"Our Belonging Ahead" by Mia Benjamin

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?”
— Luke 2:48-49

Headed home for Christmas this year, I found myself caught in that weird life overlap a lot of young adults find themselves in. It’s that strange little gap between the ending of the family I’ve always known, the one that’s just me, my two sisters, and my parents, and the beginning of families yet to be created, the ones we will each build for ourselves. It’s a space filled with excitement and nostalgia, and the bittersweet realization that the meaning of the word “home” has shifted forever.

It’s also why one line from the new Star Wars movie stood out to me. A long, long time ago, in a galaxy, far, far away, we meet another young adult who has spent her life waiting for the return of her family. Without spoiling anything for those who haven’t seen it, all I’ll say is that at a critical moment in the movie this character must decide whether to return to the desolate planet where her family left her or to continue on to the adventure, and the destiny, that lies before her. In her hesitation, a wise old character with large, knowing eyes leans in and intones, “The belonging you seek is not behind you, it is ahead.”

Our faith tells us that seeking belonging is part of the human condition. And you don’t have to be a young adult to be caught between two stages of belonging, one behind and the other ahead. Perhaps you’re the parent, watching your adult children move away and looking towards belonging to an empty nest. Or maybe you’re a new employee, a new church-goer, or a newlywed just now discovering what it means to belong to a spouse and a step-child. Perhaps you’re a widower, wondering what belonging looks like on your own, or a retiree, redefining belonging all together. And even if you are none of these, in a sense we are all, right now, caught between who we were in 2015 and who we are becoming in this new year. In any of these cases, it is the faith that the belonging we yearn for still lies ahead of us that will give us the courage to step forward into that new stage of life.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus the teenager is also caught between two stages of belonging, one to the parents who have raised him and the other to the new identity that is his divine destiny. In this story, Mary and Joseph take their son on their annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Passover festival. For Jews, the Passover festival speaks powerfully of belonging, reliving the story of how at the dramatic moment of reckoning in Egypt, the Hebrew slaves declared their belonging to the God of their ancestors and were saved.

This particular year, however, Joseph and Mary make a simple and understandable mistake. They assume that Jesus, surely knowing the routine by now, will follow them home. It is not until they are a full day’s journey away from the city that they discover their son has been left behind in Jerusalem.  After frantic searching in the bustling city, they find him, calm and curious, listening in the synagogue. Why hadn’t he come home with them, Mary demands to know. Didn’t he know that his mother and father would be basket-cases when they found him gone? But Jesus says to them, “Didn’t you know that I must be in my father’s house?” Don’t you know this is where I belong?

I wonder how it felt for Joseph, and for Mary, to hear those words, to hear him redefine the meaning of the word “father” and “home.” Do they realize that it was not Jesus who had been left behind, but them?

Jesus isn’t just making a statement about his own belonging here. Jesus’s actions and words hint at a new belonging ahead for the Jewish people, and for all of God’s people. A belonging not just to the houses of our fathers, but to our Father’s house. A house where all people are welcomed. It’s a belonging we long for deep in our souls, one echoed in the Psalm today. My soul has a desire and longing for the courts of the LORD, we sang in the Psalm today...Happy are they who dwell in your house!...For one day in your courts is better than a thousand in my own room.

Our Old Testament passage for today, too, speaks of a home longed for by God’s people. The prophet Jeremiah spent his life warning the house of Judah about the imminent Babylonian defeat and exile and caught up in the midst of his dire threats, the prophet reminds God’s people, too, of God’s promise of salvation and return. And in Jeremiah’s vision, no one is left behind. Not the blind, nor the lame, not even the women in labor. In that dream, all of God’s people are gathered up and brought home, but it is a home unlike any they have ever known.

It is so easy at times to seek the belonging we have always known, even if it no longer fits us. To squeeze ourselves into too-tight sweaters we’ve always worn or fold our bodies into the boxes that have always defined us. Yes there is death and loss in letting go of the belonging we have known. But we are an Easter people. Just as we know that Jesus’s death on the cross marked the end of the old covenant, we know that his resurrection marks the beginning of a new way of belonging to God and to God’s people.

True belonging that lies not in the same paths we trek back and forth each year, nor in assuming that the generations after us are following close behind. Our salvation depends not on looking backward but on reaching forward, moving ourselves and our world closer to that dream in which no one is left behind. For none of us can fully belong until all of us belong. The belonging we seek, our belonging to God and to each other, lies not behind us, but ahead.

Let us pray.

Father of all,

You have promised that you will one day gather us together in that safe and holy sanctuary where all of us belong. Help us in this new year to discover how each new belonging ahead of us is a step in our journey toward that place, and to you.