Delivered at Ames UCC
on April 23, 2017
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
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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.