I was ordained in the church at a very interesting time in history. The Presbyterian Church as a whole was about five years into the beginning of the great decline which continues today. While the mainline church blamed the evangelicals for “stealing” their members, statistics pointed to the fact that while many mainline churches were facing a sharp decline, most evangelical churches, other than a few churches here and there, were facing a steady decline of their own.
Of course, with the growth of the “megachurch,” many denominations and congregations got jealous trying to figure out how they would be able to replicate or grasp the influence of those churches. The root of the problem for the church was, and is, basic: society has changed, and the church did not pay attention.
Not even getting into social issues which have proved devastating to many congregations, churches lost track of their purpose in the community. So as other social outlets grew, churches who relied heavily on fellowship as their community purpose lost to organizations who did it better, with less commitment. (This is also true of social organizations like the Lions, Kiwanis, etc.) For those born after 1970, joining things and commitment are not important; the feeling among most of that generation is, “Why join? I’m just going to leave.” This can be seen in the workforce as well.
But churches still sought to grow, trying to rediscover the past. Unfortunately, because the impact of the church was already slipping in society, attempts to grow turned quickly into struggles for survival, even though most congregations were not able to see that. It was like one of the first discussions I had when I was ordained, known to most pastors as the: “We just need to be patient until all the young people come home” talk. But just as they declined other commitments, most young people did not move back to their hometown, and many did not find a need to join a church. This left many churches asking why and how, and they began to dwindle and eventually close.
During the time from the 1950s to the 1990s, many churches grew by using a combination of some spiritual activities, some outreach, and a lot of social/fellowship activities. While the church sustained its most dramatic growth in U.S. history during those 40 years, for the most part, it was not growing because of faith or spirituality; it was growing because it was a place to be. Interestingly, our denomination is shrinking both organically from an aging denomination and recent groups leaving for various other reasons.
In my first call, we were faced with a very grim future. It would be a slow and probably painful death as the aging congregation slowly lost its footing. With an average age of 70 and no desire for leadership, we had to do soul searching and spend time coming to terms with the fact that the only way our unique witness to Christ in our community would stay would be to seek a radical change, meaning that we would die and seek rebirth. Their choice was to let go of their wants and desires and to instead fight to be faithful and listen to the needs of our neighbors and the community. From choosing death over life came a growing and healthy congregation that now thrives in their new reality.
While technically the church died, and both churches in the merger were closed, they realigned their goals by choosing to live as Resurrection people, choosing to live under the question of how they can best serve God in their community. As we continue to think about our life as a church, we must continually ask if we are aligning ourselves with our wants, or if we are aligning ourselves with our mission to be connected with God.
If we are about the church and its survival, we cannot live as Resurrection people, because our priorities are inward. But if our goal is to ask how are we building community, listening to our neighbors, and working to share the joy and witness to the Resurrection, we have nothing to worry about. The success we see is not that which is seen in this world, but rather the success and joy that is written on the hearts of everyone who hears.
What does it mean to be a Resurrection person? Early in my seminary career, a professor asked this question. As happens at seminaries, the answers were wild and often convoluted as the students strived to show off their understanding of what it meant to live as Resurrection people. To be honest, I did not answer. Though I knew what it meant to me, I did not really have the words to describe to others, because at that time, my understanding of being a Resurrection person was a feeling, a knowledge that all would come out just fine.
For the past month and a half, we walked through the Lenten journey, looking at social justice issues and struggling with understanding how we are called to live with one foot in the world of trying to be a good citizen and the other in the world of a faithful Christian. Now that we are in the Easter season, we are confronted with another approach to social justice: the ethics of living as Resurrection people. For the next few weeks, I am going to explore with you what it means to be Easter people. Today, we are going to explore the ethical aspects.
Ethics, simply defined, is “the study of the human conduct, focusing particularly on attitudes and actions that are considered to be right or wrong.”  As Resurrection people, this is very interesting, because our ethics come with an understanding that life is not bound to a temporal plane. Thus, for us, ethical living is less about how we are living in the moment, and more about the longitudinal understanding of how we are living into our faith and facilitating that faith for other people.
A great example of this ethic is provided by the ethicist and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was given an opportunity to make a choice. Though he was a strong pacifist, there came an opportunity for Bonhoeffer to get close enough to Hitler that he could put a bomb right next to him. This chance presented a struggle for Bonhoeffer, but in the end, the lives that he would potentially save if it worked weighed against the risk of trying to take out Hitler, so he chose to act. The choice presented an ethical dilemma many would have: protect yourself in the moment, or put yourself on the line, perhaps even lose your own life, to possibly save others.
As you know, the scheme did not work, and Bonhoeffer ended up in a Nazi concentration camp. While in prison, he often wrote, and we understand him and his situation and faith through his letters and papers from prison. In the midst of this terror, he reminds us that:
Christians must partake of earthly life to the very end, just as did Christ (O God, my God, why have you forsaken me?), and only by doing so is the Crucified and Resurrected with them and are they themselves crucified and resurrected with Christ. This life here and now may not be prematurely suspended.
It is this reality that underlies our ethic to live with one foot in the world we are in, but another in the world that is to come. It reminds me of the powerful hymn that begins, “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus' blood and righteousness.” Our ethic is to work for the betterment of where we are, while at the same time preparing ourselves for the world that is to come. This is not an easy feat, but it is something that is crucial as we explore what it means to be Easter people.
 McKim, Donald. The Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms. WJK: Louisville 2014
“ARE YOU READY?” the park attendant yelled. My friend and I felt the safety bar clamp down with a loud click, followed by a clack. With a jerk and a loud screech, the car began to roll down the first hill, up the second, and down into quick turns, flips, fast ups and downs. It was a 30-second exhilaration that made my heart beat fast and drove my adrenalin up. It was so great, I wanted to do it again. I went back to stand in line. The wait was only 35 minutes this time.
When I was in high school and went to the Six Flags for Physics day, the manager had a question-and-answer period. One of the first questions had nothing to do with the physics of the rides, but why the wait was so long. The manager said that it was as much a part of the ride as the ride itself. He said that by the time people arrived at the start to get in the car, they were already excited with anticipation, and the ride drove that excitement to another level, at least for those who still wanted to go.
As we work our way through the time of Lent, we are journeying toward a new life, to the promise fulfilled. As with the ride, the great anticipation leads us to a glorious new experience. Easter provides us a glimpse of that glorious new experience. By Easter in most parts of the country, some early flowers are beginning to bloom, and we begin to see signs of nesting birds and new life all around us. The gloom of winter transitions to the beautiful blue skies and sounds of spring.
As we work toward Easter, we need to do so with diligence and patience. Easter is the beginning of something new. It is the most important day of the Christian year, not only because it is the prophesy fulfilled or the promise of life eternal. It marks the beginning of a journey that will take us to new places and make us feel things we would not have otherwise felt.
Isaiah prophesized that in the coming of the Lord, the world would be called into something new. Thus, the world was going to begin a journey, one that would be new and glorious. He said, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild animals will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches; for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.”
As we prepare, we must get ready to take the new journey that we are called to by Christ. We must challenge ourselves and overcome our trepidations to allow Christ to change and mold us.
I barely got on the ride that time. It was the first roller-coaster I had ever been on, and the whole time I had been standing in line, I knew where the exits were. By the time the attendant screamed, “Are you ready?” I did not have much time to say yes, no, or dart; I was ready whether I wanted to be or not. In our lives, we are on a journey with Christ. Granted, there are times we don’t realize it, but it is through this journey that we prepare ourselves for what is next, the Resurrection.
I am starting to think that this is going to become the “Year of the Protest March.” It seems like every other week there is another march, either trying to make a point, or complain, or---well, you get the idea. A protest march, above anything else, is designed to bring visibility and action to issues that are seen to be unjust or detrimental to society. Sometimes a protest march will change minds, but that is only a hope. The protest march is really to rally people, helping them to find the strength and courage to keep fighting for what they see to be right.
However, over time, as society changes, protest marches also change. Sometimes, because society has changed, the march becomes more of a parade focused on entertainment than a place of strength and courage. Even though some of these marches can be a rally point, they lose their connection to history and community, and often, their purpose.
That is true of this little-known protest march turned parade we celebrate every year called Palm Sunday. I bet you never thought of it as a protest march, but this march was very important for the early church. Well-established by the 4th century, it was a march against the devil and the power of evil in this world.
People would bring their greenery---often palms, but not always---to be blessed as a protection from the devil. The community procession, which by the Middle Ages would move from church to church, was a visible sign to the community that the devil had no hold on the faithful. This protest of evil served as a reminder that Christ has conquered the devil, giving all who participate the strength and courage to continue their fight.
However, we had lost sight of that until this year, when our Sunday morning worship team came up with the idea of “Branches Sunday.” I had not considered the specific history of Palm Sunday, aside from the biblical text. So I just perpetuated the parade and celebration of the Palm Sunday, without embodying the serious protest of evil that underlies it.
About 15 or 20 years ago, the Presbyterian Church gave churches the option to follow a Palm Sunday script, or to hold Passion Sunday and try to observe the entirety of Holy Week on that Sunday. This is an admirable attempt to cover all Holy Week, when many churches don’t do anything, but this approach misses one very important part of Palm Sunday: the encouragement to keep going amid our struggles against evil in this world.
So, in reality, Palm Sunday is not the same celebration as Easter; never was, and should not be. This is a Sunday when we become visible to the world, recognizing that the struggle against evil is something that we cannot defeat by ourselves. We need the community, and we need Christ to find the strength to overcome it.
In fact, some might say that this is the most important protest march of the year! The theme of protesting evil and its power in the world kind of encapsulates them all! So join us this Sunday, as we find strength and courage from each other for the fight of our lives, and bring your greenery to be blessed!
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen