SERMON 8 MAY 2016
I have to confess I have a problem. I’m sure I have several, but I have one related to today in particular. It’s not that my son asked if he could take me out for lunch next weekend rather than on this busy day. Rather it is about what we are doing with Mothers’ Day. It really has nothing to do with the church and a lot to do with commercialism. One of the mothers at Little Kickers here on Tuesday described it as Hallmark Day because they must make a lot of money from the sale of Mothers’ Day cards. All those women who are each the best mother in the world!
I don’t have any problem with there being a special day when the hard work of motherhood is acknowledged and people who are often taken for granted are openly appreciated. I enjoy it myself and treasure cards made by my children when they were little and not so little too. I do have a problem when the pain and difficultly that goes hand in hand with this celebration is ignored. All this hype can reopen old sadness and grief for those who would have loved to have been mothers and are not; those who have lost children or are separated from them by rifts that they are powerless to heal; those who grieve for their own mothers. And of course Mothers’ Day is something that comes from this “First World” (to use a bad term) and is so far removed from that of millions of mothers who struggle to hold their families together, to feed and clothe them, to keep them safe and well in countries far from here, and, it has to be said, in this country also. These things and more I hope we may have encapsulated in our prayer earlier.
If we were Catholics we would be much more aware of the role model of Mary, Jesus’ mother, who, right from the start knew that this child would not belong to her and that she would suffer much grief as his mother. She accepted this role with great humility. She was able to voice her praise of God who, through her son, would demonstrate God’s purpose by raising up the lowly and bringing down the proud, even if it cost him his life.
So somehow, it seems to me, the way we recognise Mothers’ Day in the church should connect with this understanding of the upside-down Kingdom through the kind of community we are and try to become: one that values and appreciates each person; that supports those who quietly carry hurts and losses; that appreciates those who selflessly give of their time; that looks more to what God’s purpose might be for us all, than at what we feel we want as individuals.
This is the kind of oneness of purpose that John writes of in his gospel. These verses from chapter 17 are the ending of the chapters that contain Jesus’ last words to his disciples. They are the conclusion of what is called “The Great Prayer” that Jesus makes. It shows his concerns and his love for his disciples, these people who were his close friends. It also shows his concern for those who will come afterwards, who will believe in Jesus through his disciples. He wants all to know and share in the oneness he himself knows in God, in the relationship he has with God as Father and he as Son. He wants them, and so us, to know what such love is like, a love that will draw them into seeing the glory of God which he himself shows. It is such an amazing prayer, such a huge concept and we can rush over the words too quickly.
I could preach a sermon based on exploring the complexities of what unity and oneness can mean when we clearly do not have that, but I am not going to, because there are other layers of response that are just as important. I have often wondered what this passage and those around it might mean for those who have not grown up within the Christian faith. On Tuesday at my lectionary reading group in Parramatta one of the people there is one such person. She comes because she works at Parramatta Mission. We tell her how to find the relevant book in the Bible. She said how wonderful she thought these verses were. They indeed made sense to her. She works closely with the homeless and mentally ill. She knows about love and its power to transform and she found something deep in these words. Words about love that existed before the foundation of the world. And then “Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you loved me may be in them, and I in them”. Love is made known and with it Jesus’ presence. It is made known in many ways and we discover it still as we look at Jesus. The last words were about love. The verse that follows those great, hopeful statements starts with “After Jesus had spoken these words he went out with his disciples across the Kidron valley to a place where there was a garden…” The end was fast approaching.
So now, in this last week of the Easter season, we may think back on all those events of Easter and all that happened since as Jesus made himself known to his disciples, bringing them peace and release from guilt and shame; teaching them and calling them to live in love. Wednesday was Ascension Day. It is often passed by with not much thought. Maybe because we don’t quite know how to explain it. Maybe also because the readings about the Ascension are not set down for the closest Sunday but on the day itself, which, this year was Wednesday, because Ascension Day is 40 days after Easter. I have drawn on the reading from Acts that the lectionary has for last Wednesday. I am using it because I don’t think we can just pass it by. It is important. It’s not that we are to be left thinking about paintings that have images of Jesus levitating up into the clouds towards heaven “up there”. We should think about it because it was important that Jesus did leave. He had appeared to his astonished disciples often enough after the Easter events that his presence could almost be expected, anywhere, anytime. They had come to rely on him, perhaps, to keep them right, to tell them what to do next. But that is not how they were to grow, to come to spread the message of God’s love and to live out the example of life lived within God’s grace and mercy. Jesus had done all he could to prepare them and had promised them that he would not leave them alone and helpless. He would send the Holy Spirit to empower them. And next week we come to Pentecost the story of that event that changed everything again. But first, he had to leave, to return to God from whence he came.
Any mother, any father, in a healthy relationship with their children, knows from an early stage that these children are individuals who need to learn to become independent. It can be hard to let go, to allow them to make mistakes, to watch them get hurt and mend again. It can be a hard learning and to resist stepping in and trying to control can be equally hard. Mostly we want to go on trying to make things better, and there is no harm in that when the independence remains. The disciples had to learn to be separate from Jesus on whom they had depended so heavily. Even at this late stage it seems that they hadn’t quite understood the nature of God’s Kingdom: “Are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” They would come to understand.
So Jesus disappeared from their sight and as they were left gazing up into the clouds, two men in white clothes appeared beside them. There are echoes of Easter Sunday here and the Transfiguration. “Why do you stand here looking up into the sky?”. They are given this message to stop looking up and to start looking around instead. There is no good looking up or backwards. They had to move on to whatever the next stage of life would bring them. They went back to Jerusalem, as Jesus had told them to, to wait. And they did. They went back to the upstairs room where they had been staying, and waited. They had no idea what would happen next.
So this little community of faith made its first few steps in faith on their own. They were at the very beginning of what is described as “the middle time”, the time between Jesus earthly life and his promised return. Of course, at the time, they expected him to come back soon, just as Paul did later. That timescale got pushed further and further back, and here we are 2,000 years later, still in this middle time. There have been many predictions and some sad events around supposed second comings. But Jesus always focussed his disciples on the way they were to live, as we have seen in John’s gospel. And that is no less true for us today. We are still those who are called on to demonstrate love to the world around us so that people may get a glimpse of God.
Our lives, our world, have come a long way since those days. Christianity has evolved in different forms, has nurtured great things through lives lived in love and has acted in terrible ways when distorted by the ever present temptations of power, greed and money. Today we live in an environment that may seem not to care, or to be downright antagonistic. But I think it has ever been thus. We live in a world of many faiths as well as none and unfortunately that can create tension and hostility when people feel threatened and don’t begin to understand. We live in a world where there are many different lifestyle options, where debates over sexuality issues and complex ethical dilemmas can leave the Churches divided and judgemental of each other and those around them. Yet all we have heard today is about the call to live in love and in unity.
We can’t change the world around us. We can only live as faithfully together in love as we can and to be the community of faith we are called to be. There is always a sense in which we have to wait on God’s leading, to wait for the Spirit’s empowerment. In this middle time, we are to seek the face of Jesus not by looking up into the sky but by seeing him in one another, in those we share our lives with and those we meet.
So we are called to be a community that celebrates each one, mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends, and just as importantly, if not more so, the stranger, the foreigner, the outcast and the lonely, the sick and the troubled, the weary and the sad. Without being such, we lose sight of Jesus again.