From the Mount of Olives, we could see much of the old city of Jerusalem. And between the two lies the Kedron Valley. Three expansive cemeteries -- Muslim, Jewish and Christian -- compete for burial space in the valley. Don't picture the manicured lawns and shade trees we associate with North American cemeteries. These are deserts of sarcophagi bleached white by the sun. Just looking at them makes your mouth dry. The outrageousness of God's question to Ezekiel becomes clear: "Can these bones live?" Of course they can't. But for the flickering movement of a solitary sparrow there is only death.
Part way down into the valley, on the way to Jerusalem, is the Garden of Gethsemane. The church there is commonly known as "The Church of Agony." There, Jesus "fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. `Abba, Father,' he said, `everything is possible for you'" (Mark 14: 35-36). Then he surrendered his will to the will of God. That is the path that leads to the Holy City, to the resurrection, down through the valley of death, through surrender to God in the garden of agony. That seems to be the way of God with us. The path to new life often passes first through the valley of death, and through a garden of agony. It is true from the personal to the planetary.
These days, I am especially sensitive to the suffering and the deaths that we have been living as a church. Is it any wonder that Peter, the rock upon which the church is built, is also the stumbling block? Like him, we have imagined a less painful and more powerful way. This suffering and loss go well beyond money and numbers. Not only are many of our buildings crumbling and our members dying, so too is our long cherished identity. Once we preached with authority from high pulpits. We had social currency outside the church. We were building our shared vision of a Christian Canada, of a new Jerusalem. We would shape and serve the emerging nation. We were the centre of the social life of many communities.
Now, our spiritually hungry neighbours turn to the self-help shelves of their local bookstores before they turn to the church. Our own Emerging Spirit research tells us that Canadians rarely even think about the church. If they do, the words that come to mind are "arrogant," "judgmental" and "doesn't listen." Our religious and cultural arrogance is being exposed. Our role in Indian Residential Schools and assimilation is a blatant example. Christians are a socially acceptable brunt of derisive humour. Our failures and fragility have been brought to light. The church we have known and loved is disappearing.
We are learning about the cross, learning about a God revealed not in power and popularity but in the scandal of the cross. We are learning about, as Paul put it, God's power made perfect in weakness. We are being forced to rest in and live out of God's power, rather than our own. We are coming to know the God who has always resided among the fragile and vulnerable. That is the good news.
We walked down into the Kedron Valley, prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane and then hitched a ride up out of the valley toward the city. From the van window, we saw a young couple leaning against one of the cemetery gates, kissing passionately. It was not a chaste kiss. It was a kiss of wild abandon, one that might lead to new birth. At the gates of death, love stood its ground. Life refused to cry uncle. My heart leapt for joy. Jesus is up and out of the tomb!
It felt like an Easter promise. It feels like a vision for our church. Surrounded by death on six sides, we are called to continue to fall in love -- with each other, with the world around us and with the Christ. Our common life is not grounded in a quest for power or popularity, but in a fearless vulnerability to the love of God. We are to awaken our hearts and our mission by kissing at the gates of death until Satan howls and the graves fly open. Daily, I encounter kissing congregations. A Maple Grove, B.C., congregation receives a bequest and gives some of the money to another struggling congregation. Hundreds of hungry people feast every day at Wesley Urban Ministries in Hamilton. Aboriginal and non-
Aboriginal United Church folks walk and tell the stories of grief and regret on a sparkling morning at the Cape Croker, Ont., reserve. A little girl in Wallace, N.S., promises to make dove cookies for peace so that halfway around the world in Bethlehem a Palestinian girl can learn to read. A Milton, Ont., congregation, with their roof literally falling in, welcomes a swell of new seekers. In Ottawa, a congregation relinquishes their cherished building because it was making it difficult for them to be a church. In Winnipeg and
Victoria, congregations build partnerships in Cuba. Tiny congregations across the country live as yeast for justice in their communities. I could go on. The body of Christ rises again and again.
Like the women at the tomb, we are discovering new life where one might expect to find death. Finding it not in our power and wealth but in our poverty and dependence on the Holy One. Death has not ended, everyone has not been healed and justice has not yet come for all. Still, beyond the cross, there at the gates of death, in the dryness of it all, we continue to risk kisses of hope, continue the exciting and difficult call to be among the signs of God's promise of new life because we are an Easter people.
Rt. Rev. David Giuliano is the 39th moderator of The United Church of Canada.
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