Prayer of the Day: O God, the protector of all who trust in you, without you nothing is strong, nothing is holy. Embrace us with your mercy, that with you as our ruler and guide, we may live through what is temporary without losing what is eternal, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“By your endurance you will gain your souls.” Luke 21:19.
You are looking at Agios Sophia, an Orthodox church in the Greek city of Thessaloniki located roughly in the same locale as the ancient city of Thessalonica where, according to the Book of Acts, Saint Paul founded a congregation to which he wrote two letters. Since at least the Third Century C.E., there has been a Christian Church on the site of Agios Sophia. The present sanctuary was built in the Eight Century based on the design of its namesake in Istanbul, Turkey. Originally Orthodox, the church was converted into a Roman Catholic cathedral when Thessaloniki was conquered in 1205 during the course of the Fourth Crusade. It continued as such until it was returned to the Byzantine Empire in 1246, whereupon it became Orthodox once again. After conquest by the Ottoman Turks in 1430, Agios Sophia was converted into a Mosque. But in 1912 Thessaloniki was retaken by the Greeks and the building was converted back to an Orthodox sanctuary once again. In addition to the fortunes of war, the church has suffered damage from two fires, one in 1890 and the other in 1917. Notwithstanding all of that, the church remains very much alive and vibrant. You can find worshipers on any given day at Agios Sophia worshiping, praying and venerating its many beautiful icons. In spite of “wars and insurrections” and much worse, this church remains. By its endurance, it has retained its soul.
In our gospel lesson for this Sunday, Jesus’ disciples are seeking intel on the proximity of the final judgment and the advent of God’s reign. Jesus’ response must surely have disappointed them. No intel on timing, just a command to endure. Neither the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem nor any insurrection, war, famine, plague or natural disaster implies that the end is near. To the contrary, all of these things can be expected to occur throughout the foreseeable future. There is no clock that can measure God’s time or tell the disciples where they are on their long march toward “the end.” Not only so, but they can expect hostility from their community and even from intimate family members on account of their faith. All of this, however, is to be welcomed as affording the disciples opportunities to bear witness to their hope for the coming reign of God.
Agios Sophia is nothing if not an illustration of endurance, and one that we American Christians should take to heart. Our brief existence on this continent amounts to about 1% of Agios Sophia’s sojourn in Greece. Until recently, protestant Christianity has been almost as much an American institution as was Orthodoxy for the Byzantine Empire. But unlike the ancestors of Agios Sophia, our churches were not born into a hostile imperial environment, have not seen the collapse and conquest of our host country or the seizure of our sanctuaries. With the exception of African American believers, American Christians know nothing of persecution. Though it is fashionable to speak of the American churches’ decline in membership, support and influence as a “crisis,” it hardly ranks with the crusader’s conquest and annexation of Thessaloniki or the invasion and seizure of Agios Sophia’s sanctuary by the Ottoman Empire.
So I have to wonder how we American Christians and our churches will fare in the millennia to follow. Can our congregations survive losing their sanctuaries? Are we the kind of communities that produce saints able to live a counter-cultural existence? Would we continue to be Christians in an environment where membership in a church posed a threat to our reputation rather than constituting a badge of moral character? Do we have the spiritual disciplines and faithful practices necessary to keep our hearts focused on discipleship when discipleship goes against the grain of patriotism, public virtue and the law?
I am not suggesting that any calamity such as those Jesus describes is immanent for American Christians, but that is beside the point. We are just two and a half centuries into our ecclesiastical lives. That is but a moment in the seventeen plus centuries of Agios Sophia. Given that reality, the critical need for endurance is not a matter of whether, but when. Because virtues like endurance are not developed on the fly, perhaps we should be thinking about the form endurance takes in this relatively tranquil age and build on it. Maybe endurance consists in remaining in your church even when the preaching doesn’t connect with you, even when the liturgy seems flat and uninspiring, even when people are not particularly friendly because-well, it’s not all about you, your wants and your needs. Perhaps endurance takes shape in committing to a devotional practice of prayer and Bible reading and sticking with it-even when the novelty has worn off, the practice seems rote and perfunctory and you discover when you are finished that you can’t remember what you just read. Endurance is going through the motions of worship, prayer, giving and service when your heart is no longer in it. Faith is a habit of the heart and, as we all know, developing good habits requires practice, persistence and discipline. Once formed, however, a habit is hard to break. That is the secret of endurance ensuring that we will “not…weary in doing what is right.” II Thessalonians 3:13.
Here is a poem by Alli Warren speaking of habits of the heart and endurance.
A Better Way to Zone
in circular pattern
and living occasion
swollen among what
the dead have to teach us
So, ear, be an instrument for thought
Tide, bring some
little green thing to dust
behind my eyes
Touch the hotpoint
and drag the tongue
over the fat belly
of a flapping fish
of farm animals
Sticker book of ole timey cats
What is life and how shall it be governed?
With blind devotion
and endurance in the impossible
for guts in everything for roots
in plain sight
Share a lung
Say hello to the crow
There are certain chord progressions
one should avoid
Source: I Love It Though (c. 2017 by Alli Warren, pub. by Nightboat Books). Alli Warren is an American poet born in Los Angeles. She currently lives in the Bay area near San Francisco. Warren is the author of the poetry collections I Love It Though, from which this poem is taken, as well as Don’t Go Home With Your Heart On and Here Come the Warm Jets. The latter book earned her the Poetry Center Book Award. You can read more about Alli Warren and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
 I do not take seriously the whiny complaints of with evangelical Christians like the Rev. Franklin Graham who pretend that they are suffering persecution because they can no longer discriminate against or refuse public services to gay and lesbian persons or, as in the recent case of a Mississippi wedding venue proprietor, deny services to mixed race couples. Discrimination is unamerican to say nothing of unchristian. Those who claim it as a “right” do not belong in a free society. On that subject, see my Open Letter to Rev. Franklin Graham from a “Small Church” Pastor.