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Sunday, December 27, 2015

Clothing of Discipleship

We all want to be model disciples, but we are broken people. Our clothing of discipleship is broken, too. It’s ripped. Torn. Frayed. Sometimes there are big holes. But relationships are the only way we can live, and as we practice community, we grow.

Vicar Anna Helgen
   First Sunday of Christmas, year C
   texts: Colossians 3:12-17; Luke 2:41-52

Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you and peace, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

We all have stories of getting lost or searching for someone who is lost. A child roams off at Disney World to find Minnie Mouse. A confused man with Alzheimer's wanders out of his home at night. A teenager makes a wrong turn and ends up in a neighborhood he’s never seen before. We know what it’s like to be lost. Or to worry about someone who is lost.

In my family, we tell a story about a time when I got lost, or, I should say, when I got lost according to my mother. My mom was talking on the phone with a friend while I played by her. I was content and happy, but after awhile I wandered off. My mom didn’t follow me because those were the days when phones were on cords and you were stuck to phone. She could still hear me playing, but wasn’t sure where I was. Well, after a few minutes, she got off the phone and then went to find me to put me down for my nap. But I was nowhere to be found! Panic took over. She searched high and low in all my favorite hiding places--under the beds, in my closet, in the pantry, but she still couldn’t find me. It was as if I’d been snatched into thin air. After a frantic phone call to the police, she found me: curled up in a ball, nestled beneath a huge collection of stuffed animals at the end of my bed, taking my nap. Just where she wanted me to be.  I, of course, was totally oblivious to her search, her phone call to the police, and her feelings. After finding me, her fear and panic subsided. Everything went back to how it should be.

Mary went through something similar when she couldn’t find Jesus after they left the Passover Festival. She searched for three days for her son. Three days! Imagine the agony, the panic, and the terror of not being able to find your child for that amount of time. It’s awful to think about, and yet we can understand what it would feel like because it’s an experience we know.

I wonder how Mary spoke when she scolded Jesus and what sort of response she was looking for. “Child, why have you treated us like this?” 

Did she shout?
Did she whisper?
Did she beg for an answer?

We’ll never know how these words left her mouth, and that’s okay, because this story invites multiple interpretations. And all of them speak truth. Mary acts out of love, but her love is wrapped in anger, fear, and desperation. When Jesus finally responds, it’s clear that he is oblivious to the situation and his mother’s feelings. I’d love for him to be more sensitive, but he didn’t think he was lost!  I like to think of him here as a young boy who got caught up with something that interested him, like a bookworm getting lost in a book for hours without realizing how much time has passed. It makes sense that Jesus would end up in the temple, among teachers, talking their talk. He’s a natural! And they are his people. And yet for Mary, this was quite a different situation. Most parents learn to distance themselves as their children grow into their own and find their identity. Jesus challenges the status quo so things are bound to get complicated! Family dynamics are real even for the Son of God!

And they’re real for us, too. This story speaks to our human experience in the world and the range of emotions that accompany our life together as we live in relationship.  To be in relationship with another person is messy, especially when it involves families--those people whom we are supposed to love, those people to whom we are forever linked.

I find myself reflecting on family relationships after the holidays. I often go into these times of year hoping that everything will go fine, that there won’t be any major disruptions. And then something happens and I find out I’m wrong. I have high expectations, and forget about all the baggage that we each bring with us to holiday celebrations. People disagree. Feelings get hurt. We say things we regret. We forget that there are consequences for our actions. Healed wounds are exposed again, and new ones form. Being with family is stressful! Sometimes I want to use Mary’s line, “Why have you treated me like this?!” And others, no doubt, have wanted to use it on me.

Our relationships with others extend beyond our families though and into our work life, our school life, the places we live, and the places we spend time. These relationships also need tending. Relationships with colleagues, coworkers, and managers. With friends and neighbors. With teachers and social workers. With grocery store check-out clerks, mail carriers,  baristas, and those people we encounter on a regular basis. It’s not an easy job, tending relationships. We get into conflicts over differing opinions, we’re rude when we don’t mean to be, we make mistakes that affect others. We set unreasonable expectations. To live in community, as God intends for us to live, takes time and patience and presence.

Paul paints a beautiful picture of what it looks like to live in community with others. He makes it sound so simple: “Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience...Bear with one another...Forgive each other...Clothe yourselves with love. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts. Be thankful.” The image of clothing is helpful, but more often than not, I find that I forget to put on my compassion sweater. Or when I do put it on, I discover it is tattered. My pants of patience are ill-fitting. And my meekness turtleneck is lost somewhere at the bottom of the laundry basket. We all want to be model disciples, we strive for it, but we are broken people. Our clothing of discipleship is broken, too. It’s ripped. Torn. Frayed. Sometimes there are big holes.

The reality is that relationships are the only way we can live, and as we live with one another in relationship, as we practice community, we grow. We grow in compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. We learn more about one another, about ourselves, about the quirks and idiosyncrasies of those we interact with daily, and thus we learn better ways to live in relationship with others. Like Mary, we treasure these experiences and realizations about ourselves and those whom we love, because they help us in our journey together. They teach us how to not just live in community, but how to thrive. How to give up ourselves for others. How to find ourselves when others do the same for us.

Most of all, we grow in our capacity for grace. Jesus grows in divine and human favor, and we too grow in our understanding of God’s grace. We learn to trust the rough edges of relationships. We know when to rip out the seams and to start again. We find ways to patch the holes and practice forgiveness. And over time, we come to better embody God’s grace in our lives. We learn to wear it as clothing.

As the holiday parties come to a close and as the decorations get packed up, let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts. Trust that God works through you and those around you. And next time you put on your compassion sweater and your pants of patience, don’t worry so much about the wrinkles.


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