is another one of those horrible gospel readings where you read it and think, ‘Really? Jesus said this?’ And then you realise you’re supposed to be preaching on it – in other words, making sense of it not just for yourself but for other people too. So you’re not just talking about hating your own parents, you’re talking about other people hating theirs, and that’s just another whole lot of tricky.
I realised something as I read this through: the way it’s phrased makes it sound like a genuine choice: this thing or that thing, parent or God, as if the two were in any way equivalent to one another. Perhaps our metaphorical use of ‘Father’ for God compounds this immediate (and unhelpful) sense of the possibility of being equivocal. But what if instead we took seriously the reality that God is not equivalent to anyone or anything? That we’re not, after all, being asked to make a choice between two equivalent external sources of authority, validation or love, but rather to take on board who God is and what that means for who we are?
God is, after all, the creator of the universe. That’s everything. Stars, planets, black holes, and all the immensity of stuff in between that we don’t even have a proper name for. All of time and space (and spacetime). Huge things and tiny things, and things that don’t even properly exist in any way that physics can explain. Animals, vegetables, minerals. The whole lot. Me, you, my parents, your parents, life itself.
If we believe that – really believe it – then the universe only makes sense if we are aware of everything being held in God’s hands.
Two brief diversions:
1. My children used to often ask whether, if God was everywhere, ‘is God in this dirty coffee cup?’ ‘Is God in this teatowel?’ ‘Is God in the mud on the bottom of my trainers that I just trod into the nice clean carpet?’ Exasperated, I eventually answered, ‘It’s the other way round. God is not in those things, those things are in God, because the whole universe is in God. Happy now?’ And remarkably, they were. At least until the next question.
2. If you’ve not read Mother Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love, you should. The most famous of her visions is of a tiny round thing the size of a hazelnut, which the holy Mother holds in the palm of her hands. She wonders what it is, the answer comes to her, ‘It is everything that is made.’ She wonders how it continues to exist, for it is so small it might just disappear. Again, an answer comes to her, ‘It exists, and will continue to exist, because God loves it.’
So, in our mental image of God as creator of the universe, holding everything that he has made in his hands, that includes us – you, me, our mothers and fathers, the people we love and the people we hate, and the people we don’t even know and will never meet. As well as the stars and planets and black holes.
God is the ultimate context for all our other relationships – with people, and with creation. And our relationships with one another and with the world can only really make sense that way round, in the bigger context of God. It simply doesn’t work if we try to make anyone other the creator of the universe our “ultimate context” – if another creature (a parent, a lover etc) is given the status of Ultimate Context, that’s way too much pressure to put on them – nobody is big enough to be someone’s whole world, no matter how romantic or loyal that may sound. Only God is big enough, flexible enough, strong enough to be our first call, the ground of our being, our all in all. And if we try to make another human being into those things, even if they could hold us in their hands, they simply cannot hold all our other relationships as well, and they definitely cannot also hold all of God in their hands. Our relationships with others can be held in the hands of God, but it’s very hard indeed to ask someone else to hold our relationship with God in their hands. It’s just the wrong way round.
In ministry I’ve always been grateful for an image of the hands of God being huge, and careful and gentle and strong and utterly reliable – and placed just under mine, ready to catch all the things that slip through my fingers. There are people who rely on me, for whom I am their first port of call. But I am not their last port of call, because of those big generous hands of God just below mine.
For me, there is something of this in the gospel this week. And this may be my clumsy way of putting what Rowan Williams puts much more deftly in his book, Being Disciples:
“Being with the Master is recognising that who you are is finally going to be determined by your relationship with him. If other relationships seek to define you in a way that distorts this basic relationship, you lose something vital for your own well-being and that of all around you too. You lose the possibility of a love more than you could have planned or realised for yourself. Love God less and you love everyone and everything less.”
To love God is to realise that you are held in the hands of God, along with everyone and everything else. That tends to put things in perspective.