It is fair to say that we live in stressful times these days. Things we once took for granted, no longer seem to apply. Our certainty on anything, suddenly is less certain as we watch and listen to values around equality and human rights give way to old ideologies of hate and violence.
It is easy for us grow weary and lament at the decisions world leaders make. We can easily grow weary closer to home when ecological values and land rights seem to be sacrificed at the cost of development, pipelines and economic success. In our own Church, we feel at some level the pressure and strain of declining membership, deficit budgets and aging buildings. Regardless of how we may feel about any of these issues, they occupy our thoughts and minds as we wonder when and how these will be satisfactorily resolved.
What happens in the world and our neighborhoods becomes our concern too. It is hard to remain neutral or walk through life unaffected by social, economic and political influences. But we sure do try. Perhaps it is in how we identify ourselves as Canadians, or for any other social and cultural norms we may have been raised with, we try and remain objective and neutral. Articulating and publicly acknowledging our opinion can strike against some of our core values. We work hard to maintain this front as real or perceived as it may be. One of the ways we do this, almost subconsciously is to guard and protect the world in which we live and operate. We develop and fall into regular patterns and behavior that are comfortable and work well for us. Everything else is excluded or placed outside our “bubble.” Soon, very soon, we realize we are not comfortable with anything “new” or that could disrupt the status quo. Change, good or bad, becomes something to fear.
Why do we do this? What is it about our nature that makes us so resistive to change, no matter how good or life giving the change may be? While we may not like change and resist it with everything we have, the concept of death is even worse. Death for most of us scares us to our core.
What is it about death and change that frightens us and evokes every defense mechanism we may have? Perhaps this probes at why Jesus often had a hard time. Change is hard. Death is even harder. The People of God of Ancient Israel are no different from us in many ways. They too are familiar and protective of their patterns, routines and customs. Change too is difficult and threatening. Often bringing in a change meant something or someone died. Jesus died. Many political activists down through the ages have died, often in the name of the cause they believed deeply in; to create a better, more just world for everyone.
Jesus is on to something in today’s gospel. Intellectually we know that there is life after death and in the end; all empires fall to make way for the new to emerge and grow. Emotionally, however, this is a different concept all together. Emotionally change and death is hard to take because in a way we don’t know what the ‘new’ will look like. Will there be a place for us? Who will be there? How do we get there? These and any number of questions and fears around the unknown makes us resistive to change, no matter how good the change may be.
Jesus talks about a grain of wheat. He says that a grain remains just a grain unless it dies (John 12: 24). It is only in dying that the seed may be transformed and give way to the growth of more wheat. The wheat in turn is transformed into flour and bread. Bread becomes food that we use for sustenance and nourishment. All this is possible because something dies. Jesus calls it bearing much fruit (v. 24).
Talking about death can be scary. But in order to have a healthy understanding of ourselves as people and as a church, talking about death is necessary. In a way, death is our business as a Church. The Church is in a unique position to talk about death because we find ourselves in the transitions of life. In Baptism, we enter into a new life in Christ; the death of family and friends, and the supports we need to mourn; changing from one job or community to another, as we leave behind friends and the familiarity of the known to embrace new possibilities are transitions and involve a death. The natural goal of all of these “mini deaths” is for us to live a fuller, more meaningful life and a stronger relationship with God.
But what happens when the church dies, or a part of the church that holds deep meaning for so many, dies? What happens then? We live in uncertain times as a church. Not just for us at St. Martin’s, but globally. We as a Global Church community find ourselves having to wrestle with social and economic factors and a change in cultural norms that we haven’t had to deal with for a long time.
When we look at the success of the Church down through the ages we inevitably recognize how the Church has adapted to the changing needs and concerns of society. When we have done that, we find that people inevitably are drawn closer to the church as they recognize the meaning and significance that church has for them as they live their daily lives. Notice, that it is the Church that changes, not the people. Indeed, this may be the very reason why many of us joined a church in the beginning. The church offered a way to meet a need and a yearning of ours.
This is not an easy road to travel. No one ever said it would be. But this is part of our calling as a Church community, to boldly go to those places where we and people fear to go. It was Archbishop and Primate Michael Peers who said several years ago in words to this effect, “we (the Church) have survived Kings and Queens, Governments and Rulers; we will survive this too.” I believe that these words can still be true for us today and that one day future generations will look back and recognize with pride the abundance of fruit that has been born as we the Church, rose to the challenge of meeting the deep yearnings and needs of a broken world that is looking for us to manage them through the transitions of life. From death to life.