Restoring the village

SERMON 

First Sunday after Christmass 2018 

1 Samuel 2.18-20, 26 

Psalm 148 

Colossians 3.12-17 

Luke 2.41-52 

Restoring the village ©Sue Wilton 

Today’s Gospel gives us a rare vignette of the time between Jesus’ birth  and adult ministry. It is perhaps not very satisfying for those who would  like to fill in the blanks of Jesus’ childhood and young adulthood, but is  nevertheless an intriguing story. With its symbolism of the young Jesus  going up to Jerusalem for his first Passover before being lost and found  again after three days, the scene functions as something of an overture for the passion story. But it is very much an in between story- a moment  where the world waits for the one who will grow and live fully into his  vocation. 

Of course, today on the calendar is an in-between time. The days of  family gatherings and tables groaning with food and presents to unwrap  are behind us, even though we are still liturgically in the season of  Christmass. We are not quite at the celebration of the New Year and the  slow recommencing of all our usual programs and activities, even though  we may be beginning to think about those New Year resolutions. So this  in-between time can be a moment to breathe in and prepare.

The youthful Jesus is apparently doing some preparation here when he  justifies his non-appearance on the journey back home by saying, “Did  you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Apparently he had  remained behind to converse with the teachers in the temple. In these times of intense parental supervision, it may seem hard to work out how  Joseph and Mary did not notice their missing twelve-year-old until the  end of the first day’s journey. Presumably at that time it would have been  normal to return to the family’s tent, so it is not so surprising that Jesus’  absence was not noted until then since it was usual to allow the children  to spend a greater amount of their time with their extended family and  wider community. This time Jesus was spending with others seemed to  have been a mutual gift; he wanted to learn from others, and, for those  at the temple at least, his presence and wisdom was an astonishing  blessing. This story that tells of Jesus’ loyalty reaching beyond his own  family asks what relationships are primary for us, and to what  communities are we being called to offer the gift of ourselves? 

Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza translates Jesus’ response to his parents as  “Did you not know that I had to be among the household of my Father?”1 In this slightly nuanced translation we hear Jesus saying that loyalty to  the household of his parents takes second place to his loyalty to the new  household God is creating.2 And what is this new household? In his adult  ministry Jesus would go in and out of houses, with a centrepiece being  table fellowship- he ate and drank with men and women from all  different households and from all different sections of society. Dominant  systems of power and exclusion were broken down, symbolized by the  breaking of bread and an open table, as Jesus ushers in a new vision of  the enlarged household of God. 

While we may like the idea of this large communal table, it may leave us  wondering what to do with our loyalties to family. Richard Rohr points  out that all great spiritual teachers reject the “Don’t leave home without  it” mentality, and instead their motto seems to be you have to “Leave  home to find it!” The family home can bring security, companionship and validation but also illusions, prejudices and deep wounds. It is a truth that anyone knows who has raised children: we need at some stage to leave  home and familial security and identity in order to be ourselves and  return, living and loving fully and authentically. The path toward  wholeness is being willing to leave the illusion of security and all that  keeps us clinging to our old roles and constructed identities. 

However, it is true that a basic human need is to have close and nurturing  relationships of intimacy. If we are lucky, we will have a family who has  provided that. But even where our experiences of family relationships are  positive, Jesus shows us that the way to even stronger ties of intimacy is  to root our identity and belonging first in the love of God and our calling  into the community of Christ. Some of the most beautiful relationships I  have ever seen are between people who share the same passionate  commitment to the gospel. Where our experiences of family are  damaging, we can know the joy of being called into the family of God  where we are all beloved children. The radical nature of Christian faith is  that the call of God is primary in our lives and relationships.  

The word ‘family’ carries a lot of weight in public discourse. I have always  been a little confused by how quickly leaders in a variety of settings  approvingly quote the African proverb “It takes a village to raise a child.”  It seems to me that here in the West, our societal structures not only are  unable to embrace this idea, but can actively work against the creation of  the community inherent in the symbol of the “village”. Some of the  blame for this does fall on the Church which has allowed a preoccupation  with private and personal salvation to dominate, so that church became a  Sunday activity for a religion fix before returning to the privacy of our  own lives. The extension of this individualistic spirituality was the nuclear  family, with our suburban living spaces encouraging an increasingly  private view of family life. What has been rarely acknowledged is the  immense pressure this kind of enclosure places on marriage and the  family to be everything to one another as it becomes increasingly isolated  behind fences, in cars and by private entertainment. This pressure is not  only witnessed to by family breakdown, but also by the rates of domestic  violence and levels of alcohol and drug abuse that go on behind closed  doors. The urge to numb the pain of isolation and loneliness is very  strong. Community, and the desire to belong to other people and to place  is a longing in the hearts of many, but the wisdom, support and physical presence of the village has been all but lost. We can acknowledge the  truth that it takes a village to raise a child, but this then makes imperative  the question, “How can we restore the village?” 

Often we become discouraged by the limitations and scarcity of  resources- particularly in churches where smaller numbers, a limited  budget, busy lives and a changing culture can make us think we don’t  have the capacity to make a difference. In reflecting on this, I am so  inspired by a story told by Block, Brueggemann and McKnight in their  book, “An Other Kingdom: Departing the Consumer Culture.” 

A neighborhood group went door to door on a couple of  blocks in a lower-income neighborhood asking people what  they knew well enough to teach young people. On average,  people responded with four things that they knew well  enough that they could teach. People mentioned things like  motorcycle repair. Fishing. Cooking. And also things like how  to be kind to others. So in a two-person household, you  would have eight teachables. If there are thirty houses on the  block, you have 240 teachables. 

Imagine the curriculum that the people on the block could  provide….Thinking this way, we open ourselves to an  understanding of the gifts that are already present all around  us. We begin to say our future and our productivity are  related to this abundance of gifts, previously unrecognized  and unused. We might call it a gift economy.3 

So questions for us as we step into the new year; 

How can we function as a community with a gift economy, where there is  a narrative of abundance rather than scarcity?  

How can we each grow more deeply into our primary identity as children  of God and into our shared life together?  

And how might we then restore the lost village to our own  neighbourhood, creating a place of friendship and belonging around a  table where everyone is welcome? +Amen 

1Schüssler Fiorenza, as quoted in Feasting on the Gospels, Luke, Vol 1, (2014) Westminster Knox Press,  Kentucky, Kindle edn.

3 Block, Peter; Brueggemann, Walter; McKnight, John, (2016) An Other Kingdom: Departing the Consumer  Culture, Wiley and Sons, New Jersey.pp 53-54 Kindle edition

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