Thursday, October 20, 2016

Jeremiah - a prophet for our times

The text of a sermon delivered a few weeks ago is presented out of sequence, mainly because it is relevant to challenges the diocese faces and the questions that are being asked of us all.

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time C


Jeremiah is surely the prophet for our times: he looks around him at what had been the glory of Jerusalem and weeps.  He laments the dismantling of the world he had known.  He laments the departure of the temple; the passing of the great religious festivals and of the crowds that used to come.  The whole social order, the glue that bound society together, no longer exists.   Where power, influence and position had once seemed assured; where one’s place and role in society had been clear – that is no longer the case.   The world now looks strange, confusing and frightening.

Jeremiah Icon
You could truly say that we are in similar times.  The changes experienced in New Zealand over the last few decades have made the country almost unrecognisable to those who knew this country and were formed by it in, say the 1950s.  Full employment, superb social welfare and social security, world class and free education, house-ownership a genuinely common and achievable aspiration; a very even social structure with few extremes: anyone who remembers such things fondly and hankers after them still may look around our present society and wonder and weep.

Or we could take another approach – and it is just possible that some may remember the days when going to church was the norm and just about everyone did.  Some people will remember when this Cathedral was full and the Christian faith was affirmed as the norm.  We inhabit a very different time now: Christianity is on the margins of society, not at the centre; we are in a time when denominations proliferate and fragment; house churches and alternatives to church appear; new churches are planted but the numbers of committed faithful declines; it is common now to talk about the demise of institutional religion and we look toward an ever more uncertain future where there are no answers and no notion at all as to what the future church may be like.

So we may like Jeremiah lament for the good times that are past as we all try and make sense of the present and the extraordinary challenges it presents.  But the truth is that Jeremiah has been in our predicament – he has seen the order of the world change – and while he laments he know that God is in this movement of history and this upheaval of culture: while his predicament troubles him, his hope in God endures.

Lamentations 3:19-263:19 The thought of my affliction and my homelessness is wormwood and gall!

3:20 My soul continually thinks of it and is bowed down within me.

3:21 But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope:

3:22 The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, his mercies never come to an end;

3:23 they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.

3:24 "The LORD is my portion," says my soul, "therefore I will hope in him."

3:25 The LORD is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him.

3:26 It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD.

The gospel talks about faith and the mustard seed – and I wonder how that connects with what we may learn from Jeremiah and the troubled situation of our times.  At the very heart of the gospels is that verse from John: “Truly, truly I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”   (John 12:24)

Embedded here is the principle of change and transformation so basic to the gospels   A wise man has noted how it was the life of seeds that informs our religious vision.

“What man saw in the grain, what he learnt when dealing with it, what he was taught by the example of seeds changing their form when they are in the ground, that was the decisive lesson … One of the main roots of soteriological optimism was the belief of prehistoric, agricultural mysticism that the dead, like seeds underground, can return to life in a different form.”   (Mircea Eliade   1907-1986  The Myth Of Eternal Return)

The Church has experienced much change over its nearly 2,000 years of existence. Yet somehow, it has adapted. In fact, one might say that it has reinvented itself many times over. Each of these reinventions has been, at least in part, a death and a resurrection. An American clergyman and scholar, once wrote about the Church:

Christianity started out in Palestine as a fellowship;
it moved to Greece and became a philosophy;
it moved to Italy and became an institution;
it moved to Europe and became a culture;
it came to America and became an enterprise.

As one scholar has expressed it: “With denominations and churches splitting at an ever-increasing rate, and as a result growing smaller and smaller, we may end up with a Church that looks more like it did in its first century state than at any time since: more diverse and less hierarchical, more faith than religion, more a movement than an institution. Indeed, it may well be that Christianity is poised to become a fellowship again. And that might not be so bad. In fact, it might not be going too far to say that by the end of this century we may have witnessed the death and resurrection of Christianity as we know it: the death of Christianity as an organized religion and its resurrection as a movement of the followers of Christ.”

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