Some of you know that shortly before Christmas we suffered a minor break-in here at the church. I came into the office the day before Christmas Eve to find that someone had entered the building by force, and had left a trail of open doors for me to follow. I will confess to a moment of deep apprehension walking through to the worship space before finding that, after all, the pageant costumes were still in their places, and the torches undisturbed. Even the penguin was still keeping watch over the manger, where T & T had left it on Sunday night.
I could forgive most other things. There were a few broken doors, a missing laptop. I called the non-emergency police number, and the EPD responded swiftly, professionally, and with a refreshingly innocent shock at the idea of someone breaking into a church.
“We’re a soft target,” I told the uniformed officer. “We forgive people.” He startled, smiled, agreed.
The detective was less amused. The fingerprints they managed to pull were, in his opinion, probably those of a juvenile, which meant that they would not be matched, because juveniles do not leave their traces in the database, receiving instead special treatment, second chances; “But there’s a special place in hell for the ones who break into a church,” the detective told me.
“We prefer to forgive,” I murmured once more, and he gave me some kind of look.
I mean, I have no problem with legal consequences for illegal actions, but consigning some kid to hell for a couple of doors and a laptop? Seems extreme, somehow.
He was twelve. Those words have been haunting me all week. Every time I think about Jesus lost in Jerusalem. Every time I turn on the news and see the grief, the unsurprised, grim disappointment over the decision not to try the death of Tamir Rice. Every time I turn around, it hits me in the imagination: “He was twelve.”
Jesus, in Jerusalem. Everyone in the family group assumes that he is with somebody else. He is twelve, old enough to choose his own travelling companions. The adults reserve their attention for the little ones in danger of falling under trampling feet, wandering off alone, falling victim to the shadows, stranger danger. Jesus is old enough, it is assumed, to exercise a little discretion, to take a certain amount of responsibility for his own safety.
I wonder what the scholars in the temple thought of this strange boy. What happened when they retired for the night, went to their homes and their wives and their dinner, with their own preteen sons and daughters: did they recognize the shape of a young adolescent, or when they saw him, did they think that he was old enough to take care of himself? Did they think that he was older than his years? No waif or stray, this strapping lad. There is no indication that anyone asked him his age, where he belonged, why he did not go home. For five days: a day’s journey out of Jerusalem for his parents, a day’s frantic journey back, three days of hectic searching.
Three days: can you begin to imagine? He was only twelve!
“Child!” they cried out when they found him.
After Monday’s decision not to charge the officer who shot Tamir Rice over a year ago, when he was twelve, the Washington Post published a piece about Tamir’s age and size, and why the prosecutor’s office keeps insisting on the latter.
Prosecutors said “Tamir was big for his age … and could have easily passed for someone much older,” ….
… [R]esearch published last year by the American Psychological Association found “evidence that black boys are seen as older and less innocent and that they prompt a less essential conception of childhood than do their white same-age peers.” In other words, people tend to think of black boys as bigger and older than they actually are. …
… “participants began to think of black children as significantly less innocent than other children at every age group, beginning at the age of 10.”
He was twelve.
It is a lonely age. Some will judge you by your size, whether or not you have had your adolescent growth spurt yet; most do not know you well enough to judge you by your time on this earth, your life experience, whether or not you have completed sixth grade, begun to learn algebra. Add your blackness, then God help you; because for four long minutes, no one else will, as you lie bleeding on the ground.
When his parents found Jesus in the temple, “All who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.” Was that because they had just found out that he was twelve, this overgrown child who had been sitting amongst them, sleeping God knows where, eating God knows what, for five days while his family was frantic over whether he would live or die? All of a sudden, the teachers in the temple, the wise ones, those with authority and understanding, were called to check their assumptions, reassess their judgements, recalibrate their entire conversation with this boy.
“Child!” his parents called him, because he was twelve.
Jesus, aged twelve, in the temple, told his parents, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” And if they found him here, in God’s house, in this temple, how would that be; and would they trust that he had been in safe hands, in tender care, held in the love of God?
The scary thing, for me, about the kinds of research that the Washington Post reported, the unconscious bias it uncovers, is wondering where I would come out on the researchers’ surveys; how my own gut reactions line up with my reasoned responses; whether I could live what I preach.
If Jesus had come here, to this house, would I know that he was only twelve? Would I give him the benefit of my doubt? What if he had an up-country accent, or middle eastern skin? What if he had never been taught to take off his hat to pray, or to eat? What if he were famished, and had no table manners? If he had been raised to look his elders in the eye, or to avert his gaze as a sign of respect? And which infraction would it take to consign him to a special kind of hell?
“Child!” God calls us, “Why have you treated us like this?”
Why did you misjudge us, prejudge us. Why did you leave us alone, unhelped and untended? Why did you leave us behind? How on earth could you consign us to hell? For just as you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.
“Child,” said his parents to Jesus. “Child,” says Jesus to each of us.
At Christmastide, we remember God coming to us as an infant, helpless; even more helpless than his all-too-human parents; even more helpless than us. Why, how could God become this way?
Perhaps it was to invite us to love God as God loves each of us; with deep tenderness, endless patience, enduring compassion. Perhaps it was to invite us to check our assumptions, to reassess our judgments – we are so quick to prejudge one another. Perhaps it was to recalibrate our conversations with a God who will not leave us lonely, nor misjudge us, nor ever fail to forgive us; who sees us for the rebellious and careless children that we are, and who loves us regardless, so that we may love one another; a God who will not abandon us to death or to hell.
It’s a difficult, dangerous age alright. Being twelve can get you lost; in some cities it can get you dead although your life is barely begun. We’ve all been there. And Jesus has been even to that place, too. He was twelve.