Home Alone Meets Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (Luke 2:41-52)

What is it we are to learn from the single story of Jesus’ youth? Time flies. The Romans called it, “Tempus Fugit”. It means the same thing. We are not the first, nor will we be last people to have some sense of time traveling faster than it should. Our children are growing up right before our eyes, the community is changing, and our lives passing before us in the blink of an eye; this is central to being human.

The Bible gives us a sense of flying time when it comes to the life of Jesus. It seems like only yesterday that I was standing here watching our children retell the story of Jesus’ birth. Now less than a week later, the manger scene is moved, the animals are gone, and Jesus is twelve years old. Talk about growing up fast! Did we miss the visit of the Wise Men altogether? Yes, we did. They are in Matthew’s gospel. Our feet are firmly planted in the second chapter of Luke. Here, there are no wise men. Jesus is a baby, and then at once, he is a teenager. Luke’s story stops and restarts in the matter of two verses.

Joseph and Mary return to Nazareth with their child. Here is where the Christmas story ends, and our imagination begins, “The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom, and the favor of God was upon him.” Twelve years of Jesus’ life summed up in seventeen words. Who were his friends? What was he like in school? Did he play well with others? We just do not know. If Luke knew, he didn’t want to tell us. Luke who showed us so much and recorded the greatest parables Jesus ever taught left these formative years blank. That is until the age of 12.

I like to think that Mary and Joseph were always devout. Indeed, if you were asked to parent the Messiah, even the holiest person would up their religious game. If attending synagogue wasn’t a priority, it would become more important in your life. Luke tells us that Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the Passover festival every year. This is a significant time and financial commitment.

This fills in one gap over the previous 12 years. We know they had an annual tradition of attending the Passover. Now we know something else. Luke is telling us: when Jesus goes to the Passover as an adult, it’s not a new thing or out of character. He’s been going for years. Jesus knows Jerusalem like the back of his hand. His familiarity with Jerusalem begins after his birth.

This trip should be no different from any of the previous journeys that Jesus has taken with his family. Along with their extended family, friends, and neighbors; they would travel to Jerusalem and participate in the Passover feast activities in and around the temple. Jews from all over the Mediterranean world and even those who lived in lands far to the east would make the journey home to Jerusalem. Thousands of people would descend upon the holy city to remember the Exodus and God’s promises to the Israelites.

Despite the crowds, the cacophony of sounds and languages, and the inevitable chaos; I find it interesting that Mary and Joseph weren’t helicopter parents. Jesus, at 12, must be alright. (So they thought.) He knew where he was. What kind of trouble could Jesus get into? Yes, he was with family and friends! That’s what they thought as they journeyed out of Jerusalem on the last day of the festival. He wasn’t there.

Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph and their entire extended family did what we all enjoy watching Macaulay Culkin do every Christmas. They left him “Home Alone.” It wasn’t really “Home Alone.” It was “Jerusalem Temple Alone.” Yet, if you can imagine the movie, with the McAlister family heading through O’Hare Airport, self-obsessed and trying to make their plane to Paris on time, and only realizing when they’re comfortably boarded who they’ve forgotten; you’ve seen the chaos Luke is trying to describe.

So yes, if you feel like you’ve seen this movie before, you have. In fact, I think you’ve seen two movies. Its Ferris Bueller’s Day Off meets Home Alone. Initially, whether Jesus is “left” or “leaves” himself alone is up for interpretative grabs. Here’s what matters: once Mary and Joseph are on their way back to Nazareth, he’s Ferris Bueller, alone in the big city, a young man in the world of adults who try to solve grand problems with epic solutions. Schools out and the world is his to be embraced and enjoyed.

The defining scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off comes during a downtown Chicago street parade. It the annual German-American Festival (a large part of the cultural heritage of the Midwestern cities like Chicago) and floats are making their way through Dearborn Street. In the confusion of the crowd, Ferris slips away and disappears from his two friends (Cameron and Sloane). It’s at the moment; they ask the question, “What do you think Ferris is going to do?” What will this remarkable young man do with the rest of his life? It is then, the floats start moving, the marching bands resume, and Ferris emerges from the center of float surrounded by women dressed in traditional German dresses. He’s singing the Beatles iconic version of “Twist and Shout.” The whole parade is singing with him. For blocks and blocks, people have come together to dance, sing, twist, and shout.

Ferris brings everyone together to sing. It is an uplifting and life-affirming moment. His two friends, who minutes before couldn’t find him, now realize there was only place Ferris could possibly be: that was somewhere he could express his full “Ferris-ness.” In the case it was it was on the float lip-syncing to the Beatles. In hindsight, it was apparent. Where else would Ferris be but in the center of a float in downtown Chicago, on a day off from school, and singing the Beatles?

That brings us back to Mary and Joseph. Like the McAlister family, somewhere over the Atlantic, the Holy Family realized Jesus was Jerusalem Alone about a day back into the journey toward Nazareth. Mary stopped at every camel rental office between Judea and Galilee trying to find a ride back to the city. All the while they were asking and looking, “Has anyone seen Jesus?” He was nowhere to be found. I thought you had him. I saw him the other day. Wasn’t he with you? The questions and explanations kept coming, but Jesus never appeared. Mary’s most important priority was to get back to Jerusalem.

One day of travel and three days of searching, that’s four days Jesus was missing. We would call that an Amber Alert. Where could Jesus be? What could Jesus be doing? I don’t know Jesus’ entire schedule. Luke doesn’t tell us. Jesus, later in the gospels, never gives us any hints about those “days off.” Did he sneak into a fancy restaurant and take in a Cubs game? Who knows? Was he in the heart of the city, downtown, where commerce, religion, people, merchants, priests, poets, painters, and others made their living in one of the most exciting cities of the world? Yes. You can take that to the bank. That’s where you’ll find Jesus. Soaking up everything he can from everyone he meets. Jesus is a little more like Ferris than we may want to admit.

I wonder, like Ferris’s friends, if his parents heard his voice. Perhaps they heard him singing the Psalms or speaking with the teachers of the law. Is that what gave it away? Was is it his voice? Mary’s “a-ha” moment was “that’s Jesus singing.” “Where else could he be but at the temple?” “Yes, that makes perfect sense.” Of course, Jesus is standing in the courtyard of the temple singing the Psalms.  It’s as good a theory any I’ve read.

I am fond of saying “Jesus shows us where we least expect him.” Jesus comes to us in forms we easily ignore or don’t want to acknowledge. That’s another way of saying that Jesus doesn’t hide. Jesus is going to be in the places and people we expect him to be. Our challenge is not to narrow or limit those expectations. We want to grow and expand our “of course” places in which we see Jesus at work. This is one of the greatest challenges in being a Christian in the 21st – to see God at work in new “default” ways.

Richard Lowell Bryant

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The Church Is Empty Space

As Methodism’s internecine struggles labor on; I’m no longer sure I know what “church” is supposed to resemble. Sure, there are glimpses of what I think I see as church peeking through the fog. Even in those moments, it’s hard to make out the contours and outlines of something definitive and meaningful.

For instance, Christmas Eve was lovely. The kids were up front, they were cute, their message was solid, and we looked like a church. The contrast between darkness and light is dramatic when nearly 200 people sing Silent Night. Then what do I do? I went made the mistake of reading tweets on the internet and watching the news.

The idea of church is up for grabs. Everyone knows what and who we should be. Maybe we’re just a slightly different reflection of the culture we inhabit. Perhaps we are a political movement defined by prayer. I’m not sure we can call ourselves the body of Christ until we look like the people Jesus came to serve.

We are not a building. As soon as Christmas is here, we quickly remove any traces that the holiday was here. We do this from our lives and homes as well. The church building is merely a frame we decorate to acknowledge the fleeting glances of life if the church played a more significant role in our lives. No, we’re not where we sit on most Sunday mornings.

I believe we are the spaces in between. The church is what we cannot see and seldom venture — the carpeted areas where people rarely stand, the unopened closets, the blank places where we tell of marginal people in a marginalized world. That’s the church. The church is not Biblical inerrancy, human-made doctrine, or who wins at Patristic trivial pursuit. The church is not a zero-sum game. No one wins at church. The church has never been about winning.

Who will say “here are the empty spaces”; “these are the places we are saving for the broken people who have nothing other than a need for healing, friendship, and love”? Those few square inches of space are all I am willing to define as the church. When we can take the blank spaces of sanctuary and offer what we do best, we will be the church.

Richard Lowell Bryant

At Some Point Christmas Becomes About Discipleship

Imagine a well-worn path. We’ve walked this path hundreds, if not thousands of times. The trail leads you to the edge of a precipice. One step beyond the way we know so well and all bets are off. We have no idea where we’ll end up. Will we fall? Is the darkness beyond the final step perpetual? Is there a new path with more significant opportunities and challenges? We do not know. Instead of making the last move we take all that we have gathered on our journey and return the way we came.

It is easier to go home. The fear of stepping forward is too frightening. The comfort of returning home is too enticing. Perhaps next year, when the seasons change, you can take to the well-worn path once again. Maybe then you can follow the faded footprints to the edge and finally decide to step forward, past the path holding you so tightly.

We walk the Christmas path each year. We shop, we sing, go to church, gather as families, and celebrate. These are secular rituals which define our lives. Christmas is so ingrained in our culture and psyche; we could “do Christmas” with our eyes shut. That’s why I call it a well-worn path. We enjoy the stress to a certain point. We know which lights will go on specific houses. Someone always has everything. These events define our journeys. Along we go until we reach the end. It’s somewhere near Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. It happens when the ride is over, the familiar road signs are in the rearview mirror, and Christmas becomes more of an intangible idea with real-world expectations. Suddenly, The Virgin Mary’s asking questions about how we might live different lives. Suddenly, she’s holding the world to account for sins that we find ourselves having committed on the way to Christmas.

At this point, it’s easier to go home. Christmas has left us exhausted and broke. It’s been going on since Halloween, and we’re worn out. We need to go back to work. We take your gifts, warm feelings, and step back from the edge of being asked to commit to something bigger than our enjoyment of an end of the year holiday.

There is another option. We could go forward and step beyond the idea of Christmas as we know it and into the Christmas of uncertainty, expectation, and doubt. That’s Jesus’ Christmas. We call that discipleship. As disciples, we remember: the manger becomes cross, the joyous crowds turn angry, and the questions get harder. That’s OK.

Here’s the thing: God wouldn’t have brought us this far if we weren’t ready. Christmas is about hitting a pause button and starting the cycle over in 10 months. We keep going forward. Because that’s we do.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Lucky To Be Alive

 

It’s not Christmas unless an ambulance comes to the house.

How do I put this?  Sunday night, the evening of the third Sunday of Advent, my wife nearly had a stroke. Neither she nor I am the type you’d peg as typical “stroke victims.” She just turned fifty, and I’m not quite 45. Though it is stressful to be a pastor (or married to one) in a denomination currently in the midst of an identity crisis.

Our three daughters stood watching the paramedics attach leads to their mother’s chest. We were all helpless. I answered questions, brought them her medicine, and waited for the next step. I had no time to pray. I didn’t know what to pray for. My mind was a jumbled mess of emotions. I wanted the girls to remain calm. I wanted their mother to survive whatever was happening. At this point, we didn’t know what brought her to this point. We were all frightened. The EKG gave us an answer. That being said, blood pressure spikes, especially when they roar past certain well-established norms, specific ratios are indicative of one thing: an imminent stroke or worse. I’d never seen numbers so high. I was terrified.

Bring those numbers down. I found a prayer. It wasn’t elaborate or related to Advent. In fact, it was a personal and selfish prayer. I do not apologize. The prayer was in the imperative. I wanted an answer now. Waiting, patience, and all those things I teach on Sunday mornings; at this instance, they equated to death. I wasn’t in the mood for listening and longing. Please God, show me life now, in color returning to my wife’s face.

The numbers came down. Numbers our doctor said she had rarely seen before. The numbers still scare me. This is how I know that my wife is fortunate to be alive. Today we live like there is a tomorrow. We live like our numbers matter.  That’s all we know to do.

Richard Lowell Bryant

What if Joseph and Mary Were Separated at the Border and Jesus Died as an Infant?

 

Matthew 2:13-15

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’

What if, as recorded in Matthew 2, when Joseph, Mary, and Jesus arrived in Egypt as refugees, they were separated by the Egyptian Border Patrol? Then because he was young and prone to the illnesses of infants, exhausted from his journey, dehydrated, and denied medical care by the Border Patrol; Jesus died. What if Jesus died? Where would we be today?

The decorations must come down. The purple and blues of Advent are no more. The bright greens and reds of our poinsettias and trees must be dispersed to the four winds. White is our color now. This is the color of grief, mourning, and death; for we are about to bury a child. An innocent child has died. Where the manger stood days before; the wood is being repurposed to build a tiny coffin.

The mother and father can only watch from a distance. They can offer nothing but their overwhelming sadness and grief. Their child is dead. Jesus, the name chosen and the word given, is no more.

Those who witnessed the miracle of birth are gone. In fear of their lives and unable to make the border crossing, the shepherds returned to their villages in the hills.

In the frenzy of the dark, among the whispered threats from death squads and gangs, the beauty ended, and the killing began. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph fled through the wilderness to a place of safety. Egypt was guarded, grand, and beyond the reach of those who killed children. This they believed.

They traveled at night. Darkness was the desert’s only blanket. Wrapped in the safety of its blank anonymity, they moved toward Egypt with other migrants. The rhythm of sleeping and moving was a delicate dance to preserve their limited supplies of food and water. On occasion, they met others eating east or south. Out of charity, they would offer them water and fruit. These days were rare.  However, every day was frightening. Only when they reached Egypt would they know they were safe. The Egyptians, Joseph thought, would treat them fairly and honestly. He knew he was wrong.

Safety is such a meaningless word. Joseph is locked in a cage with other men. His wife is sitting in chains. This is for their safety. The Border Patrol cares about their safety yet they didn’t care about the safety of their son Jesus, who they watched die.

Jesus, the refugee child, died in their care. Christmas is over. It ended before it ever really began. Christmas funerals are hard. This one may be the toughest yet.

Richard Lowell Bryant

https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/7-year-old-migrant-girl-taken-into-border-patrol-custody-dies-of-dehydration-exhaustion/2018/12/13/8909e356-ff03-11e8-862a-b6a6f3ce8199_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.bac4832f2511

Waiting in the Dark

We wait for Christmas to come;
singing in the dark of night.
As expected as Christmas is, we never see it coming.
We are taken by surprise.
What is the light? Where is it from?
Christmas is a single light, recognizable from everything around it.
The light of Christmas is unmistakable. It can be nothing else.
This is Christmas.
The unopened day on the Advent Calendar is here and still beyond our reach.
Christmas, growing brighter and warmer as it draws closer.
The light is for all who see it, a gift to be shared.
No one owns the light.
The light simply is.
Christmas is the light which cannot be wiped away.
The darkness is overcome.

–Richard Bryant

What Does Christmas Look Like?

What does Christmas look like? That’s a simple question. It looks like the manger scenes on my desk, on my nightstand, in the living room, in the church narthex, and eventually the pageant on Christmas Eve in the sanctuary. If you were to ask most people at church, they’d say, “Christmas looks like the events of Luke chapter 2”. Some manger scenes are more elaborate than others. Whether the camels are cardboard or real, they all share certain commonalities. Baby Jesus is in the center. In the pageants, sometimes, Jesus isn’t real. Personally, I prefer a living baby to portray Jesus. Nine times out of ten Jesus will be a baby doll. This year, on Christmas Eve, our baby Jesus will be played by young Grady. Go, Grady! It’s a big year for Grady – being born and playing Jesus.

Grady won’t be in a manger. Like most babies (Jesus included) he’ll probably want to be held. The holding responsibilities fall to the next central character, Mary. Mary and Jesus are in the center of the frame. Surrounding Mary and Grady (I mean, Jesus) is a painted a backdrop giving the appearance of being in a barn. At the very top of the display is a plastic star. The three wise men will arrive well in advance of the Epiphany (in about 3-4 minutes) after following our heavenly star. Did I mention Joseph? Joseph doesn’t say much. Joseph has only been to a few rehearsals and isn’t entirely comfortable with his part; as Joseph should be.

The shepherds are an unruly lot. The average age of the shepherd is around four. They are keenly aware of their need for granola bars, orange juice, and when the angel should arrive. Like the original shepherds, their hands are always messy. They roam the fringes of the sanctuary in search of someone called “Noel.” Is this not how Christmas looks? Yes. Christmas also appears more significant than we allow ourselves to imagine. Even though we are playing our small part in retelling this age-old drama, it seems vitally important to the larger Christmas story as a whole. If we don’t do our bit, how will the entire grand event continue?

The events in Luke 2, which we call Christmas, also points to the Christmas beyond Christmas. Christmas doesn’t end at the manger and Advent doesn’t stop when the shepherds arrive. Christmas keeps moving toward something more substantial and expansive. The manger, shepherds, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, point us toward God’s more massive Christmas. What is God’s larger Christmas?

God’s more massive Christmas is in Isaiah 12:1-6. This is as much Christmas as any manger, star, or wise man. This is what we’re supposed to see and how we’re supposed to live beyond the stable. Remember, Christmas isn’t solely for the observing.  We are not passive bystanders watching someone else’s story.  Ultimately, we need to do something with  Christmas. Live this joy, good news, and song in such a way that our lives become different.  Isaiah gives us a clue on what and how to live Christmas.

You will say on that day:
I will give thanks to you, O LORD,
for though you were angry with me,
your anger turned away,
and you comforted me.
2 Surely God is my salvation;
I will trust, and will not be afraid,
for the LORD GOD * is my strength and my might;
he has become my salvation.
3 With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. 4And you will say on that day:
Give thanks to the LORD,
call on his name;
make known his deeds among the nations;
proclaim that his name is exalted.
5 Sing praises to the LORD, for he has done gloriously;
let this be known* in all the earth.
6 Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal* Zion,
for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.

That is what Christmas looks like. “I will trust and not be afraid”. We see it embodied in the actions of the Holy Family. Christmas is comfort where anger once rightly dwelled. Christmas is the incarnation of love through song, “Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously, let this be known in all the earth.” God’s love becomes tangible through the purest form of human expression. With joy, we come to our salvation. This is Christmas. Do you hear what I hear? Do you see what I see? No, I don’t think you do. It’s not the nativity scene. The manger points us here, to Isaiah.

Christmas doesn’t look like Bethlehem. Christmas is a life imbued with joy, gratitude, love for others, and a love for God. Yes, I see glimpses of the Christmas vision in the manger scene and pageant. I also see Christmas beyond the barn, in Isaiah’s world, among the community I call home.

Richard Lowell Bryant