The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen.”
I would be dishonest if I didn’t admit I am disappointed that St. Paul’s will close in June. When I came, I was hoping for a different outcome. Not just that we could somehow survive. Not even that we would experience a revival. But even more. Deep down, I had always hoped we could find a creative, new way to be the church, because not only St. Paul’s but the whole church needs such imaginative new experiments, as the church that we have known for the past several generations gradually dies away so that something new can take its place. But it was not to be. And that leaves a bittersweet taste in my mouth.
Let me be quite clear, though, about something else. I am not the least bit disappointed in myself or anyone here. We worked hard together. We thought and imagined and discussed and studied and prayed hard together. So many of you hung in amid all the uncertainties, all the frustrations, all the setbacks, and all the extra work. And you did it – mostly – while maintaining a spirit of fond affection and good humour. I think of our coffee hours after our Sunday Services, for example. No matter how discouraging things got – even after we knew we were going to close – there was always an evident camaraderie as we sat around the tables downstairs simply enjoying fine hospitality and good company. But we had two strikes against us all the way. We dug in and kept fouling off tough pitches, again and again until, finally, the umpire had to call the game on account of darkness.
Thank you all so much for your courage and faithfulness throughout everything. Maybe one of the most meaningful things we can do for the next couple of months is simply to continue to gather faithfully for worship each Sunday and offer our Services and our fellowship for the glory of God. Maybe one of the most important things we can do for the next couple of months is simply to support each other through all the tender feelings that arise as we move closer and closer to that final Service in June.
You know, my experience here – especially during the last few months – has taken me back to my years of being a hospital chaplain in Winnipeg. Of the many experiences I had in that ministry, one of the most precious was to gather with a family around the bedside of a dying and beloved family member. When a critically ill patient was first admitted to the hospital, the patient and the family would often call me in to pray for a healing. To seek a deathbed miracle, really. I did see persons in critical condition pull through once in a while but, most often, the patient died. It’s natural; it’s the cycle of life. And, although there was always pain and grieving when the loved one breathed that last breath, there was often a quiet acceptance as well: an expression of humility before the wonder at the heart of the gift of life.
With that experience in mind, I have gradually come to understand that for a long time after the congregation was forced out of its building and was struggling to land on its feet somewhere, we were hoping and praying for a deathbed miracle. Something that would happen to restore us to the way we remembered the church in its heyday. But the fact is, the patient was already critically ill. It was not just a temporary setback caused by a broken roof beam and a minister’s sudden resignation; It was more than that. It was the particular way St. Paul’s was experiencing the widespread downturn throughout the mainline churches in our times. Had the beam not cracked, had we been able to fix it after it did, if the minister had not resigned just at the same time, St. Paul’s might have lasted a bit longer, but the epidemic sweeping the churches in the developed world had already infected St. Paul’s and the disease was terminal.
You might be wondering why I am speaking of these things in the way I am, especially today on Easter. Well, it’s precisely because it is Easter, the signature event in God’s story of the universe. The pivotal event in that story that defines us as Christians and is the foundation of our faith. As followers of Jesus, we are not averse to miracles. We know they happened and can still happen. But they are not the norm, at least not in my experience or my observation. We are people, when death is on the horizon, who put our faith not in miracles but in resurrection. And resurrection assumes – even requires – that death comes first. So, as the end of St. Paul’s nears, we are being called to put our faith on the line. We are being called to allow the congregation to die. We are being called to wait in wonder for the resurrection that will follow.
Something – something very dear and precious – is dying. My experience among you is leading me to believe that it has to die so that something new, fresh, vital, imaginative, adventurous, compelling can rise in its place. So long as we tried to keep the old ways going, the new could not come. It is only by letting go that we can receive what is to be given. It is only by emptying that the space can be filled again. We are an Easter people, and resurrection is our hope and halleluiah is our song.
Let me introduce another scripture and another image here. Earlier in Holy Week, once Jesus had arrived in Jerusalem for the Passover Festival, John tells us that he spoke to his disciples in this way: ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.’ To my ears, that is another image of resurrection. Words of wisdom Jesus speaks to encourage his followers in anticipation of his death and their loss. It is an image that suggests that resurrection is not an aberration of nature but something built into the natural cycle of life. As the poet, Shelley expressed it, “If winter comes, can spring be far behind.” When the seed is buried in the ground, the natural forces of nature work their miracle to cause a shoot to break out of the shell and reach for the sun, and a plant to grow and bear plenteous fruit. When Jesus dies and is buried, hidden in the tomb, something wondrous happens that raises him to a new and even more vital way of being. The story of Easter, the wonder of resurrection, is not just about what happened to Jesus once a long time ago. It is not just about what happens to people when they die. It is about the way real, authentic life works: death is not the end but a necessary step in a much grander story.
I wonder how resurrection will occur in Prince Albert after St. Paul’s dies. We have planted many seeds during my time here and, indeed, before. I wonder which one will break from its shell and reach for the sun. Will it be the continued faithfulness of the Christina Mills group that will eventually birth something new? Will it be the perseverance of the TRI 4 KIDS 4 CAMP Program that becomes the basis of a new mission not unlike the original mission the Nisbet party established nearby when they arrived from the Kildonan settlement in 1866? Will it be a fresh initiative by the Presbytery or the Synod in conjunction with the New Church Development office of the national church? Might it be that one of the many ideas we have conjured up in our conversations over the past three years will eventually rumble around in someone’s imagination until it takes root and grows? Will it come from someone new moving to the area without our memories who is able to see something in a brand new light? Will it come from the faith that will continue in your soul, even if the congregation is no longer? I wonder.
And isn’t resurrection all about wonder? There have been tears and there will be more as St. Paul’s closes. May those tears water the ground where the seed is planted and from which new life can grow. But, above all, may our wonder before the life-giving ways of God tend that seed and provide the warmth and nutrients it needs to burst open its shell and yield its fruit in good season.
The Rev. Ted Hicks