Jesus at the age of Twelve

January 2nd, 2022

A sermon preached at All Saints Church, San Francisco, on January 2, 2022, by Christopher L. Webber.

“After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.” Luke 2:46

Do you remember being twelve years old? I do. I remember quite a lot about it. It was a traumatic year. I nearly died. I came down with pneumonia at Thanksgiving. The doctor came – they did that in those days – and said, “He’s a very sick boy.” He said I should go to the hospital.

I remember lying in bed and thinking, “I don’t care whether I get better.” When you’re twelve years old, that’s really sick. So they took me to the hospital. My home town in upstate New York had a good little hospital a couple of miles away but they didn’t have an ambulance so they borrowed the hearse from the undertaker. I had my first ride in the back of a hearse at the age of 12.

So they put me in a hospital bed and gave me blood transfusions every day and sent me tons of get well cards. I remember how they stuck the cards up on the walls. (How did they do that before Scotch tape was invented?) I guess it was all they knew to do, but with the cards and the blood transfusions I got better after a month or so and they sent me home for Christmas. I don’t remember whether I got a round trip in the hearse, but I think I must have because I know I didn’t walk out of the hospital. I remember that I was back home when I felt well enough one day to get out of bed and I fell flat on the floor because I hadn’t used my legs in a month and nobody had thought to give me exercises to keep my muscles in shape.

In January I was back in school and I remember that on my first day back at school there was a geography test on things they’d worked on while I was gone, but I got 100 anyway. Well, I had a stamp collection so I knew about countries and geography. We were also in the middle of Word War II and we had National Geographic maps pinned to the wall behind the radio and we put pins in the maps
to mark the location of battles. Geography, government, politics – that interested me and I knew about it.

I had one more significant moment that year. It came when the teacher, Miss Edwards, decided to get us thinking about pronunciation, and each of us was asked to come to the front of the room and read a passage from a book and asked the class to vote who did it best. Not a big moment, but I really wanted to win, and I did, and I still remember winning that totally unimportant reading contest at age 12.

Now, I’m not bragging about these rather minor accomplishments. I wasn’t the smartest kid on the class – there were a couple of girls that got better marks than I did – but I’m pointing to the events that mattered to me and determined who I would be. I knew life was serious and that there’s a big world out there and I wanted to know about it and I wanted to use my voice somehow to make a difference in that world.

I cared about words and language and politics at the age of twelve, and it came together by the time I got to college in the idea of a career in government. I majored in public and international affairs in college and we studied local and national problems, and the more I saw of government close up the more I saw that I wasn’t likely to make much difference. I was likely to be just one more voice in a clamor of voices – but ministry, with the building of local communities, might fit better with using my voice and finding ways to make a difference at the local level.

So I went to seminary, not Washington. I still pay close attention to the political world. After I retired I even did some canvassing and poll watching and even gave same advice one day to the Junior Senator from Connecticut about using his voice – and made a difference. But I think I made the right choice, and I began to see indications of a way forward at the age of 12.

You have your own stories, I’m sure. God works in various ways to bring us to an understanding of who we are and how we can make a difference. Jesus at the age of twelve was going through that same process: the Bible tells us he was listening and asking questions, exploring, learning.

We know from the Bible that Joseph was a builder. I think the most common Bible translations say “carpenter,” but the Greek word is “tekton.” It’s related to our word archi-tect. It’s a bigger word than “carpenter.” “Builder” might be better.  So Jesus would have been involved in building, and no wonder he was interested in the great Temple in Jerusalem and wondered how those massive stones got moved and placed. The foundation stones of that temple are still there. They weigh mostly 2 to 5 tons. The biggest is estimated to weigh 570 tons. It may be the biggest stone ever moved until modern days. And the stone of the temple was lined with cedar panels.

I think Jesus, or any builder, would have looked at the Temple in Jerusalem with special interest. I imagine Jesus wandering around, looking at the temple with more understanding and curiosity than the average tourist and looking for the maintenance people to ask about it, and then, with the religious leaders and teachers, asking why this and why that until he totally lost track of the time as a 12-year old can do. But Mary and Joseph came looking for him as parents do, and took him back to Nazareth. He would come back to Jerusalem, of course, but for the moment his life was in Nazareth and he could begin to think about what he might build, how he might use his talents, perhaps to build synagogues, perhaps to build a church.

There’s a legend that makes a lot of sense to me that a few years later Jesus traveled to England with his rich uncle, Joseph of Arimathea. We know there was extensive trade between England and the Eastern Mediterranean in those days because in Cornwall, in the west of England, there are tin mines, and sometimes traders, merchants, needed to go to see for themselves who they could work with,
and how best to get things done. Joseph of Arimathea, the legend goes, made that journey and took his promising young cousin along to see something of the larger world.

Maybe you know the hymn they still sing in England:

“And did those feet in ancient times
tread upon England’s mountains green
And was the holy Lamb of God
in England’s pleasant pastures seen?”

If you go to Cornwall today, to Glastonbury, they will show you the Glastonbury thorn, a hawthorn tree that descends from a tree said to have grown from the staff that Joseph carried and that he stuck in the ground and that rooted and that often blossoms twice a year, once in May, but then again at Christmas time.

Do you remember the parable Jesus told of a rich man who traveled to a far country? He may have lived that story himself with Joseph of Arimathea.

Be that as it may, I’m suggesting that today’s gospel is one small glimpse of a process that shaped who Jesus was just the way I was shaped by my experiences and the way you have been shaped by your experiences.

There are other stories about Jesus that look at his story differently and suggest that Jesus had special knowledge and powers from day one. There’s a story told in ancient documents of how, when Jesus was maybe six or eight years old, he was playing with some other children, and they had found some clay and made clay pigeons, and Jesus’ pigeons flew away, but the other children’s didn’t. But that story is not in the Bible.

There’s a simplistic notion of Jesus that eliminates the humanity and makes him unreal, un-human from the first, but that’s not what Christianity is all about.  Christianity is about incarnation: God coming to earth as a real human being of flesh and blood. It’s hard to get our minds around this idea that we sum up in the word “incarnation:” God in human flesh. It’s not about God pretending to be human. It’s about God being human, being a real 12-year old, curious about the world and how it works.

There’s that wonderful Christmas hymn that gets sung in the service of lessons and carols: “Once in royal David’s city.” It tells us that “he came down from earth to heaven, who is God and Lord of all, and his shelter was a stable and his cradle was a stall; with the poor, the scorned, the lowly, lived on earth our Savior holy.” Yes, but when they last revised the hymnal, they changed the words of that hymn and destroyed it. Cecil Frances Alexander wrote:
“He was little, weak, and helpless,
tears and smiles like us he knew . . .”
But they rewrote that in the hymnal we now use and dropped that “weak and helpless” phrase and, indeed, where Mrs Alexander wrote “For that child so dear and gentle . . .” the new hymnal wants us to sing: “for that child who seemed so helpless . . .”  “Seemed”? No, he was. He was truly, fully human and that means growing up in weakness. “Seemed” is a formal, declared heresy called “docetism,” so ruled at the Council of Chalcedon in 451. Don’t ever sing the 5th verse of hymn 102.  No, no, no, “the word became flesh,” one with us, one of us, here with us, and when he was an infant, he was weak and helpless as infants are, and when he was twelve he had to explore and to learn and maybe be slightly rebellious as twelve-year-olds can be. And he may well have traveled to England and seen the world and heard sailors talk and matured and grown in wisdom and understanding so that after thirty years he had gained insights and must have begun to see how hard it would be to do what he was called to do, what he was sent to do, to bring together one fully human life with the fulness of the love and power of God.

Why after all are we here today except because we believe, we know, that the Almighty God lived among us, and knows our life from the inside, and knows our need from the inside, and did it for us, and died for us, and wants still to be involved in human life, in your life, and my life, and all life.

It’s a slow, uncertain process that shapes our lives, seeming to go in one direction, and then turning in another but learning along the way. It’s a process that brings us sometimes through great sickness and suffering to understand what others are suffering. When I visit someone in the hospital, I can say, “I know; I’ve been there.” God also can say to us: “I know; I’ve been there.”

It’s pretty wonderful isn’t it? But this, after all, is what Christianity is all about, and why Christmas is so widely celebrated even by people who have barely a clue abut its meaning. It’s why we bow or genuflect at the critical words of the creed: “For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven and was incarnate,” – and became truly human – “and was crucified, (and) died, and was buried.”

God became truly human. He grew up as we do, and was curious about things as we are, and died as we do. He knows who we are; he knows our needs; he knows human life from the inside, and therefore I come back again and again to what means more to me than any other verse or verses in the Bible – Hebrews 4:15-16 – as the very best summary I know of what it’s all about:

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. ” (Hebrews 4:15-6)

Wherever we’re called to go, we can go there because he’s been here, and he understands. He knows what it’s like to be a twelve year old and curious about the world, knows what it’s like to get tired, knows what it’s like to suffer and die.

There’s a story about how Jesus later on walked on water. So what? So did Peter – till he lost his nerve. I value more the story in John’s gospel (4:6) of how Jesus was traveling through Samaria one day and got tired and had to sit down and rest. He was truly human, one with us, one of us, to whom we can turn as to a friend and not a stranger, not a mere visitor. He knows us; he’s been here. And we know him, and we can turn to him for help, and he gives us now voices to use and hands to employ to follow him and make a difference.


Everyone is Searching

February 5th, 2021

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at All Saints Church, San Francisco, on February 7, 2021.

“Everyone is looking for you”

We’ve all been in that situation. You go somewhere with a group of friends and somehow you get separated from those you were with – your wife, your husband, your child, your friends – and you ask around – “Have you seen Bill or Mary or whoever?” No, they haven’t. So you ask them to let them know that you’re looking and you ask others and you keep looking and asking and eventually you find them — they’d seen something that interested them and gone in a different direction – but you find them and your first line is: “Where have you been? Everyone’s been looking for you.”

Well, that’s not literally true and we all know it. Joe Biden hadn’t even heard they were missing, nor Donald Trump, nor Vladimir Putin. But that’s not what we meant, was it? Don’t be such a literalist, such a fundamentalist.

You and I are not fundamentalists. If we read in the Bible that Noah brought all the animals into the ark two by two, we don’t take that literally. If Noah brought two tigers on the ark, he would have needed probably a dozen rabbits. Maybe more. But you and I aren’t literalists. We may not even be sure there was an ark or a flood, though there might be soon. But that’s another subject. I just want to say that we may not be literalists or fundamentalists, but sometimes we ought to pay more attention than we do because sometimes the gospel writers mean exactly what they say. We need to notice.

“Everyone is looking for you.” Jesus had begun his ministry and the response had been overwhelming. He went to the synagogue on the Sabbath and taught and people were amazed. He was worth listening to. He had a message. And then he healed some people. And by the end of the day, word had gotten out, and there was a crowd. But finally people went home and everyone tried to get some sleep. But “while it was still dark” the Bible tells us, Jesus got up and went out to find a quiet place for prayer. Maybe he, too, was a little overwhelmed by what was happening and needed time and space to think through the next steps and be sure he was on course.

So when everyone else got up, where was Jesus? Everyone wondered. Everyone went looking. And when they found him, they said, “Everyone is looking for you.” Now a good old-fashioned fundamentalist knows how to read that verse, but most of us don’t even stop to think about it. But my point is that sometimes the fundamentalists have it right and we should pay attention.

“Everyone is looking for you.” Well, no, not right at that moment in a literal sense. Maybe Peter was still asleep; maybe his mother-in-law was in the kitchen getting some breakfast for all these visitors. And down at the local Starbucks or iHop, the patrons weren’t looking for Jesus. They were talking about him. “Did you hear what happened last night out at Peter’s house?” “Yeah, I was there for awhile, but it was such a crowd that I left.” Mark is wrong. I’m sure he is wrong. Everyone was not looking for Jesus. So why did he say so? And why do we not pay attention?

Last month when that crowd stormed the capitol: what was that all about? I think we’ve all asked ourselves: what was that all about? Let me tell you what I think. Some of them said they were looking for Mike Pence and some said they were looking for Nancy Pelosi – at least that’s what they thought they were doing – but, no, if you look more closely, these were people who felt life had been unfair to them. They thought they would have a secure and significant job, but they’d gone from one place to another and never had the kind of income they’d imagined, never found a secure relationship, never known they were loved, really loved. Hillary Clinton used the term “deplorables” and that wasn’t too smart, but it is deplorable that so many people fail to find the fulfillment they want and need. It’s deplorable that we as a nation have left so many people without opportunity and security and that so many of us are still seeking something more in life. That’s deplorable. But the simple fact is that a lot of people are looking for something and not finding it and lashing out in their frustration – storming the capitol, looking for someone blame, someone to attack.

Photo by Tyler Merbler

But that’s not us. We’re here in a setting that helps us make sense of our lives. We don’t think of ourselves as the “come to Jesus” type, but we have found something, someone, here at All Saints Church who gives our lives enough meaning that we don’t feel a need to take up training with a local militia or join a chapter of the NRA.

We’re fortunate. We found what we were looking for, what we needed, and we’re not angry at the world. But not everyone is so fortunate. They’re still looking and don’t even know it, don’t know why they’re so angry, don’t know that God cares for them, loves them, wants them to find peace. They’re so angry that if they had actually met Jesus in the capitol rotunda, they would probably have crucified him again. They’re that angry, that needy, that blinded by their anger.
And Jesus would let them crucify him again to show them how much he cares.

The lives of those who stormed the capital were not better – probably worse when the FBI showed up with a warrant, but for a while at lest they had a focus for their anger. It accomplished nothing, but it made them feel better, gave them someone else to blame rather than themselves. But it isn’t the answer. It’s not what they are really looking for, not who they are really looking for. Because what they need is a love bigger than their anger, and only Jesus loves them and us that much, loves them and us enough to die for them and for us and for all the world.

So I think Mark is literally right: everyone is looking for Jesus, everyone needs to find Jesus, everyone needs to know how much they are loved and be able to share that love.

But that’s not all: there’s another side to the equation and it’s equally true. God is searching for us, and that’s the larger theme of Mark’s gospel: that God, the Creator of the infinite universe, is looking for us, came in search of us, and died for us and rose again. That’s why Mark called his book a “gospel” – god-spel, good words, good news – news about our search for God and also God’s search for us. There’s a search going on and every human being is involved in that search – some of us more successfully than others – but we need to understand our world in that larger perspective. The news we see on line is the story of that ongoing search: there’s a search going on. There are a lot of unhappy, discontented people in the world, people seeking and not finding. There’s a search going on, and people are turning to anger and violence in their frustration. There’s a search going on, and I think we have a message and we need to find ways to get that message out and tell others – show others – that the God who created us loves us and seeks for us, and if we seek for that God and that peace and that fulfillment we’ll discover that God also is seeking for us. And God wants to be found.


Judgment is Real

November 15th, 2020

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber to the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco, on November 15, 2020.  (This service was joined by telephone by church members.)

You might think, after all the events of the last few weeks that you could escape by going to church – or at least by dialing in to a service with the familiar language of the Bible and Prayer Book and find some peace and reassurance.

But no. The assigned readings used by all the major churches – well, not the evangelicals –
but almost everyone else – give us words that could have come straight from the headlines:

Take the Old Testament, for example:

The great day of the Lord is near,
near and hastening fast;
a day of ruin and devastation,
a day of darkness and gloom,

a day of clouds and thick darkness,
a day of trumpet blast and battle cry

I’m not sure that either Trump or Biden would put it that way exactly, but both would probably see it like that if the other side finally wins.

But beyond the immediate reference, each of the three readings tells us that God is at work in human history and warns us that God has an agenda. God has an agenda in human history,
our history, America’s history, your history and mine. God expects us to create societies of peace and justice, and God will bring down judgment when we fail. And we do fail, again and again.

The Old Testament reading is the worst of the three:
The great day of the Lord is near, it tells us, near and hastening fast;

That day will be a day of wrath,
a day of distress and anguish,

a day of ruin and devastation,
a day of darkness and gloom,

a day of clouds and thick darkness,
a day of trumpet blast and battle cry

against the fortified cities
and against the lofty battlements.

And God tells us,

I will bring such distress upon people
that they shall walk like the blind;
because they have sinned against the Lord,

Neither their silver nor their gold
will be able to save them
on the day of the Lord’s wrath;

God, we are told, will make “a terrible end . . . of all the inhabitants of the earth.”
Our silver and gold will not save us.

Saint Paul puts it differently in the second reading, but it’s the same vision:

When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape!”

And then, in the Gospel reading, Jesus brings it down to a simple story of a master and his servants and the sort of work they have done for their Lord.

The master gave his servants gifts and expected a return, as we would ourselves, and of there is no return, judgment follows.




And if the readings don’t refer specifically to the number of electoral votes in Pennsylvania
or Donald Trump’s latest tweet, I think the message is pretty clear just the same: God has given us gifts in this country and God cares how we use them. God has given us responsibilities and God expects results. And it won’t turn out well when we fail to produce.

We’re just one week away from the end of the Christian year and the readings every year at this time naturally try to get our attention and ask us to think about how we’re doing as individuals and as a society because God cares – God cares – God has given us great gifts and God expects us to shape a society that looks like the kingdom of God, not a society with self-seeking leaders chosen by self-seeking citizens who seldom give a thought to the gifts God has given or the responsibility that comes with those gifts and the use we make of them.

When we read the first chapters of the Bible and find God creating a man and a woman and giving them responsibilities and throwing them out of the Garden when they fail, we are getting the same message that we get in the last chapters of the Bible where we read of the end of time and a final judgment. It’s the same message all the way through: it’s God’s world and God cares about it
and God holds us responsible.

I find that frightening.

I find it frightening because we have a country with enormous problems, whether we look at the cost of housing in San Francisco and the homeless people sleeping on our streets or the ease with which so many police shoot citizens who happen to be black, or the far larger problem of a deteriorating climate.

Whether you are a black man held down by a policeman’s knee in Milwaukee or an ordinary resident of San Francisco who couldn’t go outside in early September because of the ash in the air that blocked the sun, we ought to be able to breath. We ought to be able to breath, but we have shaped a society where even fresh air to breath is no longer guaranteed. But this is God’s world, the world God made. Could we somehow imagine that God doesn’t care?

Sometimes I think we do imagine that – or even imagine that God is well pleased with the world we have made. Somehow, in spite of all the blood spilled at Gettysburg and in the Civil War and the two world wars and in Korea and Viet Nam, in spite of the thousands of lynchings and the maltreatment of immigrants, in spite of the prejudice and the persecution of Jews and blacks and immigrants, in spite of the exploitation of the poor and the self-indulgence of the rich, somehow we have contrived a society that remains in many ways the envy of the world – which tells you more about the rest of the world than about us.

The great German chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, once said, ‘God has a special providence for fools, drunkards, and the United States of America.’ I don’t know about the fools and the drunkards but I do sometimes think that God must have a very special providence for this country in spite of our failures.

I like to point out that my four grandparents were born in four different countries on three different continents and it’s a true miracle that I’m here at all, let alone in this country and being lucky enough to grow up in a small country town where nobody ever locked their doors. But here I am, and my eyes tear up when we sing “America the beautiful.” I love this country – but that’s all the more reason to be aware of judgment.

We face a judgment, because God loves us.

For all the warnings of judgment, the bottom line is that God loves us still. Somehow we have something here of great value and need to be reminded at least once a year in these end of the year readings. We need to be reminded of purpose and gifts and judgment, to be reminded that none of what we have is deserved, and for all of it we have a responsibility, that for all of it we are held responsible because God loves us that much.

Judgment is real. Never forget it. God loves us enough to judge us.

Judgement is real. Remember that – and try with God’s help to be worthy of that love.

The Easter Garden

April 11th, 2020

God’s Garden:  a meditation for Easter by Christopher L. Webber

When my wife and I returned from Japan almost forty years ago and moved to a suburban parish in Westchester County, New York, we began looking for some land where we could have a home of our own and a garden. Before long, we found an abandoned farm eighty miles away in northwestern Connecticut and bought thirty acres. The land had once been a farm, but it had been long abandoned and the woods had reclaimed most of the territory. But immediately after buying it, I began clearing it and planting seeds and bulbs and bushes. Forgetting what Adam and Eve had learned, I also planted apple trees. Eventually we built a house there and eventually we retired there, and for twenty years I combined a rural ministry with the work of a gardener. Last week the new owner sent me a picture of daffodils that I had planted and he had picked.

The Bible is full of surprises. There’s always something more to see and understand. On Good Friday I took part in or watched several zoom and You Tube services and heard or read the story of Jesus’ death at least four times and St. John finally got me to pay attention to a small point that he had embedded in his gospel for me to notice: they buried Jesus in a garden.

Now, John is always asking us to notice the relationship between his gospel and the story of Creation. John’s Gospel, like the Book of Genesis. is all about beginnings. The first verse of the Book of Genesis tells us, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” John’s Gospel begins, “In the beginning, was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”

In the same way, the Book of Genesis tells us that God spent six days in creation, and John’s Gospel tells us about six signs that Jesus did, and he even numbers them so we’ll notice. “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee,” for example, or “Now this was the second sign that Jesus did.” After that, John doesn’t flag them for us but lets us figure it out for ourselves.

What I hadn’t noticed until this year was what John shows us about gardening. Genesis tells us that God planted the first garden and placed the man in it to care for it. But the man and his wife messed up and got driven out and the man was sentenced to life as a gardener. Hey, it could have been worse! Suppose he had condemned the man to live in a city! But we did that to ourselves.

What John tells us (none of the other gospels notices) is that they buried Jesus in a garden. Yes, and when Mary Magdalene stayed weeping at the empty tomb on Easter Day, John tells us she failed to recognize Jesus because she thought he was the gardener! Well, he was – and is! He had planted the first garden East of Eden and he continues to challenge us to make the soil fruitful because our lives depend on it.

The great nineteenth century English poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, wrote a sonnet on the subject:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings

Sometimes we despair of getting it right. We destroy the soil with chemicals and wash it into the sea. We pave it with concrete. We burn down the forests. We may well wonder whether Hopkins is overly optimistic in saying that “nature is never spent.” But St. John has left us an Easter message of hope: God is the gardener and is able to bring new life even out of the sealed tomb.