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.”
*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.