Laboring in Change and Decay; O Thou who changest not abide with me
I’ve been reading a book called, “Leaving Christianity: changing allegiances in Canada since 1945.” It looks at a breadth of statistical data from the Canadian census and then several professional data collection companies, that suggest some reasons for the rapid decline in affiliation with Christianity for the generation coming home from the war, and most particularly, their children, the baby boomers. Fast forward to the present and that trend has not only continued but accelerated throughout the last two decades.
I’ve also been watching this show on Netflix called, “Public enemy.” In the show a monastic community is struggling with money and an ageing community of monks. Their survival is at stake and is further threatened when the community takes in a psychopath who had served his prison term. Villagers stop attending the community’s church and so stop giving offerings. In one episode, it appears a monk has been attacked and the psychopath's glasses are found outside the entrance to a cave leading into and out of the abbey. There is a meeting and the monks want to expel the psychopath from the community, but the one monk who had taken him on to try to rehabilitate him - the criminal on the cross beside Jesus - refuses to permit this.
Eventually, we discover that the monk who had supposedly been attacked and wounded had actually orchestrated this himself. When he is questioned by the abbot of the community, he tells the community that he came from the City, where the churches were all half empty and no one cared about God anymore. He came to the abbey and the church was filled with the people of the village with a community that devoted their life to God. When the psychopath came, he destroyed this; no one from the community came, the village started unravelling and everyone's crap filtered out into the open. The monk is stripped of his status as a community member and leaves through a gate.
I burst into tears watching that scene because I am him and in that moment, Isaiah’s words came to me: “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.” Words from the hymn, “Abide with me,” put it succinctly: “Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day; Earth’s joys grow dim, its glories pass away; Change and decay in all around I see ….” I was stopped there - a kind of Holy Saturday moment - because as one who gave up much to come into the church, to study and commit to a vocation within it, to see the decline not just of the church, but of our society at large, it often feels as if God has reached into my body and ripped out my soul. “Why O God, have you forsaken us, where is your salve, where is your Spirit. Do I preach lies about your existence and steadfastness?”
Yet on I was moved to Easter Sunday. The monks who remain in the abbey community bear the very next words of this passage from Isaiah though: “yet surely my cause is with the LORD, and my reward with my God." Their labor in continuing to care for a building in disrepair, for each other where age has created limited capacity, and for a man considered a monster by all around them is the fruit of this central belief: my cause is with the Lord, it is not found in the success of this world which will always grow dim, pass away, change and eventually decay - whether we are speaking of buildings or members, or filled churches, or our own lives.
You see, while I certainly can read myself into this passage from Isaiah, I can’t do that without seeing that the passage is first about Jesus, and only then about me. God says of Jesus: this is my Son in whom I am seen and glorified we heard last week; this is a reiteration of God saying in Isaiah: “you are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”
And so when Isaiah laments that he labors for Israel in vain, and I and perhaps you, do the same about the Church, God responds to us in our lament, “you do not labor in vain.” Your cause is taken on by God who comes into the world, takes on our flesh in Mary’s womb, is born a Jew, an Israelite who will redeem his people. And not only that, he will redeem this world of change and decay: “And now the LORD says, who formed me in the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him, and that Israel might be gathered to him … It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth."
To labor when all seems to be merely change and decay is not folly. This world may indeed be perishing and all its treasures lost as Paul says. Our ideals and our hopes about being able to keep things as they are, to grow, to bring the church back to life here and now, all these things may not come to pass. But this is not cause to lose hope or to give up living out the life of Christ. Remember what Jesus’s way looks like: “to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations, the slave of rulers,” God says, “Kings shall see and stand up and they shall prostrate themselves, because of the LORD, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you." You have been chosen by God and so will be transformed into a light to other people. The way is simple, “come and see,” Jesus says in our Gospel. “Follow me.” Follow me so you will learn to think, act, and respond not out of fear, but out of faith. Seek me and not success in worldly terms, and in me, I will make your labor in this world of change and decay, fruitful in gathering people to me so we might be joined to the Father. I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless: Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness: Where is death’s sting? where, grave, thy victory? I triumph still, if Thou abide with me. AMEN