The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at:
s092g11  Advent 1  27/11/2011

‘heaven and earth will pass away’   Mark 13.31

Those who are not from the eastern suburbs and central Christchurch cannot be expected to comprehend the devastation and trauma caused by the series of earthquakes since September the 4th last year, and more particularly February the 22nd and June 13th.   These dates are as familiar to us as September the 11th is to the rest of the world.   After a year we are beginning to have several days in a row when we don’t have a magnitude 3 or greater shake.   Of course, none of our difficulties can be compared to what Japan or Haiti have suffered.   Others may have seen photographs of the damage, but it is still unreal.   And photographs don’t capture the personal toll on people.

So we here in Christchurch do not hear these words with any sense of calm.   I was attending a mid-week service in a chapel a while back.  During the service a huge machine was demolishing a building next door.   Every so often there was a huge ‘thud’ and the chapel shook.   The worshippers went a bit ‘stir-crazy’ after the 30 minutes, including myself!

As I have reflected on our experiences, one of the learnings is that intellectually we know that we are part of creation, but it is an entirely different matter to be a part of creation when creation happens to be doing what comes naturally!   And I guess it alerts me to the fact that a stability where nothing is changing is a myth and a delusion.   Change is always happening and the ground on which we stand is fragile indeed.   It is just that during the last year or so, the changes have been happening here where we are, in a manner that we can’t ignore.   People’s homes and livelihoods have been seriously disrupted.   Christchurch cannot return to what it was before.

But despite all the trauma, there is a germ of exhilaration that we are part of a new creation, albeit reluctantly.    Christchurch will be rebuilt, and no doubt it will not be a ‘concrete jungle’ like many modern cities.   It will be a long time before people will venture much higher than perhaps a fifth floor.   It will be a beautiful city again for Christchurch folk are used to beauty.

I guess the image we have of ‘heaven’ is a safe haven away from the precarious life we now ‘enjoy’.   I wonder who it was who quipped that ‘life itself is a sexually transmitted terminal illness’ in the early days of the AIDS outbreak?   Yet Jesus tells us that heaven itself is no permanent place – it too will pass away.  

And the other thing that Jesus tells us is that ‘the powers of heaven will be shaken’.   We don’t welcome these words, for our church is supposed to be another haven from change.   Yet just as there are continuing rumbles in Christchurch – mercifully less these days – there are serious ructions for the church.   The old verities seem to be vanishing – but the truth is that the church has been changing all along.   When I was confirmed we were still using the 1662 prayer book and the Ancient and Mouldy Revised Hymn Book.   Women were not ordained.  Gay and lesbian persons simply did not exist, and no one knew about sexual abuse of children!   Actually I read recently that Mary MacKillop’s excommunication in 1871was retribution for going public about molestation by one Father Keating of Kapunda.    Divorce was a thing reserved for Hollywood actresses – actors’ dalliances were acceptable of course!  Politically correct language wasn’t even thought of.   How much has changed!   Yet how many Anglicans want to return to the halcyon days of the 50’s?  

Just as it is uncomfortable to be a part of creation being renewed, so too it is uncomfortable to be a part of the church being renewed.   Uncomfortable, yet also exhilarating.  For the powers of heaven will be shaken.   The church is being recalled to her servant ministry where power is no longer relevant.   As the author of the Letter to the Hebrews states: ‘It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.’  (Hebrews 10.31)   And it is not fearful for the heathens out there who don’t come to church; it is fearful to those who assume their superiority because they do come to church, tithe and read the Bible; for those who use the church as a means of power.

For in the end it is God’s work of renewal, it is not the result of one person’s work or the work of a particular party within the church.   It is a function of the ease of communication these days that we know of tragedy, but also of different ideas, different cultures, different lifestyles.   The invention of printing was the catalyst for the Reformation, for printing meant that the hierarchy of the church no longer had a monopoly on the words of scripture and therefore the interpretation of scripture.   The monopoly on truth and learning, a weapon of great power has vanished.   The invention of the internet makes it quite plain that it can no longer be claimed that the Anglican church is a monoculture of like-minded individuals who agree on everything!   Of course it never was.  So the real question is why we cling onto myths of uniformity?   It is God’s work because it is a bringing of people together and no one person has made this happen.   And like progress, it can’t be stopped, anymore than anyone can command the earthquakes to stop or the tide to not come in.

In fact, of course, scripture itself is a bringing together of the religious experiences of the various authors.   The value of the bible is not that it gives us unambiguous answers to all life’s questions, but that the different religious experiences of people are put side by side - inviting us to see how our own religious experiences are complemented by and contrasted to what has gone before.   It relativises our experience, and invites us to put our own experiences side by side with those around us.   Just as we can learn from the ancients, we are encouraged to be enriched by those around us.

The physical and emotional damage of the series of earthquakes has brought people together.   We have tasted something of the interrelationship of all people, where no one is better because of faith, gender, possessions, influence, race, colour or with whom they choose to share their intimate affections.   The shaking of the powers of heaven does precisely the same thing, just as Jesus associated with all, from Simon the Pharisee to Simon the leper, with the tax-collectors, the prostitutes and the sinners.

As John Lennon wrote in 1971:

Imagine there's no heaven
I wonder if you can
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today...

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace...

Imagine no possessions
It’s easy if you try
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world...

You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will live as one

It is scary, but it is also exhilarating and I wonder if we have enough faith to embrace, rather than repudiate, this vision as the orthodox and the devout repudiated all that Jesus stood for?

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