I want to be a part of a church that doesn’t exist.
Or maybe it’s better to put it this way: I want to be a part of a church that, I have only glimpsed. Seen in reflections. A church that we experience in fits and starts, a church that comes into focus for a few brief moments in the distance, a few brief moments in the here and now, in gatherings like this one, or out on the streets, before we lose sight once again. A church that we see in visions. A church that we see in prayer. A church that Jesus points towards, even as we fall short of the radical vision he proclaims.
I’ve been thinking about these things this week in light of recent global events. In light of the shifting of tides in our own country and that to the south. In light of the wars and rumours of wars, in light of the global climate crisis that we still are in as ecosystems collapse, and sea levels rise. The losses of life that continue with each successive wave of the coronavirus, and our fragile medical system that continues to crack.
In light of our local communities where we are finding ourselves divided, at odds with one another around some really important issues, even as we struggle to find a way forward, to care for one another, to see one another not just survive, but thrive.
I’ve been thinking about these things this week in light of recent global events, and I'm wondering about where the church—where we—find ourselves in the midst of this mess.
As if on repeat, this question has returned to me again this week:
Who are we, what are we doing, and how might we respond with God’s love and help to the world around us?
We might think about this in a number of different ways, of course, but today Jesus’ parable, a story told to a lawyer, might provide a way forward.
“Teacher,” the lawyer asks, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” What must I do to enter the fullness of all that God has for us? And the two of them go back and forth a bit about what’s written in the law, about loving God with your whole being and loving your neighbour as you love yourself.
The lawyer presses Jesus further, seemingly looking to probe the outer limits of what Jesus is saying, trying to tangle him up a little, and to cause him to take a misstep. And so Jesus tells a story, the story we just read. Perhaps we’ve heard this story once or twice. Perhaps we’ve heard it a thousand times. Here Jesus tells the story of a man who walks alone down a dangerous road and falls into the hands of bandits. He’s beaten, left for dead, his clothes taken, and cell phone smashed, unable to call for help.
Our church, the Anglican Church of Canada, has taken a bit of a beating these last years. We look around and see the shrinking numbers, the so-called decline of the church, the ways in which churches that used to be a little more full seem more lonely now. We look around and see how our way of living and moving and being in the world are no longer attractive to the world around us. More than that, it seems, the world keeps on walking by, keeps on driving by as we sit here on the side of the road, looking beat up and unattractive.
Some days—though not every day—it feels as though we are the man in the story, lying on the road, beaten down under the weight of the world and its shifting priorities, no longer relevant, no longer of interest, no longer worth saving.
Lying on the side of the road, drifting in and out of consciousness, we see a person drift by, wondering if they will save us.
They walk by with a briefcase full of programs. Church growth strategies. Sunday school plans. Messy Church. Fresh Expressions. A Program Kit for bringing your congregation of 5, 10, 15, to a thriving congregation of 100 in three easy steps. They’ve got it all nicely packaged, and some of it, I’m sure, carries some wisdom. But there’s a cost to that. And lying on the side of the road, it looks like we can’t pay, and so they keep on marching.
After some more time, someone else comes walking by, takes one look, and keeps on moving. As they walk by, they say, “the church is past its prime, and if it ever did any good, that time is no longer. They had a good run, but I’m not convinced they’re doing any good in the world any more. Their time is over. There’s no use propping this up any longer, just let it be, just let it run its course, and let’s move on.”
Have you heard these voices before?
I’ve heard them. They're always present at clergy gatherings and talks at the seminary. Sometimes even in church counciles. Voices that talk about rapid expansion, and voices that talk about inevitable demise.
Both of these are voices within our church. Sometimes these are voices within our congregations. And sometimes they are voices within our own hearts.
When I think about the church in this time and place, when I think about how we might continue to go on, to proclaim good news and to embody it too, these two voices (and maybe a few more) often speak very loudly. But in the end, where do they leave us? What do they do?
At different times I hear these two voices. Depending on the day, one louder than the other. Salvation through programming, or salvation through anonymous death.
And so we wait. We stop and we wait, not knowing what will come next. And we pray. In a state where we do not know the future, or what it will bring, in a moment where it appears that there is nothing that we can do—of our own accord and with our own effort to dig ourselves out of these circumstances we lie prostrate in prayer, waiting, waiting, waiting, and wondering, wondering, wondering, what will come our way.
In the parable Jesus tells, a third person finally walks down the road. A third walks down the road. And stops. And dresses our wounds. And puts us up in decent accomodations. And knowing that we will live, takes care of us, covering the cost of care, and more besides, with the promise to return, and pay whatever it cost.
There are so many ways into this story, but this week, I have been thinking about this parable as a story of the church. We read the headlines at the beginning of 2020 that predicted the death of the Anglican Church of Canada by 2040. We didn’t have much time to reflect on these things before a global pandemic added fuel to the fire, guaranteeing that life will not look the same whenever we find our way to the other side. The church has been forever changed, in some ways beaten and bruised and lying on the side of the road. And so we wait. We wait on the Lord. Wait for the world to change.
The more I read, the more people I find trying to sell magical solutions to the problems we are facing. And there are others who have capitulated their imaginations to the inevitability of decline, of shuttering congregations.
And then there is one who stops. And then there is one who cares. And then there is one who tends. Nursing us back to life. Not magically. But slowly. And with deep intention. And entrusting us to one who cares deeply. And I imagine this one to be Jesus. The healer. The one who always stops for so-called lost causes, bringing life where all seemed uncertain.
And what do we do in the midst of this? The story doesn’t say. But as I was reading it this week, I thought about times that I’ve been laid up in bed. I thought about throwing out my back late last year, for example. And all I could do was wait. Not a passive waiting, mind you, but an active, prayer-filled waiting. Waiting in expectation. Waiting knowing that there is one who cares for us. Who stopped for us. Who stops for us. Knowing that there is one who bandages up our wounds, a healer of our every ill, one who seeks the healing of the nations.
We are at a time in the life of the church, dear friends, where it is tempting to give up. Where it is similarly tempting to jump at any scheme that promises new life, fast. And yet, what I think we are being called to in this moment, is deep and expectant prayer. Prayer for ourselves, prayer for the witness of this congregation, prayer for the world around us.
Because in Jesus there is good news. In Jesus there is healing. In Jesus there is companionship and care and community. And we are here. And we are waiting in expectancy and in expectation that God will do something new in our lives. And in the life of this St. Stephen’s community.
Even though it doesn't always seem that way, what we need is here.
And when Jesus walks down the road and stops, he will look at us, and say You are my Beloved, in you I am well pleased.
And he will bundle us up, and care for us, and that healing—whatever it looks like—will come. Life may never be the same. We may not be able to do what we once were able to do.
But there is life to be had.
And there are stories to be shared. Stories of new life. Stories of resurrection. Stories of how the one who we seek in prayer—in joy and sometimes desperation—shows up in our life not only to show us the way, but to bandage us up, to show us that we are beloved. And to set us free from any expectations of what or who we ought to be, setting us free to love freely, and with abandon, as we have been loved.
Setting us free to embody this same prayer-filled Jesus love that we have received, with all who we meet along the road.