A friend of mine just returned from a trip to upstate New York, to attend the final service of his childhood church, St. David’s, closing after around 100 years. This St. David’s, however, was not the first church of that name to open – or to close – in that town. An earlier St. David’s was founded in before the Revolutionary War, and existed for about 100 years until it closed. And why did it close – not once, but twice? Patterns of settlement changed. People stopped coming to church on foot, or by horse and buggy. The second St. David’s inhabited a building they bought from a Quaker meeting that also closed – which the new St. David’s was able to buy because they had saved the proceeds from the sale of their first Episcopal church, 100 years before. I don’t really know why this second St. David’s, finally, could not thrive. Was the building too small, too off the beaten path? Who could have known that superhighways would come rushing by, whooshing former townspeople off to greener pastures, or that the size of a parking lot would determine the size of a congregation. But St. David’s surely knows more than others, that the closing of a church does not necessarily mean that its life is over. It might be dead, the fields lie fallow for some time – maybe even a century or more – but that God’s mission somehow has knack – a penchant – a burning desire to come back to life, to thrive for a time – a good long time – and then perhaps lie fallow again until called forth for a new day, a new community, a new expression of the mission of God.
How curious, perhaps, to close this church at the beginning of the church year. But at the beginning of a year we look both forward and back. We long for the peace of Jerusalem, but know it as a city full of violence – and so what vision do we have of the future? One in which those swords are transformed into farming tools. We look to the past for the images, the vision, the hope, that will point us to a new future, that will transform this reality into God’s reality.
Our New Testament readings point to the danger of sleepiness: if we don’t pay attention we might just miss God’s new reality even as it breaks over our heads. Jesus underscores the suddenness with which God’s new reality can break into our lives. Right there, in the middle of ordinary things like working in fields, or preparing food: crash! One person is taken, one is left. How can we ever be ready? Were any of us really ready for the closing of this church? If we were ready, how would we know? Like with the death of a loved one, or when a friend moves away: what does it really mean to plan for those things?
What we can do is to live God’s life to the fullest, to live as though that new reality was already breaking in. Think of this:
One day Jesus may appear in the clouds, suddenly, like a thief in the night. But before that – as Matthew reminds us – Jesus will appear just around the corner, suddenly, like a hungry person, or a neighbor ill-clothed, or someone sick or imprisoned. (*)
God’s new reality is like that: it might be something strange and mysterious, or it might be something so ordinary and plain – and we must be paying attention if we want to see it. Indeed, the life we have is the life God has given us. What this first Sunday of the church year does for us is to encourage us to pay attention to what has been going on, so that we can see where the action of God is going into the future.
Many wonderful things have gone on in this place, and in the lives of each of us who have walked through these doors. We have talked about many of those things – the things you brought with you, things which have enriched us all. Some have talked about how the churchgoing habits of their youth were so built in to the very fabric of their being that coming to church every Sunday was just part of who they are. We are all richer for their faithfulness. Others talked about how they found this, or another church, when they were teenagers, looking for friends, stability and meaning. They found it in church, and maybe found it again when they came here. We are all richer for their seeking and finding. Others talked about shattered lives, and how people in this church touched them and made them whole. For others this is a place of beauty and refuge, of hospitality and warmth, a sanctuary apart from the mean streets. We are all richer for the friendship and trust our neighbors share with us.
In the midst of all this ordinary church life, God comes. God breaks through when we least expect it, turning what we thought was ordinary into something extraordinary. We may close the doors of this church for a while, for a season, for even a century. But what God has broken through to do here will live on. We will take what has been extraordinary with us, knowing that there will be more than enough to stay right here, and that in God’s good time the hungry will still be fed and the lonely welcomed and joyful congratulated and the weary given rest.
* David Bartlett, Provoking the Gospel of Matthew, quoted by Kate Huey in Reflections for the First Sunday of Advent, http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/november-28-2010-first.html