The summer before my oldest niece went away to college. I read a magazine article about all the dangers of the campus culture in the particular high-profile school she would be attending. I remember calling her and giving her advice. Things like: don’t attend parties alone, don’t let the pressures of academics get to you. Her response was to listen and then say to me, “Aunt Mary, you worry too much.” It turns out I had worried too much. Her college experience would be a good one. At the time, though, I thought I was worrying just the right amount.
Have you seen those kids’ books in the “Choose Your Own Adventure” series? They are written so that readers make choices in the story, and the story then unfolds differently according to the reader’s choice. Different readers end up reading different stories. I think of that experience with respect to this gospel reading. Mary and Jesus are reading two different stories. In one of the stories, Jesus is lost and his parents are worried sick. In the other story, Jesus is where he must be, and something amazing is happening. “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” he asks her. It is a little bit of a smart remark: if his parents had known where he must be, they would not have searched so frantically in so many other places for so long. But Jesus is also telling them something about the sense he has of God’s call on his life.
This matter of what must happen or what is necessary or what has to be is central to the way Luke tells the story of Jesus.
First: Shortly after the adult Jesus announces his ministry, he heals Simon Peter’s mother-in-law and many more people in the area of Capernaum. He works into the night. Early the next morning, the people of the town urge this traveling preacher to stay there with them. Jesus refuses though, and he says to them, “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God in other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose.” (Luke 4:43)
Those words, “I must proclaim the good news” echo the words of the boy Jesus to his mother: “I must be in my Father’s house.” The people of Capernaum choose the adventure where Jesus puts down roots among them. But in the adventure Jesus is reading, he must preach in other cities also. And so, he does. Two different stories.
Second: Jesus must also engage in healing, sometimes even on the sabbath. One day when Jesus is teaching in a synagogue, a woman who has been unable to stand upright for 18 years is there. Jesus sees her and heals her on the spot. She stands up straight and begins praising God. To which the leader of the synagogue expresses anger. He says to the woman, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, not on the sabbath day.” In the synagogue leader’s adventure, healing is something that must not happen on the sabbath.
Jesus is reading a different book. He recalls that God’s Law allows someone to pull their ox out of the ditch on the sabbath if it is suffering, and then he says, “Ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” (cf. Luke 13:10-17)
Third: There’s one more must I want to tell you about in Luke. Jesus also must eat with sinners. Jesus seems to eat a lot, especially in Luke’s gospel, and one of his most famous meals is with a tax collector named Zacchaeus. The people following Jesus might expect that he would avoid tax collectors. They collaborate with the Romans who are oppressing the Jews occupying their land. Yet Jesus says to the tax man, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”
All of this must happen in the way it does. Why? Because Jesus must be about his Father’s business. What is true of the relationship Jesus has with his mother is true of the relationship Jesus has everyone else. Jesus is for us, but he does not belong to us. Jesus belongs to God. What he needs to do is not what his mother imagines, or what the leader of the synagogue wants, or even what we think he should do. Jesus needs to do, he must do, what God imagines for him.
And what God imagines is release to the captives, healing for those who are suffering, and abundant mercy for sinners of all shapes and sizes. The business Jesus must always be about is drawing people to God.
I imagine the boy Jesus wanting to introduce Mary and Joseph to his new friends. In this story, we have the first occasion of Jesus forming a community no one could have imagined before he created it.
Jesus is still forming unimaginable communities around himself.
I have worked most of my adult life on a theological seminary faculty, which means that I and my colleagues are in charge of passing on the Christian tradition to a new generation of church leaders. The faculty know some things most of the students do not know, which is why the students are in school. But the students also know some things that we have not taught them and that many of us find at least as weird as staying behind in the temple when your parents are heading home.
One of my former students started a food truck ministry in Minneapolis. She and her friends feed people from the food truck. They share fellowship and then, at an appointed time, they have church. The former student, who is now an ordained minister, takes off her apron and puts on a stole. She takes bread, blesses and breaks it, and gives the elements of the Lord’s Supper to those who are gathered. Some people may find this puzzling, even alarming. Do her actions discount the holiness of Holy Communion, or is she with exactly the group of people whom Jesus must be with in that moment?
And then there is the case of an affluent congregation and migrant children at the border. During a time when unaccompanied minors from Central America were gathering at the US border with Mexico, the social ministry coordinator at the church I was serving put a bumper sticker on the door of her office. The sticker read, “Jesus was a refugee.”
I remember thinking that I would not have done that. In fact, I might have advised her not to do it, if she had asked me. I worried about backlash. I worried about people complaining that the church was getting political. But, you know, I also knew Jesus was a refugee. The Gospel of Matthew tells the story of Jesus and his parents fleeing their homeland. The tyrant Herod the Great was trying to kill Jesus when he was not yet out of diapers, and the holy family fled to Egypt. Our social ministry coordinator needed the rest of us to remember that story. It was, you might say, necessary. Kimberly had to put the words on her door, and because she did, the rest of us had to remember that our brother, Jesus, was just like our little brothers and sisters at the border. To be with Jesus was to be part of a bigger family than we had realized.
The crowd around Jesus includes students and teachers who do not always understand each other or each other’s ways of embracing and passing on the Christian faith. It includes children, like the boy Jesus, who are carefree and parents, like Mary, who wish those children were just a little bit more responsible. Hungry people are there in the crowd around Jesus, along with loaves and fishes, food trucks, bread and wine. The crowd has even been known to include church people with a comfortable retirement alongside Central American kids that remind them of Jesus.
I always get more than I expect when I follow him. Sometimes, like Mary and Joseph, I get more anxiety. Are we doing this right? Where will it lead? Will it be dangerous for us? Sometimes, like those with Jesus in the temple, I get beautiful insights into God. I’m astonished and grateful. Always, I get all tangled up with other people, many of whom I wouldn’t have chosen to know and all of whom Jesus just has to love. He must do that.
If you like things to stay the same for you and you like your friends to be familiar, the Christian life can be chaotic and scary. I think that’s part of what Mary experiences when she doesn’t know where Jesus is. Sometimes we don’t either. And then, Jesus’s own life was chaotic and scary at points, also. But you know, what an adventure it is! Finally, in my own faith-life, I know I must do this. I just have to be with Jesus, and with you.
Let us pray.
O God, in Christ you have reconciled the world to yourself. We praise you for the faithfulness of your Son always to be about his Father’s business. Calm our fears when we lose sight of Jesus in the crowd. Draw us together with all those whom you love, and form us to be living witnesses to the wideness of your mercy; we ask this in the name of Jesus. Amen.