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“A Lifetime of Spiritual Growth”

a sermon based on Luke 2:41-52

I chose this text for Father’s Day, because this is the first time Jesus uses “Father” language in referring to God. This twelve-year-old boy says to his anxious parents: “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s House?” (Luke 2:49)

I’m sure from Jesus’ perspective -- since he knew all along where he was and what he was doing -- there was no need for worry. (Right?) He could take care of himself. He was, after all, 12-years-old! It was only his Mom & Dad (who had left him behind) who had the problem. Like, Duh!

The break-down of communication between this precocious pre-teen and his parents might ring true to some of you who have raised children of your own, but the thing that struck me is that Joseph probably thought he was Jesus’ father… and their house was Up North in Nazareth, not down here in urban Jerusalem!

There is an apparent rudeness in Jesus’ dismissal of Papa Joseph… and yet, there is also an affirmation (of sorts). You see, for Jesus to use the familial term “Abba/Father” to address God is a sign of how significant Joseph’s parental role had been in Jesus’ upbringing. We give Mary a lot of credit, of course, but Jesus must have learned much from Papa Joe, too.

And the way they “lived their faith” as a family back at home must have seemed interesting and exciting to young Jesus.

Otherwise, if it had been a dull drudgery (a resistant obedience) that brought Jesus to the Temple, you’d bet he’d be the first one tugging at his parents’ sleeves to get on! Get along HOME! Instead (according to this story in Luke‘s Gospel), his parents find him three days long “sitting among the teachers of the Temple, listening to them & asking questions.”

And for a 6th grader, a boy of 12 (Luke tells us): Jesus showed amazing understanding in his answers.

To my way of thinking, this is a perfect example of the “nurture and admonition” which our parents vow to supply to their children when we baptize them -- vows in which we, the members of this congregation, promise to give them assistance. Mary & Joseph saw to it that Jesus was raised in a faithful home; that he was habitually at the synagogue school and that he learned his Bar Mitzvah lessons, such that he made a memorable impression on the Rabbis & Teachers in the Jerusalem Temple on that occasion so long ago.


Our passage ends with the statement that “Jesus increased in wisdom & stature, growing in size and in years, in divine and human favor.” That’s a good report about him, but what does it have to do with us?

First, it indicates that Jesus himself went through the same stages of growth and development that all of us must go through as we mature. As I say in my sermon title, it’s a lifetime of spiritual (and physical) growth.

Second, these references to Jesus as a child -- as a self-absorbed 12-year-old no less, who thought nothing of the anxiety of his parents as he enjoyed himself in the Jerusalem Temple! -- makes Jesus seem “more human” than most stories about him.

I’m sure he was a gifted child, but Jesus was not abnormal. The breakdown of communication between Jesus and his parents (that is obvious in this story) should give consolation to the parents of teen-agers in our own day, knowing that Mary & Joseph went through the same thing. (It’s what 12-year-olds do! Don’t take it personally. They’re just growing up!)

By the end of the story, despite the break-down of communication between Jesus and his parents, he leaves the Temple with them, returns to Nazareth, where (I quote) “he was obedient to them.”

So, in the end, Jesus was not in rebellion. He stayed with his family until the beginning of his ministry, at age 30… some 18 years later! And Mary, his mother -- even though she admits to having not understood what Jesus was saying to them -- nevertheless did not forget his words. (Isn’t that just like a mother!?) She “treasured all these things in her heart.” Perhaps Luke learned of this childhood event directly from Mary.

To me, Jesus does not appear to have been a divine prodigy, immune from the twists and turns of childhood and adolescence. He went through every stage of growth -- in size, in compre- hension, in social development -- just as we go through them. But he was aided by the stability of a godly family and by the embrace of a religious community. And I suspect it is the nurture & admonition he received in those formative years, as much as his divine birth or the preaching of John the Baptist, which set the course of Jesus’ ministry.

I feel that way, not only because Luke tells it that way, but because I started my own faith journey in a family that considered Christianity something you do every day of your life; where involvement in church was habitual, and where private prayer & public worship was an exciting, creative vehicle for the expression of thoughts and emotions that would otherwise stay pent up.

I’ll get back to that (my own family story) in a minute, but for now I just want to make the point that we, who have been raised within godly families, within the embrace of faithful worshiping communities, may not have the dramatic testimonies of those who did not come to know Christ until some later crisis in their lives “turned them around.” We may not be able, like them, to point to a specific moment in which we were “born again” or “converted.” But we certainly have something for which to be thankful...

We may not be like Nicodemus (for example), who had to be born anew -- born from above, born from the Spirit -- because he had been pursuing a different path of success (serving a different idea of who God was) than what Jesus’ Way was introducing. … Or (as another example), we may not be like the Apostle Paul, who had to be knocked from his high horse and made to start over blind, so he could see; who had to be broken before he could be made whole, who was so far lost that it took a special act of divine intervention for him to be found. (!) No, our spiritual journey may not be a dramatic conversion, an all-or-nothing transformation. But we have an assurance of vital Christian faith that is even greater than the “born again” Nicodemus or St. Paul!

We have the model of none other than Jesus Christ himself, growing up in God -- gradually increasing in God’s favor, year-after-year gaining in understanding and in stature, in fellowship with all people -- as our guide!

With a model like that -- and with faith in the Holy Spirit’s ability to guide us into all understanding -- let us continue to be faithful in our homes, raising our children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, and gathering (habitually!) as a church community to celebrate God’s coming in our midst. Your Spirit is born anew every day; take advantage of that glorious promise in every 24 hour period. You’ve been born from above, in the Spirit.

The misunderstanding we see here between Jesus and his parents (faithful law-abiding celebrative Jewish folks that they were), causes us (the readers, the hearers of this story) to start to wonder who Jesus thought he was in relation to the world-view of the religion of his culture and his day. Jesus said he was ‘in his Father’s house” there in the Temple. Jesus called God his Father -- and he later said that God is “our Father”, too. In fact, that’s the way Jesus wants us to address God when we pray! (!)

In my younger years, at Alpena Community College (1972-74), I was part of an experimental course funded by a grant from the Carnegie Foundation which blended English, sociology, psychology, and media classes in four-hour-long 16-credit classes, four days a week. We called it a “Liberal Arts Bloc” (LAB). One of the things we learned in those days was that going through a period of “alienation” is typical when a young person matures.

You see, the theory was that all children begin with a number of years of socialization within the family and culture which establishes “normative” behavior -- we do what we’ve been told, what we’ve been taught, what we assume is “normal” in general.

And then, around puberty, or adolescence, each individual goes through a period of “alienation,” in which familial norms and standards are questioned, boundaries are pushed, new awareness of self-identity is gained, and one truly becomes an “in-divid-ual” indivisible: an unique ego-entity adrift in a world of multiple meanings and with a plurality of choices.

For many teenagers, this is a very hard period of life. The young, growing brain is just then developing “abstract” reasoning … and developing “idealism”, which contrasts “what is” with what “should be”. Everything is questioned, as childhood relationships fall away. The young person is going through a period of “alienation” from what had been “the norm”… Maturing beyond what Marcus Borg calls “pre-critical naiveté” to a new awareness...

To me, this story of Jesus at age 12 in the Temple -- drawing nearer to his calling to become a religious teacher and social innovator, while drawing away from his family of origin -- is a perfectly natural & appropriate behavior for a young person.

He is going from the “childhood” of life -- the normative values to which he was asked to be obedient -- and entering a period of “alienation.” Our hope is (as with every child going through puberty and into early adulthood) that he will come through this disruptive period of “disassociation from his past” into a new appreciation of the reasons for (and the roots of) those very principles and standards that his parents had so diligently & lovingly instilled into him. In our L.A.B. Class at A.C.C., we called that “re-integration at a higher level.”

At age 30 or so, Jesus would re-engage with the synagogue in his hometown, and be a guest preacher in Nazareth. (!) Those childhood values could now be re-articulated with enhanced meaning and adult understanding, as the more mature Jesus “re-integrated” those early teachings with his broader world-view.

To me, this story (as Luke has recorded it), gives rise to the possibility that Jesus will move through his alienation from his parents and eventually embrace the Judaism of his youth, if for no other reason than when we notice how he has chosen to spend these past three days. (!) Once his exasperated parents calm down from their anxiety, I suspect they would burst with pride that their son had revealed himself on this occasion as a deeply faithful Jew. After all, Jesus was discussing Torah! He was arguing with the Rabbis about their interpretations of the Law, as Jews still do to this day.

I can imagine Papa Joe saying: “That’s my boy!” and the teachers saying to Mary & Joseph: “What a kid! This guy has real potential!”

In the end, Luke tells us that Jesus returned home, obedient, in the way his family would have hoped he would be -- faithfully, deeply Jewish, knowing Torah and living it daily.

I think of this story of Jesus at age 12 kind-of like a pebble being thrown into a pond. From this initial scene, in which Jesus sensed a call to serve God while he was still a youth (as it also happened with me, when I was in High School), the ripples have forever been going out in wider circles for 2,000 years.

Jesus waited until he was 30 years old to go public -- to call disciples, and to recruit followers to his Way. As fate would have it, I was ordained here in this sanctuary on the week that I turned 30, too, back in 1983. My first church as a solo minister was in Zurich, Switzerland; then a few years in Dowagiac, and for the next 25 years in California, before coming back to Alpena seven years ago. I see myself as just one little part of Jesus’ ever-widening circle of influence as the church he founded continues to mature. It takes a lifetime to grow spiritually.

On this Father’s Day, I would like to share with you a few words from my Mother, Dodi Lance. She wrote this, and presented it live from the Lay Reader’s lectern, about 10 years ago. It was part of the Stewardship Drive that year that Kathy Dempsey asked a few long-time members to get up and speak about their faith.

In what I am about to read, not only does my Mom affirm the importance of First Congregational (Alpena) in her faith journey, she indicates some of the pivotal moves along the way. On this Father’s Day 2020, I conclude my sermon with some words from my Mother. Some of you viewing this video may remember the day my Mom, Dodi Lance, said these words…

“What My Church Means To Me”

Each one of you should have this assignment. It is quite an experience.

I first remember the little painted wooden chairs in a circle in the Lower Level of the First Congregational Church of Cadillac. Miss Winnie was my sweet teacher. She told lovely Bible stories of Jesus and God’s love. Many years later, I became that teacher with my own children, but that’s jumping ahead.

My parents gave me a good example of attending church regularly. They were very loyal to the values Jesus taught and instilled them in my brothers and me by often helping in the community.

The church was a jolly outlet during the Depression when no one had much money or could travel. My parents met with other adults at the church for sing-alongs, games, and potlucks. Sometimes children were included.

I had a rude awakening soon after I was married and attended a country Baptist church. Communion was about to be served. The minister came to me and asked “If I had been ‘saved’?” I didn’t know how to answer. I had not been challenged like that before, so I told him I believed in Jesus, God, and the Holy Ghost and His teachings.

He then asked if I were Baptist? (I hope that any Baptists in the audience will be patient with me.) When I answered “No”, he told me that I could not take communion. I left the church in tears and didn’t attend any church for two years.

Later my husband and I began to search the scriptures, and with the help of a door-to-door preacher, we were guided to study Acts 2:21. “And it came to pass that whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” We read that line out ooud seven times than said: “We believer it. We ARE calling.”

To our surprise, the scriptures became clear. They had fresh meaning for us. I guess we were saved.

We lived in California a few years, tried out several churches, and felt most comfortable in the UCC church. Later we transferred back to my Michigan church; the one I grew up in and where we were married.

We moved to Alpena in 1965 [when my husband, Les Lance, became the Executive Vice-President of First Federal]. Before we attended any church, my husband announced we would be members of the First Congregational Church, whether we liked the minister or not. “This is our church.” We were very happy with this nice big church full of friendly people.

Back then, there were 30 young people in PF – Pilgrim Fellowship. There were five groups of Women’s Fellowship. [There was a Men’s Fellowship that hosted Boy Scout Troop 78.]

Then things began to change. Abitibi moved 12 families down to the Detroit area. The cement plant closed for a time [and then re-opened as LaFarge]. Families were becoming smaller. Mothers worked outside the home, so all the volunteer support dwindled.

But the “community” or “family feeling” of this church has not changed. The members are still friendly; in fact, they give more hugs now than they used to. They still support whatever is needed either in work or finances.

There is an earnest desire burning for good in this world. All the Mission initiatives Kathy mentioned are being filled as best we can in this church. We reach out to local charities, too. And we have fun.

Our volunteers keep our grounds and building in beautiful condition and open the church to various organizations for their gatherings.

We have had three ministers begin their journeys to the pulpit from this church – Keith & Ginny Titus, and my son, Paul Lance.

The study group about Women in Islam [Building Bridges], “Think Pink” for Breast Cancer Awareness Day, Desserts for Fund-raising, and the list goes on… We are blessed to have a staff that keeps us all going week-after-week. The Comstock Fund that we share with the community, the fantastic choir that delights the ear [on Sunday mornings], and the many ministry volunteers that decorate the church, usher, provide Coffee Hour, or whatever it takes to make us comfortable and happy…

We rejoice together, eat together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, because we care about each other. [That’s the bottom line.] We are a caring community.

There is another reason I have stayed with this church and the UCC. God, to me, is a very personal God. I believe as it says in 1st Corinthians 6:19: “Don’t you know that your body is the Temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God?” And Luke 17:21: “Behold, the kingdom of God is within you.” That’s why I can believe Jesus when he says, “Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.”

Also, in this church I can doubt and question. Doubt is the beginning, not the end, of wisdom. It encourages us to search the scriptures for Truth. Mark 9:24 states: “Lord, I believe – help thou my unbelief.”

We are accountable for our actions. Some people interpret the Bible literally. They believe that everything is God’s Will, God’s Plan. “He will take care of us, like he takes care of the birds.” But there is a responsibility to that equation. Sure, God feeds the birds, but He doesn’t throw the food into the nest! And if we don’t quit doing away with insects by sprays and by drying up wetlands, there won’t be any food for the birds.

God gives us free will, but with it there is a responsibility that we must own. Our church and its teachings help us accept that responsibility. Jesus is the vine and we are His branches. We cannot live fully unless we are connected. We are also His hands on the Body of Christ to do God’s work.

In her book “The Unmistakable Touch of Grace”, Cheryl Richardson states it best why, in this busy world, we need a connection to the sacred dimension of life: “To come to church is to pull away from all the overload of voice mail, e-mail, junk mail, TV violence and threatening News… and the myriad of choices we need to make every day… (Did you know there are 392 choices of breakfast cereal at Neiman’s?) … and find a sacred quietness, beautiful music, and a caring community.”

The sermons give thoughtful direction to our lives, and the coffee hour with friendly greetings warms our hearts. We are SO blessed!

These remarks were written by my Mother, Dodi Lance, and presented here in this sanctuary. My Mom’s funeral was three years ago last week… but her Spirit lives on, wouldn’t you agree?

Happy Father’s Day! Amen.

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