Living on the Threshold

Luke 2:41-52

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Some of you know that I have practiced, for decades, the spiritual discipline of tree climbing. I have surprised neighbors all across the country as I’ve tumbled out of moving vans and immediately ascended my way to a view of the new heaven and new earth on my new street.  It’s a matter of seeking new perspective.

Well, today, December 30th,  we’ve all  figuratively climbed up to the top of year, and we’re perched way out on the tree limb of 2012, still holding on to the days of Christmastide, remembering the events of this year…the branch sways a bit under weight of both the joys and agonies of these 12 months. From this lofty vantage we can see ahead to new branch of 2013 just over yonder.  With the dropping of a ball and raising of cheer, with the flip of a calendar page we can just about see it.   It is already, but not yet.

Or another metaphor, this one requiring not a courage of heights, but a courage of imagination-  this is a time when we are called to live on the threshold. Abiding in the liminal places, not quite in the past, not quite in the future.  Pitching tent with Emmanuel who comes to camp out with us. Pausing with our sister Mary to ponder many things in our hearts.  A time to recollect back and wonder forward.

This is a day for a gem of a story from Luke, told with dual perspectives.  This is a day where two generations meet, where youth ministers and campus chaplains engage young adults precisely in the context of their journeys, where parents and children perplex and irritate one another- can you imagine! Where professors and students sit in the Temple and wrestle with texts and traditions.

Some of us live today with Mary on the Parental threshold of holding on and letting go- today her 12 year old son Jesus stretches out beyond her protection into a world that she already knows  is piercingly beautiful but piercingly violent as well.  Mary says today, “Kids, they grow up so fast.  It seems like it was just this past Tuesday that Jesus was born!  My baby! And now he’s 12 going on 20.”

Some of us live today with Jesus on the Emerging Adulthood threshold of “hello world, ready or not here I come!”  and  “yikes, this economy, this multitude of options and yet restrictions, hello Parent’s basement, I’m baaack!”  Jesus says today, “Give me some room at the Inn to learn more and become more until I am really ready to launch.”

Let’s climb into our Lukan story and see the world from one another’s perspectives.

Let’s begin with Mary.  Revered Mother of Jesus.  And here in today’s gospel, a very real Mom, one many of us recognize in the mirror or in the family portrait.   Clueless, panicked, relieved, angry, perplexed, astonished, perseverant.  All those experiences of parenthood the owner’s manual never mentions.

In ancient Roman mythology, “Janus” is the god of beginnings and transitions, the god of gates, doors, and thresholds. Janus is depicted as a god with dual profiles, looking at once to the future and to the past. “January” was named in honor of this threshold – inhabiting Janus.  Now, I confess that I know this not because I am a classics scholar.  I know this because I am a Mom and I have a 529 college savings plan with a firm called “Janus Investments,” and this two-faced image of Janus has been stamped on my statements for the last dozen years.  I inhabit a world lately with many conversations including these particular numbers – a sort of secret code of American parenthood: 529. For many years my husband and I have clink clinked our quarters into the savings plate, fretting over its too slow expansion.

Our son Andrew is now a High School senior, living on the threshold between HS and College…. Between clicking “submit” on the Common App and the arrival of satisfactorily large and thick acceptance envelopes in the mail.  With Mary I shake my head and remember my son’s first day of Kindergarten, which seemed like last Tuesday.   On that very first day of the big yellow bus, Andrew was treated to a one on one visit from the school principal.  A kind man who very gently suggested that biting your neighbor’s forearm on the bus-ride to school was not the best start to an academic career.  This I cannot help but remember as my 17 year old stands before me and requests the car keys – himself a Latin scholar, a fine writer,  a person of sterling character, now with advanced bus-riding social skills. The forward facing Janus Mom says, “I’m so proud of you!”  The backward facing Janus Mom cannot resist to comment, “but don’t bite anybody.” Already but not yet.

Mary, today I companion with you as we parent sons so close to stepping into new worlds beyond our doors.   I like to think of Mary as the biblical Soccer Mom. Now, if this has not occurred to you, bear with me for a moment.  Her eldest child is 12, and we know from biblical text that she has at least another 6 children by the time Jesus is an adult.  Four of Jesus’ brothers are named, and references are made to his unnamed sisters.  Before I thought about this fact of Mary as parent of 7 or more children- I admit to a more serene image of Mary-  quietly pondering, piously robed in blue, sitting beside a well-behaved  baby, shining a halo or two in daily housework chores.   But now I imagine she and Joseph busy with all the demands of running a large household bursting with children’s activities and religious practices and carpentry projects.

I can understand how Jesus got lost in the caravan that day, on the annual pilgrimage to and from Jerusalem for the Passover festival. The original HOME ALONE screen play.  It was a 150 mile round trip journey– 3 days there and 3 days back- from the sleepy hill country of Nazareth to the bustling epicenter of the city of Jerusalem, bordering the Negev desert to the south.  2 places so very different from one another.  2 members of one family, having such very different experiences of the same event.

I imagine that Jesus the first born had been declaring his desire for some independence from good ole Imma and Abba for some time- so they  relented on their vigilance and said OK, son, you can travel further back in our caravan with extended family.  Mary probably couldn’t stop herself and called out parting advice, “Don’t bite anybody!”  OK- all you young adults, You totally get to roll your eyes here at your parents for all our awkward comments.

It’s really more the world’s bite that Mary is afraid of.  She knows the reality of injustice and state sanctioned violence.  She knows the powerlessness of being young, poor, female, occupied, from the no-account back country. She and Joseph and baby Jesus fled Bethlehem 12 years ago, narrowly escaping the murderous arm of Herod who commanded that all male babies under age of 2 be killed.  Her family was refugees in Egypt, relying daily on the kindness of strangers, relying daily on the magnificent promises of God.

Mary knows that in 2012 alone over 153,000 refugees fled her neighboring Syria, running from violence and terror. Mary knows that in our country there have been some 30,000 deaths in 2012 from gun violence.  Mary knows that the Slaughter of Innocents is not some ancient biblical tale, but a reality proximate to our lives.  Mary weeps for the innocents. Christmas Eve- next door to my recent home town- Webster NY –  2 first responders to a house fire,  were ambushed and killed by gunshot.  One a 19 year old, covering for older firefighters so they could be home with their families.  Mary weeps for the innocents. Sweet babes at an elementary school in Connecticut, an Oregon shopping mall, a Colorado movie theatre, an off-campus street in Allston. Off campus- our campus. These towns -our towns.  These streets – our streets. These children –our  precious family.  Let us wake up and let our collective tears become a tidal wave flow of change – in hearts and minds and legislation.

And here’s why I Iove Mary.  And here’s how she is a vessel of God’s love.  Mary lives on the threshold of the world, seeing all its pain and darkness and she chooses life.  She chooses to open the door of her heart, a familiar expression of Howard Thurman.  Thurman who prays let the door of my heart be swinging. Secured in place by the axis of identity as a beloved child of God,  yet swinging open, welcoming love, attentive to splendor, open to new insight.  Mary doesn’t hide out in Nazareth, with firmly locked doors to protect her very special child.  She lives.  She trusts.  She reflects. She acts.

Mary sees the bleakness and chooses to light a candle of blessing rather than curse the darkness.  Perhaps Mary is tempted to lock the door and live in fear- to insist that Jesus never leave the protection of Nazareth again.  But Mary does NOT place an armed guard at every threshold we hold most dear- she does not armor backpacks – instead she clothes herself in “compassion, kindness, humility, patience, and most of all love.”

When Mary and Joseph discover that Jesus is missing, they abruptly change all plans and rush back to Jerusalem to find their son.  They are panicked.  They know what can happen out there in the big world.

After 3 days of searching, they find him! In the Temple of all places!  Not in the market squandering shekels on sweet cakes.  In the temple! Sitting there with the elders deep in discussion about matters of Torah.  Holding his own.  Mary’s panic gives way to relief, gives way to anger.  She raises her voice and says “SON!  How could you do this to me?”  And Jesus answers her, “why were you searching for me? Didn’t you know I must be in my Father’s house?”  Not without a little attitude.  In this moment, Mary really doesn’t understand her son.   But she pauses.  She doesn’t react, she reflects.  She’s good at pondering life’s mysteries, even when they come in the package of a misbehaving child.

Jesus leaves with his parents, and back home in Nazareth they give him some remedial lessons in the commandments.  Like, hey Jesus, remember # 5 of the top 10?  “Honor thy father and mother.”  Mary continues her stewardship of the home, observing the beauty of each Sabbath eve and day, encouraging her children in the living of the law, trusting the words of the angelic visitor so long ago “FEAR NOT.”  She does her best.  And her son grows in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.

But we have climbed our tree today to gaze out in two perspectives.  Jesus also lives in the threshold of emerging adulthood today, almost there but not quite yet.  Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God, Wonderful Counselor, Light of Lights, Hope of the Ages.  Perhaps we’re better versed in the full divinity of Jesus Christ than in his full humanity. But here in today’s treasure of a story we see a young adult some of us recognize in the mirror or in the family portrait – eager, idealistic, curious, confident, hopeful, and determined.

Now, we know most definitively that Jesus is 12 here.  What the text does not say, and we can imagine, is that he is reaching the age of majority, or of recognition as an adult in his religious circle.  B’nai mitzvah- the coming of age of Jewish boys at 13 and girls at 12 is not yet an established practice in first century Judaism.  I suspect Jesus is on the threshold of what we call today becoming a bar mitzvah, a son of the commandments, one with personal accountability for observing the Law.  A bar or bat mitzvah is full of questions and obligated to study biblical passages in depth.  So, just where else would Jesus be, but at the steps of the Temple, taking the rare opportunity to dialogue with and learn from the greatest scholars of his day.  Indeed, when reproached by his mother, “how could you do this to me?,”  he is likewise astonished- do my parents understand nothing about me?  How is this not obvious?

In our era, a new term has surfaced for coming of age, called “Emerging Adulthood.”  It’s generally associated with the ages between 18-29, and is understood not as a generational characteristic particular to the Millennials, but as a new life stage.  Nearby in Worcester MA our colleagues at Clark University are spearheading this research.  Dr. Jeffrey Jenson Arnett and his grad assistant Joseph Schwab have just released their poll on American Emerging Adults, and find that these folks are overall: Thriving, Struggling, and Hopeful.   Sounds a bit like our own emerging Jesus to me.

“Life is not easy for emerging adults,” state the researchers.  We know this. Our own WBUR ran a series in December called Gen Stuck.  Ouch. I learned that 30% of young adults are boomeranging back home to the not-so-empty nest, the highest percentage since the 1950s.  Merry Christmas, young adults, here’s a present called Fiscal Cliff.  Happy New Year!


I quote from the Clark report, “Emerging adults have an unemployment  rate that is consistently double the overall rate.  Those who have a job usually make very little money for most of their twenties.  Nearly all aspire to a college degree, but fewer than 1/3 have attained one by ages 25-29. Most move away from the comfort and support of the family home to take on the formidable task of finding a place in the world.  It’s not surprising, given these circumstances, that so many of them say they often feel stressed, anxious, or depressed. “

Hold on, though, recall that 12 year old energy, confidence, and curiosity of Jesus.

“What may be more surprising is that, despite the challenges of the emerging adult life stage, most of them remain hopeful that their lives will ultimately work out well.  Nearly 90% agree that they are confident that they eventually  will get what they want out of life:  almost as many agree that “At this time of my  life, it still seems like anything is possible.”  And, despite frequent claims that they face a diminished future and will be the first generation in American history to do worse economically than their parents, more than 3/4s agree that “I believe, overall, my life will be better than my parent’s lives have been.”  End quote.

Jesus, God with skin on, knows this in-between time.  He stands in the threshold right there. And he is present in the silent waiting years.  From ages 12-30 we know nothing about Jesus’  life.  We can imagine he is home preparing, living faithfully, and getting ready to launch into public ministry – finally at the age of 30.

Young adults- if your Baby Boomer or Gen X parents get a little impatient with your travelling through this life stage, say, “hey I’m  Emerging right on target with Jesus.”

Jesus had a hunger for discovery.  So do the young adults I know and love.

3 dozen Emerging Adults- also known as “Students” gathered at Marsh Chapel  just before finals for a “Reading Retreat” – a day set apart for study and reflection.  We focused our spiritual practices on one of the masters from this holy Temple– Howard Thurman- absorbed his words and wisdom.  Each participant went around room declaring the study intent for the day- and it was fascinating to hear the variety of subjects embraced by 6 of the schools of our university.  I am making my way through a 500 page tome on international relations and the CIA,  I am immersed in my reams of Hebrew Bible class notes for final exam, I am writing a paper about cross-cultural pedagogical implication, I am simulating human voice through a prototype robot I am making, and so on and so on.  Fascinating!

They remind me each day to be a  life-long learner. To appreciate excellence all around.

For instance, our ushers, right here at Marsh Chapel are superb in hospitality.  Each Sunday they are greeting at our doors with smiles and welcoming information for first timers.  Now, I come up the stairs from the lower level  – not in our ushers’ line of duty.  So most weeks I go out the front door, so I can turn right around and come back in. And I say to the usher, I want my greeting!  I want my smile and handshake or hug.  I want to start my day by receiving the excellence of your mission.  And Charles, 7 year old Charles who is head usher of the balcony.  Cannot have a Sunday without a Charles smile and high five.

Friends, this day we look back, we look forward, and we look from many perspectives.  We go out of our way to cross thresholds into places of joy and love.  Let us go into the New Year, with hearts as swinging doors –opening to the comfort of God’s grace, moving out to the needs of the world.



~ The Rev. Dr. Robin Olson

See: Clark University Poll of Emerging Adults, December 2012:







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