This sermon was given by our Micah Fellow, Tiffany Curtis, on May 12th: the Last Sunday in Easter, Mother's Day, and our last evening service together as a Chaplaincy. The readings for the day can be found here.
Today is a bit of a challenge for me in terms of preaching, because even more than usual, I am tempted to try to cover everything! I am intrigued by the Ascension of Jesus into Heaven, which the church calendar celebrated on Thursday. I am a huge fan of the English mystic Julian of Norwich, whose feast day was Wednesday. As you know, today is Mother’s Day and Bishop Tom and many people from the Diocese of Massachusetts are walked to stand publicly against gun violence in the annual Mother’s Day Walk for Peace in Dorchester this morning. And then there is that peculiar, circular, beautiful gospel reading for today--I in you & you in me & they in me... It’s a lot to cover in one sermon! And probably not wise to try, but I can’t resist. Forgive me, it's my last sermon of the year!
I don’t know if the Ascension means much to you or how you interpret it...I confess that I actually hadn't thought about it at much length before this sermon. It wasn't a theological point that really grabbed my attention, but this week it really struck me.
It says in the Acts reading from Thursday that the disciples asked Christ if it was time for the restoration of God’s Kingdom. And Jesus responds by saying that the timing of God is not for them to know, but “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Then Christ is lifted up out of their sight by a cloud, and two wise figures in white say to the crowd of disciples gathered there, “why do you keep gazing up into heaven?”
By leaving the disciples alone on earth while Christ ascends to heaven, we, as contemporary disciples, receive a charge from Christ. To be witnesses on this earth. Not to pine after heaven or ask when all things will be made right by God. But to practice the power of the Holy Spirit right here in our charge as witnesses, from our own city to the ends of the earth.
But what does a witness do? What is a witness? A witness doesn't just act mindlessly. Nor does a witness just see. Witnesses are neither passive observers nor thoughtless actors. A witness is aware. A witness sees the reality of the world, and with thoughtfulness and compassion acts and testifies in accordance with her values. It is a sacred call that Christ gives us in the Ascension account in Acts--to be witnesses in the world--to choose awareness of reality & not to stay silent, but to speak and to act.
The truth that we know all too well is that we live in a world of brokenness and suffering, and so our sacred call to bear witness to that reality is a powerful and challenging one. It’s not easy to witness suffering, to witness violence. As witnesses, however, we are also called to witness the beauty of this world, the small flashes of compassion and peace that sometimes go unnoticed. We are called to testify to love. In this way, being a witness is a rather maternal call, for all of us...as we are invited into the possibility of observing and acting with a tenderness, justice, and love that is grounded in reality and oneness.
Julian of Norwich, the English mystic who was commemorated this week, lived in a time of disease, violence, and societal upheaval. Millions and millions of people in Europe died during the mid to late 14th century while the plagues raged. Julian witnessed this reality, and undoubtedly suffered because of it, and yet her legacy is one of hope and love and oneness with God. She is famous for the vivid vision she received where Christ came to her and told her, “All will be well, all will be well, and all manner of things, will be well.” Julian also received visions that Christ was our Mother--a somewhat unusual theology at the time and even now. She saw the relationship between Christians and Christ as one of nurture, love, and sacrifice, and Christ literally as our mother, taking on our human nature in what Julian called “the motherhood of grace.” Julian was a witness to the oneness of humanity in Christ's motherly love, in Christ's motherhood of grace.
Taking a cue from Julian of Norwich, let’s look at the readings for this week again: Christ, our Mother, ascends into heaven, and asks us to be her witnesses to the ends of the earth. She asks us to wait, not idly, but actively. While she is in heaven, and we are here on this imperfect earth. The disciples want to know when all will be made right, when Christ will return, and they keep gazing up at the heavens expectantly, probably impatiently, with frustration, sadness, maybe even despair. Their best friend, their brother, teacher, mother, has died unjustly, been mysteriously and miraculously raised from the dead, walked alongside them once more, and now finally leaves again as suddenly as she arose from the grave.
But if Christ is our Mother, and leaves us as her witnesses on this earth, we know that even in our separation from Christ, there is tenderness, nurture and love--there is oneness. It can be discouraging, tragic even, to be a human being. We often long for something better than the realities of this world. We yearn for union with God. There is a temptation to believe that all things will be made right sooner rather than later, or at least to hope. We hear this desire in the reaction of the disciples to the Ascension, and it is also reflected in the reading from Revelation today:
The Spirit and the bride say, "Come."
And let everyone who hears say, "Come."
And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.
The one who testifies to these things says, "Surely I am coming soon."
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!
Come! Come! There is an impatience! Come, let us drink that water of life! Let us be nurtured by the maternal milk that Christ offers us from her breast--the water of abundant life! How can we make that feeling of safety, of love, of comfort & closeness--like a child at her mother’s breast-- a reality in this world of violence and disappointments and broken hearts and empty bellies?
Today’s Mother's Day Walk for Peace in Dorchester is one beautiful example. Not because the walk itself is going to end gun violence in our city. Not because any public protests or actions can make decisive, instant change in our society. But our gospel reading for today reveals to us what is powerful about this kind of action: it creates oneness, in the way that the gospel of John describes. Coming together in common cause for good with people with whom we wouldn’t necessarily come together otherwise is undeniably powerful. Jesus says in this passage, “God, I am in you, and you are in me, and as such, the people are in me so that they can know you.” It is through our oneness in Christ's spirit that we have connection to God, that we have union with love, and that we have the possibility of changing the world through our powerful role as witnesses. An action like the Mother’s Day Walk for Peace is a beautiful example of what witness and oneness look like, calling mothers and others into unity in a message of peace: We see our children shot down on our own streets, we witness that truth, and we speak to it--we bear witness & testify together.
As human beings who have had the experience of holding another human being within their bodies, mothers seem particularly aware of the need to care for others, of the lack of separation between individual people--the fundamental unity of humanity. Mothers can relate to what Christ says in the gospel today: “I am in you and you are in me.” Mothers have literally held their children within them. But even for those of us who have never been mothers, or perhaps never will be--by choice, circumstance, biology--we can learn from the power of a mother's witness. The capacity for humans to hold other humans within us is not limited to the physicality of motherhood. By holding one another in love, we become part of a web of connection that binds us to the Holy, and that expands our sense of compassion and justice out beyond our own self-interest. By holding one another in love, we live into our maternal capacity for witness and oneness.
Julian tells us “all will be well, all will be well,” and perhaps her vision could become a reality in this world. Maybe not as quickly as we'd like, but if we all held the people of our communities and families and world a little closer to us, and if we all understood this oneness as a clarion call to courageous compassion--to witness to peace, maybe then all would be well.
This call to witness to peace is not a passive call, but a call to activity. Peace is not the absence of conflict, but the presence of justice. Peace is not gazing up at the sky, focused on heaven. As witnesses and peacemakers we are called to active awareness of the world around us and courage to face it with that fierce maternal love within us all--that love that our Mother Christ gives to us. The power of the Holy Spirit has come upon us and does come upon and will come upon us so that we can be courageous in our witness and our love, from those most intimate to us, to the ends of the Earth! As Christ says today, “so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them." So that the young people who are shot on our streets each and every day may be in us, so that the civilians who are wounded and killed by bombs every day in Afghanistan may be in us, so that the mothers whose milk--whose water of life--is dried within their breasts by hunger every day may be in us--so that Love may call us into witness and oneness. Amen.