cost in telling the story of Christ’s birth. Today, the Third Day of Christmas is often celebrated as the Feast of St. John, the author of the gospel who captured the mystery of the incarnation in the words, “And the word became flesh.” In the Roman Catholic Church this Sunday can also be celebrated as Holy Family Sunday. It is an occasion for honoring the roles of Mary and Joseph in raising the Christ Child. For me, there is yet another more personal option. Today is Janna and my 29th wedding anniversary and the lesson we read was actually the scripture read at the wedding. So I may try to pull them all together into one.
Now, there are very few passages in scripture that tell us of Jesus’ childhood. The gospel we have heard this morning is perhaps the only story in the Bible where we are reminded that the “Little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes” did indeed cause a few tears and gray hairs. There are of course legends recorded in non-canonical writing such as “The Infancy Gospel of St. Thomas.” Here you can read of Jesus breathing life into birds he fashions out of clay, and leading wild lions out of the city to the amazement of his neighbors. There is even a story of Jesus raising an angry man back from the dead. Apparently, the man was scolding Jesus and was struck dead. Mary and Joseph pleaded with Jesus to make him bring him back to life.
I am sure that St. Luke’s story is the edited version of the true conversation between mother and son. What Jewish mother, finding her missing child after three days, would simply be amazed? Can you imagine your mother saying in polite English, “Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been looking for you anxiously.” I don’t think so. It certainly wouldn’t be the response in our home. And it doesn’t surprise me at all that when Jesus went back to Nazareth, he “was obedient to them.” In the telling of this event, it may be that St. Luke is helping us to discover the heart and the mind of Jesus. He is also helping us to know that Jesus understands the joys, tensions and struggles we have within our human families. But St. Luke highlights that family can be life’s greatest blessing. They don’t have to treat each as titles, but they can treat each other as people with real feelings.
Over the past 18 years, I have also learned that parents can be totally confused frequently by their children’s behavior. And frankly, children can be confused by their parents’ behavior. So I find comfort in this story knowing that even the holy family of Mary and Joseph who were hand-picked by God were confused. But there was one difference. And that should be our lesson today. In spite of what happened in Jerusalem, Mary and Joseph did not burst into a rage nor did they shame their son with words. They seemed rather to follow the example that Jesus himself had set when he was lost in his thoughts in the temple. He listened and questioned. That is the true gift of family. But how are we to live as a this human family.
Let me share with you a few simple thoughts drawn from the Letter to the Colossians.
First, As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience. Over the last 18 years of parenting, and 29 years of marriage, I have learned that clothes do not make the man- nor the woman, the mother or the father, the husband nor the wife. Nor frankly, do the clothes make the pastor. The late J. Elmo Agrimson, my Bishop in the old American Lutheran Church, told me , “Pastors make two mistakes in dressing- thinking too much about it, or not enough.” This was quite a contrast to another Bishop Lowell Erdahl, who joked that that he wore his clerical collar so seldom that he had to rent one. As people of God, clothes don’t make you a better person, but you must consider your appearance. I receive cards every year from families in striking, color coordinated clothes. They are wonderful pictures that brighten a gray, December day. But they are painful images as well when I know that the clothes are simply masking an anger, or sorrow or emptiness. As mothers and fathers, sons and daughters consider wisely how you are dressed for those you love. Do not be so comfortable with your bad habits and patterns that you would not dare to dress up for those you care about. “Clothe yourself with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience.”
As mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, we spend far too much time fretting about our appearance. We need to choose the garments wisely and the moments of combat carefully. When hair was long forty years ago, my grandmother to the chagrin of my mother, complimented my brother on his long hair. She said, “As long as it is clean it is beautiful.” Or as it was often said, “Jesus had long hair.” There are some choices that are not healthy, wise or humble. Be mindful of those. But “Above all, clothe yourself with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” That is what you must practice in your family.
Second, “Bear with one another.” In my previous parish in Marine on St. Croix, a couple showed up in Church one day, when I was gone. They were celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary. The husband explained to the staff, that they wanted to visit the scene of the crime. Janna and I have returned occasionally to the scene of the crime, to the Norwegian Lutheran Memorial Church just down on East Franklin Avenue. Many of our closest friendships were established in those years. Unfortunately, many of the friends and relatives who were present for the wedding are no longer with us today. There have many good times, as well as hardship and loss, and we have stuck together- through sickness and in health- for richer, for poorer. It’s a quality of loyalty which is to “Bear with one another.” It is giving of yourself and of your time. My friends, it may be annoying, and time consuming. Believe me it is worth the price. I have no regrets in “bearing one another at a time of loss.” But I do have regrets, when a friend was in need, and I could not stand beside him. As mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, you need that same commitment to the family.
And in those moments, when loyalty is broken, “Forgive each other; just as the Lord as forgiven you, so also you must forgive.” Inevitably, you and I do disappoint each other, as husbands and wives, mothers and father, brothers and sisters, friends and colleagues, but God’s love and forgiveness will not disappoint you. So do not disappoint God by holding back the gift of his forgiveness. Let forgiveness sustain the life of your family.
Finally, “And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts.” Our twenty nine years of marriage and 18 years of parenting have been blessed by many wonderful experiences. But the most fulfilling times have been those moments when we allowed God’s imagination to fill our days. Our great adventure to the Baltic States as the Iron Curtain was falling down began as a simple New Year’s Day Resolution. We had no idea, what the year would bring. It happened again when we allowed God’s imagination to run wild as we opened our hearts and our home to two foreign- born boys living in Russia. The possibilities for God are endless when you allow the peace of Christ to rule in your hearts, and to practice this in your home.
Now, you may wonder, so why does God place such great emphasis on the role of the human family? Why would he place his own son Jesus into the care of Mary and Joseph. Why not look to a good Sunday School program, the work of professional teachers, or even an ordained pastor? For one simple reason. God knows that within the sheltering arms of your home, within the cradling arms of loving mothers and father, within the safety of a healthy marriage, Jesus is blessing your children every day, and he is blessing you. There is no more important place for the spiritual development of your children, than in your home. For it is in your home that they experience the wonder of sacrificial love. It is in your home that they experience forgiveness. It is in your home that they experience protection. Yes, it is your own home that they experience the truth of the Christian faith. That is what you and I are called to share.
My friends, when you listen to and care for your family as real live people with flesh and blood, you can be like Mary, who would treasure all of these things in her heart. Yes, when you work to listen and question and treat others as real people, you can even learn to treasure the confusion of your children- and your parents. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.