The Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity - Choral Eucharist
Canon Treasurer - Revd Canon Leanne Roberts
Unlike our esteemed Dean, I’m not much for social media. I browse occasionally, and post seldom. But I found myself re-joining Instagram this week upon reading that Angelina Jolie had recently made her debut there, and garnered 1.8 million followers in two hours – and that might even be more followers than our Dean and Hodge the cat combined
Now, while I do have a soft spot for Angelina, my curiosity was prompted by the fact that she had joined Instagram to publicise a handwritten letter that had been sent to her from a teenage girl in Afghanistan. Both the writing and the English are painstaking, and the girl speaks of her fear that she will no longer be able to go to school; she writes ‘we think all our dreams are gone… the life of all of us is dark’.
The life of us all is dark. This is truer than she intended. Because while this child’s life is dark, then surely our lives are dark too.
So, like the child in Jesus’ arms in our Gospel passage, by the grace of the Holy Spirit this Afghan child has been put in our midst, here, today. I wondered how our readings would sound and feel in light of her presence? So I went back and read them with this in mind, and was initially uncomfortable with what I found.
In our passage from Wisdom the words of the ‘ungodly’, those who are against God, could easily pass for our own attitudes when considering the Taliban, and their religious strictness and confidence; listen to what is said about the ‘Godly’: ‘he reproaches us for sins against the law… he professes to have knowledge of God… his manner of life is unlike that of others, and his ways are strange.’ Hang on: I thought we were the good guys, the righteous ones?
Let’s see if the passage from the letter of James can help: we read that we need to be ‘peaceable, gentle and willing to yield’ if we are to display Godly wisdom. But what good is gentility and a willingness to yield when we are in the – albeit imaginary – company of this young girl? When the fight for justice and freedom and life is real, and urgent, and not just in a far-away country with an alien regime, but here, in our country, in our communities, in our Church?
I realize I’ve been highly selective in my quotes here, but it seems to me that interpretation of any holy writings is tricky, not least because they often contain a combination of nuance and stridency which can validate almost any position we wish to defend. It’s not just the more conservative religious that use scripture this way – we all like to justify our actions and beliefs through the word of God wherever possible, to show that we’re better, we’ve got it right, we’re closer to God: much like the bickering disciples in our Gospel passage.
Jesus silences them – as he silences us this morning – by taking a child into his arms. In doing so, he reminds us that truth is not to be found in arguing but in being close to him. This, he says, this child, the very least of you all, is closest to me. This is who you should treat as precious, this is what should care about, and in doing so you show you love me.
So the teenage girl in the midst of us, who fears her dreams have disappeared, is surely the least in the eyes of our world – or, at least, in her world, with no choice or control over her education, her future, or even her body. I have no doubt whatsoever that she – and those like her – are the greatest in the kingdom of God. These are the least, yet the greatest, who demand our attention.
Our attention, not our pity. These girls and women might be portrayed as powerless, faceless, nameless figures, but one of them wrote a letter to a celebrity. Many of them are risking terrible punishments and even death to keep a flame of creativity and sense of self alive.
Most of you here know I love a poem. So you won’t be surprised that I was particularly moved and inspired when I read about the poetry of these women.
The Landay is an Afghan folk poem. It has only 22 syllables: nine in the first sentence, 13 in the second, and must be about one of five subjects: love, war, homeland, separation, or grief. Although the Afghan literary tradition is highly revered, under Taliban rule poetry – like music – is banned with very few exceptions. And so the landay has been forced into a poetry subculture mostly populated by women.
They are meant to be sung or recited, though this usually takes place in secret, as by displaying emotion and free will through the poems, those 22 syllables can be very dangerous indeed. But the landay’s brevity make them easy to memorise and pass on. As such, they belong to no one so it is harder to be punished for creating them; and as they are memorised and recited, they cannot be ripped up, burned, destroyed – though, of course, the women who write them can be.
They are often sarcastic, bawdy, angry, and sometimes the only form of creative expression possible for these women who are, yet again, being deprived of freedom and the power to make any decisions about their education, relationships, or future. These women, like the young girl in the midst of us today, do not deserve our pity, but our admiration. And they need our prayer and any practical help we might be able to offer.
As James writes, ‘Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you’. But we need to understand that in our drawing near, we join those already in his close embrace, the child in our Gospel passage, the Afghan girl here among us today, all those in our world, city, church who have been dismissed and diminished.
We have only to behold the cross to know the cost of love; that peace and justice and freedom are hard-won. This is the pattern we are called to follow. The least in the kingdoms of the world are the greatest in the kingdom of God. It is hard – and unpalatable – to comprehend. We do not often seek to understand this more deeply, because it can be so offensive and inconvenient to us.
But it is lazy to only defend the rights of those who are like us, or who fit with our personal and communal agenda, or who are far away enough to make our pity manageable for our delicate sensibilities. We need to struggle, and think and pray hard, and try, try, and try again to remain open to the voice of the Spirit amidst our prejudice, ignorance, and self-concern. To draw closer to Jesus by drawing closer to those he already cherishes.
While this child’s life is dark, then surely our lives are dark too. Yes, we are called to gentleness, and a willingness to yield – but it is a gentleness towards the least, the dispossessed; and a yielding to the call of Jesus to take deep into ourself the truth that we are all connected, all responsible, all called to bring about his kingdom where everyone lives in the light of love.
While this child’s life is dark, when any of our sisters’ and brothers’ live in the darkness of poverty, neglect, isolation, and oppression then surely our lives are dark too. This is not about charity, or Christian concern. This is a Godly imperative, and affects the very state of our souls.
Unfortunately, there is plenty of opportunity – far too much opportunity – to show compassion and hospitality to those who aren’t like us. Let us seek out these chances to draw near to Jesus where we can; let us, like Jesus, take the child, the least, into our arms so that their darkness – and ours – might be overcome.