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Sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter, May 8, 2005
Episcopal Church of the Holy Family, Jasper, Georgia
The Rev. Mary P. Johnson
Texts: Acts 1:1-14; 1 Peter 4:12-19; John 17:1-11.
Not only is today the Sunday after the Feast of the Ascension. It is also Mother's Day. And it is coming on the tail end of an adult education offering that introduced us to Julian of Norwich, a mystic of the 14th century. Today would be Dame Julian's feast day if it were a weekday. I think we can consider these three things together and learn something wonderful about God's ways with us, his children.
The easiest place to start is with Mother's Day. We all either are mothers or have had mothers. This is a day set aside to honor our mothers. Last Sunday I was sitting at church in the tiny burg of Alert, Kansas, beside my mother, Grace Peterson, whose 90th birthday we celebrated on the 27th of April. You don't get to be 90 without having a pretty tough and resilient outlook on life. For more than half her life, my mother has been bestowing her wisdom and her philosophy of life lovingly upon her daughters and upon anyone else who will listen. She has some amazing and memorable sayings that I heard her say so many times that I didn't think they were remarkable. I was well into my thirties before I realized that my mother was a punster. When she was feeling under the weather with a cold, she'd sigh and say: "Oh, it's my nose that runs and my feet that smell!"
But she also has some more profound things that she's prone to say:
· "He that hath a thousand friends hath not a friend to spare."
· "The world isn't fair."
· "When you're discouraged, lie down and bleed awhile and then get up and fight."
· God loves you even more than I do, and he has said he will never leave or forsake you.
· Love that is hardened moulds at last until we know, some day, the only things we ever keep are what we give away.
· It's going to get better.
· It's going to be okay (Every mother has a phrase like this-- a "there, there, dear" phrase.)
This amazing amalgam of motherly wisdom carries me through some difficult times. Like all good mothers, her little words of wisdom reminded us that we have roots and wings. She's never been a fan of pity parties or of pessimism. She faces hardship by having a stiff upper lip and by squaring her shoulders in a characteristic way, preparing herself to face life's challenges head-on. These were the principles by which Mom brought us up. Her goal was to raise responsible, competent, independent, and kind children. The jury is out on how well she did her job. (She would not use the past tense; she still believes that there's work to do with her elder daughter, who is herself about to enter her second half-century!)
These principles were perhaps not articulated in explicitly Christian language, but they are Christ-like nonetheless. Today we read scripture lessons from John, Acts and the first letter of Peter. All give us insights on the life of the follower of Jesus Christ in what some theologians have called "the time between the times," or "the already but not yet," that everyday time we live in each day. Jesus has been raised from the dead, but he is no longer walking among us here on earth. There's a sense of incompleteness. One of my professors likened it to the time in Europe between D-Day and VE Day. The tides have turned, it's clear what the outcome of the war will be, but there are still battles to fight, and the war is not over. A beloved Easter hymn says: "The strife is o'er the battle done, the victory of Christ is won." Jesus was raised from the dead. He showed himself to be indisputably alive. He is the first fruit, to use a different metaphor. But the harvest isn't yet all in. (It seems that we can only talk about this sense of incompleteness of our union with Christ in metaphors. We human beings are not just the tool-making animals; we are also the singing animals, the metaphorizing animals, the poetic animals.)
Our task as Christians is to live faithfully in this paradoxical time between the times. Ascensiontide, falling as it does, in our liturgical timetable, between Jesus' departure from earth and his bestowing of the gift of his Spirit, at Pentecost, celebrated ten days after Ascension, is the quintessential liturgical "time between the times." Wisdom for living in this way comes from the readings we have before us today. Jesus says, in the prayer he prayed just before he was betrayed: "Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the son may glorify you, since you have given him authority...to give eternal life to all whom you have given him." My mother, hearing this reading, would nod her head and say: "See? God loves you even more than I do, and he will keep you safe." Jesus continues: "Now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one." Jesus acknowledges that life "in the world" is no picnic. It has its dangers. But that life is not lived without God's loving protection. Life is hard, but God is present, and God has given us the gift of each other--and we are to be, or, perhaps truly are, though we don't know it, one in him. My mother, hearing this reading, would nod her head and say: "Your friends are God's gift. Don't take them for granted. 'He that hath a thousand friends hath not a friend to spare.'"
St. Peter reminds Christians that they can expect life to be challenging and sometimes downright painful. My mother, hearing this reading, would nod her head and say: "The world is not fair." Peter continues: "Rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ's sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed.. .Therefore, let [us] entrust [ourselves] to a faithful Creator, while continuing to do good." My mother, hearing this reading, would nod her head and say: "When you're beaten down, lay down and bleed a while and then get up and fight."
Dame Julian of Norwich lived in the 1300's in England, as an anchoress. Think of a barnacle attached to a boat. Julian lived in a little set of rooms attached to the side of her local church in Norwich. She didn't leave her rooms, but people of all stations of life came to see her and to talk about their Christian journey with her. She listened and shared her insights with them. She had a series of visions one time when she was deathly ill. These visions enabled her to enter more deeply into the sufferings of Jesus which had led to her salvation. The visions, or showings, are remarkable for their insights about the depth and pervasiveness of God's care. In one vision, she saw the whole universe, as it were, in the palm of her hand, and saw both how insignificant it all was compared to God's mighty love. She wrote:
[In the vision] he showed me something small, no bigger than a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand, as it seemed to me, and it was as round as a ball. I looked at it with the eye of my understanding and thought: What can this be? I was amazed that it could last, for I thought that because of its littleness it would suddenly have fallen into nothing. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and always will, because God loves it; and thus everything has being through the love of God.
In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it, the second is that God loves it, the third is that God preserves it.
Dame Julian, like my mother, knows how to share the reassurance she received from her confidence in God. Like my mother, Julian also shared with her spiritual charges one of the loveliest spiritual versions of "there, there, dear" that has ever been spoken. In her vision, Julian was deeply troubled by the sin in her life and the havoc it played in her life and the lives of those around her. "Ah, Good Lord," she prayed, "how could all things be well, because of the great harm which has come through sin to your creatures?" In response, the Lord reassured her that her sin would not impede the operation of his goodness. She came to understand that "our falling does not hinder him in loving us." He said to her:
"I may make all things well, and I can make all things well, and I shall make all things well, and I will make all things well; and you will see yourself that everyt kind of thing will be well."
But, beyond finding the strength to mother those in her spiritual charge, Julian shares the audacious insight that God, and, in particular, God the Son, has maternal qualities. What an amazing metaphor: Christ as our Mother. Julian, following a medieval tradition that was nearly forgotten, sees Christ as mother in that he nurtures, in that he gives himself willingly and lovingly for the wellbeing of the children, and in that he challenges us to become what we are called to be. Julian wrote--and if this makes your eyes glaze over, just join us again when I'm finished quoting:
"The mother can give her child to suck of her milk, but our precious Mother Jesus can feed us with himself, and does, most courteously and most tenderly, with the blessed sacrament, which is the precious food of true life....The kind, loving mother who knows and sees the need of her child guards it very tenderly, as the nature and condition of motherhood will have. And always as the child grows in age and in stature, she acts differently, but she does not change her love. And when it is even older, she allows it to be chastised to destroy its faults, so as to make the child receive virtues and grace. This work, with everything which is lovely and good, our Lord performs in those by whom it is done. So he is our Mother in nature by the operation of grace..., for love... And he wants to have all our love attached to him; and in this I saw that every debt which we owe by God's command to fatherhood and motherhood is fulfilled in truly loving God, which blessed love Christ works in us. And this was revealed ...especially in the great bounteous words when he says: "I am he whom you love."
In a certain respect, nowhere is Christ more maternal than at the time of his ascension. Mothering is about growth and change. Mothers who want to keep treating their children as babies all their lives aren't doing their job. Children who want to keep hanging on to the apron strings are done no favor by a mother who doesn't push them towards a healthier and more mature sort of relationship. Jesus is at his most maternal when he says, as he does in the Acts of the Apostles: "It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 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." Like a good mother, Jesus gives them a task and the tools to do it. Jesus was always doing that. Remember the hungry crowds? Jesus says: "You give them something to eat." The disciples bring the resources they are able to find, and Jesus provides the means for them to do what he's asked them to do. All are fed, and, as it is at Mom's house back home, there's plenty left over. Nobody goes hungry. Now Jesus invites his followers to stretch some more. They can not limit Jesus to a single time and place and the limitations of a human, material body any longer. Much as they'd like to. Jesus, like a good mother--or a good father, for that matter--reminds them that their relationship with him will not end, but change. Their relationship will, in fact, change for the better. They will have a deeper and closer kind of kinship after he departs than they can possibly imagine.
That is the amazing truth of "the time between the times," "the already but not yet" that Ascensiontide represents for us. Dame Julian was shown, by the Spirit of God, a vision of the God who encourages us to grow through the challenges and demands and hardships of our daily life this side of heaven. And one excellent metaphor for life as we live it now, after the Ascension, is a maternal one.
Let those of us who are mothers trust that Christ our Mother will nurture and challenge our children, and surround them, at whatever age they are, with his profound and all-encompassing love. And may we all, mothers and others, turn to him as the source of our strength to meet our own challenges in the coming hours and days.
Julian of Norwich, Showings. New York: Paulist, 1978, p.183.
ibid., p. 238.
ibid., p. 245.
ibid., p. 229.
ibid., pp. 294-5.