[Jesus said,] “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.” Luke 21:25-36 (NRSV)
On Friday night (November 30, 2018), a group of around twenty St. Peter’s folks gathered in the Parish Hall to learn about the new landscape of society and how much it’s changed around us without us paying attention. In reality, though, it was just confirmation of what we already instinctively know. By “us,” of course, I mean pretty much every mainline Christian denomination in the United States. None have been immune. We heard a presentation by Sally O’Brien from Hope Partnership that showed us, without a doubt, that the prevailing culture of the 21st Century doesn’t hold organized religion in the same esteem that it did in generations past; and, actually, the Christianity we inherited from the 1950s is often even seen as completely useless and without any relevance. We heard data, we chewed on statistics, we were presented with cold hard facts about the real costs of being Church in 2018. About how most of our churches were founded on ministry models that were affordable in the 1930s but are now completely unsustainable… not to mention not being relevant to most of the folks who aren’t already in this building this morning, parked in a pew.
I have something to admit to you this morning. Even as someone who is trained and has experience in delivering this exact same news to other congregations, even as someone who believes whole-heartedly in the transformational work that St. Peter’s has boldly chosen to undertake, when I hear all that stuff, I have pangs of fear. I sometimes feel a foreboding sense of doom. What does it mean for St. Peter’s future? What does it mean for the future of the Episcopal Church? What does it mean for our liturgy, our worship style, our historic venues…?
I would like to read a portion of this morning’s Gospel lesson from Eugene Peterson’s Message Bible, a contemporary, idiomatic, and more free-form “Scripture story” version:
[Jesus said,] “It will seem like all hell has broken loose—sun, moon, stars, earth, sea, in an uproar and everyone all over the world in a panic, the wind knocked out of them by the threat of doom, the powers-that-be quaking.” (The Message, Luke 21:25-26)
A word of warning for those of us who heard that cold hard truth on Friday night—and for all of us who will participate in the upcoming house group meetings beginning in January: When we take an honest and long look at the reality of the disconnect between the way “church as usual” is done and what our neighborhood actually needs, what our neighbors are hungry for… that reality has the potential to be pretty earth-shattering. All hell will seem to have broken loose. Everyone in a panic.
On this fourth Sunday of our extended seven-week Advent—or the first Sunday for a majority of western Christians—there is definitely an apocalyptic tone, right? The world is going to shatter, nothing stays the same, everything you know is up for debate. Assume nothing, because what we know is that Advent is a season of expectation not just for the Christ Child at Christmas and not just a season of preparation for the miracle and grace of the incarnation, but also a season of remembering that the world is incomplete. The world is chaotic and is not yet what it is to be. This is a season of remembering that the ultimate goal of our faith—of our whole life—is to witness to and participate in the great reconciliation, the culmination of all things, the healing of all wounds, the joining of Creator to all of creation for eternity. That is the Eschaton, the End. That is our goal.
Going back to The Message:
“It will seem like all hell has broken loose—sun, moon, stars, earth, sea, in an uproar and everyone all over the world in a panic, the wind knocked out of them by the threat of doom, the powers-that-be quaking.”
“And then—then!—they’ll see the Son of Man welcomed in grand style—a glorious welcome! When all this starts to happen, up on your feet. Stand tall with your heads high. Help is on the way!”
He told them a story. “Look at a fig tree. Any tree for that matter. When the leaves begin to show, one look tells you that summer is right around the corner. The same here—when you see these things happen, you know God’s kingdom is about here. Don’t brush this off: I’m not just saying this for some future generation, but for this one, too—these things will happen. Sky and earth will wear out; my words won’t wear out.”
(The Message, Luke 21:25-33)
My sense of dread, my fear of the unknown, our worry about things changing drastically, or our fear that St. Peter’s—or the church at large for that matter—might not find a way to translate the transformative and life-giving message of the Gospel to our neighbors in a way they can actually hear… all this earth-shattering stuff… As crazy as it sounds, Jesus is saying to us this morning that it’s a good thing. If it feels like the sky is falling, that’s because it is. And that is when you can know with even more certainty that God is at work. When you see these things happen, you know God’s Kingdom is near! When all this starts to happen, up on your feet. Stand tall with your heads high. Your redemption is drawing near!
I am excited for what God is revealing and what God will continue to reveal to St. Peter’s about our calling in this neighborhood. We are just beginning to realize that the way things have worked in the past probably isn’t going to work now and in the future. And we are recognizing that this is an opportunity to participate in God calling us to be even more fully who we are created to be.
We’re about halfway through our 7-week journey of preparation and expectation. As we engage the Scripture these next three weeks and as we prepare our hearts and wait with bated breath, remember… “When all this starts to happen, up on your feet. Stand tall with your heads high. Help is on the way!” Approach the Altar of Grace this morning knowing full well that we are on a journey where the end is already known. The Kingdom approaches! Our redemption draws near!