Lessons from the Road
The Rev. Harold E. Masback, III, April 14, 2013
You and I are blessed. We are each blessed in many ways, but one of the blessings we share is the blessing of our beloved church on God’s Acre. By the grace of God, ours was a wonderful church in 1733. It was a wonderful church in 1833. It was a wonderful church in 1933. And it is a wonderful church today. Indeed, when we celebrate our church’s 280th birthday this June 20th, we will thank God that the prospects for our congregation, our lay leaders, our staff, and our programs have never been more promising.
The same cannot be said, however, for the denominational tradition of which we are a part. Like a thriving child who grieves for siblings who are struggling, so our celebration of our good fortune will be tinged with concern for our sister churches and particularly for their children, our spiritual nephews and nieces. who are growing up without the nurture and support of vibrant ministries.
You have heard me recite some of the worrisome trends before. Sociologists of religion report that “Mainline Protestantism” peaked in membership in the 1950s and has declined steadily over the past half century.1 Every one of our denominations has been affected. Between 1965 and 2008, our United Church of Christ membership declined from 2 million to 1 million.2 Between 1990 and 2008, the Presbyterian Church USA membership declined from 3.8 million to 2.8 million.3 Between 1967 and 2009, United Methodist Church membership declined from 11 million to 7.8 million.4 1500 United Church of Christ churches have closed or merged out of existence in the past twenty-eight years alone.
One of the principal drivers of Mainline Protestant decline has been the failure to transmit the faith to our young. For instance, the Pew Forum on Religious and Public Life recently concluded that while 90% of all Americans 65 or older report a religious affiliation, a full third of young adults report that they are not a member of any church, any denomination or any religious tradition. Indeed, Young adults today are much, much more likely to be unaffiliated than at any other time in our history. (http://www.pewforum.org/Unaffiliated/nones-on-the-rise.aspx)
Here’s the way a leader of the Lilly Endowment recently reflected on their decades of study. In essence he said: our research consistently indicates that some traditions and denominations that we have cherished for centuries will not long survive in their current form. We may not be able to reverse the fundamental trend lines, but we do get to pick the narrative lens through which we understand, and discuss, and work toward our collective future. We might, for instance, proclaim that this is just a passing phase, just a cycle until our kids settle down, have children of their own and return to the churches in which they were raised. In our view, he said, that would be a “whistling by the graveyard” narrative. It fails to acknowledge the clear evidence that the percentage of our young who return to our churches is steadily decreasing. Or, we might accept the fact that our traditions are doomed, surrender to despair, and go about our business as if our destiny is out of our hands. In our view, he said, that would be the “arranging deck chairs on the Titanic” option. It forgets that our God is a God of hope and promise. Or, finally, he said, we might look deeply into our Scriptural inheritance and embrace a resurrection narrative. Yes, some characteristics of our Mainline Protestant traditions will fail and disappear, and their death will be a source of pain and mourning. But if we trust and work with our God, our God will lead us through denominational death and resurrection to a new communal life more beautiful and resilient then we can presently imagine.
Do you see what the Lilly speaker was doing? He was modeling how we people of faith mine the treasures of our Scripture and tradition. He was saying the Bible’s stories are not just recordations that we pick and choose to test with tools of historic or scientific analysis for veracity. They are the family story of our walk with God. They are not just stories that were true for one people at one time, they are stories that are true for all God’s people at all times. They are not just human records, they are also God’s revelation, divine insights into the essential shape of the Spiritual life: in our world, in our denominations, in our churches and in our individual walks with God. The Lilly speaker was saying that when we Christians reflect on the stories and meaning of the resurrection – as Christian churches do all around the world each year from Easter to Pentecost – when we reflect on the stories and meaning of the resurrection, God will reveal to us what it means for us that the spiritual life of denominations, churches and individuals is essentially “resurrection shaped”
You and I are gathered this morning on the second Sunday of Eastertide, and our Scripture reading, the Road to Emmaus story, offers us an exceptionally evocative account of how the disciples struggled to understand the fact, the meaning and the significance of the Resurrection. So, I propose that we read the story together, asking what it has to teach us about the resurrection shape of life.
13 Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem,14 and talking with each other about all these things that had happened.15 While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them,16 but their eyes were kept from recognizing him.17 And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad.18 Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?”19 He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people,20 and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him.21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place.22 Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning,23 and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive.24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.”25 Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!26 Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?”27 Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. 28 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on.29 But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them.30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.32 They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”33 That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together.34 They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!”35 Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
Doesn’t the first lesson from the Road to Emmaus story just smack you in the face? Like the entirety of Luke’s Gospel, the Emmaus story is a road trip. In Luke’s stories, everybody is always on the road. Luke’s Gospel and his Book of Acts follows the little band of disciples as they journey from their home towns in Galilee to Jerusalem and beyond. Luke’s Road to Emmaus story follows Cleopas and his unnamed companion as they abandon their band of disciples for Emmaus and then return to rejoin them in Jerusalem.
Luke is telling us that the life of faith is not a destination but rather a journey. The resurrection life is not a static truth we discover while sitting comfortably in our easy chairs but rather a reality we come to experience, to trust and to understand only as God leads us through the large and small deaths and resurrections we will each encounter along life’s road.
Years ago, Amy, who is the real reader in the family, shared with me a book called Beautiful Swimmers by William W. Warner, a book about the watermen and wildlife of Chesapeake Bay. The book included a lovely vignette about the dilemma of the blue crab. The crab is secure and protected by its hard shell, but that same shell severely binds and limits its growth. To molt and lose the shell exposes the crab to incredible insecurity, for the bay’s rock fish and watermen are always on the hunt for a soft shell crab, but it is only by taking on a new and larger shell that the crab can grow to its full potential.
So it was with Cleopas, who clung desperately to a failed, confining vision of Jesus as a conquering messiah whose military triumph would immediately usher in the end times. So it may be with denominations, congregations, and individuals who anxiously hunker down by the tomb of the familiar rather than follow the risen Christ out on the road to the new. So it might be with a rising generation anxiously clinging to the seeming verities of technical reason and technological toys rather than trusting the mysteries of the Spirit
To be sure, Luke is not calling on us to change for the sake of change’s sake. He is not endorsing a life as spiritual, vocational, or institutional dilettantes. He’s calling us to a life as faithful followers, as obedient disciples. So, the second lesson from the road to Emmaus is that we should constantly check our feet. Luke asks us to check our feet, for in Road to Emmaus story it is not so much who you are or even where you are on your journey but rather where you are heading that is important.
Moreover, Luke’s sense of direction seems binary. Either our feet are following Jesus into our future as faithful disciples or we’re following the fears and neediness of our anxious selves. Either our feet are headed for the Jerusalem of hope, faith and trust in God, or they’re headed for the Emmaus of despair, resignation, and trust only in self. Defeated and despairing, Cleopas is skulking off to Emmaus, his heart slow to believe. But after he recognizes the risen Christ, his hope is renewed and he hot foots it back to Jerusalem, racing to rejoin the community of faith with his heart burning within. Luke asks us to check our own feet. If our denomination, if our church, if our own lives are following our Christ, then we can trust that our Christ will lead us through all our various deaths to God’s promised resurrections.
How can we know when we are following Christ’s lead? How can we discern the difference between the sacred call of God and the siren song of the needy self? Luke’s third lesson from the Road to Emmaus story points to lived experiences of the risen Christ.
Cleopas knows all about the second-hand reports of the empty tomb and the angelic visions declaring that Jesus had risen, but it is not until his sorrowful heart burns, not until his tear-blurred eyes recognize the risen Lord that he comes to faith. As Martin Luther wrote, “I did not come to my theology of a sudden, but had to brood ever more deeply. My trials brought me to it, for we do not learn anything except by experience.” [H.G. Haile, Luther: An Experiment in Biography.]
It seems Luke does not think the resurrection is so much a past proposition to be proved as a present experience to be savored, and he doesn’t seem nearly as interested in amassing evidence for us to weigh as he is in pointing us to where we might experience the risen Christ for ourselves.
Beloved, if you asked me for the simplest explanation for why denominations, churches and individuals lose their way on the path of faith, I would say it is their failure to seek, to facilitate, to nurture lived experiences of the risen Christ, the Spirit of the living God in our midst. Surely lived Spiritual experience was at the center of the early church’s viral success. When Paul preached to the Athenians, he marked the difference between their unknown Gods silently residing in idols fashioned by human hands and the living God that we may search for and find, “for indeed he is not far from each one of us. For in him we live and move and have our being.” [Acts 17:22-28.] When Peter preached his account of the Transfiguration, he was quick to emphasize that he was not following “cleverly devised myths” but rather had been an eyewitness to Christ’s majesty, concluding, “We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.” [2 Peter 1:16-18.]
A hundred years ago, the great Mainline Protestant preacher, Harry Emerson Fosdick wrote, “Only a theoretical deity is left to any man who has ceased to commune with God, and a theoretical deity saves no man from sin and disheartenment.” [Harry Emerson Fosdick, The Meaning of Prayer, (1915)]. From the year of Christ’s resurrection down to today, wherever Christian denominations, churches and individuals have sought, facilitated and nurtured means of communing with Christ’s risen Spirit, God’s Spirit has led them through all the threats of death to all the vitality of the resurrection life. And wherever Christian denominations, churches and individuals have lost the trust or will to nurture lived Spiritual experience, their faith has languished in the wilderness of dry rationality.
And, finally, while we understand and believe that you cannot make the risen Christ appear by force of will, there sure does seem to be a pattern to where he hangs out. Why not go to where he’s usually found? You can’t make fish jump onto your hook, but you can always choose to fish in a pond instead of a puddle. So Luke’s fourth lesson from the Road to Emmaus suggests we search for Christ’s Spirit where the church has always found him: in the vibrant spiritual experiences of shared worship, sacred music and ritual; in the Christian formation of Bible Study and theological reflection; and in the self-sacrificing welcome and love of neighbor. Cleopas finds his heart burning within him as Jesus opens the scriptures Cleopas had studied for years. Jesus only enters the house because Cleopas reaches out hospitably, inviting a seeming stranger in for dinner. And the breakthrough recognition comes when Jesus breaks bread in their communion feast.
If you don’t think this still works today, then you haven’t been at a candlelit service when the choir’s voices seem to be channeling the angels, or in an OG vesper prayer led by Marianna Kilbride, or in a small group discussion of a Yale Bible Study class, or in a YG senior commissioning service, or at a bedside prayer offered by a Stephen Minister.
Now I think Luke is casting a pretty wide net, a something-for-almost everybody catalogue of spiritual disciplines that not-coincidentally ground our church’s vision statement. But I suppose it is possible for a denomination, or a church, or an individual to find their feet still heading to an Emmaus of despair, resignation, and trust only in self instead of to a Jerusalem of hope, faith, and trust in God. There are times when it is hard to identify the smallest species of spiritual experience in individual or communal life. Denominations, churches and individuals can go through seasons when the promises of spiritual experience, Christian formation, and love of neighbor seem all fished out. But even then Luke’s story offers us all hope. For we can never know when that stranger coming up behind us on the road just might be the risen Christ, yearning to turn us or our children around and get us moving back on the road to our Jerusalem again. We can pray for him. Watch for him. Wait for him. He will come. And we and our children will be blessed. Amen.
1According to Dr. Mark A. Noll, a professor of Christian history at the University of Notre Dame, so-called “Mainline Protestantism” peaked in membership in the 1950’s and has declined steadily over the past half century. From 1960 to 1988, the mainline church membership declined from 31 million to 25 million, and then fell to 21 million in 2005. Only 15% of American adults now claim membership in “Mainline” denominations. A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada , (1992), 465. Using slightly different methodology, The Association of Religion Data Archives [the “ARDA”] counts 26,344,933 members of “Mainline” churches as compared to 39,930,869 members of evangelical Protestant churches.
2The Association of Religion Data Archives. “United Church of Christ Denominational Profile.” 27 Dec. 2011 <http://www.thearda.com/Denoms/D_1463.asp>. Between 1959 and 2008, Episcopal Church membership declined from 3.4 million to 2 million. “Episcopal Church Denominational Profile.” 27 Dec. 2011 <http://www.thearda.com/Denoms/D_849.asp>. “Maps and Reports.” U.S. Membership Report, United States, Denominational Groups, 2000. 16 Jan. 2012. <http://www.thearda.com/mapsReports/reports/US_2000.asp>.
3The Association of Religion Data Archives. Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) History. http://www.thearda.com/Denoms/D.asp. May 23, 2012.
4The Association of Religion Data Archives, United Methodist Church, History. http://www.thearda.com/Denoms/D 1469.asp. May 23, 2012.