Each year his parents went to Jerusalem for the Passover Festival. When he was 12 years old, they went up to Jerusalem according to their custom. After the festival was over, they were returning home, but the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents didn’t know it. Supposing that he was among their band of travelers, they journeyed on for a full day while looking for him among their family and friends. When they didn’t find Jesus, they returned to Jerusalem to look for him. After three days they found him in the temple. He was sitting among the teachers, listening to them and putting questions to them. (Luke 2:41-46. CEB)
While working on my sermon this week, I had an encounter that reminded me how differently people might hear the text. I have always read this text from the point-of-view of young parents finding out their child was missing. My mind turns to thoughts of panic when a child goes missing in a crowd or something similar to that.
But a conversation with an older Christian this week got me thinking. Lots of people who hear the story of the child who has gone missing might hear it with different ears, especially sitting in church. They hear the story and feel the empty spaces in the pews around them. They see their own children and grandchildren who are no longer in church and no longer Christians. They feel the pain of worry and concern as well as, perhaps, a pang of personal abandonment and even betrayal (how could they reject something so important to me?).
I know that a responsible exegesis would not land on this cluster of issues, but I do wonder how many ears will hear the story read in church this week and wonder these things.
These thoughts were on my mind as I read this story in the Los Angeles Times by a “none” who wonders why some people feel called to religion. She writes that institutional religion (the only kind of “religion” that exists), is too political for her taste. She does not understand a God, she writes, that is more interested in our private parts than our hearts.
The piece closes with her questions about whether she has been missing something.
But are we the ones who are missing out? For centuries, religion has been a tool to make people happier, kinder, more inclined to see the big picture. It’s been credited with keeping believers grounded, reducing anxiety and the compulsions that often lead to self-destructive behavior. In times of great difficulty, it may be the only thing that keeps a person afloat until things get better. Religion is touted as a doorway to the eternal, helping us understand our role in the cosmos.
As I read the paragraph above, I found myself drawn back to the gospel text. Mary and Joseph were frantically searching Jerusalem not for a tool to make people happier or method to reduce anxiety. They were searching for Jesus, who they found in his father’s house.
My hunch is that what plagues the church today is that too many people cannot find Jesus there — for a whole host of reasons. They may come in like the woman in the story looking for community or meaning or comfort in times of turmoil, but the only thing that keeps them coming back is finding Jesus there. And through him, these others are added unto them.