There are things in life that we take for granted as a given, until they are no more. I can still vividly recall the final scene in the first Planet of the Apes movie when Charleston Heston is riding down the beach and finds the half-buried Statue of Liberty and realizes that he is home, but home has changed forever. Later, I and probably many of you watched on television as the twin towers of the World Trade center were destroyed by hijacked airplanes full of travelers who never anticipated that day would change life forever for so many people. This was not a movie, this was reality.
Jesus is standing in front of the Temple with his disciples and they are looking in awe at its magnificence. The original temple had been built almost a thousand years ago by Solomon. They would have heard stories of its destruction, but it had been rebuilt under Ezra and Nehemiah some five hundred years ago and then brought back to its former glory under Herod the Great. It was the ultimate symbol of their identity and it seemed eternal as they marveled at its grandeur.
Jesus is well aware of the fleetingness of the works of humans. Knowing his own death is now only days away, he tries to prepare his disciples for changes that would be coming that they cannot fathom at this time. Just forty years from now, the temple would be gone, forever. It would be destroyed by the Romans in the first Jewish-Roman war in 70 AD. Prior to this war, Nero would blame Christians for the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD and use it as an excuse for severe persecutions. Everything was changing and Jesus wanted his disciples to be aware. He did not want them to be lead astray. He talks about wars, earthquakes, and famines and describes them as the birth pangs of the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus assures the disciples that “the Son of Man” will come in clouds “with power and glory” (Mark 13: 26) but he does not set up a time table for when that will happen. Instead, he tells them to “keep alert, for you do not know when the time will come.” (Mark 13:33)
We have over the centuries watched kingdoms rise and kingdoms fall. Every generation has had its people who just know Jesus will come back in their lifetime. Yet we have failed to stay alert and we have failed to learn history’s lesson for us. We have grown comfortable in our routines and we think we have life figured out.
Writing in the 5th century BC the Greek philosopher Heraclitus stated, “The only constant in life is change.” Yet, change is the one thing congregations struggle with the most. The phrase clergy have heard the most is, “that is not the way we have always done it.”
I have no doubt that God will work his purpose in spite of our refusals to let go of our habits, our security blankets that keep us frozen in a time that is passing us by. God’s purpose will move forward with or without us, but how much better for us if we stay alert, if we grow and transform in accordance with God’s purpose as the world around us becomes more difficult to navigate.
I don’t have to tell you that our communities have changed drastically in the last fifty years and that change has impacted our congregations across denominations, across geographic regions, across economic groups. COVID has escalated that change. We see congregations shrink, age and some of them close their doors. But we don’t have to stand by and let that happen. What we must now do is re-imagine what it means to be a parish in the 21st Century. Over and over, I am hearing the call to return to the apostolic church. Bp Curry mentioned it in his sermon to the House of Bishops the other day. But what does that look like and how do we get there.
Tod Bolsinger, in his book Canoeing the Mountains, describes the church today as being in much the same position as Lewis and Clark were when they came upon the Rocky Mountains. They were boatmen who were prepared to paddle across North America and anticipated the second half of the journey to be mostly riding the river down to the ocean. Instead, they hit the Rocky Mountains which they were told they would need to cross, but which had had little meaning for them when they started their trip. Their experience of mountains was like the Blue Ridge we have here. They had to leave their canoes behind and become mountain climbers with no maps to guide them and a totally different skill set than what they now needed.
That is where we are now as a church. We have hit the Rocky Mountains and we must figure out how to get over them to reach our goal, our destination. All the things we thought we knew about being the church must be re-evaluated. We must keep what is essential. We don’t want to leave behind those things which will keep us fed and warm and safe. We don’t want to leave anyone behind. We need to determine the best way to help everyone cross the mountains together.
Looking forward is essential when everything changes. Looking back to what used to be can be helpful to remind us of how far we have already gone, of reminding ourselves of the challenges we have already overcome, but it will not help us overcome the challenges ahead of us. For that we must look at the mountains in front of us and figure out the best way to cross them which means, not in the canoe we planned to use.
Trust is essential when everything changes. When churches were large and everyone was expected to go to some church on Sunday morning, it was easy to move from church to church without any significant commitment. We could be assured that church as we knew it would always be there with or without us and would still be there whenever we decided to show up. But as we approach this more difficult season in the life of the church, we are like a team of mountain climbers. Every person needs to contribute with the skills that they have and we must learn to rely on each other. Things have become much more complicated and the pastor cannot do it all and do a good job.
As we begin to close out 2021 and look to 2022, we as a parish, need leaders, lay volunteers as well as paid staff who are willing to put forth the time and effort necessary to analyze the present, visualize the future, and problem solve to help us get from point A to point B. If we sit down at the base of the mountain and long for yesterday, we will run out of resources where we sit. We need leaders willing to tackle the mountain ahead of us and I would love to hear from some of you that you are up to the adventure.
The apostolic church was forward looking. It was based on community, trust, and involvement of everyone to the best of their ability. It meant looking out for one another and engaging the broader community. It meant traveling light, Jesus told those he sent out to leave their stuff at home. It meant helping one another, showing hospitality, and going the extra mile. It meant being willing to take up a cross – for them it could be a life-or-death decision. For us it means giving of our time and treasures, being willing to give up some of our comforts to gain the kingdom of heaven.
I am not going to pretend that the road ahead is easy, but what an opportunity for adventure. Are you ready?