12th of the Year, 21 June 2020
Many have commented that our son has my frown. This is noteworthy perhaps because you don’t normally see toddlers frowning. But I’m also very aware when I say to others that many in our Church family have noticed this inherited or learnt frown, that it must mean I’m well known for frowning, which I suspect, to be fair, happens occasionally, but hopefully not too often.
Human beings, like animals, have parents. It separates us from the rest of the world. I know plants reproduce and so perhaps they can be said to have parents too, but what we see in the animal kingdom and among humanity is different largely because of the presence of care and relationship. Paul reflects on this at a theological level in our second reading, from the letter to the Romans: “death has spread through the whole human race because everyone has sinned,” (5:12). He goes not to say later, “one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all,” (5:18). The Psalmist observes it with his usual profound simplicity, “I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me,” (Psalm 51:5). This is the Church’s doctrine of original sin; that we are naturally inclined to sin because of the “infection of nature” to use the words of the old Prayer Book. The logic is that even if you took a baby from the womb and put him or her in an incubator without external influences he or she would still have some guilt and inclination to sin within him or her. Having passed on therefore certain defects and failings, we might all be resolute in handing on proactively the gift of faith and the obligations of worship and sacrifice that we have received from others.
From my own experience of being a dad I think one emotion I’ve had to get used to feeling quite often is inadequacy. Through the strain of disturbed nights and never really switching off, it seems no matter how much you give it is never enough. And yet this most precious creature as you rock him or her to sleep is so precious; he or she is indeed worthy of our upmost. The realisation that life is precious is a real treasure of our Christian faith. Hear again the words our Lord spoke in today’s Gospel: “every hair on your head has been counted,” (Matthew 10:30). You don’t bother counting hairs if life is to be callously thrown away or dispensed with. The numbers we hear of those who have died of COVID-19 are terrifying but the fact that we count them seems somehow to irradicate their individuality, their value, their worth. Each one of them was made not on a production line but individually by God, “knit together” in that wonderful image of the Psalmist (139:13). This is true of all black people and all police officers, all human beings; those who march on protests and those depicted in statues. Life is precious.
While we may feel inadequate as we ponder our stewardship of this marvellous gift of life, such insecurities are, of course, not part of God’s paternity, his fatherhood of us, which is secure in Himself, He who can know no alteration and no deviation from perfection. God never lets us down: “I will declare myself for you,” Jesus says in the Gospel when we declares ourselves for Him. God never whinges that we’re bothering Him again, He has the only sufficient and and endless expanse of love so we can say in all confidence, He is love. If this is truly our orienting principle, that which fires us up, then we won’t fear others, we won’t fear diseases, we won’t be concerned what other people think of us, we won’t be bothered whether we’re accused of stuff we’ve done or not, because when we have declared ourselves for Christ, we know He will love us, He will declare Himself for us. What’s there then to fear with the God of love on our side?
Nor will these inadequacies be part of our life in Heaven. Jesus says in our Gospel today, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” Our priorities are to be set by what’s important in Heaven; everything else is of secondary importance. This is difficult for us to hold on to at the best of times and we should journey through lockdown aware of some of the presuppositions that have been subconsciously made. So, specifically there was never any suggestion that supermarkets should close down. And obviously I’m glad that that was the case - we all need to eat. And yet churches were ordered to close: there was a prioritising in the food that keeps our bodies going, and a diminishing of the importance assigned to the food that keeps our souls going. That re-ordering of priorities is not in line with Jesus’ words we’ve just heard. We need to start re-orientating ourselves back to the Lord.
This set of priorities is important when Christians start speaking about justice. Justice is giving to each what is his or her due. It’s one of the cardinal virtues, a commitment we are to encourage within ourselves and each other, and something we ought to pray for within ourselves. This begins with recognising that every person we meet is made in the image of God and precious in His eyes. It’s why Black Lives Matter. It’s what we will see fully in Heaven. The Kingdom of Heaven, of which our Lord speaks, is a place where those rights and dignities and responsibilities are known perfectly. Our task as Christians is to proclaim with Jesus that the kingdom of God is already among us here on earth. We do this through words and we do this through how we treat others.
God is love and so His priorities will be about love. Love keeps no record of wrong, St Paul reminds the Christians in Corinth (I Corinthians 13:4-7). Jeremiah, in our first reading, is struggling to love those who have participated in his woes. Jeremiah’s message is one of judgement and that the chickens are finally coming home to roost. The ungodliness of those whom God had saved and nourished and liberated for generations is reaping its rewards as the Assyrians march down to destroy Jerusalem, an event described with much woe in the book of Lamentations. Jeremiah gave some pretty harsh verdicts to warn the people, including the destruction of their city. It didn’t win him any friends.
It can be hardest to tell our family members important truths. Whether it’s because they know us so well, we don’t want to rock the boat, we don’t want to upset them, we know they’re good deep down anyway. Telling these harsh truths to family members can be difficult but I am sure parents will discover some way or other to communicate to their children the errors of their ways, the consequences of their actions. How easy this is when the children are adults too, compared to when they are teenagers or infants, I can only imagine. It’s a gift of utterance, a gift of the Spirit, we might properly pray for that we use it to draw members of our family to the Church, to a living faith. We’re to remember that the most important thing we can do for our children and for all whom we love is to ensure they’re in a living relationship with Jesus.
Jeremiah’s experiences that I’ve mentioned are part of the background to Jesus words elsewhere in the Gospel: “a prophet is not without honour, except in their home town, and among their own kin” (Mark 6:4). As we celebrate Father’s Day it is worth us remembering that parents are not necessarily the best people to teach their children about faith. It’s clearly important that parents ground family life in prayer and the life of the Church and form them in habits of holiness. But it will also be the parent’s duty to ensure other Christian examples are there because sometimes it can be difficult to share these truths of the Gospel within families for the reasons I’ve outlined earlier. Godparents are an obvious source of support in this goal of handing on the Christian faith to the next generation, but Sunday School Teachers, Boys’ Brigade Officers and friends at Church all have a role to play too.
May we all then on this Fathers’ Day have a concern in handing on the Christian Faith to the next generation that they may know the father of God who loves us indiscriminately.