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The Preteen God

This sermon was first preached at St. James Lutheran Church on December 30, 2018. I have dedicated this sermon to child’s rights activist, Stephi Wagner, who has taught me so much about childism and the way adults oppress children in our society.

Relevant lectionary texts can be found here.

Grace and Peace are yours from the Triune God. Amen.

Merry Christmas!  I was last here at St. James just before Advent began and it is so good to be here with you again today, the first and only Sunday of Christmas. The season of Christmas began last week as we ushered in Christ’s birth amongst the glow of candles, and it continues until January 6th when the season of Epiphany begins.

Christmas time is one of the most magical times of year – and not just because of the festivities, the food, the gifts, the traditions. Christmas is the time of year when we celebrate the miracle of the incarnation.  We remember that the Creator of the Universe – praised by angels, the sun, the moon, the shining stars – made his grand entrance on Earth via the birth canal of an unwed teenager mother as a squishy, red, bawling little baby.  Christmas is set aside to commemorate a scandal – that the God of all of Heaven and Earth chose to be revealed, not in the halls of power, but as a vulnerable child with a questionable birth history, in the land of Occupied Palestine, under the terror of the rule of the Roman Empire.

The incarnation, the belief that God became human in the person of Jesus Christ, is one of the most central doctrines of the Christian church.  It’s a concept that we have heard about so often that the gravity of the implications of such an event can become lost on us. God, the infinite and all-powerful became mortal, in a particular time, in a particular place, in a particular person, and bore all the beauty and struggle and burdens and baggage that mortality brings. In Western culture, and in the culture of Jesus’ day, divinity and humanity are viewed as opposites. One flesh, another spirit.  One holy, another sinful. The prevailing thought was and is that God and mortals are so completely at odds with one another, that where one exists, the other cannot be. And yet, God subverts that expectation in the person of Jesus Christ – a person who is 100% God and 100% human – showing that divinity and humanity are not as far apart as we once imagined.

The miracle of the incarnation is foundational in inspiring liberation theologians of all kinds.  Examining the ways that God in Jesus experienced humanity- the rumors around his birth, the ways that rulers and kings responded to him, and his painful and public execution by those in power –  can illuminate more about our own humanity and the humanity of our neighbors. The incarnation and the story of Jesus can be used to examine our own systems, and to reflect on who suffers at the hands of those systems.

James Cone, the Father of Black Liberation theology, drew comparisons to the cross and the lynching tree, drawing connections between the life of Jesus and the Black experience.  Native Christian theologian, Vine Deloria Jr., drew his own connections to the life of Jesus and how his story resonated with indigenous peoples.  Queer theology and feminist theology both ask questions about the implications of a God with a body.  What does it mean for those of us who have particular experiences because of the identities of our bodies, what does it mean for those of us who are oppressed in society because of our bodies…our sexuality, our size, our gender, the color of our skin…what does it mean for us that the God we worship also had a human body?

Today we read in scripture about God as a child.  And so just as we can imagine and interpret God as Black, like Cone did, or God as Red, like Deloria did, or God as Queer as queer theologians do, we can read the passages today and ask ourselves questions about what it might mean for us that God is a child.

Whether you call it ageism or childism or something else, we do not have to look far, unfortunately, to see examples of children being oppressed in our society today. At our southern border is a humanitarian crisis of children kept in freezing concentration camps, left ill, dehydrated, hungry, and untreated, even to the point of death.   This week brought another horrifying example with the death of 8-year-old Felipe Gomez Alonzo who fled Guatemala with his family, looking for safety from violence, looking for life, and instead died under the custody of Border Control.  And that is not the only example.  Here in Chicago we remember the murder of Laquan McDonald, a teenager, who was shot 16 times by Officer Jason Van Dyke, and whose death was covered up by dozens of adults, from the other officers who erased security footage to the irresponsibility of the state’s attorney, the mayor, and other adults who cared more about protecting their own power than about the rights of a Black child.  And on the global scale, climate change – caused by the decisions and politics of adults –  threatens the lives and futures of children around the world, with children in the global south already being deeply affected.

Yes, oppression of children is everywhere. And the Church is not immune.  I have noticed many positive things about the way that you here at St. James treat children. For example, the notice in the beginning section of the church bulletin reminding everyone that children may wiggle and make noise in church….and thats ok! But isn’t is sad that this is something that has to be said?  Isn’t it awful that this isn’t the norm?  Even in so-called progressive mainline denominations who consider ourselves lovers of justice, children are oppressed in our beloved religious institutions.  There are the obvious and infamous examples of child abuse at the hands of clergy or youth leaders.  But even in churches where that kind of abuse is not present, children are often silenced and pushed out of our churches.  How many churches center children’s voices in major decisions about the congregation?  How many churches have children on their councils? Many churches bar small children from taking communion.  Most churches underpay those responsible for the faith formation and care of children, and underfund their children and youth programs. And it is my experience that while some (precious few) churches might occasionally have a child or youth as a lector or an usher during worship, the culture of churches is rooted in adult culture, where adults have the power, and where children are tokenized at best, often ignored, and subject to all kinds of micro-aggressions.

But because of our readings today and because of the Christmas season we can say with scriptural authority that God is a baby, God is a child, God is a preteen. In fact, Jesus spent his entire ministry on Earth as a baby, child, youth, or young adult.  In our Gospel reading today we see Jesus, at age 12, acting as a preacher, teacher, and prophet, schooling the expert adults in the temple who were “amazed” by his wisdom.  In our reading from the Hebrew Bible this week, we hear about the child Samuel, who was called by God and acting in the role of a priest as a young child. What implications does that have for us, to make the theological and scripturally based claim that God is a child, and that God calls children? What does it mean that God comes to Earth as a newborn and teaches in the temple as a preteen?

God is present in children. And I don’t mean that to be simply metaphorical or poetic.  We know that God is present in children because God became a child. This should affect how we speak of and about children and youth. This should affect the way we structure power, the way we build community, the way we organize our worship. God continues to be revealed in children, and when children are hurt, God is on the side of those children. This should revolutionize the way we work for justice and peace in the world.

This is convicting to me, as an adult. Especially as an adult who is a leader in an aging denomination. If there are not young people in our churches, maybe we should notice and wonder why that might be.  Maybe we can spend more time outside the walls of the church and be present where young people are, not to try to hunt them and lure them into our churches, but to listen and be amazed by their wisdom and inspired by their stories, to figure out how we might dismantle systems of ageism and other intersecting systems of oppression, and to move beyond the tokenism of children in church towards true solidarity and liberation.

Because the fact is?  Children are already our preachers, teachers, priests, and prophets. They are not the leaders of our future, they are leading us, now, if we would only empower them and listen to them.

Even this sermon is a little bit absurd and hypocritical, because here I am, up here in the pulpit. An adult. And an adult with institutional power afforded to me because of my position of leadership in the church.  And I – an adult –  am preaching a sermon primarily to other adults. When really, instead of listening to adults, like me, talk about children, we should really let children speak for themselves.

That is one of the most remarkable parts of the Gospel story today.  Jesus gets to speak for himself.  Until this story, all sorts of folks were telling one another who Jesus was.  From the Angel Gabriel to the Prophetess Anna to Zechariah and Mary and the shepherds, all of them spoke out about who Jesus was.  But this story, this story in the temple, is the first time that Jesus, as a preteen, claims his own identity for himself.  Jesus takes agency by leaning into his vocation of teaching and preaching, and Jesus tells his parents and tells us that he must be present in the House of his Holy Parent.  Jesus is telling us who he is, for himself; he is the Son of God.

So often people of oppressed groups, children included, are defined by other people’s perceptions of them. How often have we heard disparaging remarks and stereotypes about preteens, for example? Naming oneself, giving voice to one’s identity, is therefore a radical act of subversion and reclaiming of power. Audre Lorde said it this way, “If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.”  And when systems of oppression would rather see marginalized people dead than see them be free, refusing to be crunched into the vision someone else casts for you is an act of defiant resistance.

Imagining God as a child convicts me as an adult because of the ways that I benefit from and contribute to the oppression of children.  But remembering God as a child liberates me too.

Because I was once a child.

Because all of us were children at some point in time.

And I, like all of us to some degree or another, bear wounds from childhood that still affect me today.  I, like all children, was damaged by growing up in a society that allows for the sacrifice and harm of children for the power and benefit and comfort and convenience of adults. When I remember the pain I experienced as a child and as a teenager, I can also be comforted by knowing that God came in solidarity with children, as a child.  When I am dismissed (still!  At age 30!) for being “too young” to proclaim the Gospel, to speak out for justice, to work for peace, I am empowered by knowing that being young never stopped Jesus or limited his power.  And as I continue to age, as I get further and further away from childhood, I can learn more and more from the mentorship of children – whether that’s preteen Jesus or the children in my own home and in my neighborhood.

So as we pack up our Christmas trees and we begin to look forward to 2019, may we, like Mary, ponder all of these things and treasure them in our hearts.  May those of us who are adults be moved towards greater reflection and repentance for the ways we have forgotten what it is like to be a child, for the ways we have failed our children or fallen short on the individual or systemic level.  May we make space for the leadership of the children in our midst, may we seek justice for children on a policy level. And may we be blessed in return by seeing God in the children we encounter. Amen.

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