First Sunday after Christmas
Several years ago, I visited a congregation in western Kentucky, where the teen-aged boys and girls gave me a T-shirt with their motto: Grace Church Acolytes – playing with fire since 1853. On Christmas morning at St. George’s Cathedral I met an 8-year-old doing the same thing – he was entrusted with carrying the gospel book. An older boy carried the flaming thurible, spreading sweet incense around the altar, over that same gospel book, and throughout the congregation. That’s what Samuel was doing – serving in the Lord’s house, keeping the oil lamps burning. The children in our midst learn many things from playing with fire – not just fire safety, but the possibilities that come when God’s word is flaming up within us and among us. They also learn about the remarkable fires that can be lit when that living Word runs through the stubble of the world’s leavings. That is exactly what Jesus’ earthly parents had on their hands in a youngster who engaged his elders with the burning coals of God’s word.
It’s been a joy and delight to see how deeply valued children are here, how they are encouraged to grow and develop their unique gifts and treasure the ways they’ve been created. Even and perhaps especially in the midst of the challenges of life here, there is something remarkably peaceful – filled with peace – about the presence and affirmation and encouragement of children, from the very youngest to those beginning to mature into adults. The birth of God in human flesh continues in our midst as the body of Christ is renewed. Toddlers take communion, included as full members of this body. Children take their place in the worship of the church. Youth learn about serving their neighbors in the wider world, and the hard and life-giving work of peace-making.
I’ve met children and youth on the streets of Jerusalem who know something of their own strength for this work. A girl of about 10 stopped me when I was out running by pounding on her wrist with the other hand, demanding to know what time it was – she and her friend must get to school on time! I understood not a word, but she got her message across. Another day, a gaggle of teen-aged boys standing at a bus stop laughed at me running up a steep hill, asking in their broken English if I wanted help, or a push up the hill. These children are bold enough to challenge because they know themselves beloved and treasured. When people know their own dignity, there is enough room for humor, and peace begins to be made. Jesus’ response to his parents’ three-day frantic search sounds like that – he’s gently making fun of them for not knowing where he’d be. They had taught him well, after all.
At the same time, the world then and now is filled with children and young people who are not valued for themselves or loved and respected as the image of God. Too many young lives are seen as commodities to be traded, sold, or enslaved to suit the purposes of others. Modern slavery is just as vicious as anything practiced in our human past. Babies are sold in China; children are held as slaves to fish in Lake Volta; thousands of girls and a few boys are enslaved in prostitution all over the world. Children in many places find limits placed on their futures because of gender or social status, and economic realities limit the access of millions of children to education and the possibility of meaningful employment.
Jesus was born into a world of profound limitation, yet he became the open door for all God’s children. His taking on mortal flesh as a powerless infant shows the world that God’s greatest treasure is to be found in that same condition. The adult Jesus insists that his friends not keep the children away, for they show us the infinite worth of God’s reign in our midst. The kingdom is open to those who care for the least of these, and that kingdom welcomes all who encourage rather than dissuade the little ones. Isaiah reminds us that “a little child will lead them” – for children can show us the path to that ancient dream of peace.
Are we older ones willing to be led? Are we willing to discover the divine light in the younger among us? Babies aren’t just cute bundles to be dandled on a knee; they are agents of change, as anyone who has ever listened to a loud cry can attest. That cry insists, “change me” or “change something about my environment – now!” The insistence of those who have more words is just as significant.
One of the greatest challenges for our tradition in these times is how and whether we will listen to those cries for change – toward peace, for justice, for meaning in the face of a world that can seem meaningless. In the western context, young adults are frequently absent from our churches. They are, however, asking questions of utmost spiritual significance – “how can I live a meaningful life; how can I build a world of justice for all people; how can I make a difference in this world?” Some who have grown up in Christian communities are asking why the churches don’t help them discover answers to those questions. Others can’t hear good news in unfamiliar music or the language of insiders. Why do churches refuse to change in ways that might address those seekers and their hunger for good news?
Many in and outside the churches are discovering, or perhaps remembering, that vital communities of faith have always had to wrestle with the challenges of new contexts and questions. Moses did. Abraham did. Those who went into exile in Babylon did, and so did those who returned here with new ways of worship. Even Jesus changed, and his conversation with the Syrophoenician woman is a great example. The woman asks for healing for her daughter, and when Jesus declines to heal a Gentile, she pushes until she gets what she is after – an acknowledgement of her dignity, and access to the healing power of God.
The younger ones around us are making the same challenge: “we want to see God, we want to encounter the holy in our own lives and contexts. We don’t understand what you’re doing there inside your churches. We need to see God out here, on the street, in our lives as students, looking for jobs, struggling to find a way in this world, finding a reason to live.”
Christmas Eve in the cathedral was glorious, but it was even more wonderful to talk to the people who stayed after for hot chocolate. I met a group of five young adults – I think secular Jews – Israelis who had come to see a Christmas celebration, and were filled with wondering questions. Some of them knew far more about what was going on than I expected. They were all eager and hungry to connect with the divine. It is not only Jesus’ parents who have been searching for him with great anxiety – his siblings are. We can help others discover him, in his father’s house, which includes all creation, not just the part of it inside churches. He’s all around us, and everywhere, not only inside here. Our brothers and sisters are looking for the holy one, even if they don’t yet have language for what they seek.
Are you looking everywhere for Jesus? Go and seek out other anxious children, those brothers and sisters of ours, who are also looking for him. We’ll find him in our father’s house, even if it’s in a different room.
 http://www.nbcbayarea.com/investigations/From-Sex-Slave-to-Activist-How-a-Berkeley-Woman-is-Using-Her-Past-to-Help-Others--184471481.html ; http://www.thedailybeast.com/videos/2012/11/25/my-escape-from-sex-slavery.html
 Mark 7:25-30