13th Sunday in Ordinary time, year a
28 June 2020,
“Loving God in your graciousness you make us worthy to receive you. Only say the word and my soul shall be healed”
It’s no secret that I love doing reflections, that I say “yes” when asked before I even look at the readings. How lucky that I can trust God and the community and risk being honest instead of careful in what I say. I know everyone here will consider my words, draw what insights you can from them but not blindly follow me into thoughts that come from my own standpoint and are only part of the whole.
The concept of “worthiness” has troubled me since high school. I had a really good friend who was raised Catholic but left the church over the idea that a male-only clergy expect us to come in and say that we are “unworthy” every week. This friend provoked my thinking and nurtured my baby feminism and I came to see what I had felt but not known how to process: I felt deeply insulted at times by liturgy and the lectionary as well as the fact that gatekeepers to both were exclusively men. Repressing knowledge that I was being insulted made it impossible for me to come to terms with myself or to be honest in my relationships.
I too could have left the church, especially since my overthinking of everything led me irresistibly into theology in which space, I thought I would gain some answers. Instead, I was encouraged to risk being honest about my feelings, thoughts and experiences. I had first felt that feeling of disconnect and experienced that deep rejection when I was 4 and first told that I could not follow my strong desire to be a priest, could not even explore it. I probably should have considered the religious life but it was explained to me as a complete denial of your own will, desires and needs. I am sure that this is not a fair portrayal of it but I knew myself well enough to know I was not noble enough to empty myself out and exist only for others. I frequently found others difficult, while my own tumultuous and poorly articulated inner life made me not self-sufficient enough.
So, first I fell pregnant and then married despite having been brought up that the opposite order was better. There was no way I could have known back then just how unfit for marriage I was but there I was suddenly with a family. As I looked down on the face of my own tiny baby, I did not feel he was particularly beautiful or special in any way (that came later) yet I felt a fierce love for him that was not based on him needing to be special but that threw everything I had been taught about worthiness and unworthiness into disarray. One does not ever become worthy of love, love is not a reward for an assessment, it ticks no check-boxes, it meets no rubric it just undoes us all from our ego and our human constructions of worth or status or difference.
I don’t want to romanticise it. Human love is not perfect. If it was we would not have wars, we would not have detention camps, we would definitely not have poverty, exploitation or violence.
But as I looked at my child I was forced to pray:
“God I can’t trick you into thinking I love you more than anyone now.
This changes everything.
If I was asked to choose between you and my child…well I just couldn’t not choose my child”
I thought with disgust of the story of Abraham being prepared to sacrifice Isaac. I had to rethink what I had been taught about the theology of the cross too, about God sacrificing His child. I wondered if all mothers were heretics and why more fathers were not but when I spoke about this to Aragorn’s father he happily joined me in heresy. Our child was our first priority.
Surely though, if God is greater than me and perfect in love and loves my child more than I do then there is nothing risked by me loving my child.
And yet, this is not just an academic question, “Who do you love more?” or “what is infinity plus one”. There are to many “good” Christian parents who throw their own child out on the street for getting pregnant, or having an abortion of even just for being lesbian or gay or trans. Happily there are also parents who when faced with their child’s lifestyle or identity, allow love to challenge, change and grow their faith rather than reject their own. Why do we fear that we can shrink God down to our own small and fear-filled capacity for love? And why would we choose worthiness before love? And would God really want us to?
When my mother died I was angry. I was angry at her for leaving me. “Mothers don’t do this” I raged which of course was neither accurate nor fair but I was so devastated that I stayed with anger for quite some time. My church tradition was supposed to be a comfort but it really wasn’t. I felt I had to pander to other people’s uncontradictory and patriarchal views of my mother, where she was worthy only because of the services she had provided to others, the ways she had been useful or quiet. My experience of her was certainly not that she was quiet- apart from when she was quietly sarcastic.
I had often had conflict with her and I felt that to turn her into a placid and patient saint was to lose her again and again each time we pretended that mother-and-wife as an identity was all or was enough. I stayed angry long after I thought I had moved on. Six months after her death I remember leaving church in angry tears in the middle of the gospel reading because was I supposed to believe that God gave Lazarus back to his family and yet would not give me back my much needed and beloved mother?
The third time I realised that flawed, human love was stronger than anything I was told to believe, stronger than my commitment to my faith was the day I realised I had fallen in love with a woman- again completely against the rules. In my life, apparently, love is always a subversive force, however there was also irony in that event (non-event) in that just before that I had finally kicked the habit of going to church and realised I could get along fine as an atheist but then I met her (an atheist) and craved the beauty of God again and as a result I am here most Sunday mornings. That’s not how she would have liked to have influenced me.
This may seem self-indulgent, perhaps all I have done so far is confess my unworthiness. I love my child, my mother, even some atheist I met more than I love Godde. Or do I?
Can it be that when we convince ourselves that Jesus is asking us to narrow or dilute our capacity for love then we are mistaken and fllowing a false Jesus? Perhaps we need to question the idea of
“more than” and refused to be defined as “worthy”. I’m looking for clues in the second half of today’s gospel. If we receive someone who God loves we receive Christ and therefore God. Love of one is not so separated out. We love humans as part of the continuum of God’s love which shaped and called us, which is the stuff of our breath and body as well as our souls.
We say in this community not that we are unworthy but that God makes us “worthy”. We are made of the stuff of Godness and our vocation is to love more broadly not less strongly. We have to give a cup of water to the thirsty one or in 2020 perhaps we give the roll of toilet paper to the one who did not get to the shop on time. We have to love the one who needs love not only the one we are hardwired toward.
I will not perform “worthiness” for an idolatrous conception of a God that has been used by the church to unhook parents from their children enough so that certain clergy have been able to abuse them. I will not turn my back on the only thing I can offer the world- which is an ability to love. My child and my parent are both made in the image of the true God, to love the light shining through them is perhaps my only access to the source of that light.
What I WILL do is allow God to challenge and provoke me to love even those I do not immediately feel drawn to, children I did not give birth to and old people who did not carry me when I was small. I will take up God’s challenge to see her image in all creation, in seas gasping to be saved from plastic and parrots pleading for trees to nest in. My love does not need to be less strong, but only less parochial.
In the words of the Beatles:
“All you need is love All you need is love All you need is love, love Love [and a hermeneutic of suspicion] is all you need”
Please take a moment to think of all the ways God has touched your own life through love, and where your own worthy and beautiful love may be needed next.