Learning from Children: Generous Hospitality

Yet again, I have been learning more from the children I work with than they have from me. This is not unusual, it happens most days, but I thought I’d share this one.

This morning the pre-school next door to church had an unexpected fire alarm and, as is the agreed procedure, evacuated the children into the church. Just as we were starting Small Saints, our group for pre-school children and their families. So suddenly instead of 12 children, we had 42!

In the midst of the ensuing chaos, I observed the following. M, aged 3, had been playing with the playdough for some time, carefully cutting out cat shapes and lining them up along the edge of the table. Suddenly she looked up and saw a large and unexpected group of unfamiliar children arriving. She immediately picked up the cats she’d made, squished them and all the playdough into a ball, and split it into many small amounts, which she gave to other children as they arrived at the table.

A small act of kindness perhaps, but pretty impressive for such a young child to do unprompted. I was proud of her.

And I think M taught me something today about what really generous hospitality looks like. It means putting aside the things we want, the things we’ve planned and worked for. It means sharing what we have and letting others share in the creative process. It means taking the unexpected in our stride and not being afraid to relinquish control. It means letting go of our own ideas so that other people’s can find a place to flourish.

The sort of generous hospitality God calls us to is not about shifting our boundaries slightly so that others can fit in with what we’re doing. It’s about looking at who is in front of us, and doing things in a way that includes everyone, even if that means abandoning our own dearly-held plans.

Sometimes it takes a fire-alarm and a 3 year old with some playdough to bring me back to where God wants my attention. Thank you God for using your children to teach me (yet again).

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Sermon for All Age Eucharist, Trinity Sunday 2014: Isaiah 40.27-end, Matthew 28.16-end

May I speak in the name of the one God: Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. Amen.

Today is Trinity Sunday, the day in the church calendar when we celebrate the great mystery of God who is three in one and one in three. It’s easy to get bogged down in the complexities of how that works, how God can be one God, and yet be the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, all at the same time. But that’s not what Trinity Sunday should be about. It’s not primarily an invitation to a complex theological debate, but to a joyful celebration of the great mystery which is at the heart of who God is.

The key to entering in to the mystery of the Trinity – not understanding it, but entering in to it – is relationship. At the heart of who God is, is relationship, because God is Love, and Love doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Love must entail relationship. And so we see this relationship at the heart of God. Whether we talk about Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer; Source of all Being, Eternal Word and Holy Spirit. Whatever language we use is only an imperfect description of the loving relationship which exists in God, and in which God exists.

[Volunteers x3 to hold: plant, cross, flame.]

God is creator [plant]. God is redeemer [cross]. God is sustainer [flame]. God is all of these and God is each of these, in relationship with each other. [Place string around volunteers] But the relationship doesn’t stop there, this isn’t a closed circle. God creates us [plant]. God redeems us [cross]. God sustains us [flame]. And in so doing, God invites us into relationship with God, into the love at the heart of the Trinity. And so the circle expands to include all of us.

[Send children with string to encircle congregation, meeting by door.]

And that relationship, that love, doesn’t stop with us either. God invites us into relationship, and from the place of love sends us out to invite others into relationship too, with God and with us. We see it in today’s gospel: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations.” And so the circle doesn’t stop here at the door.

[Get children to roll balls of string out of door.]

The love which God extends to us, we must extend to others, beyond our doors, beyond our comfort zone. Imagine our balls of string stretching out across the churchyard, through the town, around the country, and right the way around the world. This is what God’s love is like: all-encompassing, never-ending, open to everyone. God is Love, and that’s why to really know God we have to accept his invitation to enter into the mystery of the infinitely loving relationship at the heart of the Trinity, into the heart of Godself.

And from that place of love we have to be ready to go out, as Jesus commands, and share that love with everyone, inviting them to share in the mystery of God who is both three and one. Isaiah asks “Have you not seen? Have you not heard?” And so many haven’t. So however imperfect our understanding of God, of the glorious mystery of the Trinity, we need to be ready to go out and share our faith, however inadequate it seems to us, in our schools and workplaces and public spaces. Because we have good news worth sharing: God is love; God loves you; there is no greater mystery than this.

Amen.

Righteous Anger?

There is a difference between anger which is a reaction to personal hurt, and anger which is a response to a wider injustice. There is a difference between anger which needs to be transformed into forgiveness, and anger which fuels the yearning for God’s kingdom. This was the thrust of a rather good homily I heard this week.

But it got me thinking: isn’t it a bit more complicated than that? Can these two types of anger be separated so easily? There are many, many times when a situation incites both kinds of anger. Situations which are both personally hurtful and unjust in a way which goes beyond the personal. And when that happens, when both these kinds of anger are at work, sometimes it’s hard to separate them out, in ourselves and in other people.

Very often when someone who is a member of a marginalised group objects to that marginalisation, it is seen as a personal matter, an angry reaction to the pain that person has experienced, and not as a wider issue of injustice. And because it’s ‘just’ a personal thing, it’s easier to sweep aside and ignore. It happens again and again to people who are already oppressed because of their race or gender or sexuality, and then when they point out this oppression are shouted down for being ‘too angry’.

A woman who points out the misogyny experienced by herself and others, who gets angry at the injustice which keeps women from living as free and equal human beings, is often accused of “taking it too personally” “being too emotional” “getting too angry”. It’s happened to me many times. I see it every day on Twitter and Facebook, overhear it in the street or on the bus. It’s one step away from “sit down and shut up, you silly little woman.”

But isn’t this worth getting angry about, the subjugation of half the human race? Isn’t this the sort of righteous anger that made Jesus turn over tables? And yes, there’s personal hurt mixed in, and probably that could do with being transformed into forgiveness. But that doesn’t invalidate the other kind of anger: the anger which keeps us fighting against the systemic injustices of the world.

I see something similar happening in the church’s struggles over homosexuality. If there was any doubt that the voices of gay people are being marginalised and ignored, this powerful blog from Kelvin Holdsworth, Provost of St Mary’s Cathedral Glasgow, should put an end to that: http://thurible.net/2014/06/13/synodical-discussion/ The reactions Kelvin describes to the frustration of being excluded from the process are, of course, deeply personal. But they are also manifestations of the righteous anger which comes from seeing and experiencing systematic oppression, and the deep desire to end that, to bring in the justice of God’s kingdom.

Too often the ‘personal’ element of our reactions to oppression and injustice is used as an excuse to dismiss the challenge to an unjust system. In a Christian context, too often the oppressed individual is expected to forgive, rather than the oppressive system being expected to change. That isn’t what redemption should look like.   

 

Being a progressive Christian

The range of labels Christians use for ourselves and each other can be bewildering. What from one person is a compliment may be an insult from another. What seems purely descriptive may carry a value judgement, and vice versa. It’s confusing, and it’s not always helpful. But the words we use for each other, and the ways we choose to define ourselves, are important, so here goes…..

I used to describe myself as “liberal”. More specifically a liberal Anglo-Catholic. I still do sometimes – in some contexts it can be a useful shorthand for “I believe gender should be no barrier to ordination to all orders of ministry, and I believe LGBT+ people are and should be treated as full and equal members of the body of Christ” (which is a bit of a mouthful in conversation!) But these days I prefer to describe myself as “progressive”.

And why is that? Well, it’s because I believe we are making progress. Slow progress, painfully slow, but progress none the less. Progress towards a world which more closely resembles the kingdom of God. Progress towards a church which more clearly reflects the fullness of Christ. Progress which comes about when the Spirit moves.

And it’s because I believe we should be making progress. Not clinging to every detail of what we see in Old Testament, or even New Testament, times but paying attention to what God is doing now, today. Because believe me, the Spirit is still moving, still changing things.

This isn’t some wishy-washy, liberal/progressive thing I’ve made up to justify conforming to the ways of the world. It’s in the Bible. Jesus himself says:

“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.  When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” (John 16.12-14)

Not everything there is to know about God is already known. The Spirit will go on leading us into all truth. It’s happened all through history: we see it in the early church, in Acts, about the issue of circumcision; we saw it in the 19th century about slavery; and many, many times in between and since.

The Spirit is leading us into all truth, just as quickly as we can bear it. Which, quite frankly, often doesn’t seem to me to be quickly enough. But God’s timing is beyond our understanding, and I’m sure it all looks very different from the perspective of eternity!

I think progressive Christians have been very bad at stating the biblical basis for our position. Our conservative brothers and sisters are quick to support their positions with scripture, and sometimes we can unintentionally leave the impression that being progressive/liberal requires an abandoning of scripture, or at least a demotion of the Bible. That’s not true.

I’m a progressive Christian because of what I read in the Bible, not in spite of it. I can’t (and won’t) start a proof-texting contest because it’s not about single verses, used as weapons. That’s always going to be destructive. It’s about the whole sweep of the biblical narrative. It’s about discerning the Word behind the words.  When I read the Bible, I see the narrative of God’s relationship with humanity, and it’s a narrative of progress: creation, fall, flood, exodus, prophecy, incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, pentecost, early church… It’s not a story that stands still.

And it’s not a story that ends when the biblical narrative ends. The narrative goes on, and we’re part of it too. The Spirit is still at work. Human perceptions of God (always flawed) have changed many times, and will continue to change as we struggle to move forward into all truth. And so perceptions of our own relationship with God can and will – and should – change too. I believe this is part of God’s will for us. We should be questioning more about how we understand God and ourselves and each other. We should be seeking to better understand the enormous mystery of God’s love for us, even if that means re-evaluating everything else we believe. We should be willing participants in the progress of God’s plan for the world.

“Progressive” is not a dirty word. I’m proud to be a progressive Christian.