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Advent and hope, in the middle of our broken world
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In our tradition, many Episcopalians are aware of Phyllis Tickle and her views of the emerging church. 

Tickle and many others as well as my new pastor friend all see the church as dealing with immense change about every 500 years. Tickle calls this the 500-year rummage sale — every 500 years the church experiences sweeping change in religious patterns, thinking and spirituality. This 500 year rummage sale is a general pattern, but it provides us with an interesting perspective — a lens through which to see our own situation as Christians in this time. 

The idea is simple. About five centuries after Jesus, the Roman Empire collapses and all of Western civilization is in jeopardy. The church becomes a anchor for a society and culture for a pattern of established civilization on the verge of collapse. 

Another 500 years brings us to 1000, which is when the Eastern and Western churches split in 1054. This permanently divided East from West — a split that persists to this day despite some goodwill gestures between Roman and Eastern leaders in 1965.

Another 500 years brings us to 1500, roughly the time of Reformation — not really one Reformation, but actually several, some almost unnoticeable (such as the Reformation in Sweden), some lasting centuries, such as Reformation in England.

Another 500 years brings us to our own time — a time when, once again, the church finds itself in the midst of ferment and flux and the challenge of profound change. This time many church traditions are facing immense change. 

A pastor of a 1,500-member Lutheran church I recently met told me that he felt that the size of the church in the near future would be about 300 to 500, a size large enough to do ministry with enough resources of people and funding. This is actually what his current church is like because 300 to 400 show up on any given Sunday. He stated that larger churches — the megachurches with congregations numbering over 5,000 — are now beginning to be in jeopardy. They are one theological division, one split away from not being able to sustain their large mega-campuses and some actually have closed.

But then my colleague in ministry stated that he felt that smaller churches also would not survive. They would simply disappear. Like independent pharmacies and hardware stores, like small community banks and small farms, my friend viewed the demise of the small church as inevitable. 

And here I disagree. Numbers do not adequately define small churches. Numbers do not measure vision or energy or the depths of community. They do not capture the experience of being known, profoundly known within religious settings where different people, with different perspectives and different histories come together. 

But I also do not want to minimize the challenges to small congregations. We are truly in a time of change. And some churches, large and small, will die. The difference, I think, will lie in terms of our willingness to confront change, to take risks, to prayerfully address ministry and mission. 

Perhaps you are a bit unnerved by all this talk of change, risk, and mission. The talk is all around us — and so is change. Just five or six decades ago, most churches were confident of their mission, were seeing a natural pattern of growth, and were at the center of a civic culture that valued religion and Christianity here in America. Now much of that has disappeared. Now churches are trying new things. One Episcopal congregation in the West sold their building because it was taking up too much of their energy and focus. Now they focus on mission and ministry. Another congregation emerged in New York City when an Episcopal church grew out of a weekly Sunday night meal which attracted a whole diverse new group of worshippers. 

Yet not all change is seamless and positive. Often it is unnerving and risky. Much of the change today is asking us to move out of our buildings and into our communities. And even if we do take up new challenges and new risks in the name of following Jesus, we should not be surprised if we in the church feel at odds with our culture. Thanksgiving has been pitted against the consumerism of Black Friday shopping sprees. And Christmas is similarly under attack. Even in traditional settings, things are a little bit out of kilter.

So change often puts us in a position in which we feel out of kilter. Advent does this. As Anne Stewart of Princeton Theological Seminary points out in her commentary on Jeremiah 33, Advent is an entire season in which we may feel out of kilter and out of control. Here we are, with leftover turkey in the freezer or fridge and on the very weekend following Thanksgiving and now, today, we are somehow being asked to begin celebrating a new year. A new church year with royal purple trappings and with texts that speak of the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ with all his saints or heaven and earth passing away . But perhaps the bigger challenge of Advent is not the beginning of a new church year but the central idea of waiting.

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Advent is a season of waiting in darkness. Waiting with expectation. Waiting in order to prepare for the coming of Jesus. Waiting? Waiting for anything is not something desirable in our America. We are a people of multi-tasking mania, in our culture, driven by our time saving computers and smart phones. Waiting is out of style. And a bit unnerving for us. Who waits for anything anymore? Try going 35 miles an hour on U.S. 151. And so Christmas carols mostly will end long before the 12 days of Christmas ends. Trees purchased in November will be thrown out right after Christmas Day -- all because preparation and expectation and waiting are out of style and perhaps make us feel just a bit out of kilter. 

But there is a bigger reason why Advent creates a sense of tension. Advent is a season places us squarely in the middle between the great hope of future redemption and the current reality of a broken world.

We know the dichotomy that exists between witnessing war and refugees fleeing war zones and terrorist attacks while at the same time we find ourselves in the midst of a season in which we wait for the Prince of Peace. We know the dichotomy that creeps into our own experience in which we have to say to ourselves and to so many in our culture who want the dream of Shalom and of wholeness to be realized — when we have to say, silently or aloud, to them and to ourselves: Not yet. Peace: not yet. Wholeness: not yet. Jerusalem living in safety: not yet. Racial harmony: not yet.

But notice the advice that Jesus gives his followers in the midst of speaking about radical and cataclysmic change in Luke 21. He says “Be on your guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly like a trap.”

It is easy to lose sight of the promise of justice and peace and redemption of the created order in the midst of a broken world. It is easy to feel only a sense of dissonance. But our task is to persevere. To hang on to and grasp hope. To be people of love. To have hearts that are not weighed down, but instead are strengthened with holiness.


In this Advent, let us live with hope instead of anxiety. Let us think about mission instead of survival. A new year is upon us: Let us care for one another and let that love extend out into our community. Small congregations can survive and flourish if they respond to change with creativity, courage, faith and resolve. Instead of retreating into time-worn patterns, in the new church year and in the new calendar year just ahead, let us in our churches prayerfully try out some new things.