Apocalyptic bible readings. The end of all things. The destruction of life as we know it. Generally, you love them, or you ignore it because it is some of the most confusing part of biblical literature.
However, for a people who (and this is the people in our readings) faced extended periods of persecution, oppression, occupation, forced exile and enslavement…readings that spoke of the punishment of the oppressors and the salvation of God’s people…were texts of blessed hope!
These texts also sought to explain, in the terms and language of the times, why such awful things were happening. A perfect example of this is the book of Daniel (Recall that this Daniel is that same Daniel who was sent to be torn apart in a Den of Lions for not worshiping King Darius.) …in Daniel we read "At that time (the archangel) Michael, …, shall arise. There shall be a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence. But at that time your people shall be delivered,.”
In times of oppression apocalyptic literature can be comforting. That is…for the oppressed. The oppressor generally finds it less so.
That is the challenge we face. The Anglican Church has certainly been an oppressor, which we continue to learn about, but perhaps more relevant to those in these pews is that we are also in a position of privilege.
As a culture we cannot call ourselves the oppressed. Look around, the people in these pews are safe, confident, relatively speaking very well off, and most especially our Church, the Anglican Church has been in the position of power and authority for hundreds of years in Canada.
For most of that time everyone went to church…and if you didn’t people noticed…if you wanted a good job you had to be an Anglican. The churches were wealthy, the priests were privileged, the children packed the Sunday Schools. And from our excess we sent money to missions, agencies and benevolence societies.
Such as the Bernardo homes, residential schools, Indian missions and those which helped ‘civilize the savages’ and ‘evangelize the heathen’. We know how that went. Now we find ourselves reflected in Mark’s gospel … "Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!" and we fear Jesus response…"Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down."
Our churches are no longer in power and privilege. As a priest, wearing my collar I cannot assume the privilege of my predecessors. Church numbers and finances dwindle. Churches are closing and even my own last parish was literally torn to the ground, with no one stone left upon another.
We are not safe…we are adrift in the wilderness…places unknown. Jesus puts it this way to his disciples “… When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.”
The birthpangs… Andy and I had a difficult route to childbearing…I had two miscarriages, I had a rotten pregnancy with Syd…nausea, pain, you name it…9 months which ended with me using crutches due to the pain. Ask most women and they’ll tell you labour is no laughing matter, and it can literally and in many ways rip you apart.
Yet, it is endured…in fact pregnancy and labour is eagerly desired by many…why? Because of the hope of what is to come. “There shall be a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence. But at that time your people shall be delivered”
St. Andrew’s has had it’s time of anguish, and with the pandemic, the low numbers and financial disappointments…that time may be continuing. But all kinds of labour bring the hope of something new to come. Something new. Something planned for, hoped for and yet completely unknown.
The key word in all this is the planning. Just as a family changes it’s habits and even it’s house to prepare for a new birth; so too did the people of Israel change their behaviour in the face of Jesus’ words.
It is a common theme in the bible; bad stuff happens…a prophet comes and tells people that their behaviour needs to change…the people repent, believe and amend their lives…at least until next time.
Hebrew’s speaks of those changes when it says: “every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, "he sat down at the right hand of God,"
What it doesn’t mention is that those changes meant the move away from thousands of years of tradition and temple ritual, the loss of the entire priestly order and a radical new way of being faithful. Petrifying, especially for the priest. Yet, these fearsome words are not without hope.
“Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God,let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, …And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, …, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
This is what the church faces now. A new way of being the people of God. It is petrifying. It could mean radical change. A new birth. Of what…we don’t know. But we do know that there is hope. We know that the church has done this before. We know that a new and living way is open before us and we are called to approach it with a true heart in full assurance.
The question is how… and when I had my interview for St. Andrew’s that question came up a lot! We know we need to change, said the panel, but we don’t know how. How will you…new and perspective priest…bring to birth this new church? No pressure…I thought… Sure, I have some ideas…but frankly I don’t know exactly what is coming or what the best and most successful way forward is.
But I do have hope. I do have faith. I do know that we do not walk this path alone. Not only do God, Christ and the Spirit walk with us, but so too does every single church out there. And none of us know what this new birth will bring. After all, the new faith for Jews and Christians happened when the temple was destroyed and the priestly order was rendered redundant. More than a bit scary …So, what do we do? How do we prepare? How do we plan?
First we pray…and I love the psalms…ancient and true and such a fantastic resource! “Protect me, O God, for in you I take refuge… The LORD is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot…. I bless the LORD who gives me counsel; in the night also my heart instructs me. I keep the LORD always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved. Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices; my body also rests secure…. You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”
Then refreshed by prayer, we walk in faith. “let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.” It reminds me of the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade where Indy takes that step of faith over what appears to be a bottomless chasm…!
Then we get down to business… not the business in which we search for ways we can make this parish financially sound…not even the ways to get more bums in pews. Rather the real business of the church…to imitate Christ and make Christ known. “…let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, …, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
Provoking one another to love and good deeds. Imitating Christ and doing as he teaches… in short… To feed the hungry, to refresh the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick and visit the prisoner. Meeting together, in these pandemic days…in whatever means possible… in person or via technology…because Christianity is communal…you cannot be a Christian by yourself! You need to be surrounded, supported, upheld, and encouraged. Also, to be held accountable, to be provoked, to be prayed for. These are challenging days…even more so as we do not know what approaches. Times are hard, changes is hard, pandemic is hard…but all are full of hope, full of promise and full of community. We are all walking the same path; you and I, but also all the Anglican Church of Canada, and indeed beyond.
The labour is hard, and some days are better then others, but in general, this is hard work…soulful work, spirit-filled work, and I pray, Christ-led work which we will all do together.
So that when the day comes, a new way of being church will take us into the next hundred years. Reflecting a bit of what was before and surprising us with what is new…full of promise and full of potential. The church has been reinventing itself through Christ for thousands of years…now it’s our turn. Amen.