A Church in Exile, and our Response.
Sermon for Proper 29, Year C
21 October 2001
St John the Evangelist, Cold Lake
2 Tim 3:14-4:5
One of the joys of being a Lay Reader is the privilege of preaching God’s word before His people. The other part of that joy is whenever you preach; it is because the Rector is not present…so there is usually no one sitting behind me looking over my shoulder while I speak. I also had to change my topic for today, as the previous title was ‘The ten best Rectors I have known.’
If you have been following the readings for the past two Sundays there is a clear theme running through them. 2 weeks ago we heard Psalm 137 – the one sung by Boney M in the 1970’s – that contains those well-known lines ‘by the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion’. Last week we heard the Prophet Jeremiah writing to the exiles in Babylon and telling them to settle in for the duration. This week Jeremiah continues with a discussion of the new covenant that God is forging with the Israelites.
I am getting ahead of myself – so a word on the exile. The exile is, without a doubt, the defining moment of Israel in the Old Testament. The nation of Judah, ruled by great Kings such as David had fallen and become a state of the Babylonian Empire. The Babylonian’s occupied the country, and then took most of the leaders from the society off in exile to Babylon. Imagine this in our terms – one morning you phone the St John’s number to talk with Fr David, and this is the message you hear ‘Hello, this is St John the Evangelist, Father David Lehmann, Rector. As a result of the recent occupation of Cold Lake by the Babylonian army, I have been told that I will be moving to Babylon. There will be no further services.’ That Sunday when you showed up for church you would have found that Fr David, the Wardens, the Vestry and most of the Lay Readers had been taken away. The temple, which was the centre of your life, would have been empty of all except a few minor priests. A few months later, even the temple would have been gone as the Babylonians destroyed it. All of the town leaders, the mayor, the councillors and reeves the lead hands from the public works shops would have been taken away. Most of the teachers from the schools would have been taken as well. With those who were left, you would have to try to recreate some kind of society. To put it simply, life as you knew it, had changed forever…and it was up to you and your friends to try to put something back together. We ourselves are living through such defining moments today.
I chatted with one of our new congregation members a few weeks ago and she mentioned that it continued to amaze her that the bible was so applicable to different societies throughout history. When you think that we find wisdom so profound that it brings you to your knees, literally, in a document that is mostly over 2000 yrs old it seems nothing short of a miracle. While other ‘ancient’ authors are difficult to read and discuss concepts that are foreign and strange, God’s word speaks to us where we are today. This is no less true in the concept of a church in exile. The concept of exile applies to us as individuals as well, as each of us will go through periods in our life when our prayer life seems pointless and we feel apart from God. St John of the Cross called this the ‘dark night of the soul’ – the positive side of this is that almost every saint we know of has recounted their periods of exile…for some of them very long – St Theresa’s lasted 18 years, but in the end she was richly answered by God.
Before the exile the Jewish mode of worship was characterized by highly institutionalized worship centred around a major temple. Continuous prayer and sacrifice was offered on behalf of the people. The problem was that much of the worship became focused on the how of the ritual instead of the why – the worship of God. They had lost sight of the entire point of worship. The exile then, although it was the end of the world for them, was a period of tremendous change for Jewish worship. Through the fire of the exile their church became decentralized and less focused on the ritual…the question of Psalm 137 ‘how shall we sing the Lord’s song’ was answered. Jeremiah reflects this as he describes the new covenant, where the religion would be written upon their hearts, and not in scrolls in the temple, and they would all come to know God.
If we look at the Anglican church, and for that matter the entire Christian church the world over, we can see that we are ourselves in a period of exile. Archbishop David Crawley presented this concept in a talk he gave at the Sorrento centre this past summer. His comment was that 20 years ago, the residential schools issue would have been solved in the better clubs in Toronto and Montreal over expensive Brandy. Our historical Anglican church was always identified with centres of power in Canada and we were an influential body of believers. As our society has become increasingly secular we have been marginalized and become more of a private organization. Bishop Crawley’s statement about the residential schools is that, ‘we are a church are powerless.’ Is this not a symptom of a church in exile – the separation of church from the power structures of the society in which it exists?
The Jews had reduced worship of God to a series of increasingly complex yet irrelevant rituals…the situation that Jesus would latter rally against with His comments about ‘whitewashed tombs’. We see today a longing throughout western society for something we have lost, something that seems to be just beyond our reach. We seek a deeper spirituality. The way we worship is meeting new challenges. Do we change our way of addressing God in the Anglican Liturgy to suit society? Or do we welcome in strangers and teach them the beauty that exists within our particular way of addressing God?
One of my biggest struggles in my faith walk is to avoid the belief that I don’t really need God. As I walk through this exile I constantly feel the only thing I need to do is rely on my own ability to seek a solution. This misses one of the basic truths of Christianity…it is not meant to be a religion of the mind and the intellect, but a deeply spiritual religion that encompasses the totality of who we are. It is not something we can do by being smarter or reading more or studying more. I am convinced that the only way to do it is through prayer – and this is the focus of the gospel today. Perseverance in prayer.
Why are we a church in exile – what is it that has caused much of the institution that we grew up with to become dated? This is not something unique to the church, but is true of almost every institution that saw our society develop out of the industrial age. What of the institutions of Medicare, Unemployment Insurance and the Canada Pension Plan? We are in a period of tremendous transition and change to the things that we always believed to be eternal, and as we come through these times it should not be surprising to see some parts of what we hold dear diminishing and dieing, while other structures arise to replace them. As Christians we know that where there is death, there is also resurrection. Each day we celebrate at the Lord’s Table we relive that moment again and again… and this is the reason we clearly say, “Christ has died, Christ is risen.” The resurrection is not something that happened a long time ago in a far away place…it happens in a million different ways in each moment of our lives today. As we struggle to hold on to what we hold dear, it is important to remember Christ’s words to Mary Magdalene – “Do not cling to me.”
We are a part of a community that extends beyond these doors. This is important for us all to remember. The society around us would like to see the church become even more marginalized – the presence of a set of clear, absolute moral standards are almost seen as evil to a culture which increasingly values relativism and personal choice as the only things which matter. A church that becomes private, and keeps itself apart from the community by being uninvolved is at risk of ceasing to exist. Our church is struggling to define its place in this changing world. Our challenge is to help this change and not hinder it. The problem is that we may not be able to recognize this new church when we see it. There is history that tells us this is so: Consider the great formerly Christian cathedral of Saint Sophia in Istanbul. Place yourself with the worshipers there – Christianity is the religion of the empire, and Constantinople is a Christian himself. Everyone you know is a Christian and worship is surrounded with pomp and ceremony. Now imagine being taken out of that cathedral and being transported forward in time to the monastic community of the Celtic church on the Island of Iona and Saint Columba, where a small community of monks worship before a plain altar in a hut built of wood and mud. Now transport yourself forward to a modern ministry to the homeless in the inner city of a major North American city. Would you recognize Christ’s presence in each separate form of worship?
For all of us, there is likely no debate that the continuing terrorist attacks on North America were one of those moments when ‘life as we know it has changed forever.’ Where is God in all of this? Like the widow in Christ’s parable, we all long for change for the better. We long for a church that does not argue continuously over prayer books, we long for a society where it is safe to walk the streets and no one hungers, we long for a world where cultures are more interested in helping than killing. The words of Jeremiah and Christ are just as applicable to us today, as they were over 2000 years ago. Focus on God’s word, be faithful and persistent in prayer, give your whole being over to worship and go forth into the world and do Christ’s work: spread love, help the downtrodden, teach understanding. Only God can know the direction we are headed in, and only through faith in the King of Kings can we expect to maintain hope in that tomorrow.