I grew up in the United Church in Moncton NB, in a mid sized church where there’s now a vacant lot on St George Street. I started Sunday School there as a three year old, and there were maybe two dozen children my age in the program. I loved Sunday School. I loved singing hymns with a sweet lady who eventually taught me piano for four years and sang with me in the senior choir. I loved sitting on the chairs that were cutout wooden kittens on either side of the chair, loved to learn about the Bible as I got older and the Bible stories got ever more sophisticated.
I started Sunday School in 1966, which means I belong to the tail end of the Baby Boomers, and at that time the church itself was booming. As I got older, I noticed that my Sunday School class was slowly shrinking. By the time we got to the Grades Four, Five and Six class, we probably had a dozen or so kids for three grades. The confirmation class of youth aged thirteen said their vows, and then disappeared. Almost none of the people I hung around with in high school went to church, and they considered me a little strange that way. By the time I graduated from high school, I was the only kid in my class still regularly attending church.
I’ve been thinking a lot why my generation started going to church, and then stopped. I have a lot of answers, maybe not so many solutions. This is a kind of bad news, good news sermon, but I promise there isn’t much in the bad news that you don’t already know, and there will be some good news before we’re done.
Here’s how I see it: I think the church has lost its credibility as a witness. Part of it isn’t our fault, we ran smack into the Vietnam War and the television age, when suddenly everyone could watch what was happening half a world away, and people started to notice that what we were seeing live on the evening news didn’t match what the government was assuring us was happening. Without realizing it, the institution of government lost its credibility as a witness. And as the government lost credibility, all institutions lost credibility, as people looked suspiciously underneath the surface to see whether all institutions were telling the truth about what we were actually doing. This hasn’t gotten better in the age of social media, where high school kids in Florida can post live video calling out their critics, and get their message all the way around the world in seconds.
You know this is true, just think of how much you and your neighbours trust the promises of any government in an election year. Now consider that most non-church-going people, your neighbours and friends, feel the same way about the institution that is the church.
In a sense, we’ve done that to ourselves. Nobody could be as good as the church was claiming to be when I was growing up. We claimed, sometimes still claim, that we have a lock on goodness and truth, and when they also see us doing things that are neither good nor true, our credibility is damaged.
It may not be our fault, that the world sees us this way, but it is our problem. Be sure that the people of the world are watching what we do with sharp eyes, and judging us on our worst behaviour, not our best.
The other problem about being credible witnesses is the way we tell our story. Take the story from today’s Gospel of Luke, an appearance story from the day of the Resurrection. Before this was the scene at the tomb with Mary Magdalene being the first person to see the risen Christ, and the scene on the Emmaus road where the two disciples didn’t recognize Jesus until he broke bread with them. Now, that very same day, Jesus appears behind locked doors, lets them touch his crucifixion wounds, has supper with them. He teaches them how everything that has happened to him is all part of God’s plan, and declares they are all witnesses to their things.
This story in Luke is probably the latest appearance story in the Gospels, because Luke is the latest Gospel, finished sometime between the years 90 and 110. By the time Luke was written, the church has been established for two or three generations, and is struggling hard with how to keep going in a hostile Roman Empire where it’s not only dangerous to be a Christian, it’s actually illegal.
This text in Luke is wrestling with two big problems, the trauma that their founder was murdered in a horrible way by their own government that called their Emperor the Prince of Peace, and the trauma that they themselves might be murdered simply for calling themselves Christians and following the one that Rome tried to suppress.
So this story, the latest of all the appearance stories in our Bible, begins a trend that has continued to the present day, making the Resurrection less spiritual and more physical, very historical, and therefore very real. I mean, alone among the Gospels Luke has him eat a piece of fish, for God’s sake. He must be the real deal.
More conservative branches of the church have continued the trend, insisting that the Bible is not only a history book, but even a science book, correct in every detail, with the dictated word of God into the ears of the evangelists, without error or contradiction, sufficient for all time. It’s because these words are absolutely true that they are trustworthy. And that is the problem.
For most people of my generation, of my kids’ generation, raised in a scientific age and weaned on technology, the story we read in the Bible fails the credibility test both as history and as science. People don’t walk through locked doors, and they don’t rise from the dead. The more determinedly literal we Christians get about that, the harder it is for non-Christians to take us seriously. This sort of Christianity expects us to believe six impossible things before breakfast before we’re even allowed in the club, not an attractive position if we’re trying to encourage people to come join us.
Now as much as I love debate, I’m not here to debate about literal or metaphorical readings of the Bible, at least not right now, maybe later, over coffee. Because that’s not the point. That debate glosses over the bigger problem here, that the Bible isn’t a history book, and faith isn’t science, and so long as we make the Resurrection all about something that happened to a group of people who have been dead for nearly two thousand years, we rob it of all its possibility and power. Because the power in this story is that it’s still happening to us, today.
This is the good news for us, in our day and age when it seems everyone in the church is telling a story of decline, into a sea of bad news and fake news and fear of the future. I reject the power of those stories of decline to define us and our faith. Resurrection is our story. When Jesus appeared to those first Christians – and I believe that he did appear, all of the earliest witnesses agree that they saw him in some form – he appeared at their darkest hour, when all hope seemed lost. Things were so much worse for them than they are for us, we have no idea.
We have an idea in western society that faith is only working if things are going well. In fact, our story is that Resurrection comes in the darkest times, when we think all is lost, that’s when the risen Christ surprises us. It’s something that has the possibility to happen to you, today.
Here’s our challenge: If we are going to be credible witnesses to the Resurrection, first we have to see it for ourselves. Reading about it in a book is no good. We don’t have a lot of credibility when our only claim to fame is something that happened to someone else two thousand years ago. What I want to know, when I am considering joining the church, is where have you found new life, and how can I get me some of that?
I know I’ve experienced it myself. When I was a university student, away from home and my supportive church for the first time, the Spirit came to me and started to teach me new ways of being a Christian that were less about being afraid to make a mistake for fear of not going to heaven, and more about being fully what God has created me to be, here in this world, today. This faith has never failed me since, even in my own darkest times. It carried me through depression. When we decided to start a family, and experienced miscarriage not once, but twice, we walked into the darkness and fear, and found the courage to keep trying.
Most recently, I have been watching the church change. For someone in the professional clergy, maybe even more than the people sitting in the pews, the changes we are going through are scary, my income and my vocation are at risk. The old ways aren’t working any more, and none of us are sure exactly what to try next.
I have been taking a year of discernment, listening to what God is saying to me about where I and my church are being called to go, and while I have much more listening to do, one thing I can tell you is that as I let go of how I have done church in the past, as I let go even of paid, accountable ministry, yes, there are things I am losing, but I am also finding new life, and getting new ideas about how we might start new ways of being church in our community, to reach new people with this old, old story that is ever new. I’m not sure how that’s all going to play out, I’m as confused as those first disciples, but that’s what faith is all about, and I have faith that the Resurrection story I have walked with my whole life is not going to let me down now.
I don’t know if you consider me a credible witness, I mean, we hardly know each other. So go looking for your own Resurrection story. Go looking for the places where new life is growing in your community. Be witnesses to those things wherever you are in your world. And the risen Christ will be with you as you go. Amen.
Luke 24: 36b-48
April 15, 2018
Rev. Heather Fraser