It’s been another ridiculously hot day. The room you’ve been in all day was too hot and airless. The bus was rammed full of people, only marginally less hot than the Bakerloo line which was the ante room of hell, hotter than a sauna at seven in the morning. You get back to Waterloo and discover the trains are in chaos because of the wrong kind of sunlight and a shortage of drivers. Trains are being cancelled and delayed all over the place, but it’s all okay because an automated computer announcement makes an insincere apology at regular intervals. Of course, trains on the Alton are cancelled far more often than any others, but eventually far too many are crammed onto a train that’s too full. And its smelly because not everyone understands personal hygiene in hot weather to the same extent.
When you eventually get home, you are not at your very best. But when you tell your family about the journey you ﬁnd you’re also telling them a larger story. Everybody knows that the trains aren’t running properly because the present government has allowed them to get worse and worse so that they can have an excuse to introduce a new scheme of their own. But there’s an election coming soon, and then you’ll be able to vote out this government and put in another one that might at last get you a decent train service. After Mussolini got the trains to run on time, didn’t he? So, as you talk about your anger over this evening’s train journey, you’re actually talking as well about your anger with the present government. And as you talk about how things could be better with the train you normally catch, you are talking as well about how good things are going to be with the new government. There is a larger framework, a larger story, within which your own smaller stories become more interesting and important.
And this is the point of what is essentially Paul’s prayer at the start of today’s reading from the letter to the Ephesians. What we have is essentially a celebration of the larger story within which every single Christian story, every story of individual conversion, faith, spiritual life, obedience and hope – is set. Only by understanding and celebrating the larger story can we hope to understand everything that’s going on in our own smaller stories, and so observe God at work in and through our own lives.
It’s in that context of seeing and understanding that bigger picture, I’d like to focus on what Paul says about being chosen. The fate of the children separated from their parents at the USA border continues to be a matter of grave concern. Individual stories are a cause for tears of both anguish and joy, and even US Senators criticise Trump’s administration for the lack of progress. There are more tearful and joyful reunions as the Thai football team boys were rescued from their cave ordeal, after a dangerous and complex rescue operation. Meanwhile feelings ran high at the NATO summit, and during Trump’s visit here.
In some of the stories that didn’t come so prominently in the news headlines this week, one adoption charity announced support for birth parents. An exhibition at the foundling Museum, one of Britain’s oldest adoption charities, is based on the tokens left by mothers with their babies so they could be identified if they were ever reunited; and there is further controversy in the Social Work community as the new Working Together to Safeguard Children guidance is published.
In our reading, Paul talked about being chosen, which is a bittersweet concept for anyone connected with adoption and fostering. The heart-rending little tokens – scraps of fabric and engraved coins – left by birth mothers at London’s Foundling Museum are testament to the pain of separation that is one part of the adoption choice story. So, it is good to see support for birth parents, who have often made a heart-wrenching choice to give up a child, in order to give that child the possibility of a better life. Adoptive parents will of course be thankful for the choice to adopt, while about 2,000 children in the UK are on the adoption list, still waiting to be chosen.
Being chosen isn’t a quick fix for the problems of a traumatic childhood, of course. Adoption UK recently launched a campaign for better support for adopted children in education, after their research revealed school for many is a daily struggle, where many face bullying and fail academically. While social workers are concerned the new guidance means that they may be left without managers’ support when making those critical safeguarding decisions behind most adoption stories.
The migrant children and parents separated by recent change in the USA border practice know that bitter-sweet taste of separation and reunion; as do the families of the Thai boys football team, thankfully rescued from their dangerous ordeal. Does the joy of reunited families give us a glimpse of God’s joy at choosing us? And what does it mean to us to be chosen, adopted into God’s family? How much does our own family story impact on how we experience God’s adoption? Is it a joyful reunion or a painful reminder of past separations? What are our expectations of God, and what is expected of us? Adopted and fostered children can struggle with a sense of responsibility in their new family; should they be grateful? Do they have to be on their best behaviour?
Individual relationships and unions, of course, are the base of international ones. Trump’s behaviour and comments as an individual risk threatening the political unity of NATO and the European/USA alliances. How does our behaviour, in social media and in real life, promote or threaten unity?
Chosen means an awful lot of different things in the situations in which we can find ourselves, all part of a bigger picture of how God is at work in the world.
Later in the reading, Paul goes on to tell the story of the cross of Jesus in such a way that we can hear, underneath it, the ancient Jewish story of Passover. Passover was the night when the angel of death came through the land of Egypt, and the blood of the lamb sprinkled on the doorposts rescued the Israelites from the judgment that would otherwise have fallen on them. The word often used for that moment was ‘redemption’ or ‘deliverance’: it was the time when God went to Egypt and ‘bought’ for himself the people that had been enslaved there. Now, once again in fulﬁlment of the old story, the true ‘redemption’ has occurred. Forgiveness is ‘deliverance’. Telling the story like this — the story of Jesus the Messiah, and the meaning of his death, told in such a way as to bring out the fact that it’s the fulﬁlment of the Exodus story — is a classic Jewish way of celebrating the goodness of God. For Christians, we tell the story of what God has done in and through Jesus, and this is the big picture in which all our choices sit.
I end with an extract from a poem by G.A. Studdert Kennedy, aka Woodbine Willy:
I have to choose. I back the scent of life
Against its stink. That’s what Faith works out at
Finally. I know not why the Evil,
I know not why he Good, both mysteries
Remain unsolved and both insoluble.
I know that both are there, the battle set,
And I must fight on this side or on that.
I can’t stand shiv’ring on the bank,
I plunge Head first. I bet my life on Beauty, Truth,
And Love, not abstract but incarnate Truth,
Not Beauty’s passing shadow but its Self.
Its very self made flesh Love, realised.
I bet my life on Christ–Christ Crucified.
Behold your God!
All history pass by, and through it all
Still shines that face, the Christ Face, like a star
Which pierces drifting clouds, and tells the Truth…
So through the clouds of Calvary–there shines
His face, and I believe that Evil dies,
And Good lives on, loves on, and conquers all–
All War must end in Peace. These clouds are lies.
They cannot last. The blue sky is the Truth.
For God` is Love. Such is my Faith, and such
My reasons for it, and I find them strong
Enough. And you? You want to argue? Well,
I can’t. It is a choice. I choose the Christ.