Sermon at St Austin, Wakefield, as part of a Sion Community Parish Mission.
“Our God is a great big God and He holds us in His hands!”
If you came to our family service yesterday, you’ll remember the closing song. The same idea was in our opening hymn tonight:
Fatherlike he tends and spares us;
well our feeble frame he knows.
In his hand he gently bears us,
rescues us from all our foes.
I wonder what the word “God” means to you? For some people, “God” refers to a lofty philosophical idea – the ground of all being, the uncaused cause, the unmoved mover. There’s truth in all these ideas, but such a God can seem remote, abstract, distant.
For others, the very idea of God is mysterious. One day a Mum asked her daughter what she was drawing.
“It’s a picture of God, Mummy!”
“But, darling, no one knows what God looks like!”
“They will when I’ve finished!”
For Jesus, it was very simple. God was his Father. Abba. Daddy. When Jesus prayed, it was to his “Abba” – a word Arab children use addressing their fathers even today. When the disciples asked to be taught how to pray, Jesus taught them to say “Our Father”. Anyone who follows me, said Jesus, would be His brother or sister – we share one Father in heaven.
St Paul understood this as well. We hear this in his letter to the Christians in Ephesus. He’s praying that they’ll come to understand what it means to have God as Our Father. Something of his letter gets lost in translation – the Greek word Paul uses for ‘family’ or ‘clan’ here is patria. Since the word for Father is pater, to be part of God’s family is to be part of his patriarchy, belonging to his patrimony, under his paternity.
What Paul wants for the Ephesians, he wants for us too. Do we know that God is our loving Father? Do we feel secure as members of God’s family? We can be slow to appreciate the gift that we’re offered. The Old Testament prophet, Hosea, expressed God’s frustration with his beloved people: “I took them in my arms; yet they have not understood that I was the one looking after them. I led them with reins of kindness, with leading-strings of love.”
Some of us have had a really good experience of a Dad on earth who loved and cherished us like that. It’s not hard to imagine a heavenly Father who is the same, only better.
Others of us haven’t had such a good experience. Perhaps our Dad wasn’t there when we needed him – or he drank too much – or was violent towards us our our mother. But even then, we might have a positive sense of God as our Heavenly Father.
There again, some of us really struggle with the idea that God loves us, cares for us, or is looking out for us. If that’s you, I have a story to share with you. It’s not my story – it’s belongs to two remarkable young people called Henry and Clare.
This young couple met on a pilgrimage in 2002; each immediately intuited that the other was ‘the One’. Five months later, they shared their first kiss. Four years later they quarrelled badly and realised they could not live together peacefully; so Claire went away for a few day’s retreat.
On her return home, a message from Henry demanded the return of the exercise weights he had left in her house; what he didn’t expect was that she’d return them in person. They talked; and slowly, they began to rebuild their relationship. The following spring they broke up again, and turned to their spiritual director, an Italian priest.
Together, they began to understand that choosing marriage means taking responsibility for one’s own weaknesses and shortcomings. A relationship which is not lived with this depth is not the vocation of marriage – but merely accompanying another person until death. The vocation of marriage must realise that only God, not your beloved spouse, will be the ultimate source of your happiness and fulfilment. Quickly, Henry and Claire understood what they needed to do, became engaged, and were married the same autumn.
The path God had chosen for them was indeed a hard one. In 2009 – indeed, nine years ago this month – Claire gave birth to their first child, a child with a terrible deformity of the skull. They had known this day was coming, and a scan had warned them that the child would not live long after birth; their devout faith meant there was no question of choosing abortion. Yet at the funeral of Mary Grace Joy (Maria Grazia Lutetia), her parents were found not in the front pew for family mourners, but seated among the choir, leading songs of praise that their firstborn had already joined the saints in heaven.
Further joys and sorrows followed. Clare quickly conceived again… but the following June, they celebrated the funeral of their second child, David John (Davide Giovanni), born with a totally unrelated birth defect. This time, the funeral found Claire leading bidding prayers for all mothers and future mothers.
Six years ago this week, Claire herself lay on her deathbed. She had been diagnosed with cancer at the same time as becoming pregnant with a healthy child. She postponed treatment for cancer so her third child, Francesco, could be born safely; but the cancer was not treatable, and Clare passed into God’s hands on June 13th, after 28 years of life and four of marriage.
Clare and Henry’s story sounds like a tragedy, but everyone who knew Clare spoke of her great joy. There was no question of doubting God’s love and goodness. When her children died soon after birth, they were assuredly becoming saints in heaven. When God allowed her to be diagnosed with an agressive cancer, they filled an aeroplane with family and friends to make one last pilgrimage to be with them in a holy place.
Last year, five years after Clare’s death, Henry was interviewed and shared these words:
Faith, like life, is a journey, and if you want to die happy like Clare, you need to walk that path. During this voyage, God sends you things you must embrace, because He knows He can ask them of you; He wants what is good for you, and doesn’t give you a cross to crush you, but rather, to make you open to something else, to something you have not even imagined. We had no doubt that was the case here. We were in a relationship with God, and therefore we knew that what He was asking of us was good for us, because it had been that way so many other times. All our difficulties helped us have a new encounter with Him.
Faith and courage are not the same. The opposite of fear isn’t bravery, but faith. When you have faith, your strength comes from Someone else; when you are brave, you are the one who makes the effort alone. She had Someone else’s strength.
God’s leading strings of love often lead us where we do not want to go. King David wrote in his psalm of having to walk in the “valley of the shadow of death”. The Risen Jesus forgave St Peter for his denials, but said he would one day be led captive. The history of the Catholic Church is filled with people who have experienced miraculous cures and divine protection, but also those, like the English Martyrs, who paid with their lives for their faithfulness to God and His Church.
Every one of us here tonight will have experienced joys and sorrows in our life. Most of us will have buried our parents, or know that sooner or later that duty will come to us. Some of us will have known disability or long-term illness. But we will also have known the joy of a first kiss, a lasting relationship, a solid friendship, a breathtaking view, or a transcedent piece of music capable of transporting us to another place.
Have we thanked God for the joys which have come our way?
Have we rushed to blame God for the sorrows which we could not avoid?
When we were young, it seemed that our parents could wish away the ills of the world by kissing our grazed knees and holding us close. As adults we know that life holds its challenges. As members of God’s family we are invited to be Christians, literally other-Christs. St Paul calls us co-heirs with Christ, sharing his suffering so as to share in his glory.
It would be nice to believe in a world where God could prevent all wars, all diseases and all tragedies. Indeed God has designed such a world – it is called the world to come, and it is waiting for us. But here and now, God has no greater dignity for us than to be like His Firstborn Son. In his letter to the Romans, Paul declares with great confidence that “God turns all things to good for those who love Christ Jesus”. When the Cross comes our way, we have the choice of embracing it or rejecting it. But if we reject the Cross, we reject the Ressurrection.
In order to know God’s love, some of us might first need to forgive God. Of course, God cannot do anything evil – but God can fail to meet our expectations. ‘Forgiveness’ simply means making a decision not to penalise someone who hasn’t met our expectations. God might have not fixed your problems the way you hoped he would.
In the 11 years I’ve been a priest, I’ve read much of the Bible time and time again. But I am yet to find a passage where God promises to protect his friends from the sorrows of life on earth. Rather, Jesus prayed that his followers would be “in the world and not of the world”. If we know our identity with God as our Father, we know that we belong to an eternal family and the best is yet to come.
Clare and Henry – or to give them their proper Italian names, Enrico Petrillo and Chiara Corbella – knew the agony and ecstasy of having God as a Father who was preparing them for heaven. Chiara had the joy of knowing her children were safely in Heaven and we have little reason to doubt that she too, as one who laid down her life for the sake of her child, will be there, and may soon be recognised by the Church as a saint. Only God can grant us the gift of the joy which makes us radiant in the face of such trials. This is a Divine Gift. But we know that God loves to bestow gifts on his children, and tonight we can ask him to touch our hearts with a deeper knowledge of his love and of his Fatherhood. Let’s do that now.