Sunday, May 8, 2016

The Seventh Sunday of Easter [Year C] - May 8, 2016 (John 17:20-26)

One of the most poignant and truly heart-wrenching scenes I’ve ever run across in literature occurs right near the end of the novel by Richard Llewellyn called How Green Was My Valley when the last of the sons of the large Morgan family leave their dying coal-mining valley in South Wales and say goodbye to their mother. Their future has collapsed there as the mining industry has gone belly-up and a huge slag heap has crept down the mountainside, threatening everyone’s way of life. What used to be so green and full of life is now gray and covered with coal dust. Beth and her husband Gwilym have watched their family’s way of life erode within one generation and their children start looking to other places for better opportunities. By the end of the novel, each son of the Morgan family has reached the conclusion that in order to have a future they must leave the valley. Of course, this is the 1920s and decades before anything like Facetime or Skype. You realize Beth Morgan will likely never see from her sons again, or maybe even hear their voice.

The scene I’m talking about comes right after the last two sons leave when Huw, who is the only son who had the benefit of a school education, attempts to comfort his forlorn mother by getting down an altas and showing her where all her children are. He takes a pencil and draws lines from Wales to each of the places they’ve settled: two in America, one in New Zealand, one in Germany, another in South Africa. She meanwhile sits there, mending socks to distract her grieving mind, and doesn’t even put on her glasses to look at the map her son is placing in front of her. A person who hasn’t really read much and had had no reason to be familiar with maps and atlases Beth says it just looks like he’s drawn a big spider.

“‘One line from us to Owen and Gwil,’ I said, pointing it for her. ‘Down here to Angharad [his sister]. Over there to Ianto, and down by here to Davy and Wyn. You are like the Mother of a star, Mama. From this house, shining all that way across the continents and oceans.’”

‘All that way,’ my mother said. ‘Goodness gracious, boy, how far, then, if they can have it all on a little piece of paper?’

‘Only a map, it is, Beth,’ my father said, and a wink to me to be quiet. ‘A picture, see, to show you where they are.’

‘They are in the house,’ my mother said, flat. ‘And no old pictures, and spiders with a pencil, if you please.’”[1]

I find it heart-breaking ever time I read it, the grief of the mother as strong as her denial as to where they actually are. She has watched her children grow up around her only to see them scatter, the unity of the family she has sacrificed to maintain broken forever. No matter how Huw tries to spin it, she can’t see her heritage like a bright star beaming across the world. It’s an ugly spider crawling across a piece of paper. This is just a scene from a story and yet I know is real and has happened millions of times before throughout time—and still today—as children leave their mothers and fathers and hometowns to stake out a better living elsewhere.

I think of Beth Morgan and all parents and children on a day like this, but not because it’s Mother’s Day, but because it is the Sunday after Jesus’ Ascension, the Seventh Sunday of Easter. I think about families because in the words of our gospel lesson this morning Jesus sounds like a mom who is pleading for the children to stay close to home but knows they won’t and they can’t.

All this time the disciples have lived in a glorious valley—they’ve “grown up” around him, seen him perform marvelous signs and heard his teachings. And he’s cared for them, often like a shepherd. He’s washed their feet, fed them with bread and wine and loaves and fishes. He has prayed for their protection from the Evil One. But now it’s reached a crucial hour and the valley is growing dark. It’s the night before Passover, and Jesus is disengaging a bit, maybe darning socks over in the corner now, losing himself in prayer, almost as if he knows the disciples are going to be scattered, their tight community broken apart.

This, too, is a moving, heart-wrenching scene, for we hear it now not quite as they did then. At the time, they were unsure of what would come—the cross, the death, then the resurrection and the doubting—and so they likely listen in to this conversation with some wonder and pride. Jesus is praying for their future, for the wholeness of their fellowship and community, no matter what lies ahead. They are listening to Jesus pray to the Father on their behalf.

However, now we hear it after all of those things have taken place. Jesus still prays it, and we can’t help but think about the way in which his followership has, in fact, been fragmented. There is some regret when we hear this, as we realize that the last thing Jesus prays to his Father for is for the strength and solidarity of our life together. Such a selfless man! And yet we have often been so selfish, not tending to the unity and cohesion of his life like he prays we will. Jesus’ final words on the night before his death are hopeful and powerful but they should haunt us to some degree especially when we look out at how his followers often treat each other in the world. They should chasten us for the ways in which we have let Christianity be turned into a private, individualized religion.

Discipleship in Christ is about togetherness, about serving as a team, although teams are usually in competition against other teams and Jesus never talks like that. Jesus never pits us against any other group, as if part of our witness is attacking or insulting other faith traditions. But he does speak about how we are to get along with each other and how it will be a critical component of living as one of his own in the world.

Here’s the thing: Jesus doesn’t want us to be one because it’s good for us, although it is. Jesus doesn’t pray for our unity because sticking together is such a beneficial thing for our sake.     There are plenty of organizations that hold up unity in this way, like military units, the a football team, and even families. In those communities thinking and acting as one is helpful or even critical because it helps everyone survive or get something done.

Jesus, by contrast, wants us to be one because it’s good for God. Jesus prays for unity because he knows the quality of our life together says something not about us but about the Father and Jesus, and Jesus is concerned about how God is perceived in the world. Our relationships with each other reflect the character of God—a character that is reconciling, a character that sacrifices self in order to forgive and renew. That’s because the church is not really an organization, with values and traditions and objectives. The church of Jesus Christ is an organism. We are a body that seeks to present the life of a person, crucified and risen, to the world.

Furthermore, our unity turns out to be our greatest tool for witness. Jesus doesn’t just pray to his Father on behalf of his current disciples. He prays on behalf of those who will come to believe in him through our word. Our commitments to remain in dialogue with one another even when we’ve hurt one another, our ability to work through tension and discord, our capacity for forgiveness by the power of the Holy Spirit will all be huge factors—in fact, will be the greatest factor—in our attempts to reach other people with the love of Christ, no matter how far we get flung.

Pastor Joseph and I got a taste this week of just how far-flung our own community is in this region. Realizing that just about every week we have people drive from at least six different counties to worship with us and take part in our ministries, on Thursday, the Ascension of our Lord, we took off from here and beat the bounds, driving as close to the perimeter of Epiphany’s territory as we could. Beating the bounds is an old church tradition from England that has long since died out here, if it ever even was really practiced. When we initially planned this, the original intent was just to get us outside of the church’s four walls for a day and give us a better appreciation for what was going on out there. It also might have been an excuse for eating out at a few places and ending at a brewery, but that’s neither here nor there.

Whatever it was supposed to be, it turned out to be more joyful than I’d reckoned. Never in my planning of this event did I anticipate just how neat it would be to walk into a Panera Bread or a Starbucks and see one of you already waiting there, or to sit at a Waffle House in eastern Mechanicsville and see one of you walk through the door. Never did we think about the fact that people who have been attending here for years might meet each other for the first time over coffee in Midlothian.

By the end of the day we were back in the city of Richmond, giving thanks for the ways in which each of you are embodying Christ in your individual lives, wherever they get lived, but also a part of a whole. I suppose went out with the idea of learning about how spread apart we are, but was I took away was how connected we actually are.

As the people who joined us spoke and shared in the discussion, it drove home again how each day God forms his own map on our atlas. But, in our case, at least, its design does not form an ugly spider, something to mourn and be frightened of. We do form rays of a star—the bright and morning Star, in fact, as the writer of Revelation describes him at the end of his book.

Yet in one way, Beth Morgan is correct in her denial as she watches her last two sons leave the village, never to return. We, the baptized, are still in the house. No matter where we are, we are in the household Christ, one family, children of the one eternal God.

And one day, Jesus promises, we will fully understand and know that, reunited with all those we love who have come and gone from this dark valley.



The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] How Green Was My Valley, Richard Llewellyn. Collier Books, MacMillan Publishing Company, NY, 1940. p460-461

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