A sermon preached on May 9, 2010 Mother’s Day based upon Revelation 21:10,22 -22:5, and on the occasion of the baptism of John Chauhan, son of Bankim and Janet.
It was a delight for me to be able to hold baby John this past week when I visited with the family in preparation for the baptism. My baby is now as tall as I am, so I haven’t had much baby time lately. There surely is a sense in which when you look into the eyes of a baby you see the face of God.
Shortly after my visit to the Chauhans I read an article in the New York Times describing fascinating studies that have been done of little babies ages six months to twelve months. In an experiment the babies, sitting on their parents’ laps would watch a puppet show. In one, a puppet was trying to make it up a steep hill. Another puppet comes up behind him and helps push the first puppet up to the top of the hill — success!
A second time, the same puppet tries again to climb the steep hill. This time, as he struggles a third puppet appears from above, and proceeds to push him down the hill, defeating his attempt to climb the hill.
After repeating the same puppet show several times, the babies were presented with two puppets — the one that had helped and the one that had hindered the first puppet, and given a choice to choose either one. By a large margin, the babies preferred the puppet that had been the help.
In another variation, three puppets appear spread out across the stage. The center puppet is bouncing a ball which he passes to the puppet on his right who bounces the ball then passes it back to the puppet in the center. Then the ball is bounced to the puppet on the left, who promptly runs off the stage, absconding with the ball. Again, after several reenactments of this little morality play, the baby is presented with two puppets — the one who had played appropriately, and the one who had been a jerk. The babies overwhelmingly preferred the puppet that had demonstrated a sense of fair play.
The are several variations on the scenario witnessed by the babies, but consistently the babies show preference for the one who has done the “right thing”, so to speak. The findings imply that there is some kind of innate moral sense in babies, primitive to be sure, but there nonetheless. This is striking because scientists and philosophers had assumed that babies came into the world as a clean sheet, and that whatever sense of morality they come to manifest had to be taught to them by their culture. But these studies reveal a sense of morality residing in their gut so to speak from the beginning.
From a faith point of view, what we may be seeing revealed here is something of what we call the image of God knit into the baby’s DNA.
There is a crucial role for sure to be played by the baby’s environment — by Moms and Dads and the larger community in nurturing this latent seed of moral vision in the developing child, and guiding the child to make the connections regarding what justice means in the larger world. Shortly after reading this article I stumbled upon a book in the bookstore about “socio-paths” — people who grow up without any empathy for others, without a capacity for feeling guilt or remorse over wrongs committed against others. It is believed that one in twenty-five people fall under the clinical diagnosis of socio-path. They can come off as pretty normal at times, even charming and appealing. Sometimes in fact socio-paths end up highly successful, because unencumbered by a conscience they find it easy to climb to the top of society’s power ladders. It’s an affliction really. They are missing their basic humanity.
There isn’t a whole lot of understanding regarding what causes a person to grow up a socio-path. There is some evidence for a genetic component — the proverbial “bad seed.” But clearly there is a strong environmental component as well. 70% of sociopaths grow up in homes where fathers are absent, leaving stressed out, overburdened moms to do the job of raising a child all by themselves. Clearly, without the proper nurture of a loving family, the delicate seed of conscience may not find the soil necessary to take root and sprout.
So what this means is that mothers (and fathers too, but this isn’t their day) are truly on the front lines in doing battle with the problems that show up on the front pages of our newspapers, afflicting all kinds of misery. It is likely that it was a socio-path who drove a car packed with explosives to Times Square last week, and it was a socio-path who drove a truck packed with explosives a few years back to the IRS building in Oklahoma City, without any concern for the death and suffering would cause for so many others. Perhaps there were socio-paths sitting in the boardrooms of places like Goldman and Sachs when decisions were made about selling worthless junk bonds to investors that would reap profits for the company while wiping out the savings of their clients who trusted them, causing all kinds of pain.
Mothers are irreplaceable. It’s ironic really. In a society that advances so rapidly, leaving so many of us feeling left behind by our lack of computer savvy, the basic success or failure of our society still comes down to the question of whether mothers like Janet (and fathers like Bankim) are properly valued — whether they get the support they need to be able to fulfill their high and holy calling to provide a loving home in which the image of God can flourish in a child.
Our scripture lesson this morning comes from the last two chapters of the Bible. It conjures up a vision of the final destination towards which all of creation has been moving since that original big bang fourteen and a half billions years ago. John sees the holy city, the new Jerusalem, indeed heaven itself. The creation story is referenced in this story of the last things: the city contains the tree of life and the river that flowed through Eden. It’s full of the light of God, so nothing is hidden. Everything is revealed.
The gates of the city are always open, and all the nations of the world bring their glory into this city. In other words, “there’s always room in the circle” as we like to say here. All are welcome. This totally inclusive community is where all of creation has been aiming since the beginning of time.
There is a paradox about the openness. Everybody is welcome, but nothing accursed, no abominations are allowed in. So what is it that must be left out before a person can enter? Well, I think the little baby puppet shows provide some clarity here. Cruelty, heartlessness, the qualities that lead a person to act like an unhelpful jerk — all that stuff that the little baby feels an innate repulsion towards — that’s the sort of stuff that has to be left behind.
There may be some insight as to how exactly this works in the accounts of people who have had Near Death Experiences.* They often speak in language similar to that used by John in his vision. Twice John refers to how there is no need for lamps or sun and moon in the holy city because God’s light is always shining bright. People who have had these close encounters with death almost universally speak of the extraordinary light they see, often identifying it with God or Christ. Take, for instance, this account described by a woman to Dr. Raymond Moody:
“When the light appeared, the first thing he said to me was, ‘What do you have to show me that you’ve done with your life?’ or something to that effect. And that’s when these flashbacks started. I thought, ‘Gee, what is going on?’ because, all of a sudden, I was back in my early childhood. And from then on, it was like I was walking from the time of my very early life, right up to the present.
“It was really strange where it started, too, when I was a little girl, playing down by the creek in our neighborhood, and there were other scenes from that time – experiences I had with my sister, and things about neighborhood people, and actual places I had been. And then I was in kindergarten…“Now, I didn’t actually see the light as I was going through the flashbacks. He disappeared as soon as he asked me what I had done, and the flashbacks started , and yet I knew that he was there with me the whole time, that (he) carried me back through the flashbacks, because I felt his presence, and because he made comments here and there. He was trying to show me something in each one of these flashbacks…“All through this, he kept stressing the importance of love.”
Another man described the following:
“I first was out of my body, above the building, and I could see my body just lying there. Then I became aware of the light — just light — being all around me. Then it seemed there was a display all around me, and everything just went by for review, you might say. I was really very shamed of a lot of the things that I experienced because it seemed that I had a different knowledge, that the light was showing me what was wrong, what I did wrong. And it was very real…
“It showed me not only what I had done but even how what I had done had affected other people. And it wasn’t like I was looking at a movie projector because I could feel these things.”
In the end, its the little things in life that matter, the simple interactions in life where we have choices to make between being helpful or being a jerk.
Consistently in these accounts there is a sense that the light is characterized by an overwhelming sense of unconditional love and compassion. The light isn’t “judgmental” in the sense that we tend to use the term, but there is nonetheless a very strong sense of accountability. One’s life is measured by an uncompromising law of right and wrong, based on a central ethic of love.
The implication of these descriptions is that these failures in living out love have to be acknowledged and left behind before a soul can fully enter city of God.
*Some of the most compelling Near Death Experiences come from children. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross described hearing the stories of children who had had such experiences from diverse cultures throughout the world. Typically they would speak of seeing loved one who had preceded them in death, often times, in instances where they didn’t even know the person had died.