(Romans 8, 18 – 25; Matthew 6, 25-34)
After the Thanksgiving for Marriage service last Sunday afternoon, I was talking with a young woman who had given birth relatively recently, and another older woman. As often happens when mothers talk together, we ended up sharing our experiences of pregnancy and birth.
That conversation came to mind as I read the text from Romans set for today. It is written in the language of pregnancy and childbearing. I find it fascinating that, although we think all our Biblical texts were written down by men, they so frequently use the analogy of giving birth to speak of God’s interaction with human beings and the created world. In spite of living in an age of hard physical labour, and frequent hand to hand warfare, they can think of no better example of great effort and enormous pain than the female experience of giving birth.
Paul speaks of the whole created order, the physical world and the animal kingdom as well as humanity, groaning in labour pains, as they wait for something better, more glorious, the offspring of God’s plans, to be revealed. Just as the gospel of John says “A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world.” (John 16.21) so Paul says the sufferings of the present time are not worth comparing to the glory that is about to be revealed.
Paul talks about the turmoil, crisis and suffering of the world in which he lived, a world in which many Christians were expecting the imminent return of Christ, and the establishment of God’s glorious kingdom on earth.
But his description has been true of every age since. It is true of our own age now. In our own country, we are facing deep divisions revealed by the Brexit vote. In Europe, we are dealing with terrorist attacks, the influx of refugees from the Middle East, Asia and North Africa, and the worrying rise of extreme right-wing nationalist parties. In the world, agreements to limit nuclear weapons are now potentially threatened by the election of a leader in the USA who has talked about using nuclear weapons in some circumstances; and for the world as a whole, progress towards slowing climate change are threatened by the possible intention of that same world leader to withdraw from the Paris Climate Change Agreement.
And in the Middle East, countries continue to be in a state of permanent warfare, with the prospect of it spilling over into a wider conflict involving the great powers; and the worrying thing is that some Christian groups, who are very influential with the present US government, think this conflict is to be encouraged, because of their literal interpretation of parts of the Book of Revelation, which sees a war in Israel/Palestine as heralding the return of Christ and the end of time.
Paul seems to be interpreting Genesis as actual history, describing a time when the world and human beings were perfect and there was no conflict and struggle. Then came the Fall, caused by human sin; and by God’s will, the whole created order, and human beings were subjected to pain, disaster, chaos and death. Paul is now waiting for the restoration of the original perfection in a glorious future.
Even if we understand Genesis as myth, expressing a longing for how we instinctively think the world should be, we can still hear Paul’s message of positive thinking. However bad things may be now and in the future, he says we can still proclaim the hope that when God’s reign is established, when we are revealed as the children of God, the world and the human race will be transformed into something glorious and eternal.
This last week there have been several headlines about the Church of England which have included the words chaos, turmoil and conflict. They were concerned with the decision by General Synod, by a very narrow margin, not to take note of the report of the House of Bishops on ‘Marriage and Same Sex Relationships after the Shared Conversations’. In effect, this meant that Synod, and especially the House of Clergy in which a majority voted against it, registered its dissatisfaction with the tone and content of the Report, and asked the Bishops to go away and try again!
This was a vote on one particular contentious issue, but one on which there are strong feelings on all sides, and which has caused people a great deal of pain. It is unlikely to be the major disaster, or to herald the dramatic change that those same newspaper headlines proclaimed. The Church of England has been here before, over the ordination of women as priests and bishops, over the remarriage of divorced people in church, and back at the beginning of the 20th century, over the Deceased Wife’s Sisters Act, which in its time was predicted to lead to the breakdown of marriage, and the end of civilization as we know it!Though those of us who believe rejection of the report was the right thing, do hope that this will be a step on the way to better things and a more glorious future – the full inclusion in the Church’s life and ministry of all people of faith and talent, regardless of their gender or sexuality – what Archbishop Tutu called ‘the Rainbow People of God’.
The well-known passage that is our Gospel reading is also urging Christian disciples to be positive. Don’t be too concerned about the future, Jesus is saying.
This is challenging stuff. Are we really supposed to take it literally? Is Jesus really saying we should not plan and shop for tomorrow’s meals. and not make sure that we and others have clothes to wear.
It is especially challenging to those of us who tend towards being perfectionists, even control freaks, who always like to think ahead, and make sure that everything is in place before we go anywhere or lead an activity.
In his teaching, Jesus often uses exaggeration to make us stop and take notice, as we heard last week with his command to us to gouge out our eyes, or cut off our hands if they cause us to sin. So, it is important to look closely at what he is saying to us here. He doesn’t say we shouldn’t think about these things; he is saying we shouldn’t worry about them, or get anxious about them It’s not a question of what we do, it’s about our state of mind, and the degree to which we allow concerns over wealth and dress and food, and other outward things to dominate our thoughts. That way, our concerns can become overwhelming, and lead to the black cloud of depression overcoming us.
What Jesus is asking us to do is to trust in God; trust that even when we cannot control what is happening, things will turn out well; asking us to put living under God’s sovereign rule in the front of our concerns, rather than our own security.
Two words to take from today’s readings: hope and trust.
Hope and trust that, as the 14th century English mystic, Mother Julian of Norwich, assures us, even though she lived in the time of the Black Death, the Peasant’s Revolt and the Hundred Years War, “All will be well, and all will be well and all manner of things will be well’
I want to end by sharing with you a song based on those words, by Meg Barnhouse a pastor and songwriter from the Southern USA. I was given a link to it after the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the US, and I’ve had it on the brain ever since.