Delivered at Ames UCC
on April 23, 2017
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
Sermons are written to be
heard rather than read.
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ANXIOUS CHURCH DEATH
I am pretty picky about what articles and books I read about Christianity and church life. Some of that is theological. I am not, obviously, going to read anything based on Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians to keep women quiet. Or the work of Christians who ignore the gospels in order to lean on the handful of words in Leviticus’ temple rules to decry queer people. Not everything preserved in scripture is right or holy. I hope you feel entitled to make the same distinction.
But I also tend to ignore articles about The Death of The Church. I think you probably know what I mean because these pieces have been ringing our death knell for at least 20 years, if not 40. Oh! The church is dying! Oh! The good news of life in radical generosity and relationship is no longer meaningful! Oh! Get a smoke machine and a praise band!
The anxiety level among pastors of “mainline” Protestant churches like ours, and that of the membership, can easily surpass any joy. Maybe that’s why I saw an uptick in articles during Holy Week about “how to behave on Easter.”
The notion that my colleagues in Christian ministry felt compelled to write pieces about anything other than the last supper and the garden and the cross during Holy Week, was so curious to me that I had to read a couple. Basically, they were about how regular attendees can be sure not to blow it with less regular attendees or newcomers on our highest of holy days.
The suggestions included not saying “You know, we are here every week,” scooting into the middle of the pew so that anyone who might be feeling shy doesn’t have to clamber over you, not kicking anyone out of “your” spot, and talking to each other. Basically, be thoughtful and polite.
So rather than teaching seekers how they might think, or more importantly pray, about Easter, these posts read to me as testimonies to church death anxiety. It was as if Easter hasn’t taught us about how holiness begets new life in spite of death.
Look at what we hear today. Today’s verses follow immediately from last week’s. From last week’s climax at the tomb with the Marys and Joanne and Peter, we are moved immediately to a road between Jerusalem and Emmaus. The very same day that the disciples have found the tomb empty, the word has spread far enough that Cleopas (who is not a disciple) and someone else (also not a disciple) know all of the details.
When Cleopas and his friend meet a stranger—the rising Jesus did not look as he once did—all of that has already happened. They must have really evoked their disappointment that Jesus didn’t redeem Israel from yet another occupation, because the rising Jesus reminds them, more brusquely than the angels did the Marys and Joanne, that all of this was according to plan. To reassure them, the rising Jesus teaches them to interpret scripture, the Torah, prophets, and writings of the Hebrew Bible.
(Side note: There is no part of Judaism’s understanding of messiah that requires the suffering into glory described here. That was only ever part of Jesus’ Judaism or the understandings of non-Jewish gospel communities from which written scripture emerged decades after the facts.)
Grateful, Cleopas and friend invite the rising Jesus to overnight with them. At dinner, at the moment that the rising Jesus opens the bread, so open their eyes. Their hearts had burned during their scriptural lesson, but their understanding only came at the feast. It’s a beautiful condensation of Jesus’ overall message: Learn and do, together.
And it’s a moving setting. Did you notice who on that very day of resurrection the rising Jesus sought out to spend time with? Not the Marys, not Joanne, not Peter. Not anyone Jesus had chosen prior to Easter. But Cleopas and a friend. In Luke, the good news that the rising Jesus offered was for people walking away from Jerusalem, whom we have never heard about before. It was for people at a distance from the Jesus establishment, such as it was.
Today is our last day with the gospel of Luke. From here we go on to the Acts of the Apostles, which was written as a companion to Luke so will have a very similar tone. Then we have a couple of Paul’s letters to early Christian communities.
During our offering today Ben and Evan will sing again, this time a piece Ben wrote based on 1 Corinthians 14. It’s a chapter all about how (according to Paul) to handle people speaking in tongues and assess them for veracity. (Ben did skip the end of the chapter, the part that tells women to be silent in church but, if we do have questions, to ask our husbands at home. I guess I’m in double trouble there.)
Paul is helping the people manage questions about the right way to worship and learn because they are anxious about doing it “right” and so is he. The articles I saw in Holy Week were no different than this letter. We have, since the beginning of trying to understand God through Jesus, been worrying about how to do church “right” and keep church going, in one way or another.
But we don’t have to. Church was not the goal of resurrection day, and it is not ours, either.
On resurrection day, there were tears and surprises and learning and caring for each other. Easter is a gut grabber, a heartstring puller, a wide-open tomb and an equally open road. Easter is curiosity, receptivity, and humility.
Being Easter Christians in an Easter church means wanting to learn more about our stories. It means that we will find the truth within them in moments when we offer up hospitality and joyously see and receive guests for all of who they are, not who we think they should or could be.
At the most critical juncture in the life of the not-even-yet-church, Jesus’ good news about God persisted. It persisted without a smoke machine or praise band or rules for interpretations or lectures about sharing pews.
We don’t need to be cool or strict to make the good news of Easter morning relevant and compelling. All we need do, to quote Ben’s song, is “follow the way of love like it’s a prophecy.” That is a message that cannot die and is most certainly worth learning and doing, together.