It seems, in life, people are always running. Whether its running a race, running for office, running a fever, running late, running for your life, running a business, or running from bad news; it seems that even after such a busy holiday season, we will continue running through the end of yet another year.
No matter what, who, or when a person is running it would seem, in the end it can all be neatly grouped into two categories: you’re either running away from something or you’re running toward it. Sometimes it’s a bit hard to tell which is which given the circumstance. Take for instance a bear attacking you. Some might advise you to run TOWARD safety and others might say to run AWAY from the bear. Both save you from the attack and, so long as you’re nimbler than the poor person behind you, I’d say you’ll be fine.
There are several people who have perfected the art of running: the country of Kenya for example as they run toward a finish line, political parties run away from bad media, Santa Claus runs to children’s homes on Christmas Eve, Jonah ran away from God’s calling, the athletic company Nike runs people to the gym, and St. Paul runs toward fulfilling the Christian mission for instance. But the truth is all of us are quite agile runners. We run from illness to grace, from boredom to presents, and to our peaceful homes from crazy family Christmas dinners.
This Christmas alone, Cody, my sister Kennedy, and I “ran” 2,500 miles to visit family. We started by driving twelve hours to visit Cody’s grandparents in Florida. Then we ran thirteen hours up to Virginia to visit my extended family. Before leaving for this vacation, my father let me borrow what he called, “the most interesting book I’ll read all year.” The book was called “The Family Crucible,” written by Drs. Napier and Whittaker in 1976 about the “nuts and bolts” of family therapy. Although I wouldn’t call it the must-read book of 2012 or even 1976 (when it was written), I did gain tremendous insight into the way dad tried to interact with and discipline us as children (maybe he should have lent me the book when I was a teenager). I even spent several hours of our travel time psychoanalyzing all of the nuclear families in my large extended family.
The book described a natural process within family members to seek a balance and order to the overall emotion of the group. In the book, the parents were experiencing marital problems, especially when disciplining the oldest of their three children who would literally run away from home for days at a time. To rectify the disappointment and frustration the parents felt, the middle son became the “sacrifice” instead. He did this by provoking the youngest daughter, which gave the parents a much simpler scenario to deal with, one they could clearly see a solution to. They could easily see how to punish the middle son and therefore became a unified team against him, pushing the family back into balance. The problem with this soon became that because the middle child received all of this attention, the oldest was being left with mixed messages from her parents, leading her to run further and further from her family figuratively and literally.
By the same token, this is how we run our own lives. By creating a perfect balance of running to and from things, we drive ourselves crazy trying to find some stability. Often times, we don’t even realize how exhausted we are until we finally stop running.
In the Gospel today, we are reminded of how puzzling Jesus is. Luke describes quite clearly how although Jesus is 100% human he is also 100% God. When Mary and Joseph find Jesus at long last, they seemingly scold him for running AWAY from them. Here they fully resume their roles as Jesus’s human parents and forget all the signs and jubilation they heard from people they had never met and even angels 12 years ago at his birth. (Which, to cut them some slack wasn’t just the week before like it was for us.) After hearing their concern, Jesus scolds them back, for the sake of this sermon-theme I’d like your permission to paraphrase, by saying, “who cares where I ran FROM if I’m running TOWARD my Holy Father.”
Why do we run then? Why did Jesus make it a point at such a young age to correct his parent’s thinking and stop their running? Maybe Jesus wasn’t the runaway at all, perhaps he was the “run-to.” Maybe we find ourselves running around so fast we forget which way we’re going or what we were doing in the first place.
And of course, this is the easy part. Right now as we await the looming semester it’s easy to forget how quick we can slip into an exhausting balancing act within ourselves and our families. We run from one activity to the next, toward a good decision, from a bad decision, all the while never once considering the notion of stopping. Of thinking “why?”
In our Christian lives, it is easy for me to point to our search for God. My freshman year I had lengthy conversations with friends of mine who say the same thing, we found ourselves running around in our relationships with God just as in life. Every decision we make can either lead us to Him or away from Him and so I therefore based each decision I make off which direction I’ll be running. And I keep running and running sometimes it feels in little orbits around him, growing frustrated, but never allowing myself to stop and consider the notion that there could be more to this than what I think.
Similarly, for three days Jesus’s parents ran around searching for him. Jesus stops his parents and asks, “why?” He says, “Why search for me, when clearly I am with my Father.” Mary and Joseph seem to think “hm..” and probably felt quite silly. But I’m pretty sure if I had said something like that when I was 12 years old to my mother, she wouldn’t just “treasure what I said in her heart.”
My mother has three sisters who all have families in Roanoke, Virginia. Every year we go up and stay with one of my Aunts and have a huge get together on Christmas Eve. On Christmas Day, however, they each visit their husband’s side of the family. Since my dad’s side of the family lives in Georgia, we don’t exactly get that luxury. Needless to say, our Christmas Day tradition includes Chinese for lunch, leftovers for dinner and a visit to the movie theater in between. This year we got the pleasure of seeing Les Miserable. Though not for the faint of heart, due to its length and emotional strain, Les Mis was everything I had hoped it would be. The main character, Jean Valjean, is sent to prison doing hard, hard labor for stealing food to save his nephew’s life. After getting out, he breaks parole and is then forced to run from the police. He is a deeply religious man and by his moral fiber and good luck is able to reinvent himself. He even becomes the mayor of a town, but is forced to leave the new life he built when faced with a moral dilemma. Through some of his monologue he conveys his wish to please God and do the right thing, he questions who he is, and eventually chooses the harder of the two choices. The movie occasionally skips years, but still revolves around Jean Valjean’s life as the audience is shown the happenings of France in the midst of his running from town to town afraid of being discovered. In the final scenes of the movie Jean Valjean is finally able to stop running and realizes the answers to all his questions with the help of a girl he adopted and a girl he saved. It is in their presence that he makes one of the most epic revelations I’ve ever heard, by saying “to love another person is to see the face of God.” Why do we search for God in such a way? Why run yourself ragged in the hopes of good decisions and productivity? Stop running and look around at all the other runaways beside you. Run to them, look deep into them and love them. Love the obvious people you forget to acknowledge: your parents, siblings, long lost family friends. Love the people it’s hard to love: nosy neighbors, Hugh Freeze, annoying coworkers, or frustrating teachers. Even love the people it’s just impossible to love: the Taliban, Sueng-Hui Cho, James Holmes, and Adam Lanza. And finally love the people you’ve never met that are parked beside you, that are boarding a plane in Atlanta now as I speak, all the newborn babies in all the hospitals and homes, or the ones that are hungry. They’re probably just as exhausted as you are.
So there’s only one thing for it. We love God through each other. Mary and Joseph made the mistake of forgetting the fully human/fully God rule, by (you guessed it) running after their runaway child. Jesus asked them “why search for me when you knew where I’d be” and he can say the same to us… “why run looking for me, when you know where I am?” Open your hearts, stop your running, and relax, for where else would you be but in your Father’s house?