Love and Order: Rethinking Everything

I recently offered this reflection as part of an online retreat at Trinity, Fort Wayne, All Shall Be Well: Hope for Hard Times with Julian of Norwich. Julian’s text, Revelations of Divine Love, is one of the classics of Christian mysticism.

We are coming up on almost a year of a shared experience of disruption and disorder. In the past 10 months or so, we’ve had to adapt in major ways to the conditions around us—the pandemic, of course, being the factor that has altered our daily lives in the most obvious ways, though it is certainly not the only challenge we’ve had to face. 

I’ve had conversations with so many people over the past year, including some of you, about how hard these times feel for so many of us, and the sense of loss that many of us are experiencing. We even devoted a whole retreat last summer to the theme of Lament in Christian life, as we struggle to figure out how our shared sense of loss fits into our relationship with God.

But today we’re talking about hope, the kind of hope that survives hard times—not a vague type of hope, not the sort that ignores the bad stuff or glosses it over, but the kind of hope that acknowledges it, doesn’t try to candy-coat it, and yet persists in look for something deeper, more real, than whatever our present circumstances might be.

For Julian of Norwich, that hope was founded upon a vision of God’s enduring, undying, all-pervading LOVE, something that she witnessed and engaged with firsthand in her mystical visions of Christ. At the every end of her text, she writes,

“You would know our Lord’s meaning in this thing? Know it well. Love was his meaning. Who showed it you? Love. What did he show you? Love. Why did he show it? For love. Hold onto this and you will know and understand love more and more. But you will not know or learn anything else—ever!”

Julian discovered that it is love, more than anything else, that characterizes WHO God is (identity), HOW God acts (methodology) and WHY God does so (purpose).  And from that, we might conclude that love is also OUR identity, our methodology, and our purpose for being–we who have been made in God’s image. It is, in the end, all that there is to know about being human. 

This isn’t something Julian pulled out of thin air, of course—Scripture attests to it in many ways. Consider 1 John:

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God…No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

But I will admit that we might talk about God’s love and God AS love so often that we’ve dulled the impact a bit. We might have lost a sense of what a radical statment this actually is, the claim that love—not political power, not personal control, not wealth, not ritual purity, nor anything else but LOVE—is the fundamental reality from which everything else grows and finds its significance. 

Because we might SAY that love matters a lot to us—at church, in our families, among friends—but do we actually relate to the circumstances of life in a way that acknowledges love’s primacy over all else? 

Do we center love in our perception of what is happening and what is required of us in any given moment, or do we view it as a derivative of other preconditions, like security or knowledge or success?

If you have ever said to yourself (as I certainly have): “If I can only get this one thing sorted out…if I can only get this one person in my life to agree that I am right…if I can just save enough money, or lose enough weight, or get the right job…and THEN I will have all the capacity in the world to love–to be patient and kind. THEN, I promise, Lord, I will never say another nasty thing, I’ll be compassionate and loving toward everyone I meet…after I get this one thing in order.”

Then we start to realize that perhaps something else in our lives is taking precedence over the mandate of love; the urgency of love. And that perhaps we have been conditioned to think that something else must come first, before love can flourish in our lives. 

And what is that “something else”? I would argue that it is the idea of order.

For a very long time, our culture has taught that God– the kingly ruler–desires order above all else, and that the primary work of Christ is repairing the DISorder that sin has wrought upon our lives. We have built insitutions and regulations and moral inventories to attest to this. And in this schema, we must first participate in God’s vision of order and only THEN we can experience the fullness of God’s love. 

And that might seem well and good and sensible when things are flowing smoothly, when the system functions.

But what about when things go wrong for us and for those around us, as they often tend to do?

Consider this example: a person lives a relatively “normal” and well-ordered life, doing all of the things expected in their cultural context, working hard, maybe raising a family, being a generally conscientous citizen. And then, the bottom drops out. They get sick. They lose their livelihood. Their family falls apart. Their life is in complete disarray. They might wonder why “God has abandoned them” or “how they have offended God” to be punished in such a way. The apparent disorder of their life suggests to them that God is far from them.

But is this true? Is God only present to those with well-ordered lives, or is there something more profound, something deeper even than this, that bonds us to the Divine Life? 

Lady Julian would tell us, yes, there is something deeper than God’s sense of order—and it is  his love. Her claim is that God’s love underlies everything, it sustains everything, and thus it cannot be taken away or made inaccessible, even and especially in those moments when the circumstances of life all seem to be going wrong. 

Her famous statement that “all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well,” which Jesus says to her in her vision, is not a platitude, but a bold assertion that God’s love will continue to find a way, even amid the most hopeless, disordered situations—and that nothing, not even death and suffering, not even the devil himself, can inhibit God’s love for us or frustrate God’s plan to reconcile all things in that love.

Julian looks at the world, and at herself, and she is under no illusion about the realities of brokenness. She is fully aware that there is disorder, disease, death, and sin. And yet, the fundamental thrust of her visions is that everything is going to be OK, becasue underneath all of that apparent disorder, there is God’s love, which WILL NOT FAIL. God’s love keeps coming up through the cracks, like a weed-flower that refuses to die.

And thus, for her, it is love, not order, which is the lens through which we should view and assess EVERYTHING and EVERYONE, including ourselves. Rather than wonder: how high do I rank, how well do I fit, how far have I fallen, we must ask, instead, how deeply have I loved? How freely have I forgiven? How gently, how heartfully have I trod the tender, ravaged places of the earth?

Those places are everywhere. We’re in a moment where we, like the person in our earlier example, might be feeling a great sense of loss, frustration, or isolation. All the plans we might have had are upended, suspended, or ruined. But rather than see this disorder as a punishment or even as an impediment to our relationship with God, we might instead hunt through the rubble of our great expectations and figure out where love is springing up like that hopeful weed and then tend to it, letting it carpet the bruised soil, growing a garden in the ruins.

Because the miraculous thing is that love can ALWAYS be found unfurling itself, can always be sown and nurtured, in even the most dire circumstances, even in the seasons of our deepest disappointment, even when order is fractured. For order, as we have seen of late, is a fragile thing, but love…love is tenacious. It cannot die, because it is the essence of life. It is God’s very self. And it is everywhere, always.

“The fullness of joy is to see God in all things,” Julian writes. Once we lay claim to love as the fundamental nature of who God is (and who we are) then we realize that such joy can never be taken away, because it is dependent on no outer circumstance. It is pure gift, given and received, in the ordered times and the messy ones—always present, always ours.

If you take nothing else away from this reflection, I hope you will hear this: God doesn’t need you to be fully in order, in order to love you. God doesn’t need your house to be fully in order before he comes to abide with you, to work with and in and through you. God is reaching out to you, an unfurling tendril, even at this very moment, even in these hard times, longing to love you, because love is the point of contact between all that He is and all that He has made.

Love is his meaning. And ours. And, as it was for Lady Julian, that is the cause for much joy, and for much hope. 

Called Out: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on January 3, 2020 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23, the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt.

“Out of Egypt I have called my son.” This line of scripture, quoted in Matthew’s gospel, is originally found in Hosea Chapter 11: 

When Israel was a child, I loved him,

and out of Egypt I called my son.

The more I called them,

the more they went from me.

There is deep pathos here, a bit of God’s own lament: why do you run from me, beloved children, why do you run towards your own pain when I have called you out of it? 

I have called you out of bondage. Out of fear. Out of hopelessness. Out of mortal danger. Out of disillusionment. Out of Egypt, God says, I have called you, and though you turn away, I will keep doing so, I will keep calling. I will make a way for you, a way back, a way back to the life that I promised you from the very beginning, a way that that cannot be hindered by anyone or anything, including yourself, because my Word is eternal and my purposes, my plans for you are sound. 

Out of Egypt I have called my child, my beloved—and out of that place I will continue to call you, again, and again and again. Will you not follow where I call?

The flight of the Holy Family into Egypt is an unusual story in many ways, leaving us with all sorts of unanswered questions. Why, for example, does only Matthew write about it? What happened to Mary and Joseph and the Christ child during their exile there? And why Egypt, of all places? 

Some of these things we will never know for certain; but to this final question—why Egypt?—we might look closely at that quote from Hosea and begin to imagine an answer. 

To do so, we must remember the significance of the land of Egypt in the theological imagination of the ancient Israelites: it was there that their ancestors lived in slavery under Pharaoh, and from there that they were delivered by God in the Exodus account, through the Red Sea, towards the promised land—a seminal event in Israel’s self-understanding as God’s chosen people. 

Thus the God who once liberated them from Egypt, from the despair of their subjugation, was the same God who could be counted upon to deliver them from later calamities and desolations. This abiding trust is, in many ways, the through-line of the Hebrew scriptures.

And so when Matthew quotes the prophet Hosea here, saying “Out of Egypt I have called my son,” he is referring to the calling, the liberation of Israel as a whole, as a people, not just a son in the singular sense. 

The infant Jesus, in his journey to Egypt and back again, is not just an individual on a chance adventure, but is, in this dangerous sojourn, recapitulating his people’s original Exodus—into exile and back—demonstrating, yet again, in fullness, that the God of Israel is a God of ongoing deliverance, a God of promises made and kept. 

The difference this time, however, is that God is now traversing this wilderness path not by pillar of cloud and fire as before, but as a refugee himself, a victim of circumstance and history. He is, in a sense, experiencing what it feels like to also be the one delivered from danger, not just the deliverer, as if his love could not be complete without immersing himself in the precariousness of our condition.

How remarkable that God would so desire to be in solidarity with us, with our own forms of captivity, our own dangers and trials, our own wandering through this life, that he would take part in it, that he would subit to this most vulnerable pilgrimage of all—into our mortality, into our longing, into a literal and proverbial Egypt, that place which, in the language of Scripture, symbolizes the sum of all fears. And then, crucially, back again, back out of Egypt, back home, back to the land and the life that holds all promise. 

This is a pattern that will be repeated throughout Jesus’ life, this venturing into and out of the hard, lonely places—into the desert to be tempted, and back again; into the despair of Gethsemane, and back again; and, of course, the journey to the tomb, and back again. 

Each one, though ascending in intensity and clarity, is part of the same pattern, just like this flight of the Holy Family: it is a refrain in the song that God is singing, has always been singing to creation—that even when you are brought down, deep down into the places where you do not want to go, you will be called back—you will be guided back, because out of Egypt have I called my child and I am the God who never stops calling, not til every last one of you has been delivered from your despair, til every last one has been brought home.

And as we look at the patterns of our lives, we will likely have our own stories of exile and return. You might even feel like you’re in the middle of one right now.

So it bears asking yourself: where, or what, is “Egypt” for you, now? Where is it in your own life that you fear to go? What is the landscape of your deepest regret? 

If we have learned anything this past year, it is that sometimes we are forced to journey through these hard places, much as we would prefer otherwise—life has a way of leading us onto the wilderness road, one way or another, both as individuals, as communities, and as nations. 

As Jesus says shortly before his death, “you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” The Cross will become his final journey “into Egypt,” but it is also a journey that waits for those of us who follow him.

But here is the part we must not forget: whatever it is that we are facing, alone or together, whatever our own cross—our own Egypt—consists of, we have to remember that the story doesn’t end there—it never has, and it never will, because it is “OUT of Egypt have I called my son.” Not in. OUT. 

The brokenness of our lives and of the world around us sends us into Egypt. But God, God is calling us back—back through our struggles, back out of whatever frightens us, back to joy, back to hope, back to the place where we are known and loved. God is, and always has been, the presence, the power, the Person who will guide us out of death and into abundant, true life. 

That’s what we must hold onto in this story, and in our own story: Egypt is not our home. Death and despair are not our inheritance. We are the sons and daughters and children of God and we are called OUT of the lie that life is merey hopeless and cruel. We have been given news about the ultimate truth, the final composition of all things, and it is GOOD news. No matter how rocky the path, no matter how long the journey, you and I are destined for home.

Out of Egypt have I called my son. Out of Egypt have I called you.

Will you not come?