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What Difference Does Church Make?

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Rev. Anthony T. Livolsi
May 6 2018

John 20:19-29

They were all there: Peter, James, John, Joanna, Martha, the Marys, Matthew, Andrew, Simon, and so on – they were all there, sitting in their favorite pews, sitting where they always sit, sitting where the sound is best or where they could make the cleanest break when service is over. They were all there. And they were afraid, the scriptures say. The news of the day being what it was, things in the world being what they were, Peter, James, John, Joanna, Martha, the Marys, Matthew, Andrew, Simon, and so on – they were afraid. Probably some of them were there seeking just a moment’s peace from the havoc of the times, seeking to shut out all that which undid and wearied them so, seeking comfort in the old hymns, seeking refuge in prayer, seeking quiet, seeking hope. And probably others of them were there seeking not to shut out the world, but seeking to be strengthened and sent back out to work for good within in it, seeking to be stirred to great acts of courage and of sacrifice and of holy daring. They were all there, and they were afraid – and Jesus came into their midst and spoke to their fear. Jesus visited them in their distress and bid their troubled hearts be still. ‘Peace’, Jesus said. ‘Peace.’ It was church as church is meant to be: the very thing they gathered in most desperate need of from God, they were given. It was one of those Sundays like when the sermon seems to have been written with you in mind, or when the prayer or the music touches you so deeply that you hover near tears, when you feel Jesus with you in your searching or in your longing or in your rejoicing or in your raging or in your grieving, and when you leave just full.

If only every Sunday were one of those Sundays, right? If only, week in and week out, Jesus were with you like that, powerfully, palpably, give-you-the-goosebumps with you like that, answering your questions, answering your prayers, disproving your pesky doubts, whispering to you so that you can almost hear him, whispering the word of love or of consolation or of blessing which your soul pants for. If only it were never the case that a signal problem at Alewife delays the T or that there is no street parking and so you rush in late and can’t sit where you always sit because someone else is in your pew, and you don’t know or you don’t like any of the hymns, and a cell phone goes off during the silent prayer (I mean, come on!), and – what?! I thought the online newsletter said the other one of them was preaching today, and the sermon is boring, and, and worst of everything, all of the really good mini-muffins are gone by the time you get to coffee hour. If only it never happened that you come expecting to hear a battle cry for social justice and you get a snoozer of a message about grace, or that you come bereft and broken open, aching for a word of consolation and assurance, and it’s politics again. If only it never felt like, though we have gathered, Jesus never showed. If only church were always church as each of us need church to be. But, of course, that is not the way of it. This morning, Confirmation Sunday, a group of teenagers will commit themselves to the Church, and the most honest thing that I, as a minister, could say to them is: Why? Are you sure? Wouldn’t you rather sleep in on Sundays and, when your lame-o parents are stuck here listening to me, I dunno, seize the day and eat ice cream for breakfast and play Minecraft all morning? Get out while you can – before we disappoint you more than we already have!

A few good friends of mine who did not grow up going to church recently had occasion to attend a service. One told me afterward, ‘That wasn’t the worst thing I’ve ever done.’ And the other said, ‘I guess there’s some there, there.’ High praise. They reminded me of a joke that people in Des Moines used to make about Iowa, something like – ‘if you only give us a chance, you might find that we will exceed your fairly low expectations.’ Is that church, or what? It’s easier to make light of this, of, you know, why even bother and does it matter at all – it’s easier to make light of this than to try to put into words how much church means to me and why. Last summer, my little world fell apart. Compared to the sort of pain other people suffer and the crosses they carry, I got off easy, but it was horrible enough: the sadness and the anger and the shame. Family and friends would check in with me – how are you holding up? and that sort of thing – and I found myself telling them, I would say: ‘I promise this is not just religious BS, but I have never known peace so deep.’ I meant it. It was true. And I had to qualify it that way, because, well, you might think that I, as a minister, should not have been surprised that there was this inexplicable something more going on in me when the worst of it all was going down, that there was a huge, loving, woo-woo, beautiful, Oprah-energy or whatever holding me up and holding me together – but I could not have been more surprised by, just, God, had God popped out of a big cake. It was the darnedest thing.

It was like: years and years of church (and more often that not, of fairly dull church with forgettable sermons, of church, growing up, for a time, with an organist who could be counted upon to hit the loud, tooting pedal right when How Great Thou Art was swelling and totally ruin the moment), years and years of church, of going to church and thinking maybe, well, that was nice, but thinking, too, more Sundays than not, thinking that nothing was happening – years and years of church, years and years of nothing did something. Doing what I didn’t necessarily want to do but did, because that’s what I had always done, and doing, then, what I got paid to do – going to church, the quiet discipline of it: it did something, it did something to me and in me. Though I did not see him with me, though I did not sense him with me – Jesus was with me. Without my even knowing it, or honestly expecting it, Jesus had come to me and set to work creating a capacity within me for clear-sightedness, and for humility enough to receive the counsel of others, and for decisiveness of action, and for resilience, and for forgiveness, and for meaning-making, and for self-acceptance, and for peace, as I said, peace passing all understanding, and for hope, and for joy, fierce, arrogant joy. And if it can be said that I am a good person, I am a good person in a pretty average sense only, so to experience this awesome goodness sort of going on inside of me, well, it was not me; it could not have been me. It was… all those Sundays when it seemed as though nothing was happening, but something was happening. It was Jesus attending unseen to the art of soul-craft, and patiently shaping virtues and dispositions within me that I can’t say I did squat to cultivate, really. Church made me a better and stronger me.

I wish I could promise that it will be for you like it was for Peter, James, John, Joanna, Martha, the Marys, Matthew, Andrew, Simon, and so on – that whenever you go to church, the very thing you are in most desperate need of from God, you will be given, and that week in and week out, you will feel Jesus come close to you in your searching, in your longing, in your rejoicing, in your raging, in your grieving. But, of course, that is not the way of it. You will not always see Jesus with you or sense Jesus with you. There will be times when it seems as though nothing is happening. But something is happening. The best I can say is that you are being transformed unawares; you are becoming who it is that, one day, you will need to be – who it is that you will need to be if you are to rise to the calling of some opportunity or duty or great struggle or even of some trial or suffering. I wish that the significance of this Sunday and of every Sunday were obvious; I wish that there were some other way to know what is going on inside of you when for all you can see, for all you can sense, you are going through the motions only. I wish there were some other way to know the immensity of the change taking place within you, the tectonic scale of the years and years of shaping and re-shaping – I wish there were some other way for you know this, to come to know this, to come to know the depth of the capacity being created within you for forgiveness without first, someday being betrayed, and for holding your head high without first, someday being humiliated, and for hope without first, someday being shattered and bereft, and for peace without first, someday being beside yourself and undone, and for joy without first, someday the bones within you turning to dust, and for love without feeling your vulnerability to abandonment, and for life, for life itself without facing into death – but, your practice of the Christian faith will prove itself in time. The best I can say is: that this, all this, is real, is so, so real. And if you give yourself to it, there’s a there, there. If you give your life to it, it will change your life.