June 14, 2009

The Church as Empire — Not!

From today's sermon

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We heard [Ezekiel] in today’s reading with his advice and warning to Egypt based on the example of Assyria, which the prophet compares to a cedar of Lebanon — a great tree with its branches reaching up into the clouds, which nonetheless ends up being chopped down. Empires, be they never so mighty, come to an end. The line of dominoes tumbles along: Assyria was felled by Babylon, Babylon by Persia, Persia by the Greeks (who also took down Egypt while they were at it.) But then the Greek empire built by Alexander the Great was divided at his death, and eventually fell to the power of Rome. Rome too divided, and was battled by barbarians at one end, and after it became Christianized, by the rise of Islam at the other end. And Christianity itself? Well, that brings us up to the present day — and more importantly — us!

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Because ultimately the question isn’t, “Will the church survive?” but rather, “In what form will it survive?” I think it will survive — we have God’s promise on that; but I don’t think it will do so by being a great empire. Great empires don’t seem to be too successful in maintaining themselves, perhaps due to the sin of pride that causes them to lose sight of the words on that ring: “This too shall pass.” It seems the more empires try to resist change, the sooner they fall — intolerance and clamping down on people brings about even greater resistance, division, and internal weakness. Empires may be big, but they are brittle. The great tyrannies of the last century, and those that have survived into this one, do not seem long for this world: the higher they seek to rise, the bigger they strive to get, the more viciously they suppress those who dissent, the sooner their fall seems secure.

Just as the little mammals were somehow able to survive while the giant dinosaurs were collapsing all around them, so too the church managed to survive, the church managed to make it through the collapses of Greek and Roman and European civilizations, not by being big and powerful, but by slipping through the cracks of history — squirreled away in the catacombs underground, or out in the monasteries or out in the deserts. And when the medieval church tried to seize secular power, and insist on central control of all of Christendom, it only served to hasten the Reformation. So it seems to me likely that the church will survive in this our time, and as time passes, not because it is big and powerful, or centrally controlled, but because it remains true to its faith in Christ; by placing its hope not in an everlasting earthly empire, but an eternal heavenly dwelling. It will, in the meantime, do its best work here and now in its own small way, not as a giant agribusiness, but more as a cooperative of small family farms — as the church in each place is a family.

For it isn’t about how big the tree is, or how expansive the fields — but about the fruit and the grain that comes at gathering and harvest-time. When the bough breaks and the tree falls, when the crop is harvested with a sickle, what do we have to show for it?. . . . . . .


Listen to it all:

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

9 comments:

Geoff said...

Gosh, no Ezekiel for us yesterday. How odd.

Br. Peter said...

". . . the most shocking and corrupt periods in the history of religion generally occur when the religious system is identified with a monopoly of force. It is then that the religious and political tribalisms reinforce each other to create the atrocities for which religion is usually blamed. Religion should be blamed -- but it is not the normative Biblical tradition that has gained the ascendancy when such atrocities occur. Rather it is the natural pagan religion of unregenerate man that identifies the distinction between good and evil with an arbitrary political boundary line, and in so doing identifies God with the political monopoly of force."
p. xii, Tenth Generation,
George Mendenhall

Brad said...

Lots of Canadians are proud to be descended from people who wanted to keep their empire. No complaints there, even from progressives.

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

Geoff, I'm still using the BCP lectionary rather than the RCL.

Peter, thanks for the Mendenhall.

Brad, the English Empire was, of course, terribly Anglican -- and so was able to transition into a Commonwealth rather than remaining brittle and breaking and falling apart. That's the kind of wisdom we need more of!

Brad said...

The Irish and Indians/Pakistanis/Bangladeshis might disagree with you on its 'peaceful' transition.

Geoff said...

It was a joke, Father: I assume you were keeping the green Sunday, and not the Day of Thanksgiving for the Holy Eucharist.

Grandmère Mimi said...

It's nice to be able to listen to the sermons, too, Tobias.

We didn't use the same readings, either. I believe that we switch back and forth between the BCP and the RCL.

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

Brad, I would say that the problems you cite are internal problems -- with roots going back long before the "Empire." I am referring to the relative harmony between the nations of the former Empire, rather than the problems that still afflict many of those nations internally, or between their various partitions. (On the whole I agree that partitioning into "nationstates" is the classic English solution, and it has often led to more problems than it solved. You can add Palestine to that list!)

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

Ah, Geoff, the penny has dropped, or rather been forcibly thrust down the chute.

No, I'm rather old fashioned about Corpus Christi, and observe it on the Thursday rather than Sunday, when I observe it, that is. I prefer to focus on the ancient feast of Maundy Thursday as the feast of right in this regard; the medieval feast seems too caught up in the controversies of that time.