In the area where I was born, this particular Sunday in the year is traditionally known as Carlin(g), or Care, Sunday. It includes a centuries old custom of eating meals made of Carlin peas – otherwise known as black, maple, or pigeon peas – warm and nourishing fare for poor communities. Today, though the traditions are slowly dying out, such peas can still be bought in places like the markets in Durham. Where exactly the custom came from depends on whom you ask in the north east of England. Most trace Carling back to at least the British Civil Wars, when the great city of Newcastle upon Tyne was besieged, only to be saved from hunger by ships from overseas carrying black peas – again, depending on whom you ask, from France, or Norway, or somewhere else. The point is that this was about being saved from distressing cares, and also sharing care. To share the poor people’s meal of peas, is thus to share a kind of communion, of salvation, and care. Where then, I wonder, do we find the sources of our care, and share our communion with the poor?...
The story goes that as the goddess Care (Cura) was crossing a river, she thoughtfully picked up some mud and began to fashion a human being. Then the great god Jupiter came along. Care asked him to give the spirit of life to the human being, and Jupiter agreed. Care wanted to name the human after herself, but Jupiter insisted that his name should be given to the human instead. While Care and Jupiter were arguing, Terra (Earth) arose and said that the human being should be named after her, since she had given her own body to it. Finally, all three disputants accepted Saturn as judge. So what did he decide?...
The answer is that Saturn decided that Jupiter, who gave spirit to the human, would take back its soul after death; and since Terra had offered her body to the human, she should receive its body back after death. But, said Saturn, “Since Care first fashioned the human being, let her have and hold it as long as it lives.” Finally, Jupiter said, “Let it be called homo (Latin for human being), since it seems to be made from humus (Latin for earth)”
This story expresses a great tension in the nature of care. As Warren T. Reich put it, in a classic essay: in this myth of origins, care of the human involves at least two aspects: an earthly, bodily, element and a spirit-air element. Traditionally, the earth-body element has been associated with care as worry, and the spirit-air element with care as striving for the divine. However, I’d suggest we might also helpfully turn that around – seeing healthy connection with the earth and body as grounding and sustaining, and unnecessary worry arising from airiness and detachment. Whatever the case, the point is that our cares, and care itself, are of different kinds in our lives and often quite complex. On the one hand, false cares can be destructive. On the other hand, true care is what makes us genuinely human. So it is also in any community which takes divine care seriously. For what, as I asked at the outset, does care mean to us?
As I begin my Sunday morning ministry in this place, I ask this question for three reasons: as people who need to care for ourselves; as people seeking to be care-ful of one another; and as people seeking to learn more deeply from the ultimate example of care through God in Jesus, at the heart of our Gospel reading today and Holy Week to come.…
Firstly, I ask, what does care mean for ourselves? For there are dangers in some traditional uses of today’s Gospel, and of Holy Week to come. When Jesus says, in today’s reading, ‘Those who lose their life gain it, and those who hate their life will keep it’, it can be read as a recipe for mere self-sacrifice. This can be reinforced by expressions about love expending everything, as in the beautiful hymn (one of my favourites) we have just sung. We need to remember however that Jesus never threw his life away, and that we are not God. The great picture of Love described in that hymn – ‘Love’s endeavour, love’s expense’ – is of ultimate, divine Love. It, like Jesus’ own life and death, are to inspire and encourage us. Yet they are not simple blueprints for us. Instead they are encouragements to engage with our own depths, where that divine love may spring forth afresh.
Looking at that hymn the other day, I was struck by how it resonated in my own life. The opening stanza speaks of wonderful beauties – delights of creation, scholars’ truths and so on – I could even imagine being in Oxford again as a young student. However the heart of the hymn, like the heart of life, is much deeper. It is born of the profound wrestlings in our lives, when cares threaten to overwhelm us, or when care for ourselves demands wrenching truths and changes to be faced. This is true care for ourselves – when we acknowledge our deepest needs and hurts, and find both courage and tenderness to face them. This I confess is my story at least – I would not be alive today if I had not found that deep love for myself at the heart of myself and acknowledged that as the source of life, not my or others’ destructive cares. For true care is not about knee-jerk sacrifice but about response to the depths of love, for ourselves, as well as the cares of others. Without caring for ourselves, we cannot care for others. Like Jesus, we have to die to the mere cares and concerns of others if we are to live out of love for all.
Secondly, I ask, what does care mean for us as a community in being care-ful of one another? Again, this, like W.H.Vanstone’s great hymn, is about going deeper than our surface relationships, structures and policies. All of those I am seeking to learn about and understand, and I pray for your patience in that process. Yet even if/when we are all on the same page outwardly, we still need something more. For, however good they are, these can become mere cares, and even burdens, if we do not wrestle more deeply with the depths of love.
Some of you may have noticed, in relation to this, that on the front of our service sheet I have added to the welcome statement. In addition to the generous words of hospitality to all, I have put a supplement – ‘All that we ask for is mutual respect’. I think that is vital, and I hope it may invite further reflection on what we mean by ‘welcome’. For, if we are to exercise true care. are there some expectations we may have, even some boundaries we may need to insist upon? For as teachers of nonviolence affirm, there are two hands of nonviolence – one which indeed may offer ‘welcome’, but the other says ‘stop’ to behaviours and boundary-crossings which are destructive to others. So are there I wonder, as in our personal care, some limits to some welcomes and caring of others if this risks the care and safety of other aspects of our lives together?
For, thirdly, I ask what does care mean in terms of God, and our spiritual journeys? At this week’s funeral of Des’ brother John, attention was drawn to J.R.R.Tolkien’s understanding of death as a gift. This, said Tolkien, was the heart, for example, of the Lord of the Rings – not a struggle about power, but a struggle for being shaped by virtue, as the task into which the reality of death calls us as human beings. In this sense, God in Jesus does not call us to throw away our lives, in subjection to any mere cares or calls of others, or of ourselves. Rather we are invited to share in the work of Love, whose endeavour and expense is so much greater than we can ever achieve, yet by whose grace we are transformed.
In the name of Jesus, the child of Care who brings us new life even in death, Amen.
by Josephine Inkpin, for Lent 5B, Sunday 21 March 2021
at Pitt Street Uniting Church, Sydney.