This sermon was preached on April 3, 2016. it is the first in a series of six sermons that I offer as reflections on our study of I REFUSE TO LEAD A DYING CHURCH, a book we are studying in several small groups. You are invited to join one of these small groups, which meet on Tuesday mornings in my office at 9:30 am, and Sunday after church at the manse. All are welcome.
We face six big choices as a church. Here is the first of them.
“Choosing Life Over Death”
Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!
Last week we looked at the gospel lesson in Luke where we read that an angel of the Lord asked Jesus’ disciples a strange question: Why do you look for the living among the dead? What kind of question is this? I mean, if you go to a graveyard, filled with tombs, Mr. Angel, you’re gonna see a lot of dead people, right?
Death is something we get accustomed to, even as we try to evade thinking too much about it.
Relationships end; so do friendships. People die, or move away, or get divorced. In sports, dynasties come to an end. The 2016 Yankees don’t look much like the ‘27 Yankees. Sometimes it’s nobody’s fault. Sometimes it’s caused by neglect or bad management or worse. Cities can die. Flint Michaigan appears to be dying. For a while it looked like the auto industry in Detroit was dying. Some people think that civility is dying in the United States, that our culture is becoming increasingly crude, fed by reality TV which gets stranger and courser by the hour, and presdential politics, which is coming to resemble Reality TV. We can become desensitized to death. Death on TV or our video screens can become less shocking. More and more homes have multiple TVs, meaning children have greater opportunity to view programs without parental consent or supervision. By age 18, a young person in America will have seen more than 16,000 simulated murders and 200,000 acts of violence, according to the American Psychiatric Association. We hear about another terrorist attack or a mass killing on some campus or shopping mall or movie theatre and we can become complacent—just the latest shocking incident of gun violence. Once you have accepted the fact that twenty beautiful children in Newtown were shot to death at their school in broad daylight, I guess you can get used to just about anything. Death insinuates itself into our daily life, it is a spectre haunting our thoughts and actions, something we would prefer not to think about but know is lurking, silent, watching, waiting. Many live in fear of it. Some think that good manners are dying, that the simple act of writing a thank you note or sending an RSVP is dead, a thing of the past. And of course, we know that churches across America are dying.
So the truly shocking thing about Easter is that everything we knew or thought we knew about death is wrong! Easter changes everything! Death is not all powerful, and death will not have the last word! In the resurrection of Jesus Christ, God dealt a death blow to death itself, and we no longer have to life in fear of death! This is the happy message of this Easter season, that we do not fear death, we can look it straight in the eye without blinking, and fearlessly choose life!
So when the angel asked that fascinating question to the disciples (who are after all, stand ins for us)—Why do you seek the living among the dead?— we can hear it with new ears today. Because of Easter, the living Christ is among us—this is why we have taken to reading the gospel from the center of the church, this is why as we are able we rise to our feet to hear the gospel—not just as a sign of respect for a dead man, but we are acknowledging that the risen Christ is alive and he is among us, in this very room, and where two or three together are gathered in his name there he is, in the midst of them! So stand up, people of God, do not fear death, and remember, you do not have to watch your church die, you have a choice. You can choose life over death.
Some of us have made a choice to read this little book, and you are invited to join us. Two groups have formed: one meets in my office on Tuesday mornings at 9:30 am and the other begins meeting today at the Manse after worship for food and conversation today and for the next five weeks. The book is titled, I Refuse to Lead A Dying Church. And when we finish reading this book we are going to read another little book that is just as exciting if not more so—WE REFUSED TO LEAD A DYING CHURCH: 15 CHURCHES THAT CAME BACK AGAINST ALL ODDS.
Here is another powerful question for us, and it may be the most important question we can ask ourselves as a congregation: Can we welcome new life?
Don’t be too quick to answer. Give the question some time to sink in; settle into it. This is a question we will need to live into as a church. Death is more than literal cessation of life, death is a power that insinuates inself in subtle ways into our thoughts and into our psyches, an insideous power that inclines us to doubt and fear and downright unbelief. Can we welcome new life? Or are we so ingrained in the habits and the patterns of death that we accept a dying church as our due, as the new normal? You may recall the story in John’s gospel where a man has been lying by the healing waters of the Pool of Bethesda for 38 years, waiting for someone to help him, to get to the pool for healing, making excuses day after day, until the weeks and months turned into years and decades, and Jesus asked this man a simple question: Do you WANT to made well?
You see, some people would rather cling to their pathologies and bad behaviors rather than be healed. When confronted with the choice, deep change or die, many churches prefer to die. Is Church of the Highlands one of them?
It is OK to have doubts. Thomas doubted, initially, but in the end Thomas had a powerful encounter with the Risen Christ and he turned, and made a startling confession of faith, one of the first in the New testament, “My Lord and my God!” Thomas was converted and became an apostle of the Risen Christ he had doubted. According to church legend he was sent to India, where he founded churches and brought many to Christ.
The profound gift and mystery of Easter is that God meets us in places of deepest darkness and death, and always, always offers us the possibility of new life. The question confronting us today is whether or not we will welcome the possibility of resurrection, and step into all that it offers for us, for our world.
Can I welcome new life? Can we as a church welcome new life?
We are in the season of Easter now, but for the church Easter is always the season. Paul Nixon was once asked, why that title, I Refuse to Lead a Dying Church, and he said, “Because I don’t think it’s biblical to lead a dying church. We are Easter people and we can choose life!” May it be so. Amen.
- Source: Paul Nixon, I Refuse To Lead A Dying Church, Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2006. This sermon is drawn from ideas in this book. I am grateful to Paul Nixon for his ideas, and excited that many of us are reading this book together.