God the Caregiver – January 13, 2018

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Sermon Preached by the Reverend Peter Thompson
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
First Sunday After the Epiphany
January 13, 2018

Isaiah 43:1-7; Acts 8:14-17

Let us pray.
Take our lives and let them be
consecrated, Lord, to Thee;
take our moments and our days,
let them flow in ceaseless praise.

The psychologist Mary Ainsworth famously studied the relationships between children and their caregivers through a procedure she called the strange situation. In the strange situation, children are monitored as they are separated from and then reunited with their caregivers. Do children cry when their caregivers leave? Are children soothed when their caregivers return? How children respond to the presence and absence of their caregivers tells researchers a lot about their attachment style, about the way in which they relate to and interact with those who are most important to them.

Informed by the theories of her colleague John Bowlby, Ainsworth discovered three distinct attachment styles in the children she observed. The majority of children cried when their caregivers left the room and then were reassured when their caregivers returned. They seemed to feel comfortable in their caregivers’ presence and relied on their caregivers as “secure base” from which they could explore their surroundings. Ainsworth classified them as “securely” attached.  Another group of children, however, was described as having an “anxious-avoidant” attachment style. These children did not cry when their caregivers left the room and did not approach their caregivers when their caregivers returned. They did not seem to care about whether their caregiver was with them or not. Meanwhile, children thought to have an “anxious-ambivalent” attachment style cried when their caregivers departed but were not calmed when their caregivers returned. They lamented the loss of their caregivers but became so distraught that their caregivers could not comfort them once they were reunited. Some of Ainsworth’s colleagues also noted a fourth, “disorganized” attachment style. Children who were “disorganized” in their attachment to their caregivers were often the victims of abuse or trauma. They reacted to the strange situation in puzzling and disturbing ways, becoming overwhelmed with confusion or lashing out in anger, even after reunification with their caregivers.

Over the years in which they studied attachment styles, Ainsworth—and the scholars who followed in her footsteps—saw that the way in which an individual as a child responded to their caregiver was closely correlated with how that same individual as an adult interacted with their loved ones, operated professionally, and thought about themselves. Those children who were securely attached to their caregivers at a young age were poised for success and well-being for the rest of their lives. Those children who exhibited the “anxious-avoidant” or “anxious-ambivalent” attachment styles—and especially those children who exhibited the “disorganized” attachment style—experienced far more difficulty when it came to their relationships, their work, and their mental health. Early childhood attachment styles were not entirely predictive—it was possible for children who were not securely attached to their caregivers to thrive as adults and it was also possible for children who were securely attached to their caregivers to struggle as adults–-but early childhood attachment styles nonetheless appeared to have a huge impact on how adults lived their lives. Our romantic prowess, our occupational abilities, and our sense of self-worth all flow from how we got along with our caregivers when we were children. It matters that children can securely rely on their caregivers; it matters that children know that they are loved.

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus hears a loud voice from heaven say, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Importantly, this declaration occurs right at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry—before Jesus has accomplished almost anything besides being born. God is pleased with Jesus simply because of who he is—no strings, no requirements. God’s love for Jesus is unconditional. Jesus’ attachment with his caregiver is secure.

And if Jesus, like his Parent, is God, secure attachment and unconditional love are central to God’s identity. You can’t understand God without appreciating the importance of safe and caring relationship. You can’t emulate God unless you participate in safe and caring relationship as well, unless you love others without regard to who they are or how they make you feel or what they’ve done and unless you are willing to receive that love too, for remember that Jesus the Beloved is God just as much as Jesus’ Parent, the Lover. Unconditional love—both given and received—is the glue that binds the Trinity together and it’s the glue that can bind us together too.

But for us loving unconditionally is a tremendous struggle. We get frustrated or annoyed; we push back against disagreement or difference; we refuse to overlook or forgive. It is easy to love when love produces the results that we want, when it makes us feel good about ourselves and gives us everything we need. It is more difficult to love when love does not produce what we desire, when it only empties us and never replenishes our reserves. To love unconditionally, often, is to commit to the love the unlovable, to be well pleased by the unpleasant. This is a task typically outside the bounds of even the most idealistic among us.

And so we fail one another. We disappoint the child, the parent, the lover, the stranger, the friend. When others look in our direction for care and comfort, we find ourselves lacking. When others lend us a listening ear or a helping hand, we turn them away. All of us—even those of us who are “securely” attached—have a breaking point at which, at least for a time, love simply isn’t possible. The hurt stings too much; the burden is too large; we have too many other responsibilities. It’s not that we don’t want to love; we just can’t do it.

Yet God is capable of what we are not. We try as we might, but true unconditional love is the province of God alone. Augustine writes that our hearts are restless until they rest in God. Maybe our hearts are so restless apart from God because only God is capable of loving us as deeply and unconditionally as we deserve. Perhaps as children we shed tears when our caregivers leave the room not only because we are sad that the person we love is leaving us but also because the acuteness of that loss triggers within us a deep, innate longing for an even greater connection—a longing that only God can assuage.

In two weeks, I will be saying goodbye to you all and to this holy and beautiful place. And just yesterday Nicholas, our Rector, announced that in four and a half months, he will be leaving as well. These separations will be difficult—for you all and for your “fathers,” your caregivers, though of course we have been far from perfect and you all have cared just as much for us as we have cared for you. But in the end the true caregiver is not Nicholas or me or you. The true caregiver is—and always has been—God, and God will stick around. “This is,” Nicholas wrote yesterday, “after all, God’s church and God will be in the midst of the new chapter that will be written for this amazing faith community.”

Do not fear, God said through Isaiah so many years ago. I love you. I am with you. You are precious and honored in my sight. 

And so I say to you, St. Paul’s on the Green, do not fear. God loves you. God is with you. You are precious and honored in God’s sight, God’s beloved Child. With you God is well pleased. And God will continue to love you—whatever happens, no matter what.

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