Canticle: A song of Love (R&S 753)
Joshua 2:1-7 and 6:12-17
We all love a happy ending, and we finally got one, when Ashya King’s parents were freed from prison, and re-united with their obviously beloved son. Except the happy ending isn’t really, because all know that Ashya’s chances of surviving his serious and advanced medical condition are at best slim.
When news first broke of a child being taken from the hospital in Southampton, many of us thought there had been a kidnapping, as we were told Hampshire Police were looking for a child who had been taken without consent, and news reports initially sounded like a kidnapping. Then we were told he had been taken by his parents. Then we heard that “without consent” had changed to “against medical advice”.
At best there was clearly some initial confusion in the information coming from the hospital to the police and the media. Naturally, all right thinking people were seriously alarmed at a desperately sick child being taken away from medical that was obviously so urgently needed, and we were told Ashya’s parents were Jehovah’s witnesses, clearly implying they were trying to withhold some important treatment.
Perhaps the Hospital gave out the wrong information. Perhaps the Police misinterpreted it. Perhaps the media misrepresented it. But were clearly saw through a glass darkly, not in the clear light of day.
Eventually the search for proton beam therapy, denied on the NHS in this country, but available elsewhere, was told. I suspect most of us had never heard of proton beam therapy a couple of weeks ago. I have a science degree, but have little idea of what it really is, and few of us are in any way qualified to even consider whether it might or might not work. But, I think the point is surely that Ashya’s parents wanted the best for their child. In this therapy they saw a pearl of great price, which they were prepared to sacrifice everything for – the life of their child. Whether they were right that it would save Ashya, or not, is, I suggest, beside the point. For them it was their only hope, and who would not do that for their child?
And their reward for this was their arrest. How shameful it took so long for the folly of this to be seen, and for the family to be re-united. A happy ending, for now at least.
But all of this raises profound questions – how do we make decisions? How do hospitals make decisions? How do those who commission clinical services makes decisions? How do parents make decisions? How police make decisions? How doe courts and prosecutors make decisions? How do we make decisions? None of us knows when we will find ourselves caught in a moral dilemma of whatever kind. How do we make decisions?
We read two stories from scripture. In Matthew’s gospel Jesus crossed swords with the Pharisees, when he said it was a good idea for hungry people to eat, even if it involved breaking religious rules, and then he healed a man who was ill, which was also breaking religious rules. I suppose you might say that the Pharisees were the first century equivalent of today’s investigative journalists, relentlessly pursuing a politician they want to do down. They’re after Jesus because he was saying that people mattered more than things, in this case things being religious rules. I don’t think we should be too hard on the Pharisees, the point of the story was not how bad they were (who isn’t?), but that Jesus was trying to show them they’d misunderstood what following God meant. People matter more than things.
Our other story was Rahab, the prostitute, sheltering the spies, which led to the famous fall of the city of Jericho and the entry of God’s people into the Promised Land. We may have considerable questions about the whole business of people taking a land that already belong to someone else, but I’d like to “park” that for now – we’ll come back to that in a few weeks time when we have our Commitment for Life service – and concentrate for today on Rahab. She took in two spies, and lied about hiding them, and this ensured the safety of the people. It’s rather like the ancient equivalent of French café owners in the resistance hiding British airmen from the Nazis. It’s clearly an ancient story, repeated many centuries later in the mysterious letter to the Hebrews as an example of a good thing to do.
What can we learn from these stories today? People matter more than rules. Another is that things are not always black and white. Another is that something that, on the face of it, seems wrong, might not be so bad after all. The next logical step from all of that would be to say that there’s a moral free-for-all, and there are no rules or absolutes, but you’ve probably guessed by now that I’m going to suggest that the answer is more subtle than that. We also read what the church has come to call the “song of love”, which is a selection of Bible verses about love. It’s a very important selection of verses, because it reminds us that over all is God’s love. Over everyone and everything is love. And so there is no moral free-for-all, there is an absolute, and that is love. We know the power of God’s love for us, because God showed on the cross he loved us so much his Son died for us. Love is the supreme, the absolute, the all-in-all.
So, how do we make decisions? I’d like to suggest to you that fixed rules is the most unhelpful way of taking decisions. So often people just don’t fit into fixed boxes. What I suggest to you as a more helpful approach than fixed rules, is to always ask the question, what is the most loving thing to do? What is the most loving thing to do? In asking that question I don’t seek a superficial answer of the most pleasurable thing, or the easiest thing, or the thing that makes everyone happiest right now, but a question to ponder with deep thought, always remembering that love is of God, and where true love, there is God.
I’d like to tease out what seeking the most loving thing might mean for us, and for our opinion of others. I think it means being pragmatic, that is to say considering the love that has influenced decisions. I think it means avoiding words like “never”, “complete”, and “perfect”, by seeking the most loving thing in each situation. I think it means always seeking to be positive – the most important choice is always to love. I think it means putting people above systems, processes, and fixed rules. And above all, it means operating in a system of love, because love is from God.
So, let us not condemn any hospitals, but pray for them in their task of offering the best medical care within the resources they are given. Let us not condemn those who commission clinical care, but pray for them in their impossible task of deciding which terrifically expensive treatments are available without an unlimited supply of money to pay for them. Let us not condemn the police, hard as that is when we learn South Yorkshire Police ignored huge amounts of amounts of sexual abuse in Rotherham, as well as covering up their role in the Hillsborough disaster; let us not condemn them, but pray for them, with the heavy burdens they bear with limited resources. Let us not condemn Ashya King’s parent, seeking treatment for their children, but pray for them in their most painful situation. And let us not condemn ourselves, but pray for ourselves, that we might know, as best we’re able, what is most loving, and what God’s love might mean for us, and for whatever situation we find ourselves in.