Around the year 1204, Jesus spoke to St. Francis of Assisi. It was this message which formed Francis’ life work.
The town of Assisi is located on the slopes of a mountain in central Italy. In the time of Francis, the higher you lived up the slopes, the richer you were! His family was the ‘half-way up’ product of the new prosperous middle class, and his father expected him to move up. But Francis wanted to be a crusader. He didn’t have much luck at being a soldier, though, and was captured and held prisoner for a year. Francis returned to Assisi with a new confusion about life. He wandered the countryside solitary, wondering.
At about age 22, he received the vision which was his turning point. Here is how St. Bonaventure described what happened:
“One day when Francis went out to meditate in the fields he was passing by the church of San Damiano which was threatening to collapse because of extreme age. Inspired by the Spirit, he went inside to pray.
Kneeling before an image of the Crucified, he was filled with great fervor and consolation as he prayed. While his tear-filled eyes were gazing at the Lord’s cross, he heard with his bodily ears a voice coming from the cross, telling him three times: ‘Francis, go and repair my house which, as you see, is falling into ruin.’
Trembling with fear, Francis was amazed at the sound of this astonishing voice, since he was alone in the church; and as he received in his heart the power of the divine words, he fell into a state of ecstasy. Returning finally to his senses, he prepared to put his whole heart into obeying the command he had received…..” 
Initially, Francis misunderstood and became preoccupied with rebuilding the structure of the tiny church building. Two other church buildings were similarly repaired before Francis grasped the enormity of what God was asking of him. The church of his day was in desperate need of spiritual and moral transformation. It was pre-occupied with war in the middle east, as well as entering a period of enormous wealth and construction of huge cathedrals. It was pre-occupied with power instead of love. The church of Jesus needed to be rebuilt from the heart out.
John’s vision recorded in Revelation is not so different. After only a generation of following Jesus, the church needed to be made new. John’s church was also embattled, from the outside by the growing power-madness of Rome and the inner crumbling caused by fear. John’s vision was given to assure the people that God would complete God’s work.
The book of Revelation is full of vivid imagery. Violence, chaos, power struggle, the abuse of the innocent and powerless. It is all there. Today’s headlines are not new. In today’s times of crisis, we hear again the words from the One in the center of the New Jerusalem saying:
“I am making all things new.” Today, on the verge of a new year, our hearts yearn with John, for this new city. John saw a new heaven and a new earth. Joined as one. Heaven and earth no longer separate, but one. Lighted from within by the presence of God.
Now another year has ended—a new year begins—in which suffering, fear, violence, injustice, greed, and meaninglessness still abound. This is not even close to the reign of God that Jesus taught. Yet, we are not to be undone. Christ continues to call us to rebuild the church, as he did Francis. The confidence of John’s visions are encouragement for us, too.
In her book Christianity After Religion, church historian Diana Butler Bass writes: “Strange as it may seem in this time of cultural anxiety, economic near-collapse, terrorist fear, political violence, environmental crisis, and partisan anger, I believe that the United States (and not only the United States) is caught up in the throes of a spiritual awakening, a period of sustained religious and political transformation during which our ways of seeing the world, understanding ourselves, and expressing faith are being, to borrow a phrase, “born again.” 
Like a chrysalis. It is dark inside, but not without hope. There is a butterfly in there!
Change begins with endings. So often we think of change as addition – welcoming something new into our lives. We don’t think about the endings these new things mean.
I feel this quite personally. My son became engaged to his sweetheart a few days ago. It brings so much hope and delight. We get to talk about weddings, celebrations, beauty, hope, joy! And all of that is there. But it also means endings – for our nuclear family, for Matt & Maria as they leave behind some of the freedoms of singleness. These endings are best recognized, grieved, owned and incorporated into the new life which is coming. This new life brings both beginnings and endings. So too, the new year.
In the Caribbean and a few other place in the world, today will be celebrated as “Old Year’s Night.” This may sound negative to our western ears. But I think they are on to something.
I was talking to a friend yesterday and she told me about having to give up her car. She observed that this was a deep grief for her, and only in recognizing that she needed to grieve this loss has she been able to accept it into her life, and go on with the life which she now lives. The only way to go on to a full and rich life was to acknowledge the loss, feel the sadness and incorporate it somehow into the new person she is becoming. It is different, but she is still whole. I could still see the sparkle in her eyes.
So often we respond to change as doing anything we can to keep the old from falling apart. So it is with our building. We do everything in our power to keep this sacred space safe and secure. I don’t think that is wrong. But in doing so, we may miss the transformation we are offered. We, like Francis, can begin to confuse our call to rebuild the church as referring to a building. Jesus is not talking about this building, but about the people who will become one with God with us, through our call to love. The building will be taken care of by those who want and need her. She has a place in this neighborhood. We need to put aside our worry. For even if the building fell tonight, God could raise up songs of praise from the stones. So John would say to his beloved church. So Francis would say to us.
As 2017 ends, let it go. Allow it to end, with all its joys and sorrows. Let them go. This is how we observe Old Year’s Night.
And it is New Year’s Eve. A new heaven and a new earth are on the way! Heaven and earth made one. God and humanity, no longer separated, but one in life and light. We have seen moments of this in our life, even in 2017. But it is not yet here in full. We still see through a glass darkly.
What might this rebuilt church look like? That is still anyone’s guess. But we have a few pointers already. Tonight is not only about endings, but it also says: Let the dreams begin!
When I dream of the New Year for rebuilding the church, I dream of two things, which might seem opposites at first.
I dream of a new incarnation. With Christmas just behind us, let’s not forget that Jesus is always being born among us. Incarnation is not a one-time event. God, from the beginning chose to be joined with materiality. At the moment of creation, in the beginning, God took on shape, substance, breath. God is still doing this today. Every morning when we draw our first conscious breath of the day, we take in the Spirit and have the joyful opportunity to be connected with God in all we do and are. The more conscious we are of this reality, the more our world will become one. Heaven and earth as one.
On the one hand, I dream of God taking on flesh in us. On the other hand, I dream of humans letting go of the body and freeing our spirits to live with God. This is kind of hard to explain. Through the years, this aspect of religion has been called mysticism. It is present in every religious practice I know of. There are those who just seem to be connected to God, those who seem to sense the Spirit’s movement. Sometimes, when we are alert, we recognize these mystics. Sometimes, when our hearts are open, we, too, enter the place with God where time stops, where there is nothing but pure joy. It is this for which I yearn, and I believe is the yearning of all beings. This oneness for all of us, not just a few stand-out people. When we know how to stop normal time and just be with God, heaven and earth are one – and the world is be made new.
This new movement of God, this rebuilding of the church, I dream, will be a new incarnation of God among us. Incarnational and mystical. Body and spirit. At the same time. Earth and heaven no longer separate, but one. I think this is part of the spiritual awakening Diana Butler Bass sees. We are being born again into a new year and a new era. Now. Always.
“See, I am making all things new,” says the One who dwells in the center of the city.
I have prepared a Practice Sheet for you to take home today, along with some suggested New Year’s Resolutions from the Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat of Spirituality and Practice. I offer you this opportunity to consider the endings and beginnings you are offered at this juncture between the years. And, if you are willing, I encourage you to share your visions, insights, intentions with each other as you have opportunity.
I leave us with the words of Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” This is what the church is made for.
 Bonaventure’s , Life of St. Francis, http://whispersintheloggia.blogspot.com/2010/10/rebuild-my-church.html
 Diana Butler Bass, Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening (HarperOne: 2013), 5-6.
Recommended Reading: Center for Action and Contemplation, last week of December 2017, Daily Meditations from Richard Rohr