Sunday, November 14, 2010

Luke 21
When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, 6“As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” 7They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” 8And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them. 9“When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” 10Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. 12“But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. 13This will give you an opportunity to testify. 14So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; 15for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. 16You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. 17You will be hated by all because of my name. 18But not a hair of your head will perish. 19By your endurance you will gain your souls.

I’ve lived in Toronto for half my life and I’ve only seen the Leafs once. To be fair, I’m not a huge sports fan, expect yacht racing, a sport that the Toronto Sun refuses to cover. I’m a fair weather fan, I suppose, or a play-off fan, which according to most, is the worst kind of fan there is.

When I first arrived in the big city, my local funeral home would call on occasion and offer me free tickets to a ball game. Now, nothing beats free, and the seats were usually pretty good, and so off I went. “Toronto treats her clergy well,” I would think, “free tickets, nice seats,” and never give it a second thought. Times have changed.

I’m told that clergy used to get free rail passes, and that the result was presbytery and conference boundaries organized purely on rail lines and ease of travel. Why else would Owen Sound be in Toronto Conference? The perk is gone but the boundaries remain. Still, times have changed.

When I did my first funeral, in beautiful Perth, Ontario, we drove through the town and made our way to a back road cemetery, and every car on the highway pulled over as a sign of respect. Times have changed.

Recently, I learned of a project proposal, a cooperative effort between the Toronto United Church Council and one of our local community colleges. The purpose of the project will be to track the kinds of things churches do to generate social capital: the activities, large and small, that make the community a better place. And then put a dollar value on it.

All this came about when a certain GTA municipality (that shall remain nameless) decided that there were too many new religious communities in their city. It seems that new churches and mosques discovered that vacant industrial properties could be easily converted into houses of worship, with ample parking an limited interference on a Sunday morning. And, of course, no property tax, as churches/mosques/temples are exempt.

In this nameless municipality there were some city officials that viewed religion like the majority of Canadians, with a sort of benign indifference. Except that they had calculators, and a mandate to increase city revenue, not see it disappear with the arrival of each new church/mosque/temple and the rest. So they started making noise about taxing churches, or at least taxing the parts unrelated to public worship.

Eventually meetings were held, suggestions were discussed, and a plan developed that did not involve taxing all or part of churches. The winning strategy was to convince officials that religious institutions create more value to the community that they take up in lost tax revenue. It wasn’t a difficult case to make, but the audience for the case is the unknown variable, and in this case people were initially indifferent but eventually open.

It seems a similar study (to the one proposed) was conducted in the UK, and the study discovered that on average, each place of worship created $140,000 in social value each year. That is the cost of services provided that the city would have to pay for if the individual congregation no longer existed. Imagining then that the study found the same result in the GTA, and lumping United, Anglican, Lutheran, Baptist, Catholic and other “mainline” churches, say 500 congregations in total, and multiply that by $140,000, you get $70,000,000 worth of stuff churches provide every year—for free—except that we don’t pay property tax.

Essentially then, we’re planning ahead, getting local data together so that when the “gravy train” stops at the churches doorstep, we can tell the city that we do more good than harm, and that taxing us would be self-defeating and cost votes. Not a lot of votes, mind you, because of the indifference I mentioned a moment ago.

Jesus looked at the temple and said not one stone would be lift standing on another in the time to come.
Many will try to lead you astray.
There will be wars and rumours of war. Lots of bad stuff will happen.
Before this, you will be persecuted and handed over to people in power, you will be called to defend yourself, and I will give you words to do it.
You will be betrayed, some will be put to death, but somehow not one hair on your head will perish.

November is a grumpy time in churchland. Maybe the people who pick the readings are affected by the time change somehow. Whatever the cause, the final readings in “ordinary time” and the readings at the beginning of Advent are laden with “end of the world as we know it” stories and generally grim passages of scripture. The task of the preacher is to navigate these, find some contemporary meaning, and get you safely home in time for lunch.

The helpful thing, for those who faithfully explore these difficult passages, is the ample number of situations in our world that parallel the disastrous, sky-melting, world-changing events that Jesus describes. Human history is remarkably consistent, with enough natural and man-made calamity at any moment for us to say “look here” and “just like” and “the time is nign.”

On such event, an attack last week on a Christian church in Baghdad, and the death of over fifty worshippers, gives you a sense that the persecution Jesus described continues. The Vatican must appoint secret Cardinals to represent Catholics in China, a constant source of tension between the two. In countries with a significant Christian minority, such as the Sudan, persecution remains a fact of daily life.

Those of you who took my “History of the Christian Church” series will recall that in the early days of the church, only martyrs were considered saints. Martyrdom mean dying for your faith, and the whole saint-making process was informal and largely simple to administer. Saints were commemorated in the local community they served, reputations spread, examples were lifted up for others to follow, and more saints and martyrs came.

Now two things complicated the largely simple idea of sainthood. If a priest was killed for a reason other than faith (in one case, it was in a barroom brawl), then he could hardly be considered a martyr or a saint. That was the first problem. The second was the eventual end of persecution, and the end of the common experience of martyrdom. Saintmaking largely dried up, and at the some time there were lots of examples of “heroic virtue” among those who died peacefully. So a new process was born, one that hasn’t evolved much from them down to Saint Brother Andre today.

So there was martyrdom in mass numbers, then there was not.
There was a movement to take the faith to non-Christian peoples, beginning in Europe, and a few martyrs.
There was an expansion of the missionary enterprize into Asia, Africa and the Americas, a few more martyrs, but only a few.
Now there is tension in places where the church thrives, such as the Sudan, or where a church is nearly overwhelmed, such a Baghdad (where the church has existed for nearly 2,000 years).

And we fight indifference. With 85% of the population not in church this morning, we face a different type of struggle. We retrench, we close churches, we try to do with less, we apologize for the scary Christians and the embarrassing Christians and we quietly go about our business. We watch for the “signs of the times,” like the nameless municipality that wondered out loud what so many are thinking, or the fact that MPAC started sending out property valuations to churches a while ago, with a note that said ‘we realize you are tax exempt, but if we taxed you, this is what we would base it on.’

It’s hardly the stuff of a good martyrology. They won’t erect a shrine in Penetanguishene to the church tax martyrs, and it seems small to even make a comparison to the people who truly suffer for their faith. But some comparison must be made, so here goes.

If someone says to me ‘why do you help Weston’s vulnerable population? Why Central, why not leave it to others?’ First, I would argue, that if we didn’t do it, they may not be others willing to step up. Then I might say, “because it’s the right thing to do,” or “but for the grace of God go I,” and therefore we help out. I’m less likely to say “for the Bible tells me so” or “God commands it” or Jesus said love your neighbour” and “feed my sheep” and “if you do this for the least of my brothers and sisters (Jesus said) you do it also for me.”

Just last month Robert Fulford, famous man of letters and Officer of the Order of Canada wrote that no one quotes the Bible anymore and if they did they would be labeled an eccentric. He spoke at my first convocation, I have respected him for a quarter of a century, but in a sentence I was labeled and then dismissed. Or dismissed then labeled. Whatever, it wasn’t a fun time. It’s one thing to leave the mainstream, but quite another to be lumped in with people who dress like Don Cherry. I’m hardly a martyr, but the sting is real.

Still stinging, dismissed and labeled, maybe what I lack is trust. Jesus said: “This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.” This not crisis, it is opportunity. When you become irrelevant or outside the mainstream, you get to reinvent yourself, or define a new narrative, or surprize people with the new you. We don’t need to sell ourselves, or justify ourselves, we just need to be our true selves, caring for the vulnerable and talking about forgiveness and grace and all those other counter-cultural ideas. And we don’t need to create a script, or plan a careful justification, because Jesus promised to give us all the words we need.


Post a Comment

<< Home