by Rev. Joan Kessler
John 2: 13-22
Russian Orthodox theologian, Alexander Schmemann once said the surest way to desecrate a landscape was to build a church upon it.
Some might say that’s a pretty controversial statement to make and not at all agree… and others might be thinking well it’s about time someone said that. If there is a topic that Christianity is doing some deep wrestling with this past decade and in particular, these past twelve months since COVID made its presence known, it is how do we relate to the church building.
Christian churches as we know them today did not begin as massive structures with multiple spires and large wooden doors and stained glass windows. In the first centuries following Jesus’ death and resurrection, the earliest Christian community met in the homes large enough to accommodate a gathering. Evidence also suggests that public spaces such as warehouses and apartment-style buildings were also utilized. Even when there were several meeting sites in a city, Christians had the sense of being one church. And then in 313, Emperor Constantine declared Christianity legal with the Edict of Milan, and with this new status, the building got underway; cathedrals and basilicas dotted the landscape over the centuries to come. Fast forward to present day, and second only to Government, religious institutions are the largest property holders in Canada. In 2015, our United Church of Canada alone was insured for roughly $5 billion in real estate across the country… According to the Edge Network of the United Church, the congregational development arm of the denomination, roughly 30 per cent of congregations are looking at doing something different with their buildings whether it be to sell, rebuild, or redevelop. We are in a state of flux and change that began even before the pandemic hit us.
So this all begs the question is the church something other than a building? I read a qualitative study from Ireland this past week that explores this very question in light of the pandemic. The report interviewed a variety of clergy from different denominations.
There were three areas of study that piqued my interest:
The first was the question that we are all starting to ask and that is what is the future of online worship. 70% of those surveyed intended to continue with some aspects of online ministry once public restrictions were eased or lifted and there was a return to the church building.
They spoke of the desire to keep connected with those physically unable to attend in person and as a means to help maintain community and faith formation activities. Geographical location is no longer a barrier or hindrance to participation and that is indeed something to celebrate and hold up. But one comment that struck me was the issue of loneliness… that we do not overcome this experience by spending more time on our devices. There is no denying, Zoom in particularly has changed our experience of Sunday gatherings… we have freedom that we can exercise in the midst of it… and I wonder how a return to the building will support these aspects of being able to attend other services, finish dishes while you listen in or quietly slip out if there is a need to do so. No judgment here for any of this… it is the reality of Zoom services and it is very fascinating to consider what this means to the church and our property going forward.
The study also investigated the experience of reopening the building. Respondents largely agreed that their denominations provided adequate reopening guidelines. The stress that this involved for some was palpable around meeting the safety requirements and determining when was the best time to return to the building. It took considerable effort and expense to reopen. There was also frustration expressed around public restrictions on in-person faith services… one participant queried, “If we can go to Ikea why can’t we go to church?”
The third section of interest was around the pandemic and theological reflection. The question was asked where is the Divine in all of this and not surprisingly there were a variety of positions dependent on one’s religious affiliation. There were positive and negative views. It was also noted that there were other significant world events happening simultaneously such as Black Lives Matter and police violence.
But despite the fear and the doubts, there was also hope for the future. What is God saying to the church, one cleric asked. “Trust in the change… move things that are in the way?” He said, “It’s all about moving ahead and there’s no going back to the past… fostering an environment that causes people to say I want to do something wonderful with my life rather than it’s all about me.”
As a congregation, we have done our share of talking about how COVID has changed us. We are now beginning to talk about how we feel about these changes. Our reading for today is rather an informative illustration of what COVID has us facing. In John’s account of Jesus clearing the temple, it is very different from the stories found in the other three gospels. He doesn’t turn the tables on the moneychangers and the animal vendors because they are doing something wrong… what he found there in the Temple that day were completely acceptable practices… what Jesus opposed was the whole structure… the burden that Temple sacrifice and worship put upon people of little means… and how the building misplaced the Spirit and set it apart from the lived experience of people. Just as Advent reminds us of the incarnation, of God moving into the neighbor and becoming one of us… this season of Lent reminds us of the spiritual nature of Jesus… the Word that became flesh… inhabits the same world we do and became one of us.
This Temple, this structure and all that goes into maintaining it will not stand says Jesus… a powerful message for a COVID Lenten Sunday, especially as we approach the one year anniversary of our last pre-COVID Sunday service. Jesus came to be the substitute for the Temple and the industry it created. Jesus describes himself in a variety of ways throughout John’s gospel… I am the light of the world, I am the good shepherd, I am the bread of life, the true vine, the door. I am the resurrection and the life… in other words… I am here.
Thank you Jesus for righteous anger that turns the tables on what we think we know and challenges us to consider where we locate the Holy Mystery… it is bigger than any temple or church building or container we can imagine. So what do you think? What new insights have we gained these past 12 months around our understanding of Church?
Has it become something other than a building…? And maybe your answer is no…there is still value in a building… believe you me I understand this sentiment as well… how do we embody a community and get noticed without a structure? But what are we willing to invest in a physical structure? How might we reimagine our relationship with the building on the other side of COVID?
In a few moments, we are going to bless our prayer shawls…without even knowing who will receive these shawls, they were made with intention for the person who will receive this extension of ourselves. This is us wrapping our prayers, our care, our community around someone… may they feel warmth, may they feel comfort of wool twisted and stitched and counted… the work of hands prayerfully considering the one who will wear it. Today is a good day to bless these shawls remotely and virtually… Jesus reminds us that there is no barrier to the peace, the love, the blessing… this is the point of our story this day. Asking the question… what are the gifts and challenges to the Church because of COVID-19… theological reflection has a critical place in our discernment. What new thing is God showing us because of COVID?
The wondering of what things might look like that are life-giving and supportive of community we have formed and how we intersect with the wider community beyond our circle. Change is upon us… we hear this story and find a pathway for the future… that started so very long ago...