181111 – Birthpangs

Yr B ~ Pentecost 25 ~ Mark 13:1-8

(A paraphrase of Mark 13)
As they came out of the church, one of the members said, “Look at this beautiful church. I just love these majestic buildings. Church architecture is wonderful.” Then Jesus responded, “So you love churches, do you? In time, not one of them will be left standing.” The church members were very concerned and asked him, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the signs that it’s about to happen?”

Then Jesus began to say to them, “Worry more about whether you’re following the Way than what the buildings are like. Many church folks say they’re all about God’s mission, but they lead people astray. You may start to hear rumours about how the church is dying. Don’t worry about those rumours. The end is not immanent. Sure, some church buildings will become empty, and some church members will argue with one another about theology (and what colour to paint the walls), and denominations will disagree on things – it may even get nasty. But all this is just the beginning of something new being born.”

Author Phyllis Tickle has a theory that every 500 years or so the church goes into a major crisis and an old way of being church comes crashing down and a new one emerges.
For example, 500 years ago Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation happened. It was a major change.
500 years before that was the Great Schism that divided the church into the Eastern/Greek Orthodox church and the Roman Catholic church.
She thinks we’re in the throes of another massive change right now. I think she’s right!

Our denomination, the United Church of Canada, was formed with a certain vision – that we’d be the church of the nation. And we set out to put a church on every corner so that we’d be a presence in every neighbourhood. Of course, that was back in the 1920s when cars were still a fairly novel idea and travelling distances was an ordeal. We also set up our structure with a vision of being the biggest church in the country, with overflowing numbers. It was a great vision – in its day. The day has changed.

And now the church is changing too.
Change is all we’ve been talking about for the last several years – there have been remits and rumours of remits! And those in leadership have been saying, “Don’t be alarmed! Yes, things are very challenging now, and the unknown is kind of scary – but it’ll be ok. Fear not! Trust that God is in the new thing. Even so, there’s no getting around it – as we change it’s going to hurt. That’s what birthing something new is like.”

But for some reason, even though it defies all logic, we seem to think that birthing something new is going to be like it is on TV – when a woman says, “Oh dear, I think my water just broke,” and she goes to the hospital, and squinches up her face, and pushes for about 15 seconds, and then woosh, out comes the baby! Right? It’s just like that, right?

No, of course it isn’t. I’ve been there! Well, I was in the room!
It’s agonizing. It’s super-hard. It takes a long, long time and it’s no walk in the park.
It’s messy. It hurts.
And it’s dangerous. Sure, it’s less dangerous now than ever before because hospitals are very advanced, but childbirth historically has been a very dangerous thing. Many mothers die in the birthing.

Now, on the other side of it, after that really hard ordeal, is a gift of new life that is overwhelmingly wonderful.
But you can’t get there without journeying through the painful ordeal.

This is what Jesus was trying to teach his disciples in Mark 13. He used the image of birthpangs because he knew it would be so visceral that it would make his point.
There’s another layer to that too. Mark’s gospel was written in the 0070s, right at or just after the time that the Jewish Temple fell in Jerusalem. There was a war, an uprising, and as the Romans crushed the rebellion they also demolished the Temple.

If you were among the first audiences hearing Mark’s gospel being read to you that news would still be very fresh in your memory. And it was a very painful thing for the Jews.
You see, if we arrived here next Sunday and discovered that this church building had been struck by lightning and burned down we would be devastated, because this place is very special to us. We’d be heartbroken.
And then we’d get the insurance money and either rebuild it or go and worship at another church building. There’s plenty around!

But for the Jews it was fundamentally different. The Temple wasn’t just a special place for them, it was actually the very centre of their religious practice – God’s home on earth! There were small synagogues and meeting places in the towns and villages, but only at the Temple could you make the required animal or crop sacrifices and only at the Temple could you properly and fully practice your religion.

So when their Temple was destroyed it quite fundamentally destroyed their whole way of understanding their religion, and themselves. There was no insurance settlement. There was no other church to go to.
That was it.
And it was gone.
Can you begin to imagine how devastating that was for them?

And Jesus points right at it and says, “Folks, as important and central as they are, it’s not about the buildings. It’s about the Way, the path, the journey. And we’re birthing something brand new here. And it’s gonna hurt! But then it will be beautiful.”

Most of you here were once part of another church – whether it was one of our three parent churches (St. Andrews, Courtice, and Harmony) or whether it was a church that you used to attend before becoming part of Faith United. This is a fantastic place. It’s a beautiful new thing that has been birthed.
But you had to leave something behind to get here. You had to sell your beloved church, or leave a beloved community, and that would have been painful. Devastating, even. And the creating of this ministry, and the forging of this community of faith was (and is) hard, hard work. But now you’re here and the new thing is a blessing.

Denominationally we’re about to leave behind structures that have served us well, and that many of us have served well, and it will be hard to let them go. Presbytery and Conference will be gone. Regions will be birthed.
Assessments are changing big time – and in many places in the denomination they are going to go up very significantly. Some places won’t be able to make it. The signs have been there for a while and hopefully they were seen. But in the birthing of the new thing some of the old things won’t survive.
And that will hurt.
It ain’t like on TV!

But I think Jesus was actually trying to teach us something bigger, deeper. He used the destruction of the Temple as an object lesson for it. Instead of worrying about beautiful outside temples, focus on the temple that really matters.
His followers are all concerned about the buildings and the structures, and he replies with “Don’t let yourselves be led astray!”
He’s talking about your faith.
He’s talking about your inner journey.

And while the outside world will swirl and convulse, and there will be wars and rumours of wars, and nations and kingdoms and people will be in conflict, you will be about birthing something new within you. The kingdom of God. In you.
And your old you will fuss, and fight, and shake, and complain – and your old ways will vie for dominance – and your old path will try to lure you off course – and it will all hurt. Because birthpangs are real! They call it labour for a reason.
And after the hard labour comes the gift, the new life, the celebration.

And just like generation gives birth to generation and the life cycle continues so too does this cycle of old life giving way to new life, as we continue to deepen and grow in faith.

To push the metaphor a little further, after the labour and delivery and celebration, you get to take this new life home and learn to live with it. Living with a new faith is kinda like living with a new baby! It’s precious, and filled with love and wonder and potential – and it’s also sometimes loud, and cranky, and messy, and smelly. It’s still a beautiful miracle and blessing, but it’s not all unicorns and flowers.

The Temple fell, and Judaism eventually reinvented itself and birthed a new way to worship and grow – but they had to leave behind the sacrificial system that they once held so dear.

Church’s life cycles come to a close – and a new church (maybe even an amalgamated one!) will be born – and people will have to leave behind buildings and sanctuaries that they once held so dear.

And the things we thought and the way we acted, and maybe even the way we believed, will eventually need to be left behind – and a new you, a deeper, more spiritual, more theologically adept, more compassionate, more Christ-like you will emerge.
And it will be glorious, but it will need to be birthed first.

And don’t think just because you’re older and have been in church for a long time that God’s done with birthing something new within you! The Spirit is always, always, always moving, and nurturing, and birthing something wonderful within us, and through us. Even if you’re older!

Perhaps you’re feeling some of those birthpangs now!
Or perhaps you’re learning to live with your newborn faith now.
Or perhaps you’re gazing admiringly at the architecture and wondering what it all means.

Wherever you are on the journey, do not be alarmed. People of faith are always in transition.
And Jesus’ Spirit is always there to guide you along the Way.