Christmas 2 2020 - ‘Where is God?’, I think we know! By Mother Jo Winn-Smith
10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. 15 (John testified to him and cried out, ‘This was he of whom I said, “He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.”’) 16 From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17 The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.
I’ve taken quite a few funerals this year. Several more than last year. The overall numbers aren’t huge, but percentage-wise about 4 – 5 times as many. They haven’t actually been predominantly COVID. However, they have been exacerbated by COVID – my over-riding impression has been that the pressure on hospitals and doctors’ surgeries, and people’s fears of seeking help for conditions other than COVID has meant that a lot more people have died earlier than they might have done otherwise.
At one of the funerals, in an almost off-hand remark, one of the next-of-kin said to me as I was saying my farewells, ‘have a word with him upstairs about all of this’. It wasn’t said unkindly, nor was it said necessarily seeking an answer, but it revealed both a longing for answers but stuck in a particular mindset about how God operates.
In years past, priests-to-be didn’t have to do degrees and gain qualifications in pastoral care and mission, but they did have to sit exams where they would be set a number of essay questions which required the aspirant to give deep profound explanations of a variety of theological doctrines. I can just imagine one of the questions being set running along these lines: In a time of international pandemic, a parishioner asks you to ‘have a word with him upstairs about all of this’ – outline the answer you would give to Mr Jones’ question, expounding at least three different theodicies (open brackets – theories justifying the existence of God in the light of suffering – close brackets).
Explaining God, suffering, and ‘all of this’, is something we are all very acutely aware of at this time. Of course, standing in the grounds of a crematorium on a cold grey day, where everyone just wants to go home and they’re not allowed to have a wake anyway, is possibly not the time to go into three different theodicean theories.
I must admit that I was proud that I felt awake enough to at least have a brief go, however. I don’t know if he even heard me, but I did say something about ‘it’s horrible, isn’t it, but I do try and tell the children what Rowan Williams once said ‘look for him in the helpers’. Of course, our conversation didn’t go any further, but I now have a captive audience, so I’d like to take it a bit further here.
I’m not going to go into the problem of the source of evil. About the complexity of corporate sin, and about how much of our messed-up world is down to, or at least contributed to, by the actions of corporate greed, messed up behaviour and exploitation of the planet’s resources, upsetting the equilibrium of nature, and causing mass suffering.
But I do want to look at where God is in all this. And I do want to suggest that there is something in saying God is in the hearts and words and actions of those that help. Right at the beginning of this sermon I quoted from our gospel that John says, ‘that all who received him – that is the Word, the true light of God – who believed in his name – that this was his true identity – he gave power to become children of God’.
Children of God. Those who accept Jesus, the chosen one, become heirs and children of God. The is we enter the eternal inheritance of peace that is his to give, but also that we reflect his nature.
A few weeks back we also had that amazing and challenging reading, whereby Jesus says ‘when I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me…Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me’ (Matthew 25:35-36,40)
I want to triangulate these three things – when I am teaching, I am a PowerPoint queen, but I shall have to stick with words today – him upstairs, believe in him become children of God, come inherit the kingdom… for you did this for the least of these. I guess what I want to say is, we can find God, when we have but eyes to see God. And we become like God, as we inherit God’s likeness, when we act like God, and that is through loving and caring not just for one another, but for everyone, for the most needy, for those in need about us.
Perhaps I could have said, if it wouldn’t be insensitive, to the man asking where God was, had he not seen God that day. Had he not been held, loved, cared for, reassured, prayed for, supported? Did I not say during the funeral ‘whoever lives in love, lives in God, and God lives in him’?
As we look around at ‘all this’ – maybe we need to be a bit more honest with ourselves. Of course, we can see where God is. And of course, we can see where God isn’t. God isn’t in investing in bets on financial currencies in the hope of making a killing because the market crashes because of Brexit, whilst thousands, if not millions, worry about their jobs and their businesses surviving the loss of European working together. God isn’t in voting for political parties solely on the basis that they might give you tax breaks whilst many in the nation need to turn to foodbanks to survive the winter. God isn’t in going to illegal raves with hundreds of other people because COVID only affects the old and the vulnerable, or coughing in the face of low-paid staff in shops or on public transport because they ask you to wear a mask. God isn’t jealously guarding intellectual property for vaccines that we predominantly funded by government anyway, so that second world countries can mass produce them for the poorest billions of the world.
‘Where is God?’, I think we know. God is in our voting, our shopping, the newspapers we buy, the kinds of films and books we watch and read, how we behave in a queue, when we see someone struggling, with the priorities and values we espouse and reveal to our friends and neighbours, what we say to young children when we walk past someone homeless or with a disability, whether our friends all look like us or if we are a rainbow community of different colours, races, sexualities, abilities. Of course, God, is also so much more than that – this book of riches, this tradition and these sacraments show us so much more, the Spirit guides us so much deeper – but as a basic starting block, if we do not show we are children of God and share his love in our general demeanour and how we live our lives – well then what’s the point?
And maybe, just maybe, if we made just a bit ore effort, as a community, as a national church, as Christian believers, even as people of faith – maybe we would stop voting in charlatans, stop closing borders and rejecting the widow, the orphan, and the refugee, and stop side-lining the sick, the elderly, and the frail.
COVID has shown the state of our world’s soul – some of it is very beautiful, but we’ve let people get in power whose hearts are not very pure. COVID, I won’t say is, but I will say could be, the thing that changes a generation, that shifts world polity. There may be darkness, but we know what the light looks like. Let’s shine that light brightly into all corners of the earth and live as children of God.