I had driven by the church a million times so it seemed. It was a squat brick building, the bricks falling off the building, the shingles sliding off the roof, and the rickety stairs didn't seem too safe. The church was surrounded by headstones of saints long gone. Who they were, I didn't know. This church was odd; it seemed out of place to sit next to the front entrance of Lincoln University. Lincoln brimming with life and expectations of twenty-year olds, dancing with the vibrancy that hope brings. And there next to this place of hope sat a beleaguered church, filled with memories long past. It represented, so I thought, the institutional church, falling apart, filled with dusty hymns and creeds. What did it mean to me?
That was until one day the minister of that small little church spoke to one of my religion classes. He told the stories of a tiny congregation who in years past heroically secreted away runway slaves; he dared us to imagine the small flock of Methodist ex-slaves, who with Quakers and Presbyterians, started my college. He weaved stories of hope in the past against threats of violence against those who worshipped there. He dreamed of the day that this little church, membership of one woman, who dared to keep this church alive would grow again. He dreamed of the church brimming with students from the college, of repairing the roof, of changing the world once again. What a glorious past!
But how could this pastor dream of hope for his flock again in face of their dark situation?
Two men were walking the road to Emmaus. In some moments they may have spoken; in others they shared silence. They whispered the mourning of dreams lost. Jesus of Nazareth, whose wonders and works they had witnessed, was dead. He was the very embodiment of their hope, the center of their dreams, and it was all gone now.
A man joined them on their journey aware of their deep sadness. "What are you discussing as you walk along?" he questions them. Are you mad? Have you not heard what has occurred in Jerusalem? The men proceeded to pour the grief of their hearts and reminisce of miracles once wrought. Healings and renewal, hope born again in people's lives that have now come to naught. The miracle worker, the messiah is dead. And on top of that, his body is missing from his tomb! What good was it for them to dream again? What good was it for them to hope? Who would redeem Israel? Where is their future?!
The American church is changing; there is no doubt about that. Who we once were is no more. Buildings built for the glory of God and the service of man stand emptied with a few of the remnant faithful. Buoyed by tradition, others by faith, some dare to dream of hope again. But the journey seems so dark and dreary. The good news seems like old news now, and headlines scream of the death of the mainline church. Statistics spout the decline of Christianity as we knew it. Our children and grandchildren see no use for the faith. How can we speak for hope on this journey? Are you crazy! Our journey is overshadowed by the darkness of that Friday.
The journey continued for those two men accompanied by the unnamed stranger, and for some reason the stranger spoke up! Oh how silly you people are! Was this not supposed to happen to fulfill the prophets? As they continued walking, this man interpreted to them all the things that had occurred regarding himself. They neared a village and the man was to continue on. Stay friend; they invited the stranger to sit with them. As he broke bread with them and as he blessed the bread, they came to their senses and recognized Christ was among them.
Friends, how easy it is for us to mourn "The church is dead" or so they say. The young adults are gone, so it is said. No one wants to come to First you name it church anymore. But an unnamed stranger appears among us saying death has not won, my friends.
Once a year hundreds of young adults gather with the Academy of Preachers to proclaim the good news, to gather in fellowship, and to return to the world reignited. Friends, death has not won. Hope is brimming across the church, and young adults are committing their lives to service and justice and equality and good news. In my seminary classroom, young adults, older adults, and everybody in between, dream of their hope of the renewal of the church. The unnamed stranger is walking with us on our journey. Friday morning isn't quite the end of the tale.
I went into that rickety church one Sunday, and I decided to see this place for myself, but I wasn't the only one. Soon that little church, with shingles falling and bricks disintegrating, rang with voices again, of young and old. We were still a small congregation, sometimes only five of us. However, the journey for that church was not over. The roof was repaired, the hymnals dusted, the pews glistened, and at that altar rail our eyes were opened once again. We recognized that the God of all hope was with us.
Friends, there are new pathways to walk; the darkness of Calvary's cross is matched with the glory of Easter morn. The road forward may be filled with fear, but there is a table waiting ahead of us. And there seated at the table with all of God's creation is the unnamed stranger, and we will break bread with him and with each other, and we will say "were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road?" And there at that table we will find strength for the journey, renewed with hope, to walk towards a new future together.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.