Evensong 1st July 2018
Watchful for the Signs of God's Presence
It is good to be here, and to begin to know one another. Thank you for such wonderful hospitality of many kinds, both today and in recent weeks. It's also a particular pleasure as a Canadian, to stand in the pulpit here for the first time on July 1st, as it's Canada Day, and so I'm grateful for this serendipitous timing, too.
At yesterday's ordinations in St Paul's, the liturgy included words from the bishop explaining who deacons are and what they do. She told us that deacons are to be 'expectant and watchful for the signs of God's presence'. It is a true honour to begin ordained life at Hampstead Parish Church, watchful for those signs. There is much to learn, and much to experience. Thank you, truly, for this welcome and for all it means now and across the months ahead.
This evening I want to attend to Paul's letter to the Romans with reference to two women, one on either side of the Atlantic: the Catholic American artist and nun Sister Corita, and the Anglican theologian Evelyn Underhill, who is buried in the churchyard. Both are spiritual guides of different sorts for me and for many.
Sister Corita taught art at Immaculate Heart College in California. There is an exhibition of her work on now at Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft in Sussex, and I recommend it highly. A pop artist who drew politics, culture, and Christianity together with bold colours, it's been said that she did for bread and wine what Andy Warhol did for Campbell's soup. Her work is filled with joy, celebration, and suffering too. When the Vietnam war was raging, Sister Corita made prints opposing the war, which made the public stop and think. She said, 'Maybe you can't understand the psalms without understanding the newspaper and the other way around. Maybe that's why it sounds so good when a line from the newspaper is inserted after each line of a psalm and read aloud. Maybe they were never meant to be separated.' If you've never tried this, give it a go. It may change the way you read both news and the Bible. With this in mind, Sister Corita suggested, 'A photo of a hurt soldier becomes a holy card.'
Consider this fusion of scripture and real life in how Chapter 13 of Paul's letter to the Romans has been invoked and too often misunderstood. One way to read it, and unfortunately too many have, is as a demand to agree with a government, no matter what they do. Held up against the light of the Gospel, this sits uneasily to say the least.
Among many examples here and abroad, a recent instance is the US attorney general, Jeff Sessions, who quoted this passage from Romans to justify the infamous decision the Justice Department took to separate children and parents of migrants. He said, 'I would cite to you the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order.' It is an understatement to say this is dangerous ground. Paul's letter to the Romans as a whole encouraged fellowship between Roman gentiles and Jews, both of whom worshipped Christ in a hostile and risky political landscape. Many Jews had to leave Rome c.49AD, and Paul's letter was written shortly after many were returning from exile. They were the migrant strangers who longed for welcome as fellow-followers of Jesus. The gentiles weren't always willing to provide it. This is a core issue to bear in mind when exploring Romans 13. This was a core issue the American government has chosen to ignore. And they are not the only ones, historically or in our own time.
For Paul, the reason why it is good to respect authorities - and he was speaking about synagogue teachers and leaders, not about the state as such - is because their authority is God-given by a God of love and mercy. Honour, respect, and - yes - money, are offered in charity and authenticity within a system based on God's authority. And God's authority is based on the mutual love and eternal unity of the Trinity itself. It is for this reason that Paul moves seamlessly from the statement 'pay to all what is due to them', to, 'Owe no one anything, except to love one another.' If obedience to a government, no matter what they're doing, is interpreted as that which is 'due', then Paul's point awkwardly collapses. If obedience to God's authority expressed in relationships of respect and justice is the baseline expectation, then it follows - radically, but also rationally - that those within this context 'owe no one anything, except to love one another.'
When considering what kind of love this might be, Evelyn Underhill's insights can help us. She explains, 'Love must learn by experience to recognize when the secret inward pressure comes from God, and when it really comes from self-will, and we persuade ourselves that it is the push of God. It is one thing to make Love's choice, and quite another to stick to it.' Loving God and loving our neighbour have to go together. Always. And this is often difficult. When we tune in to Christ's compelling and challenging voice of love - feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, respect, forgiveness - we are seeing what God's authority really looks like.
'Owe no one anything, except to love one another', Paul says. As your curate and as a new deacon, I promise to lovingly serve this community, collaboratively and open-heartedly, as best I can. It is a pleasure to do so. Every interaction we have and the decisions we make are chances to put God's love in motion. When we love well, each in our own way, we are well-tuned to the music of heaven itself. We grow closer to God, and we become more human, too. Amen.