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Ascension Sermon

Ascension: 5th May, 2016
Richard Wilson, Priest Assisting at St Peter's, Eastern Hill

Acts 1:1-11; Hebrews 9:24-28; 10:19-23; Luke 24:45-53

"Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God."

Hmmm, I wonder how much store we can place in the detail of Luke's account of Christ's ascension? The eleven had been with Jesus for something like three years, drawn out of their obscurity and material poverty into the wealth of spiritual inheritance and leadership. They had just accompanied him through the harrowing experience of his passion and the perplexity of his resurrection. Then, following his resurretion he suddenly disappears.

Certainly, he had warned them of this, and there is the promise of the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, but for these people I can't help thinking they would be bewildered and lost after all they must have come to expect. So I wonder what can the ten days they had to wait until Pentecost have been like?

Everything they had come to put trust and faith in, their very spiritual centre, had gone. Living on this side of Pentecost as we do we can only speculate on what I imagine was their dismay. To be without God is to be without hope — without hope for the present, without hope for a future. However, I think we can look to some current-day examples.

It was, I believe, that hopelessness that led two refugees in the Nauru migration detention camp in the last 10 days to set themselves alight — to self immolate — Omid Masoumali died and Hodan Yasi remains critically ill in hospital. Moments before he lit himself, Masoumali said this: "This is how tired we are, this action will prove how exhausted we are. I cannot take it any more."

I believe it is the same absence of God that then enables the Minister for Immigration to blame refugee advocates and supporters for these acts of desperation.

Just outrageous. It is the same absence of God that brings the Prime Minister to say this, on public radio, about the Opposition's asylum seeker policy:

We can't afford to let the empathy that we feel for the desperate circumstances many people find themselves in to cloud our judgement. Our national security has to come first."

Just think for a moment what that statement is saying.

I expect it was recognition of the same absence of God that led a member of this congregation to post on Facebook this week:

One day [my children] will ask me what I knew and what I did about the fact that my government was engaged in the systematic torture of vulnerable adults and children who had arrived by boat seeking a fraction of the safety and happiness that they (thank God) take for granted. And I don't know how I will respond to them in any way that won't make them disappointed in me.

Where has our society come to if it is possible for us to lose compassion, to be so disconnected with God, that we treat refugees and asylum seekers, who are our neighbours, in this way?

A couple of weeks ago I was in Berlin. I spent some hours at the memorial display known as the Topography of Terror. It is an exhaustive pictorial documentation of Naziism under Hitler. It documents in detail the systematic extermination of Jews. I fear we are not very far away from this. And if this seems overly polemical, then can I suggest Rowan Williams' article in the New Spectator of 1 May this year on the possibility of another Hilter. Here is something from it:

The conventional wisdom holds that "all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing", in Edmund Burke's familiar phrase; but this is at best a half-truth. Studying the biography of a moral monster [Hitler] triumphantly unleashed on the political and international stage points us to another perspective, no less important. What is necesary for the triumph of evil is that the ground should have been thoroughly prepared by countless small or not-so-small acts of petty malice, unthinking prejudice and collusion. Burke's axiom, though it represents a powerful challenge to apathy, risks crediting evil with too much of a life of its own: out there, there are evil agencies, hostile to "us", and we (good men and women) must mobilise to resist.

No doubt; but mobilising intelligently demands being willing to ask what habits and assumptions as well as what chances and conditions, have made possible the risk of evil triumphing. And that leads us into deep waters, to a recognition of how what we tolerate or ignore or underestimate opens the way for disaster, the ways in which we are at least half-consciously complicit.

I feel complicit by my inaction. I suspect the author of the Facebook post I quoted does too. So, I wonder where is God in all of this? Where was God in Germany in the 30s and early 40s? The Jews ask this. Where has God been these last years as we have relentlessly denied refugees and asylum seekers the compassion they are owed as our neighbours?

But, of course, God is not absent. God is always with us. What is absent is the willingness of people like me and you to respond to God's presence by actually standing up and making the call. That what the Government dresses up as policy, is abuse. That what is claimed as legal, contravenes our obligations under the refugee convention and the very basis of human compassion. That what we have said to ourselves is outside of our personal control, is indeed, if we are a liberal democracy, very much in our control and that we have been morally lazy.

Taking up a thread from Williams, where is our preparedness to resist the ever-present temptation to overlook the little encroachments on civil and moral society, to prefer, 'just this once', our own comfort over the comfort of others, and, in a lifetime of little lapses, to allow evil to prevail. That's what happened in Germany.

People like me and you are the church, we are the body of Christ. What is the church doing? Are we, like the German church in the 1930s, doing nothing? I can't find any response to the Prime Minister's statement from the Australian Anglican church. Yet here is the most senior public figure of the nation directly denying one of the most closely held articles of our faith — that compassion for others is to be prioritised over our own convenience. We need a Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Such failure of compassion led Christ to the Cross. Which led to his resurrection. Which led to his Ascension. Which is why we are here this evening. Ascension leads to the gift of the Spirit. The Spirit demands our compassion. So we must in some way respond.

We are being called, I believe, to be the Bonhoeffers of our age. Not someone else, me and you.

God help us.


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