First Sunday after Christmass 2018
1 Samuel 2.18-20, 26
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