Deliver us from evil

This Sunday, this Father’s Day, as our diaconal postulant preached on mustard seed faith, we prayed our thanksgiving for our fathers, and those who have served as models of fatherly love towards us. We prayed for those wounded by the presence or absence of their own fathers. We prayed for those whose hopes for fatherhood have been frustrated. We prayed for fathers and children separated by death, distress, and the inhumanity of man to man. We prayed that we might be delivered from becoming instruments of that separation.

Then, more than a score of us signed a letter to send to our senators tomorrow.

Dear Senators Brown and Portman,

I am an Episcopal priest in Ohio, serving a congregation full of Democrats, Republicans, Independents, and others, of Americans and immigrants, citizens by birth and naturalization.

As a Christian I am bound by the Law to love God and to love my neighbor. As an Episcopalian I have promised to respect the dignity of every human being. As an American citizen, I am horrified that our government is using the forced removal of children to punish and intimidate parents who would seek asylum, refuge, or simply a home in these United States. Such practice is antithetical to human dignity, human rights, and God’s intention for the human family.

As a voting constituent, I urge you to do all in your power to end this cruel and unusual policy as a matter of urgency. For example, I understand that you have such an opportunity in S.3036, a Bill to limit family separation.

“Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” Luke 18:16

Yours faithfully,

(The Revd) Rosalind C Hughes

Co-signed by Congregation Members

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Fraction

The crack of the communion host
like a whip, like bone,
like the click of handcuffs;
how far we have roamed
from the upper room:
warm bread softly torn,
love-fuelled bodies, blood
fired by passion’s wine.

You come to us unnoticed,
gathering crumbs beneath the table,
trying to piece back together
those whom we have broken

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The madness of Christ Jesus

When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” (Mark 3:21; Year B Proper 5)

What I think we sometimes fail to acknowledge is that they were right: He was quite mad. How could a person be human and divine and not find themselves quite outside of the acceptable norms, the sane standards of the day?

The Word of God spoke whole universes into being, out of sheer imagination, populating them with flora and fauna never before seen, or heard of, or dreamed of, then talking to them as though they were real. Madness, we would call it.

The Wisdom of God is, as has been well-documented, foolishness to the wise philosopher. Utter foolishness.

The steadfast loving-kindness of God is steadfastly insane, where insanity is defined as doing the same thing over and over (by the prophets and the Incarnation), hoping for a different response from the people, a better result.

The Love of God, manic and unrestrained, indiscriminate and unrelenting, completely lacking boundaries of self-protection, proper procedure, ever over-enthusiastic, rushing in where angels fear to tread; of course it is madness.

The life of Jesus itself, refusing to play by the rules of mortality, is an exercise in madness. His family was right. Their only mistake was in trying to rein in the force that created nature, the will of God, instead of grasping the hem of Jesus’ garment and hanging on for the ride of their dear lives.

 

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Feline mortal

Last night, our middle cat crawled into bed with me for the first time since I got home from my trip last week. He’d been feeling pretty rotten, and ever since the vet told us it’s most likely terminal, he’s been spending a lot of time under my desk, contemplating his mortality with the help of the theology books and bibles strewn around the floor. He’s never been much of a philosopher before now, unlike his older brother and, to a less disciplined and more anarchic extent, his younger sister. Now, largely undistracted by the need to eat or sleep, he has a achieved an impressive level of mindfulness, calm, a kind of peace.

The imminence of an ending has mellowed the middle cat. Yesterday afternoon, he let his sister skulk by behind him without so much as a tremor of his tail, or a sharp, hissing intake of breath. She was not sure how to cope with such unexpected forbearance. That’s how grace works sometimes. (“If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by doing so you will heap burning coals upon his head,”* advise Paul and the Proverbs.)

In the evening, he came to lie on the bed. Still holding himself somewhat apart, as though some part of him were ready, already, for the next mile of his journey, perhaps he remembered that love is the greater part of life, that relationship is a surer path to wisdom even than philosophy. Turning his inscrutable eyes to mine, he told him that the time had come for him to become my teacher, so close has he drawn toward eternity.

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Also published this week:

Immersive prayer: a seasonal reflection at the Episcopal Cafe

Suffer the children: what the bible has to say about immigration, ICE, and family separation, at RevGalBlogPals

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*Romans 12:20; Proverbs 25:21-22

 

 

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What I might have said otherwise

This morning’s sermon time was dedicated to answering some leftover questions that our Sunday School students had accumulated through the school year. At the time of the second hymn, I had not yet seen any children arrive, and so I had prepared, in pencil, on the blank space of my service booklet, a brief outline of what I might say if the best laid plans fell through.

As it turned out, half a dozen children had snuck in without my seeing them and arrived at the front of the church just in time for the gospel. I will not try to recreate the conversation that we had, but since it was also inspired by their questions, amongst other provocations, this is what I might have said if they hadn’t come to my rescue:

In the story of Samuel’s call this morning, we hear God speaking to a child, having him prophesy to his elder, and the religious professional in the household. It is not as though the child raises himself in the knowledge of God; Eli’s experience is crucial in helping Samuel to listen for the voice of the Lord in the night. But it is Samuel who hears that voice.

Our children put together some questions about God and other ineffable matters to share with us today. Whilst we are charged with raising them in the knowledge and love of God, they have plenty of inspiration of their own, plenty of curiosity and conversations with God with which to challenge us.

One of the questions that they raised was the one which every child, woman, man ends up asking for themself: if God is good (which we trust), and God is all-powerful (which we hope), how does that theology permit for the existence of evil?

One answer (and it is only one answer; there are others) is that while God created the world for good, God also created it with an existence which is, if not entirely separate, or independent from God, then at least heading so far in that direction as to allow us to understand that we have free will, and that the laws of physics and the natural sciences will tend to govern what happens around us as we exercise that freedom of will.*

It is an imperfect answer, and it is grotesquely incomplete; but as far as it goes, it allows for us to understand that while God created the world for good, we have the capacity, sometimes, to corrupt God’s purposes through error, sin, selfishness.

For example (an example I used this morning), God created us to live within a cycle that consumes food for growth, energy, nurture. One might imagine that the way in which God has provided for us to eat of the earth might be a sign of God’s loving care for us, just as a newborn infant learns that it is loved and valued because when it cries out for nourishment, its parent is right there to feed it, and soothe the fear that hunger creates (or illustrates?) within us.

But sometimes our relationship with food becomes complicated by grief, separation, insecurity, abuse, addiction; then something that was created for good can become a source of bad health, harm to body and soul.

[Of course, the simplicity of this argument leaves out afflictions such as allergies, diabetes, and so much more.]

In the gospel, Jesus uses the example of hunger to draw attention to the providence of God that underlies and underlines the law, which our own legalism sometimes seeks to undermine. God’s word to the people in the wilderness was a gift, a description of a relationship with the Creator and Redeemer designed to sustain them in their life together with God. It was not written down for use as a weapon to keep people in their place, that place being always at arms’ distance from ourselves, although close enough for judgement. That was the attitude which Jesus confronted on the sabbath, and it is familiar enough to our own culture and communities.

In the small things, it leads to hurt feelings, misunderstandings, divisions, contempt. As it grows, it eats away at the common good, seeding economic unfairness, prejudicial outcomes, cracking the cement that should bind us in community. At it extremes, and all too often, it leads to crucifixion, in all of its forms, and the killing of the innocent, the entangled, the unloved and the beloved, sometimes in the same body.

[Today was #WearOrange Sunday, for the awareness of the scourge of gun violence, which is one of the foul fruits of this kind of corruption of the creation of God.]

When we prefer our own rules to righteousness, as defined by the generosity of spirit with which God created the world in which we live and move and have our being – well, then things get out of whack.

I listened, whilst wondering if would preach this sermon, if the children were not there, to our reader proclaim the word of Paul:

But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.

Ah, that extraordinary power that belongs to God, to created good! We are afflicted in every way, but we cannot crush the good that God wills for God’s world. We are perplexed, for sure, but do not despair, for God is with us, through the prophets, through the Resurrection, in the sacraments, speaking with and through the children to wake us up.

God speaks through the children to wake us up to the call we have as Christians: to proclaim the love of God in word and deed, in all that we say and do, working with God to create good even out of all that goes wrong and awry in this world, knowing that God has created it, has created us, for God’s good purposes, and out of God’s unmitigated love.

This, or something like it, is what I might have said had the children not come to sit on the altar step with me (and I am glad that they did. We went off on a few other tangents, too, but) I hope that it is at least in harmony with what they heard from me this morning.

I think I ended by telling them something like, “God loves you, God is with you, God wants only good for you, but come what may, there is nothing that can end or separate you from that love which God has for you. If I didn’t believe that, I would not be here, and I wouldn’t tell it to you.”

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*Harold Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People (Knopf Doubleday, 2004 ) is a classic exposition of these questions and answers which I reviewed in preparation for this conversation with the children.

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Spring fever

Riptide currents race through green
fields revealing their true colours,
wrecking sirens’ songs, drowning
desire with their own unfettered appetites;

they stain the earth with lively riot,
catching into their whirling dance
flotsam and jetsam, driftwood that passes
this way, these days, for human wisdom.

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One/three/seven billion

The readings for Trinity Sunday include Isaiah’s vision and call, the Spirit of adoption, and Nicodemus’ night visit to Jesus

The doctrine of the Trinity is a mystery, and in my oh-so-humble opinion, it should remain that way. It is part of our revelation as Christians, as witnesses to the godhood of Jesus, that the One, Indivisible, Eternal, and Only God comes in more than one shape, form, or person. How that gets worked out within the Godhead, within the divine economy, or the eternal dance, or the Holy Trinity, however you want to attempt to describe it – well, we can scratch at it and dissect it and reverse engineer it as a doctrine, but God knows what it all means, and for us, the more important question is, What does it matter?

What difference does it make in our lives that we worship a God whom we call Trinity, whom we call Unity, who comes to us in the person of Jesus, in the Spirit of the living God, in the name of our Father?

It matters because we are created in the image of that God. Everything we are and everything we are called to be, and to do, mirrors in some way that divine mystery of the Trinity.

It means that we are created by a God who does not rule alone like an egotistical despot removed from all reason but his own, but by a God who recognizes that the first need for life is love.

When Isaiah beheld the glory of God, he was terrified. “How will I live?” he asked. But God touched him on the lips, with a live, burning coal as unconsumed as the burning bush which faced down Moses. God touched Isaiah on the lips, speaking, “Peace, child. I’ve got this. I’ve got you.”

The terrifying, seraphim-defying, smoky and smouldering glory of God was tempered by the touch of tenderness, and of encouragement.

“Now, who will go for me?” asked God, and Isaiah, strengthened and emboldened by God’s love, which translated God’s glory into something he could work with; Isaiah said, “Send me.”

It matters because we may recognize the authority that comes from God when it power is tempered with compassion, and authority serves those who are under it, when status is not wielded for its own purposes, but in order to empower and embolden those in need of encouragement to find their own way, their own status as God’s children, God’s prophets, God’s beloved.

“It is not good for the human to exist alone,” says the God who has never known loneliness, and dreads it for God’s children. It matters that we know a God who will not allow for isolation, or desolation, who does not disown God’s children, but who sets out time and again, through the prophets, through the wilderness, through the sacraments, through the Spirit to remind us that we are not only created in God’s image, but that God has committed Godself to us, irrevocably, unbreakably. We are not alone. We always have someone to whom we can turn, who will listen, who will love us unconditionally. And that is very good news.

The Trinity matters because we are named for a God who knows how to wield humility. In the person of Jesus Christ, God made the ultimate sacrifice, to live for us, to live among us, with us, enduring the best and the worst of what the world has to offer us, faithful to us through death and beyond.

The Trinity matters because, when Nicodemus met Jesus that night after dark, Nicodemus did not meet one-third of God. In the mystery of the Incarnation, the Word made flesh, through the mysterious mathematics of the Trinity, Nicodemus met the entire Wisdom of God in human form that night, and was schooled in the ways of the Spirit and in the mysteries of our spirituality, by the God who came not in clouds of glory to be worshipped, but clothed in flesh and girded to serve God’s own servants.

Each of these encounters: Isaiah’s experience in the house, the Spirit of God whispering through our prayers, Nicodemus seeking out Christ by night; in each of these God was fully present. Not one-third of a God, but the full and sufficient glory, mercy, and love of God; God’s wisdom, compassion, and grace, and yes, God’s judgment. Nothing was missing.

So it is that when we encounter a person, a living human being, we do not see one-seven-billionth of the image of God, but the complete, sufficient, somewhat tarnished and dented perhaps, but faithfully rendered image of God, not divided and diluted between individuals, but fully present in every person that we meet.

The Trinity matters because it not only inspires our worship of God, but it informs how we see one another; how much value we place on the least significant individual in our lives; how much grace, and how much praise, and how much encouragement we are prepared to spend upon the 7.6 billionth person in the world’s pecking order, compared to simply the billionth.

When we encounter the Spirit of God, in our prayers, on public transport, in the hymns of praise and procreation sung aloud by the birds – we know the whole of God’s love for us.

When we encounter the glory of God, in worship, in terror, in turmoil – we know the whole of God’s tenderness towards us, raising us back to our feet.

When we encounter Jesus, in the sacraments, in the songs of children, in the old stories – we know the lengths to which God will extend Godself in order to reach us.

The more we enter into the mystery which multiplies grace without dividing it, and

diffuses love without diluting it, the closer we come not to understanding, but to accepting and rejoicing in the manifold mercies and magnificent, mysterious love that is our gift from God.

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