Archive for May 7th, 2010

May 2, 5th Sunday of Easter

Well, today was quite a day. We had two great readings from Scripture, either of which could have given me enough material for several sermons, and in a few minutes we will be ordaining our new elders, which should certainly be mentioned in the sermon this morning. After careful consideration, I decided to focus on the reading from Revelation, partly because this is one of the books of the Bible which is often neglected, and also because, just at it heralds a new heaven and a new earth, so too is St. Andrew’s moving into a new phase of its life. This started almost a year ago, when I was called to be the minister for this congregation, and is continuing as we ordain Matthew and Kathleen to Term Eldership. I will not go into any of the details about that, as you will hear them in a short while, but I just wanted to show how this movement is an important part of church growth and development, and how this church, in particular, has been taking steps to make movement a part of this congregation’s life.
The chapter from which we read this morning is the second-last chapter in the Bible, and, as with much of this book, is concerned with presenting a vision of what is to come. I found it kind of ironic that, just as we read the 23rd Psalm last week – which is often used as part of a funeral liturgy – so this week our reading from Revelation is also often used as part of a funeral liturgy, particularly the part which reads: He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. That is the nature of life itself, isn’t it? That the old order passes away, and is replaced by the new order. Children are born, grow up, leave home, and have their own children. As years go by, things change. And, while change for the sake of change can be daunting and unpleasant, natural change is something that we have all lived with, and will continue to live with. St. Andrew’s has changed since it was first founded, in 1759, which is why it is still here in 2010.
So, let’s see what we can find in our reading for today which will apply to what is happening right here, right now. This is one of the odd books of the Bible – one which is often not read, and if it is read, is often misinterpreted. The unfortunate thing is that many people who have read Revelation, have not read anything else in the Bible, so it is no wonder that they cannot understand what it really means. So right now, I want you to forget everything you may have heard about this book of the Bible, and look at it as it was written, as a book meant to comfort the community which had lost its leader, the community who was grieving for the death of Jesus Christ. Imagine the way we felt after the events of September 11th a few years ago, and this is probably close to the way the early Christians were feeling. Everything that they accepted, everything they believed in, had been ripped from them by the authorities, and they had to pick up the pieces and go on. From this atmosphere of despair, from this atmosphere of loss and mourning, John’s Revelation appeared, to give them hope, which it still does today.
You know, even though there are a great many people who claim not to be religious, who have not read anything from the Bible, most of them are still familiar with Revelation, even if they do not recognize that it is from the Bible. For instance, if you read the whole of chapter 21, you will see that many of the ideas we have about what heaven will be like actually came from this part of the Bible. The pearly gates that feature in so many jokes? In verse 21, we can read: The twelve gates were twelve pearls, each gate made of a single pearl. The idea that the streets in heaven are paved with gold comes from the same verse. We also believe that Heaven will be completely perfect, and that, too, comes from the book of Revelation, in which heaven is described as a perfect cube, measuring 12 000 stadia on each side. And before you ask, I did the looking, and found that a stadia is about 185 metres, so this means that heaven, as pictured here, is just over 2 million metres on each side. Of course, we have to remember that this was a vision, and is not meant to be taken literally.
Now we are going to look at some specific words and phrases, and see not only what they meant at the time they were written, but also what they can mean for us, now, in 2010 in Québec City.
First, let’s look at the word “new”. The writer of the book of Revelation was speaking to new Christians, to Christians who were expecting the second coming at any minute. But it speaks to us today. Then, the new Christians had moved far from the law of Moses, and were in the birth pangs of creating a whole new church. Now, we can look at the word “new” and give it a couple of meanings. It can mean something which was recently made, as in new wine; or it can mean something which was not used; or, as it is used in Revelation, something totally different from what went before. At St. Andrew’s, you have already started something new. You did this first last year, when you called your first woman minister. And now we have the privilege of adding two new elders, neither of whom is old enough to be considered an elder in the physical sense of the word. But unlike John’s vision, our old did not pass away. Some members of this church have been members for better than 50 years, and they are still contributing to the life of the church. Those members act as a funnel, to bring what is best from the past to combine with the new, and to make sure that We celebrate our age, we are excited about the fact that this congregation is 250 years old, and that our sanctuary will be observing its 200th birthday this summer. We are a blending of the old and the new, and that is the best way for a church to operate. We welcome new members, with their new ideas, and their new ways of doing things, even while we cling to what is good out of the old.
Let’s take a look at the 4th verse of our reading, where it is written: the old order of things has passed away. In this new city, this new Jerusalem, there will be many things which are different. This has happened many times at St. Andrew’s many times, and each time, St. Andrew’s has become a better church. In the very beginning, before any of us can remember, the early Presbyterians in this city decided that they needed their own church. Before this, if what I have been told is accurate, they rented space in various places, including the Jesuit College. Early ministers came from Scotland, but this has not been true for a long time now.
I remember being told that Isabel Maccartney was called to be the first woman elder here several decades ago. At the same time Bertie Branion was called, and I am sure that it could not have been easy for them, or for the congregation as a whole. But it happened, and St. Andrew’s not only survived, but prospered. There are still churches which refuse to call women as Elders, and they are poorer for it. And now we have another change, one which will be explained after the sermon. Things will be different, things will change. Now, I can’t promise that there will be no difficulties as we make the transition, but I can promise that God will be with us as we do this. We have people here to guide us, people who know St. Andrew’s far better than I do. That is the joy of having a long-established congregation. There are people here who can remember what it was like here 50 and more years ago. There are people here who have gone through transitions, with all the issues that transitions can cause, and the church is stronger because of it. I look forward to walking with you on this journey, and to seeing where we will be at the end of it.
In all this talk about the new heaven and the new earth, many people miss a phrase that I consider crucial – one that clearly shows where we are now, and who is with us. We read: The dwelling of God is with men and he will live with them. Now, lest anyone take offense at the word “men”, I should tell you that, in the Greek, the word which is used is not gender-specific, so what it means is that God was with the early Christians then, just as he is with us now. You may not have noticed, but most of the other sentences in this reading talk about something that will happen – something that is to come. But here we are clearly told that the dwelling of God IS with us. To me, this means that the new heaven and the new earth are here – that the new time has already begun. It began with the birth of Jesus Christ, and will continue.
As Christians, our lives are a series of new beginnings, starting with baptism. Then, for most of us, our parents made promises in our names. At some point, we decided for ourselves that we wanted to be full members of a particular church, usually the one in which we were originally baptized. This affirmation of faith, like our baptism, was done in front of the congregation, and marked another beginning, another chance for us to show that we believe. Several times a year, we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, and each time we do this is a fresh start, a way to connect with God and our faith community. And now, in this sanctuary, we are part of another beginning, a revitalization of our session.
In a few minutes Kathleen and Matthew will make their vows, but they will not be alone. As the congregation, you will also make vows, vows to support them in their ministry. Through these vows, you will be sharing in their ministry; you will be a part of it.
There is a saying: The longest journey begins with a single step. We are taking that step today. It is my prayer that our journey together will be lit by the lamp of faith, and that each step we take will guide us further down the road God has prepared for us.
Thanks be to God.

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