Why would you go to church?

Happy Pentecost.

Some call today the birthday of the church. If we were clear yet about food rules we might have a big “happy birthday Church” cake. We’ve had them in the past. Cakes are controversial. I don’t want to get into theological fine points today. And, frankly, I’m also sad we aren’t yet ready to have a cake around here. We’ll get there. But today might also be thought of also as Inauguration Day. Pentecost is the day that the church is inaugurated, the day we come into our own. We hear the story of the Spirit descending, like tongues of fire. The disciples are given power to proclaim to every tribe and language and people and nation. Jesus has gone up to heaven. Now is the age of the church. Now is the age of the followers of Jesus. Today inaugurates a new season.

I don’t want to get into the finer points of theology, but I do want to let you in to a different kind of inside baseball. A number of my pastor colleagues are asking, “what is the point of church?” COVID has been a real reset for us. We haven’t, for fourteen months, been able to do the job we were trained to do. We haven’t been able to preach, safely, to the people in the pews. We haven’t been able to lead a congregation in song. For more than a year, we have told people to stay at home. For the sake of our health, for the sake of our neighbor, we haven’t gathered. We have faced crises among our staff colleagues. We have had to manage under more systemic stress than we’ve ever known. And now, all these months in, facing the difficulty of return, members in a lot of congregations are arguing about whether or not to wear masks in worship. I have colleagues who are asking, “what is the point?”

Now, don’t worry. I don’t have any plans for leaving the ministry. I don’t have plans to leave Holy Communion. I said don’t worry. There may be folks who wish I would leave. But let me say clearly, I’m not planning to leave anytime soon. I announced I’m taking some extended leave this summer, and the truth is, I’m more than a little tired. It’s been a really long few years. From a capital campaign, to a construction project, to re-imagining church in the pandemic, the work has been hard. There hasn’t been nearly enough time to pause and reflect. Also, and this is on me, I didn’t really take a break when Silas came into our family. I was due some paternity time, but I felt the circumstances didn’t really allow. I had a predecessor at Holy Communion who announced he was going on sabbatical and then never came back. He took another job. So I want to say clearly, that isn’t my plan.

If I’m honest, I don’t have any real skills outside the ministry. My parents might have dreamt that I would’ve gone into lucrative work like engineering or medicine, but I have two theological degrees and I’m working on a third.

I’m all in on church, professionally. But that’s enough about me. I want to spend the balance of this sermon asking, “why would you go to church?” Why bother?

Why would you go to church?

I know that this isn’t just a question for those of us with collars. This is a question for the lay folk. After all these months of Sunday mornings being slow, months where you didn’t have to worry about getting the kids up and dressed, when you got to have a slow leisurely cup of coffee and read the paper, maybe, maybe sign onto the website to hear what the preacher had to say, but to do so you didn’t have to put down the paper or the coffee. What is the point of coming back to church?

Today, on Pentecost, I want to pose two answers to that question: Here are the cliff notes. The first answer is this: I don’t think God needs us to worship, but I do think worship is good for our souls. Church is a place we can touch the source. The second answer is related: we bother with church because we know the world isn’t as it should be, and church is a place where we find food and companions for the work of re-making our world.

God doesn’t need our worship, but worship is good for our soul.

I don’t think God needs our worship. I don’t. Listen to the psalm this morning. God made the sea and the Leviathan, “for the sport of it.” God does not depend on our worship for survival. God is God. God does not need our worship. Rather, our souls are fed by the worship of God. Some of us find spiritual sustenance in the Eucharist. Some of us in the Scripture or the preaching. For some of us it is the music; it is singing in harmony. So none of us are truly content with worship in its current limited form. Trust me, I know. I am ready to tear off these masks and sing, on one level. On another, I know, that’s going to take some time.

I noticed something last week, the first week we were back in the building for worship. This isn’t empirical data, not a double blind study, but I noticed a large percentage of the people who came to worship in the church the first time we were able to worship in the church had something in common. A large percentage of them have a spouse, a parent, a sibling, or another loved one interred in our columbarium. The ashes of several dozen of our former members are part of what makes this place holy. For some of us, being in this specific space matters, this space where we once sang, and laughed, and prayed with people we loved who have died. For some of us this is a place where we are able to draw nearer to the generations who came before.

All of these: music, Eucharist, memory, prayer, the gathering of this beloved diverse welcoming community, all of it is a way to touch something greater than our selves.

I said in the Forum I recorded yesterday, Pentecost is a celebration of the ephemeral presence of God. The Holy Spirit, what our ancestors in faith called the “Holy Ghost,” is hard to get your arms around. The Spirit is less concrete than the persons we sometimes call the Father and the Son. We have more fluid images. Scripture speaks about the Spirit as breath, as wind, the Spirit blows where it will. And today the Scripture talks about the Spirit as fire.

Part of my answer about why to come to church, about why to bother, is because for many of us, gathering in this way, worshiping in this way, helps us to touch the source, helps us to grasp the ungraspable. Standing together, praying together, reorients. We live in a world of individualism. We live in a world of consumerism. Coming to this space, spending this hour on Sunday morning, reminds us we are part of something bigger. At its best, worship feels a bit like Pentecost. We are set on fire.

Church is a place we can start to make a difference

Which brings me to my second answer. I know I can speak for myself, and I know I can speak for some of the other members of this church, when I say, we bother because church is a place where we can start to make a difference in a world that so desperately needs change.

I can’t pretend that this church will ever be perfect. In fact, I have a colleague who intentionally talks about her church as “anti-perfection.” This church doesn’t do things perfectly. We don’t have the most perfect music. I don’t mean to offend Mary or the choir. I hope they would agree, we intentionally make room for imperfection. Mary has a sign outside the choir room that says “Leave the Diva at the door.” We want this to be a place where a joyful noise is invited, where harmony is worked out. We aren’t a church that celebrates perfect solos, or perfect sermons, or the most beautiful pastoral care brochures. We are, sometimes, just making this church thing work.

But that is part of our welcome. I am incredibly proud of this church. During the pandemic new small groups were born. Our 20s and 30s group took off again and folks launched a book study. Two of our newest members restarted our food garden and brought over 100 pounds of greens to food insecure neighbors. Our video production and streaming team re-made the system 3 different times. Our choir learned to sing into their phone cameras and our director of music learned to stitch them together into a virtual choir. Lay Eucharist visitors became phone callers, checking in on those who were shut in. We had volunteers who helped some of our older members navigate the vaccine appointment systems, back when the vaccines were harder to get. And the list goes on and on and on.

This church is a place where there is room for you to get involved, you, imperfect you, there is room for you to come and to make a difference. There is room to have conversations about how to combat racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ageism, ableism, partisanship. There is room to disagree. There is room to get something wrong and to ask forgiveness. Why bother with church? Because you can belong here. In a world that too often asks impossible perfection, in a world that so easily divides, this is a place that expects humanity in all its fractured beauty.

On Pentecost Day the Spirit came down and lit a group of followers on fire. They went out from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. God knows, they didn’t always get it right. A lot of the reason why behind THIS particular church for many of us is because so many of the churches out there have been such awful and dehumanizing places. This church, at its best, might feel like a safer place to work out some of the trauma that happens in other churches. I can’t promise we will get everything exactly right. I can’t promise there won’t be triggers. I can’t promise feelings won’t be hurt here.

But this Pentecost, I want to say, I think it matters that we continue to bother with this church. I think it matters, and I will work to make sure that this community continues to welcome a diverse body of folks into the Jesus movement. I hope you will continue to join in the work so that Holy Communion can be a place where occasionally folks get set on fire and go out ready to make a needed difference in our world.

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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