Sermon at Evensong on the First Sunday after Trinity 2019
Wanting the best for our children.
The Reverend Dr James Walters Chaplain, London School of Economics
Sunday, 23rd June 2019 at 3.00 PM
The theme that connects our two readings today is wanting the best for our children. Both Abraham and Jairus want the best for their son and daughter. They want them to prosper. They want them to be saved. Nothing could be more natural, more instinctive.
But the kind of salvation they desire is slightly different in each case. Jairus desires that his daughter is saved in body, that she simply lives in the face of grave illness. It is the most fundamental thing any parent wants for their child.
Abraham desires that Isaac is saved in soul. Abraham has pursued God’s promise that he would be the father of a great nation in the land of Canaan. He does not want Isaac to shrink back from God’s purposes by leaving that land or completely assimilating to its culture. What he wants for his son is right relationship with God.
In the premodern world these two forms of salvation were more interconnected than we now consider them. To be well in body was not without a spiritual dimension. No form of wellbeing could be divorced from the embracing of God’s purposes for your life. In the Book of Deuteronomy God lays before the Israelites the choice of life and death, blessings and curses. The way of life is love of God and obedience to his commandments. “Choose life,” says the Lord, “that your children may live.”
In our age we think of our children’s health principally in bodily rather than spiritual terms. We do much to encourage healthy diet and exercise against the growing culture of sedentary screen use. But we are far less directive in fostering habits of prayer and attention to God. And that’s true even among parents of faith. A survey carried out for the Church of England last year found that only 29% of churchgoing parents thought it was their responsibility to teach the faith to their children. We understand the concern of Jairus but most of us no longer identify with the concern of Abraham.
And yet it becomes more and more clear that our children need more than physical health. Mental illness and depression have risen sharply among young people. Many of the students I work with in our university have had every opportunity to succeed materially but are spiritually and morally lost. Sometimes parents can even add to that pressure, making assumptions that their child’s flourishing – their salvation – will lie in career and financial success. Failure to live up to these hopes leaves them soul searching and sad.
What is more, it seems that our children themselves are increasingly telling us that the narrow definition of material wellbeing that they inherit from us is no longer in their best interests. Hundreds of thousands of children and young people around the world have begun taking to the streets to say that a despiritualised view of the world as mere “stuff” to be plundered and commodified in our rapacious global economy is robbing them of a future.
The School Strikes and Extinction Rebellion are not just calling for a tightening up of inadequate governmental emissions targets; they are demanding a renegotiation of the material, the moral and the spiritual in our interconnected world. We have to stop thinking of the good life as merely the extension and increased comfort of bodily existence. It is too crass to dismiss this as just another anti-capitalist movement. Rather it is the recognition of where the modern separation of physical and spiritual salvation has led us.
Because this is about salvation in both the Jairus and the Abraham sense. Many of our children around the world will die because of the climate crisis. Part of being a Christian in the decades to come will involve engagement in efforts to save people from rising sea levels, water scarcity and increased instances of extreme weather. We must be like Jairus, doing everything he can to save the life of his child.
But to take on these challenges our children will also need what Abraham desired for Isaac, the spiritual and religious resources that we are commonly failing to pass on.
First, they will need the unparalleled social capital of faith communities to bring about behavioural change. They will need to overturn the short-termist failures of democracy by electing leaders who acknowledge the obligations (found in religious traditions) to future generations and a moral order beyond immediate needs. Who has done more to spread that message to their millions of followers in recent years than Pope Francis with his encyclical Laudato Si, the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew who has spoken consistently on climate change, and the Dalai Lama? As secular politicians around the world fail in their efforts to address (or even acknowledge) this crisis, we will need the power of our transnational religious communities to mobilise change.
Second, our children will need the rich teachings of faith that creation is a gift given by God for our care. They must overturn the nihilistic ideology of consumption that demands the absurdity of infinite economic growth in a world of finite resources. They will need the wisdom of scripture and tradition to recover a vision of the world as a sustainable home for all humanity.
And third, they will need the spiritual resources of faith, because no one can be an effective agent of change in the outside world unless they have successfully cultivated their inner world. It is the heart that has nurtured compassion and moral judgement that motivates practical action. But for many people today the inner, spiritual world has been replaced by the digital, virtual world. And this does not resource engagement in the material world but rather attempts to replace it. Like the cult 90s film The Matrix we retreat into our screens as an escape from the destruction of the natural world, the garden in which the Lord intends us to flourish.
So we must pray and act that our children will be saved. Like Jairus, we must do all we can for their physical wellbeing. But we must recover the spiritual concern of our father Abraham, teaching our children the ways of faithfulness and wisdom. For such, says Jesus, is life in all its fullness. Choose life,” says the Lord, “that your children may live.”