This is a sermon for the twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost. The Scripture it references is 1 Thessalonians 4:9-18. During this service, we also incorporated a “thanksgiving for a child.”
In a few minutes, we’re going to do something really special, as two new parents share with us a time of giving thanks for the birth of their son. And it struck me that one of the prayers in the book for an occasion like this, asks God to give parents wisdom, love and patience as they work together to raise their child.
And it struck me because I think we assume that parents’ love for their children is a given. It’s an instinctive, even a bodily thing; all that oxytocin and the hormones of bonding that are so much a part of the biology of having children, all the survival instincts which have kept us alive as a species, all of that. It’d be quite unnatural to not love our children, wouldn’t it? So why would we need to pray that God would give us that love, if it’s already built into who we are?
And yet it’s not just in the prayer book; in the reading we heard today from Paul’s letter to the Christians in Thessalonica, he also starts by acknowledging their love for one another, and then goes on to urge them to love “more and more.” It seems both Paul and the compilers of the prayer book think that human love – even in the most intense and intimate relationships – isn’t a given.
From a Christian point of view, we are created in the image of a God who is love. We are created to love; created for relationships which are mutual, joyful, and hopeful. Created to extend those relationships in networks of social relationships, including parenting. All of this is part of what God made us to be, and what God called good.
But we also know that families, even the very best of them, have their problems. Call it dysfunction, call it neurosis, call it sin, even; but none of us get to adulthood completely unscathed from the moments when our families failed to be what they should have. While I definitely don’t hold to any notions of original sin as a kind of stain on someone’s soul, or anything like that, it perhaps does make sense to realise that each of us is born into a web of relationships which is already less than it should be, and we are shaped by that network of relationships as we grow. Its shortcomings affect our own ability to reach our potential, and, in turn, the relationships we form as adults.
And so each of us approaches parenting with a very mixed bag, as it were. Our deep love for our children, and also our desire not to repeat the mistakes of the past, perhaps to do better, in some ways, as parents than our own parents did. Hopes for our children that they will grow and thrive and embrace their world with curiosity and strength of personality, and fears about all the things that can get in the way of that. It’s a mixed bag that can leave us feeling overwhelmed and more than a bit vulnerable, too.
And in the middle of all of that, someone like St. Paul – who apparently never even had any children – telling us to love “more and more.” So helpful of him.
But this is, I think, the point Paul is trying to make. Even as we carry around our mixed bag of emotions and hopes and fears, we’re not alone with it. We surrounded by layers of support; our own families, with all of their combined wisdom and experience. By our wider community, including the church community, where there are always people to offer practical support and reflect with you on what you’re going through. And ultimately, by God; the same God who created this baby boy to be the incredible unique person he is and will be, and who is so on your side in this parenting journey; wanting this to go as well as it possibly can, and always offering you what you need in any given moment.
I don’t want to sound like I’m sugar-coating the tough times. My daughter is five, and we have had some days where I’ve fantasised about being single and living on my own. In blissful silence and with enough sleep. So I’m really not wanting to pretend that somehow, with God, it all becomes rainbows and unicorns, because we all know that that’s not how it is. But the God who created each of us in love, and to love, gave each of us the capacity to love more deeply than we currently know how, and is always willing to help us discover that deeper capacity.
So I think that’s why we pray that God will give us love, even though we know that love is there already. It’s about deepening and strengthening our capacity to love, and about letting love be the engine room of the creativity and hope that will push through anything unhelpful that we’re carrying.
And even though many of you gathered here today are well past the life stage of raising small children, (if you were ever in it), I don’t think it hurts the wider church community to think about these things. To think about how we support our family members, and the people around us in church who are in the intense stage of early parenting. One of the great strengths of the church is that we are truly multi-generational, with people here in their nineties as well as toddlers; and we have the capacity to be a support network quite unlike anything else most parents will have access to. How we do that – not just one on one, but also how we deliberately plan and work together to do that – is something it would be good for us to think about. Are we doing the best we possibly can for our youngest members? And for their parents? And if not, what would doing better look like?
Paul finishes the instructions that we heard this morning by telling his hearers to “encourage one another.” I hope that for all of you, being able to be here today and share this time with us is an encouragement. But I also hope we can take to heart the need to be intentional about encouraging one another through big life transitions – like becoming parents – because we all need that extended network at its best.