I wrote this sermon about a year and a half ago for one of my preaching classes. As I think about all the seminaries starting school this week, I feel like it is particularly applicable.
A reading from the gospel of Luke, chapter 2, verses 41 through 52:
Now every year, his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when he was 12 years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it.
Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him.
After 3 days, they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.
When his parents saw him, they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.”
He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
But they did not understand what he said to them. Then he went with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart.
And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.
The word of God for the people of God.
Thanks be to God.
In three short months, Britt, Katie, and I will be sitting in the sanctuary at Smoke Rise Baptist Church waiting to get our McAfee chalice and patten. We’ll listen to the words of blessing our professors speak as they help us reflect on the journey we’ve been on these past three years. Maybe the rest of you will be there to give us hugs, secretly jealous, because you still have (at least) one more year of finals, papers, and reading reading reading.
At least three times in the past year, I have been sitting at a table with Dean Culpepper, when an unassuming first year asked me if I’m ready to graduate. Not being one to hide my true feelings, each time, I let out an exuberant, “YES!”
“I mean, no offense, Dean Culpepper… I love McAfee, but three years is a looooooong time.”
And reflecting on the journey, that is no exaggeration.
I don’t know of any child who grows up saying, “When I grow up, I want to go to seminary and become a pastor!” Well… except maybe Dr. Younger and Daniel Vestal.
All of us can admit that the seminary journey started long before our first day at McAfee. There were endless nights of asking God to show us what we are supposed to do with our lives. Then, the fervent prayers questioning whether God really meant it.
“You really want me to be a minister? You want me to go to seminary? Are you sure social work wouldn’t do the trick? Can we negotiate here??”
And then, once we finally give in, and some excitement starts to bubble inside us, we pause once more.
“Oh God… How am I supposed to tell my parents… my boss… my church… (you fill in the blank)?” I mean, they’re all gonna tell you that you’re crazy.
“You have so much potential… why would you waste in on seminary?”
“You know women can’t be ministers.”
“How are you going to feed my grandkids on a pastor’s salary?”
And that really never stops. We all walk into the first day of school with some varying level of trepidation, because someone else doesn’t support us, or because we haven’t quite learned to support ourselves in this journey yet.
And then we walk into Dr. Allen’s church history class. Day one of seminary. You’re already nervous as all get out that you’re not ready for this, and he calls you out. First he asks you how many classes you’re taking.
“5,” you say.
So, he writes the number 15 on the board, and asks if you have a job and how many hours you work.
“Yes… about 20 hours a week.”
Ok. “Do you go to church?” he asks. And you do. “So, you spend about 6 hours a week at church. That’s 6 plus 15 plus 30 for the time you’ll spend on homework plus 20 at your job. That’s 71 hours of your week accounted for. Do you have friends? A family? How much time do you plan to spend with them? Oh what about sleep? Do you plan to do that while you’re here?”
After that, his words become a haze in your mind and you think you might pass out right in the middle of Day Hall room 110. You walked into that classroom with a little twitch in your stomach, thinking maybe this might not be where you’re supposed to be, and now your professor is telling you that, on top of everything else, you also don’t have enough hours in your day to make it through… Or that’s what you hear anyway.
But, clearly you stuck it out. You made it through church history. You made it through at least one holiday at home, explaining once again why you’re in the right place. And this year or next, you will make it through senioritis.
Maybe, by now, you’ve reconciled your (and other people’s) trepidations about seminary and ministry in general. By this point, you’re probably having more trouble keeping your mind in this moment, because you have a job, a church, a future outside of McAfee… and it’s all somehow more enticing than all three Niebuhr’s combined. Even a little Barbara Brown Taylor can’t seem to bring your mind back to this moment.
In the end, you wonder how much time you actually spent here. In this loooooong journey of seminary, how much time did we really spend at McAfee – not attending to the fears of others, or in dreams of the future?
There once was a boy named Jesus, and he wasn’t too different from us. Two thousand years ago, this boy felt called to ministry. Though his parents were very devout Jews, they were confused by the fervency with which he responded to this calling on his life.
Like any good Jewish family, Jesus’ family traveled to the Holy Land to celebrate the Passover. The whole gang packed their bags and walked several days to get from Nazareth to Jerusalem, picking up friends and family along the way.
After they had burned candles, eaten lots of matzo, and sang praises to God, they headed back to Jerusalem. And, in what turns out to be a reversed Home Alone type situation, they begin the journey home without Jesus.
After the first day of walking, the family is ready to set up camp for the night and catch a few Zzzz’s, and Mary is all ready to tuck Jesus in when… Jesus isn’t there.
Mary and Joseph spend the next three days frantically searching for Jesus, walking every path he may have taken, looking under every bush for a sleeping 12-year-old.
In a last ditch effort, they return to the temple to see if the priests and rabbis might have seen their boy. And, they are shocked to find that the priests knew exactly where Jesus was – he was right there with them, learning from them and teaching them in turn.
They observe the situation for a moment and see that Jesus has the priests enamored. He is the best student they have ever seen. His perspective on just peacemaking baffles them, and they can’t believe they are speaking with a 12-year-old.
Well, Mary is furious, of course. “Oooooh young man, you are in so much trouble. Why would you do this to us? Didn’t you know how worried we would be? Why did you not come home with us?”
And Jesus returns her confusion with more confusion. “Hello, Mom. Don’t you understand the path I’m on? Didn’t you know I would need to be here, getting my learning on?”
Jesus understood that in order to serve God, he was gonna have to learn more about God, and the people who follow God. In a choice between traveling back to Nazareth and reading some books, taking a final or two, and writing a couple scrolls, Jesus chose the latter. And, he thought his parents would understand.
I mean, come on, Jesus’ parents had been visited by angels. They knew well before Jesus was even born that he would grow up saying, “I want to be a minister when I grow up.” How could they not know he would want to study? That he would feel the need to prepare himself?
Even walking into the room and seeing that Jesus was the star student, they didn’t understand. They were too busy coming up with his punishment to see what was happening right in front of their eyes. And, because Jesus was still a minor, they made him go home.
But, he didn’t let that stop him. Even from home, Jesus continued to study. His home-schooled seminary journey lasted about 20-years, during which time his mother finally learned to “treasure these things in her heart,” and he would gain much wisdom. And when graduation day came, he would begin his ministry.
Jesus’ commitment to his calling was accompanied by such extreme focus that he would dedicate more of his life studying the word than preaching it. Such dedication that even his parent’s confusion and anxiety could not phase him. The kind of dedication that led him to believe that nothing else mattered as much as what he was doing those days in Jerusalem.
Jesus didn’t need his parent’s approval. He didn’t need his professor to tell him whether he had enough hours in the day. He didn’t even need to convince himself. God called him to ministry, and that was all he needed to know.
God called him to ministry, and that was the deepest answer he needed. This calling was so important to him, that he was willing to go wherever God led to answer it.
And God didn’t call him to ministry and then turn him loose to be tempted by devil or scolded by scribes and Pharisees. As a part of Jesus’ calling, God prepared him for his ministry. And it was through that preparation that Jesus was able to walk into ministry with the strength and peace of mind needed to serve a hurting and broken world.
God is here, too. God is right here at McAfee, calling us to follow with dedication and focus. Knowing that we will face many distractions, and will be discouraged by different people and situations, God is here. God calls us to ministry, and that is the deepest answer we need.
And, as Jesus shows us, learning is a life-long endeavor. It doesn’t stop when we leave Jerusalem… er… McAfee.
And, yes… there will always be people who don’t understand. That, too, does not end when we leave McAfee. While we’re feeling called to tear into Schleiermacher, our churches will have a list of other things they think are more important. When we ask our boss for a study leave, they will skeptically remind us that we have work to do. The pressure to lose focus will not end when the chalice and patten cross from Dr. Culpepper’s hand into yours.
But, the truth is, God empowers us to study. God begs us to be so consumed in the knowledge of how God is at work in the world, and how other people understand God, that we will continue to grow as people and as ministers.
It’s in this place that we develop the tools we need to be more effective ministers. It’s here that we dive so deep into the word of God, that we come out with it written all over our heart and stamped on our foreheads. The habits we develop here will be the deeper answers that go with us into our ministry.
This kind of dedication and commitment to our calling will become visible. And as we grow, our parents, churches, friends, co-workers… will treasure these things in their hearts, and they too will grow.
The next three months, or the next year and three months, or the next unnamed amount of time… hold so much potential. We still have time to be here. And this is the most important place we could be.