35And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” 36The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, 37and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” (Read the whole passage)
When I was 11 years old and just beginning confirmation, someone in the congregation I grew up in (our parents? The pastor?) decided that all of us first year confirmation students should learn how to usher.
Bob and Lorna had been ushering every Sunday at our church for decades. Always in a suit and Sunday dress, they faithfully showed early each week to attend to things that needed to be done for worship: put up the hymn numbers, water glasses for worship leaders, mic checks, tidying hymnals and on and on. They along with the other ushers welcomed worshippers with a smile and took them to their pews and handed out bulletins.
Bob and Lorna attended to us confirmands just like they attended to everyone else. They taught us to give two bulletins to couples who both wore glasses because they probably held the bulletin at different readings distances. They taught us to notice where people regularly sat. How to direct people forward for communion, but to keep the line up short enough that people weren’t standing and waiting for too long. They taught us to stagger the hymn numbers on the hymn board for a little elegance and to make them more readable.
For them ushering wasn’t about the all the little jobs that keep ushers busy, it was about caring for people. For Bob and Lorna, ushering was an expression of their faith. It was a way to embody Christ, to show God’s love to their neighbour, to pass on something of what it meant to be faithful to some misbehaved 11-year-olds. And learning to usher taught me how to see the people of our congregation differently, to put others first, to consider what my neighbour might need in order to hear the gospel and meet Jesus week after week.
Today, we worship at the end. The end of the liturgical year, with Advent just around the corner. We finish the telling of the story of Jesus only to start it all over again, as if it is brand new and unknown for us.
We also worship today in the shadow of another end – the end of all things when God will bring about the a new creation under the reign of Christ. The cosmic end of the world we know, the world of suffering, sin and death with the promised new world of healing, wholeness and life on the horizon.
And here on this end of days, it is all too easy to find ourselves focused more on the ending of what is, than the new beginning promised and just around the corner. In fact, endings are pretty comfortable places for us to be. We are people predisposed to the status quo, and there is nothing more more certain than the nearing end of the story, the nearing end of the journey. Its no wonder the best part of most movies is the climax, the moment near the end when the outcome to the story is assured. Its also no wonder that while death and funerals often turn families inside out trying to figure out how to live after the end has come for a loved one, we all instinctively know how to attend to and care for a loved on their death bed. But it is not just movies and death beds that we know well, it is endings of all kinds. It is more comfortable to remain in a relationship that isn’t working than to strike out and start fresh, more comfortable to continue with a job we cant’t stand than begin something new, more comfortable to endure that chronic health issue than see a doctor and start a new health plan.
Even churches will choose the comfortable and familiar status quo of being on the way to the end, rather than fully walking through the doorway of the end and new beginning. These days, many churches are more settled into dying, lamenting what they once were or what they thought they would be, rather than seeing through to God’s future, faithfully moving towards God’s promise of new life on the other side of the end, on the other side of death.
The town of Teulon is a pretty typical rural community. Young people have been leaving for the city for years, public services have been closing or moving to larger centres, the community aging while struggling to get along in this new world. The Lutheran and Anglican Church have joined together in order to hope for a modest average worship attendance of a dozen, maybe more on a good Sunday. They are the definition of a church living in their end time.
I began leading services there as a part of the rotation of Interlake Regional Shared ministry services. One Sunday a few months into the trial, it was going to be the first Sunday that I brought my daughter Maeve to worship with me. And I was nervous about how things would go. Maeve has always been attending places where there were established caregivers, people who had volunteered to sit with her in worship and to sit with all the things that come with sitting in church with nearly 2-year-old.
During the 45 minute drive out, I anxiously wondered who I could prevail upon to sit with her. Would I have to sit with her? What if she wanted her dad during my sermon or in the middle of communion? I didn’t know the people well enough yet to know whom I might ask.
As we got unpacked in the church office and I prepared myself to make an awkward request, in walked Barry, one of the faithful Teulon folks.
“Well Good morning!” he said, “This must be Maeve! Would you like to sit with me? My granddaughters are here with me!” and then he reached out and took Maeve by the hand to the pew where they were all sitting.
And all of sudden, it was the same feeling I had walking into my church growing up, being greeted by Bob and Lorna. I was being welcomed as I was, before. And now my daughter was being cared for and welcomed with the same faithfulness, being given the things she needed hear the gospel and to meet Jesus. She was given a place to belong, a place she has found in many churches since.
And so here is the thing about the endings that we get stuck in, the endings that we get comfortable with… God isn’t comfortable with the status quo of being on the way to death. God has other things in mind for us, God promises new beginnings. New beginnings that terrify us, that we cannot imagine. Even as Christ the mocked and ridiculed King hangs on the cross of death, God has new life in store, empty tombs on the way, new beginnings that will transform us and all creation.
In fact the endings that we get stuck in are sometimes not endings at all for God. Even as churches grey and shrink, struggle and lament their loss, God is at work in the Bobs and Lornas and Barrys among us. Because for those who to whom the faith will be passed on to today, the church has always been shrinking and greying, struggling to make budgets and fill committees… and this church that we so often feel is a shadow of what it once was or could have been… this is the church that God is using to do the things that God in Christ has always been about.
Churches near the end are the ones that welcomed me as an 11 year old and then my daughter into faith. What seems like the end to us, is often the beginning for others.
God has this inconvenient habit of turning our endings into beginnings, this habit of pushing us out of the comfortable and familiar towards the true ends we need. Towards the true beginnings we need. God has the inconvenient habit of dragging us from the comfort of suffering, of sin and dying, and leads us into new life, into new chapters of our stories, new ways for the Kingdom of God to take shape among us.
Today we worship at the end. Or at least what feels like to us is the end. What we are certain is our ending.
Yet endings are never what they seem for God. In Christ, Good Friday crosses become kingly thrones and lead to empty tombs. The Reign of Christ Sunday, the Sunday on which we proclaim that Christ’s Kingdom is here and now makes way for waiting for Advent. For Advent and waiting for Messiah with desert hermit preachers and pregnant unwed teenagers.
And still in the midst of all of our endings and God’s beginnings, God is doing what God has always been doing. God is welcoming and bringing us into communities of faith, teaching us how to hear again the Gospel. Making room for us to meet Jesus again and again here in this place, in this community, this church. Giving us the good news of seeing each other, seeing what we each need to hear the Gospel, seeing that we need to keep meeting Jesus especially when we think we are dying…
and seeing that this is not really our ending today, but God’s beginning.