Truly Human

A sermon preached at Trinity Church Lakeville Connecticut on January 2, 2011, by Christopher L. Webber.  (This sermon contains some material from the sermon preached at St. Paul’s Bantam on Christmas Eve.)

What did you do that was memorable from the time you were born until you turned thirty? Maybe some of you didn’t get there yet, but most of us, looking back, could fill quite a few scrapbooks. Start with growing up in a small town in upState New York and all that involves: snow, for example, trapping muskrats with my brother; having a paper route, mowing lawns, making maple syrup.  Then I went away to school and spent three years in the northwest corner of Connecticut and went on to college thinking I would never come back here. Don’t you have some memories of college or your first job – dating, marriage, family. In the early days of the human race, thirty years was a full life – most people were dead by then. And certainly for most of us still those are critical years that shaped who we are.

So, wouldn’t you like to know how Jesus spent those years? Why do you suppose the people who wrote the gospels tell us almost nothing about them?  Certainly people have been curious and there were other gospels written that did tell stories about Jesus as a child. There was a story told, for example, about how Jesus and some other children were making birds out of clay and, when they were done, Jesus’ birds flew off and the other children’s didn’t. There’s a wonderful legend that as a teen-ager Jesus went with his rich uncle, Joseph of Arimathea, on a voyage to England because Joseph wanted to import tin from Cornwall and he took Jesus along to let him see something of the world and possibly go into the business.

Stories like that were told and people still make up stories about Jesus and produce best selling novels and block buster movies about things we never heard from the gospels but when the church got serious about selecting stories to keep and treasure and read in church those stories didn’t make it.  They didn’t quite seem believable perhaps or there just wasn’t enough evidence. And the result is that of all those teeming years in human life when so much normally happens that’s critically important we know almost nothing about what Jesus did.  We have, in fact, just the one story in this morning’s gospel about Jesus at age twelve.

Think about that: we celebrated Jesus’ birth just over a week ago and next Sunday we will celebrate his baptism at the age of thirty. What happened in between?  We have the story of the wise men when Jesus was maybe as much as two years old.  And there’s the story of the escape into Egypt which is still in Jesus’ infancy. But for those critical years when we would have been making our way through grade school and high school and college and beginning a career and maybe starting a family there’s nothing recorded except this one story and it leaves me wondering what was it like to be God incarnate as a teen-ager, what was it like for the local rabbi to be teaching the Son of God? What was it like for Mary and Joseph and Jesus’ brothers and sisters, to have him in the family. But there is just this one story: and it fits.  It’s has a marvelous balance between the human and the divine.  There’s the absolutely normal curiosity and rebelliousness of a twelve year old: wandering off by himself going back to the temple, the most marvelous building in the whole country, getting into conversation with some adults and challenging them, questioning their interpretation.  That’s what twelve-year olds are like, isn’t it? And it’s undoubtedly what Jesus was like.  And a twelve year old does have questions,  does begin to test and challenge the received wisdom. It’s only two or three chapters later in Matthew’s gospel that we find Jesus again challenging the conventional wisdom in the Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard that it was said . . . But I say . . .” and that has its roots in the story of Jesus at age twelve. There’s a sermon in that for another time: how it comes about that a teacher who was always questioning and challenging authority could give rise to a faith whose leaders so often become fundamentalists and authoritarians and tell us never to question or challenge. That’s not in the Bible I read. But that’s not the sermon for today.

Today’s sermon is about the humanity of Jesus and how the gospels have short-changed us by failing to record any stories of the critical years in Jesus’ life from age two to age thirty.  In fact two of the gospels, you know, have no stories about Jesus’ birth at all. In Mark and John Jesus comes on the scene all grown up and ready to go. He just appears out of nowhere and starts to teach. And if those were the only gospels we had the Christian year would have Easter but no Christmas.

Think about that: Easter without Christmas.  I think we would have Christianity without the Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion because the incarnation has always been such a central emphasis in our tradition. It’s no accident that so much of the Christmas tradition adopted by Congregationalists and Baptists and Roman Catholics and department stores is English in origin whether it’s plum pudding or Yule logs or Clement Clark Moore’s famous poem about a “Visit from St Nicholas” or Charles Dickens’ “Christmas Carol” with Scrooge and Tiny Tim or Philip Brooks’ great hymn “O little town of Bethlehem.” Brooks was an Episcopal bishop and Clement Clark Moore was an Episcopal priest who taught at the General Seminary in New York.  Other churches center their teaching around sin and redemption, around Good Friday and the crucifixion. Anglicans concentrate their attention on Christmas and the incarnation: the incarnation, the word made flesh, the humanity of Jesus.

Christmas reminds us that Jesus was truly human and therefore that he was a real baby. Now that has always bothered people and they have tried to avoid it. The familiar Christmas carol, “Away in a manger,” (not, I would point out, written by an Anglican) tells us “the little Lord Jesus, / No crying he makes.” Really?  If you were Mary, wouldn’t you worry about that? But we do find it hard to get our minds around the reality of the incarnation.  “Hark! The herald angels sing” which was, by the way, written by an Anglican does it much better: “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see, Hail the incarnate deity, Pleased as man with us to dwell . . .”  That’s what matters: God in human flesh; God fully sharing our humanity. That’s what it’s all about.  That’s what Christianity is about.

There were people in the early days of the church who found it offensive to think that the Almighty God could really enter human life, really be limited as we are limited.  They taught that God only seemed to be human in Jesus, only seemed to suffer, only seemed to die. The church has consistently condemned that teaching because if God only seemed to share our life, what’s the point? Humanity is limited.  There are things we can’t do. But if we can’t and Jesus could, he didn’t share human life to the full. Human life is about being forever frustrated by our limitations. If Jesus didn’t know that, he didn’t know what it means to be human. And we don’t know that God truly loves us and cares enough to come into this world and live a human life.

Christmas is about the real world, not a fictional one.  It’s about the stunning, astounding, almost-too-good-to-be-true proclamation that God does really care about us, that God cares enough about you and me to live the life we live, endure the pain and the suffering that are part of it, and die the death that comes at the end of it, and not in peace and tranquility but in agony and despair. Whatever we face, God has been here. God knows.

There are other religious systems, and they contain much good teaching. But I’m not a Christian because of the teaching. I’m a Christian because of the incarnation. The incarnation connects the dots.  Out there is a vast and incomprehensible universe; somewhere beyond human comprehension is a power that shapes worlds. And here I am on a different plane entirely, living a life in the flesh that gets hungry and thirsty and tired and frustrated.  What connection could there be?  It’s lovely to have some teaching but I want to know that God knows me in a way with which I can make contact. God here.  God in human flesh.  And that boggles many minds.  Human beings have always tended to resist the notion that flesh and deity can connect.  I mean, flesh gets grubby and it does things we don’t talk about in polite society – or didn’t used to. Look at the way the world’s religions cloak the flesh and conceal its temptations. What are all those about?  Why do orthodox Muslim women wear the hijab and burqa?  Why are women who visit the Pope required to wear long sleeves and “modest attire?” There are things holy people shouldn’t know about. Right?

But God knows. Surely God, the Creator, knows every aspect of Creation. God knows.  God came into human flesh.  And the whole meaning and character of our faith is shaped by this basic assertion.  Go into the developing parts of the world and you find Christians building hospitals and working on health care. Health care is a priority for Christians; not necessarily for others. Some religions teach that we should rise above concern for the flesh. Not Christianity.

In all this health care debate in Congress, there’s a bottom line that seldom if ever gets mentioned: we can’t as a Christian society fail to provide health care, to care for the bodies God created. You can argue legitimately about how to do it: government funding, private funding, or get Bill Gates to pay for it. But we can’t avoid it.  When people come to the emergency room, we’re not going to turn them away because our society is based on certain values: no one is beyond the reach of God’s care and we can’t neglect those for whom God cares. Therefore someone has to pay.  The only debate is “How?” Right now we pay for it anyway if we have medical insurance or pay taxes because the cost of those without insurance gets passed along to the rest of us. And maybe that’s OK, maybe not.  That’s what the debate should be about. If we weren’t Christians or influenced by Christianity we could just close the door to the Emergency Room and let the uninsured die as I suggested last week in a letter to the Lakeville Journal.

But God came into this world and knew what it means to be twelve. I wouldn’t do that again for anyone.  But God did even that for me!  “With the poor and mean and lowly /  Lived on earth our Savior holy.”  No one is beyond God’s care.  No one can be beyond ours.

When you come to the altar today you will be given a piece of bread and a sip of wine: real things, real material things, as real as flesh and blood.  But God in that bread and wine comes to dwell in our flesh and blood bodies It’s all about incarnation, the God who comes, who cares, who lives in us and among us still. Really and truly. That’s the gospel we proclaim, the faith that makes a difference, and the good news of this day.
Postscript (with the announcements): Now, if you were paying attention you will come around at coffee hour and say, You never answered the question you started with: why don’t the gospels tell us about Jesus as a teen-ager? I think the answer is: because he was just like us.  If he had done anything spectacular, it surely would have been remembered. But if he was truly like us, the life he lived wasn’t all that remarkable much of the time. So that’s good news too: he was indeed human and that means generally unremarkable. And the other side of that is if God did come into an ordinary human life, God can also live in us.

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