A sermon for Ascensiontide and Mother's Day

Seventh Sunday of Easter 2016 RCL Proper John 17:20-26 Jonathan Weldon, preacher

As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe believe that you sent me.”

Last week I sat transfixed for two hours viewing Wim Wender's film “Salt of the Earth, “ featuring the transcendant art of Brazilian photographer Sebastio Salgado.

I cite as unforgettable one image. Amid the squalor and death of a camp housing refugees from Rwanda's genocide in the mid-1990's Mr. Salgado captured the image of a child sitting on the outstretched legs of a mother, rapt in attention to the mother's face, totally trusting.

The scene of this mother and child brought to my mind words from poet Wendell Berry:

So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.

Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?1

Today in popular culture it is Mother's Day, of course. It is in liturgical time the Seventh Sunday of Easter, the Sunday after the Feast of the Ascension. Ascension is that major feast of the Church year which is celebrated on a weekday and thus gets little attention in the church. But it's an important feast, because it celebrates a central mystery of Christianity, which is that the humble and suffering Christ now is seated at the right hand of God. Ascension's mystery is that love rules, that love wins in the deepest and the highest places where the decisions really count. Thus to know God we come to know God as suffering love in the midst of the world. It's an affirmation that isn't easy to make, and it's one many in the world would scoff at, but it's an affirmation all Christians are called to make, and to live accordingly.

So I return to that image given to us by Mr. Salgado of the child sitting on the mother's lap with starvation and death all around.

In my mind Salgado's image is next to that of a pregnant woman I met in a refugee camp last year in Iraq. In my mind Salgado's image is next to that of a memory of a young couple caring for their newborn in temporary shelter. In my mind, Salgado's image is next to the image of a mother and three daughters and her husband and a son who are Yazidis, who fled to the refuge of a Christian village from what would have been certain death or even worse in nearby ISIS-controlled areas.

In my mind are images of Christians I met in nearby Turkey, oppressed and being driven out of their own native lands where Christian faith has been practiced since the time of the apostles.

So many are in flight, and in so many places there is a growing resistance to efforts to welcome them. In Europe, anti-immigrant political pressure is mounting, and leaders are beleaguered.

And in my own country, a great many are restless and angry. Our social contract is frayed; many distrust our leaders and institutions. Many feel left behind in terms of the American dream. Into such a situation many are receptive to the invitation to find someone to blame; to find a group of people we are urged to see as a threat, be they from south of our border, or our neighbors of the Islamic faith. We are faced with naked appeals to dehumanize whole groups of people based on the actions of some people. Next comes demonization of those people, and what follows in this pattern is the destruction of those people.

I remember after my return having a conversation with a man whose life is dedicated to helping refugees resettle in Washington State. If within all nations we were to follow the temptation to turn against one another and dehumanize and demonize groups of people, he asked, where will refugees be able to find a home?

I was born not long after a period of time in which the terrible atrocities visited on Jews were uncovered in a highly educated country of Western Europe, and my parents lived through that period. At nineteen years old I visited the site of Dachau concentration camp. It frightens me to know that according to a recent global survey, only 54% of respondents knew that the Holocaust happened.2 “Never forget” is the watchword of Holocaust history, and now we're seeming to forget. That's ominous.

Are we living in the prelude to such times? I have hope that we aren't, but it pays to be aware of what can come when demagoguery is rewarded. We forget such times at our peril. What is in store, and how will are we as Christians responding, and how would we respond in the face of a rise of fascist power that victimizes whole segments of the population? In 1930's Europe, the churches as a whole were largely silent as a genocidal ideology of antisemitic hate took over power. A Confessing movement in the church took form under the leadership of brave pastors like Martin Niemoller3 and Dietrich Bonhoeffer4. The Catholic Church had it's saints too, like Maximilian Kolbe.5 It is sobering to consider how few stood against the tide.

If – as the mystery of Christ's ascension affirms – the suffering and wounded and now risen and glorified Christ now sits at the right hand of God, there is in my mind no way for Christians to avoid the challenge of Mr. Berry's poem, which I here repeat:

Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?

I wonder these days at what may be required of us Christians if the forces of hatred and division get the upper hand among us. I wonder how our commitment to Christ may be tested. I wonder if we're about to find out just how committed we are to be the disciples of Christ, and not merely admirers. As a priest, I wonder: what sacrifices may I be required to make for the sake of Christ?

We just heard Jesus praying for us. Here's more of what he prayed:

“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”

What was between the Father and the Son was a shared love for the world, a love that didn't shrink from suffering for us.

And God is asking us to take the path of love. God is asking us to believe in a different story than the story of hatred and division. God is asking us to live by Jesus' story.

Not long ago I sat in a diverse crowd of community members at Francis Place for the blessing of that wonderful facility to house and support previously homeless people. The crowd represented both major political parties and an array of community groups and representatives of various church and government organizations.

It was such a blessing to see how people committed to doing good could come together, despite resistance, to create something beautiful and of service. That morning gave me hope; tangible hope. That morning refreshed my vision of what can happen among us when we respect the dignity and freedom of every human being.

This is the vision of Christian faith, and here it is through the words of one of our great mystics and visionaries, Dom Bede Griffiths, a Christian monk who lived in India and was a careful student of the religious traditions around him:

Love is invisible, but it is the most powerful force in human nature. Jesus spoke of the Spirit which he would send as Truth but also as Love. “If anyone loves me, my Father will love him and we will come to him and make our abode with him.” This is the love, the prema and bhakti, which was proclaimed in the Bhagavad Gita, the compassion (karuna) of Buddha, the rapturous love of the Sufi saints.

Ultimately a religion is tested by its capacity to waken love in its followers, and, what is perhaps more difficult, to extend that love to all humanity. In the past religions have tended to confine their love to their own followers, but always there has been a movement to break through these barriers and attain to a universal love.6

Let us pray:

O God,we thank you that you have showed us your loving heart in the person of Jesus your Son. Thank you for the invitation by your Spirit to have that same love abide in us. Have your way with us. Make in us your home, for the sake of the world you love and for which your Son gave his life. Amen.

1Wendell Berry, Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front. http://www.journeywithjesus.net/PoemsAndPrayers/Wendell_Berry_Manifesto.shtml

2 http://global100.adl.org/public/ADL-Global-100-Executive-Summary.pdf#page=11

3https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10007391

4https://www.ushmm.org/information/exhibitions/online-features/special-focus/dietrich-bonhoeffer

5http://auschwitz.dk/Kolbe.htm

6-Bede Griffiths 1906-1993 Universal Wisdom quoted from Pathways to Peace http://www.edgeofenclosure.org/easter7c.html

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/humanitys-spirit-and-cruelty-in-focus/article26454376/