Enough philosophy, hurts my head being all serious, my favorite theological TV show came back on this Sunday. And it looks to be back in form: More zombies, more horror, less talk.
As I’ve said before, zombies can bring up all kinds of theological questions. We have zombie congregations around here. We are St. Mark’s Lutheran in West Henrietta, but there are three congregations with that same name roughly local. The Lutheran congregation in Mendon, NY is St. Mark’s, and there was a St. Mark’s in Rochester, NY proper that closed its doors some 15 years ago. It (somewhat) merged with another local congregation. I received a phone call yesterday. Someone appeared to be dying. The social worker was calling looking for a pastor to come pray with the man. The man had claimed he was a member of St. Mark’s Lutheran. I’ll get a call something like that about once a month. The sadness in those calls is that my first reaction is to dig out old directories and see if the name existed here. Zombie members. (One of the reasons I give little credence to membership. You show me your membership without attendance and I’ll show you my church on Sunday some of whom might not technically be members.) I’ve been here just over 4 years, but there are still people who I will not recognize the name, who the congregation has not seen in years stretching to decades, who will answer on their death bed to being members of St. Mark’s. If I don’t find the name in one of our old directories, the second reaction is to attempt to call the other two congregations to see if that name is in one of theirs. At that point it is more about notification because if someone is truly on their deathbed I run out even if it is with some angst at what I will probably see.
In this particular case the man was a member of St. Mark’s in Rochester proper. The sister arrived about 30 mins after I did which is slightly different. In these cases I rarely get to find out what spurred the statement of St. Mark’s. Most often the person is alone in the world. Here the sister and her husband entered and the first question was “who are you”? I introduced myself, and the husband excused himself almost immediately. After exchanging pleasantries I inquired about what St. Mark’s he might have meant? Should I follow-up with one of the other congregations? “No need.” The man had never moved his membership to the merged congregation. He was a member of the congregation that had closed its doors over 15 years ago – a zombie congregation. It is in some ways a double zombie membership. He’s a member of a congregation that doesn’t exist, yet that congregation has a zombie like existence in the merged entity. From what I understand it continues to meet somewhat separately there and occasionally gets called by the old name.
I understand why the social worker would call and try to find a pastor. But the truth is that churches and pastors are not in the zombie business. There is no magic I can bring to the deathbed. All a pastor brings is the same thing he brings every Sunday – the Word: words of absolution, words of promise, words of grace. If at the absolution you are mumbling “its too late, I’ve done too much”, all I can do is say “no, now is the time”. But if you’ve absented yourself for decades, if it wasn’t meaningful or important earlier, why would you believe me now? It is still true, but why would you believe that proclamation? Take it from me, deathbed conversions are a rare grace. The patterns of life are the patterns of death. To the one who has, more will be given. To the one who lacks, even what he has will be taken away. (Mark 4:25)
The season opening of The Walking Dead had one scene that strikes me as a metaphor for church work in 21st century America. Herschel, the old veterinarian from the farm, gets bitten trying to secure a new home. That would typically lead to death and becoming a zombie. We will see what happens, but Rick, the main character, grabs a hatchet and immediately cuts off the limb. If your foot causes you to become a zombie, cut it off, it’s better to live footless, than stumble around zombified with both. Jesus once said let the dead bury their dead. (Luke 9:60) In our culture of The Walking Dead, the church is about proclaiming life, even if it requires a hatchet.