The Church and the High Line

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The trees growing through the old train tracks on the High Line in Manhattan.

Lent 2
Mark 8:31-38

A few weeks ago, I made a weekend trip to New York City. Parker and I walked along the High Line, an elevated linear park and walking trail on the west side of Manhattan. The High Line soars over Manhattan’s streets, and along the way, passers by can gaze at and interact with art, enjoy the green space, and rest at park benches as they stare at the busy streets below.

The High Line didn’t start as a park, though. It was originally a railway, built beginning in 1847. The trains carried mainly coal, dairy products, and beef, and operated at street level. In the early days, so many accidents occurred between the trains and other vehicles that the corridor became known as “death avenue.” So in the early 1900s, public debate began about how to address the danger, and in 1934, the High Line viaduct project was begun to raise the trains over the traffic below. The new, raised trains would carry their cargo directly into New York City warehouses and businesses. Because the project was destined to go through blocks rather than along streets or avenues, 640 buildings had to be demolished in order for the railway to be built.

It turns out that the High Line project has always been about letting old things die in order to create something new.

Of course, over time, other modes of transportation for these goods took over, and the trains became outdated. The growth of interstate trucking in the 1950s precipitated the fall of rail transport nationwide, and eventually, it rendered the High Line trains useless. By the 1990s, the raised rail line was completely unused and in disrepair, slated for destruction. The steel structure of the thing, however, was sound.

Long story short, it was saved by the High Line park project. In 2005, it was removed from the national rail system so that it could be zoned as a park, and construction on the park began in 2006. By June 2009, the first section of High Line Park was opened, and the High Line was resurrected and thrives today, with new sections still being added. The old tracks are still there, overgrown by vegetation that greets thousands of passers by each day. (1)

As Parker and I walked along the High Line a few weeks ago, I looked at the abandoned railroad tracks and a tree caught my eye, growing strong right smack dab in the middle of the tracks. The trains had to die for something new to arise.

Reflecting on the state of the church in America like I do, I said to Parker, “If this was the Church, do you think we’d’ve ever stopped running the trains, or tried to find a way to have trains and a park (because the young people really like parks)?”

The reply came: “But people really love the trains, Anna. We’ve always had the trains. Some people gave a lot of money for those trains.”

Somehow, in the church (and in the rest of the world, really), a resurrection people has become afraid of death, afraid of endings, afraid of change.

Like most things, though, you can be sure that it didn’t start with any generation alive today. It’s a human thing to think that death is final and change is scary. It’s nature, after all — death is a final thing to be fought, and stability is safety. We generally have a hard time with change and transition, in the church and elsewhere.

In the Gospel lesson today, Jesus pulls no punches as he describes what must happen to him. This is one of those times that we lose the full impact of Jesus’ words here because we already know the ending.

“Those silly disciples,” we think. “They don’t have any faith. They don’t believe Jesus when he says he’ll be resurrected. Poor suckers.”

What we forget is that they didn’t have the whole story available to them from birth, as many of us have. They did not grow up hunting Easter eggs or coloring empty tombs or reading the full story of Jesus.

All they really knew for sure was that they found a teacher that they loved, and that when people died, they stayed dead. So when Jesus openly said “I must be killed,” Peter said exactly what any of us would say to someone we loved who said, “I have to die” — “Shut up! You’re not dying! Why would you say that?!”

And this is what gets Peter called Satan. Satan, which in Hebrew means “the accuser” — the one who tells you that you are not what God has called you to be.

It’s similar to where the institutional church is now, really: we don’t have the end of the story in front of us. All we have is what we can see: as churches decline in numbers and all churches wonder, with varying urgency, what’s next. We don’t have a guarantee that it’s all going to be okay — in New England or elsewhere. In a hundred years, I sometimes wonder if the children of the Church in whatever form it takes next will look back on us and think, “Those poor suckers. They were so full of fear and refused to change. They just didn’t have any faith.

I’ve seen too many debates about why people don’t come to church anymore. I keep wondering why we want to go back to some heyday that existed in the 1960s or ’70s or ’80s. The booming institutional church of the twentieth century was, yes, the source of a lot of good, but it was also the source of plenty of abuse and evil.

God is a creator, not a time machine. In God’s time, there’s no going back to what was. 

There’s only ashes to ashes, then dust to life: for institutions, and for us.

One quick aside while we’re talking about this passage: let’s be clear: “deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me” — isn’t about us working ourselves to death. It’s not about church people and pastors denying what we need and what our families need and what our bodies need for the sake of the Gospel. It is not about self-abuse in the name of self-sacrifice.

The church for too long has glorified overwork, confusing motion with progress, trying to get back to “where we were,” and we have a lot of burned out pastors and tired laypeople to show for it. As one ELCA pastor put it to an overworked friend of mine recently, “You don’t have to die for Jesus. Jesus already died for you.

“Take up your cross” is, as my hospital chaplain friend Kathleen says, less a message of “kill yourself” and more a message of “get over yourself.” This isn’t about you or me putting in as much work as you can to keep this current model of church going. This isn’t about us at all. It’s about listening to what God is doing right now, trusting that God is not defeated by human failures or shrinking numbers or those pesky millennials who just won’t go to church — because, well, one of them is preaching to you right now.

God, Kathleen says, is always firmly on the side of life. Of being human. Of not being on the side of imperial power. Of not being a company man. Which actually means not confusing motion with progress or overworking yourself, but instead, about being more human and helping others to do so as well. Of being willing to let something die — really die — so that it can be resurrected.

Which, let’s be real, can really get you crucified by those who love only what was.

So let’s move forward, separating what is Gospel from what is simply our preference, denying ourselves, and taking up the difficult things in order to help ourselves and those around us become more human, more honest, more real, more loving — more like Jesus.

This Lent, at Wednesday night Bible study, we’re talking about the “dark side” of theology: stuff like Satan, demons, sin — stuff that modern progressive Christians have a hard time talking about. This week, we talked about being dust — ash, death, and human frailty. We used Rachel Held Evans’ book Searching for Sunday, the same one that the council is reading together this year.

In her chapter “Ash,” she talks about how we are formed from the dust, made in God’s image, but the creation story tells us that we tried over and over to be like God the way that we saw God — to rule over everything, to be in charge, to conquer and dominate. And in the process, all we did was spread death everywhere.

She says, “We could not become like God, so God became like us. God showed us how to heal instead of kill, how to mend instead of destroy, how to love instead of hate, how to live instead of long for more. When we nailed God to a tree, God forgave.

“And when we buried God in the ground, God got up.

Life to death, death to life — like seeds, like soil, like stars. No wonder,” Evans writes, “that Mary mistook the risen Jesus for a gardener.” (2)

The High Line as it is today is itself a kind of wild garden, with trees stretching up through the tracks of dead institutional infrastructure towards the glorious sun of the future. Children play tag around the old train tracks and interact with new art and sculptures along the way. Because the city that never sleeps finally let its outdated trains die, but realized the structure was sound, something new could arise.

Unlike Jesus’ story, we do not know how our story ends — not the universal church, not Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, not our own individual stories. Every now and then, in the wilderness, we face the ultimate temptation: hopelessness. But our structure, too is sound.

And remember: in God’s time, there’s no going back.

There’s only ashes to ashes, then dust to life: for institutions, and for us.

We cannot stop death, but we can remember that the only thing that love cannot do is stay dead.

So let us step out in faith, like Abraham and Sarah, and into the future to which God calls us, unafraid of the road ahead, with no guarantees.

Because it’s true that someday, this old train — the institutional church, this church, and all of us — will stop running.

When that happens, God will build something new: a place where everyone can stop above the din of their lives and take a moment to breathe, to love, to meet God — to be more human. And we will all stretch up through the tracks towards the glorious sun of the future. Thanks be to God. Amen.

1. My High Line knowledge came primarily from Wikipedia. You can read more about the High Line, its history and its present, here.
2. You can purchase Rachel Held Evans’ book Searching for Sunday here.

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