On one occasion, Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the Sabbath. And when he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, Jesus told them a parable: “Ladies and gentlemen, go ahead and close your eyes, squeeze them tight like if you had gotten some shampoo in there, because I have a whale of a conjuring for you to chew on here. Imagine with me, if you would, a big church, built up of stone and brick and glass colored like so many little jars of jam preserves. And the light spills in through those jellied windows, and it sets on girls, dolled up in sundresses, and on boys in those blue blazers with the brass buttons – all of them, heads bowed, fidgeting for the words to Our Father, which art in heaven … And down front, there’s a man shouting about how everybody had better mind their Ps and Qs, and do unto others as you would have them do unto you, and recycle, and take your multivitamins for God’s sake! And some person in the pews is thinking, Oh, that’s nice, yes, and some person in the pews is thinking how he would rather be fishing, and some person in the pews is thinking that she cannot, cannot forget to swing by the supermarket after service to pick up those couple cans of Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup. You’ve pictured it? Got it? “
Now, imagine with me – and remember, we’re just playing pretend; I’m telling a parable,” Jesus said, “Imagine with me not just one such church, but thousands of them: big, big bell towers, striking steeples, the people in them everywhere all singing Amazing Grace, How Sweet the Sound so lustily that they’d give themselves the shivers, the people in them everywhere all trembling at the stark, stern truth of Ecclesiastes, There is a time to be born, and a time to die, the people in them everywhere all soothed by Jesus’ shushing, Though they die, yet shall they live. Imagine with me these many houses of worship, oodles of them, hallowing the bits of human life they touch – the generation and generation and generation’s worth of toil and horseplay and straying and striving and wedding cake and goodbyes, all of it felt to be the more holy somehow for happening within those stone and brick walls and with the saints in the stained glass looking on. And as for the more-than-occasional dullness and comedy to churchgoing, I suppose there’s something to be said for a sense of duty. You with me?”
Jesus continued, “But now – and this is where the thought experiment is shakiest, where it’s most a stretch of the imagination, where my parable might implode, because, it’s beyond the pale to imagine anyone ever wanting to pass up a snoozer of a sermon and potlucks – but anyway, imagine with me that people stop coming to the churches. Imagine with me that people stop calling themselves by the names on the doors, that they don’t say they’re Congregationalists or Lutherans or Presbyterians, but that they’re spiritual (whatever that means). Imagine with me that people decide in droves that a pastiche of Sunday mimosa brunch, yoga, watching the sun set, self-help books, and signing petitions on the Internet all does more for them than some smug minister’s garbling. I know, I know it boggles the mind, but it’s a parable, a parable, go with me. Imagine it with me: friendly, decent folk figuring that they’re plenty fulfilled and can face life’s fragility and can face loss without ‘organized religion’, thank you very much. So they shake off the churches as selling something no one needs.
“Well,” Jesus said, “Well, you can imagine how some of those smarting, jilted shells of churches would react to this; with all the terror and desperation of a has-been high school quarterback or a past-her-prime prom queen. You can imagine it: grasping after the glory days, doing anything and everything to prove they still got it. Those churches, no longer given pride of place in society or in peoples’ hearts, but insistent on being seen and esteemed, strutting to the best seats in the house still … only to hear, ‘Sorry, that one’s taken.’ Those churches, and of all theological stripes, jockeying for airtime, their dying denominations courting regard with political statements nobody pays attention to and with slick marketing and with social media. Imagine it – the huddled few in those big brick, stone buildings hocking themselves, becoming rock concert churches or Kiwanis Club churches or Republican Party churches or Democratic Party churches, chameleon churches that will be whatever the white-bread middle class or whatever the ‘young people’ want them to be. Whatever, they’ll be it; however – they’ll self-promote and climb and claw back to culture’s choice. You can imagine it.” And Jesus sighed. “All who exalt themselves will be humbled …
“And those who humble themselves will be exalted. Imagine with me,” Jesus said, “imagine with me, churches that love sitting with and worshipping with, churches that love sharing life with the lowly more than they love the press that comes with speaking out for the lowly. Imagine with me, – their big brick, stone sanctuaries being turned over to the wretched of the earth: palaces for the poor, wherein to sleep out sun and cold and storm in the shelter of the Most High. Imagine with me, churches that take their place with single parents struggling to hold the world together for their children, churches that take their place with kids whose moms and dads can’t be moms and dads, the kids for whom finding help filling out a FAFSA means make or break. Imagine with me, churches that take their place with trans teenagers who run from home and risk harm to have their hormones. Imagine with me, churches that take their place with the divorced who find no succor in common statistics but still feel failed and shamed. Imagine with me, churches that take their place with black and Latino and Asian and Muslim families and families with two moms or two dads in them when it’s that heartbreaking time to talk to their grade-schoolers about prejudice.
“Imagine with me, Jesus went on, “churches that take their place with the aging and alone and who send their Christians nursing home to nursing home and shut-in to shut-in to take elders into their arms, saying We will not forget you, neither will God forget you. Imagine with me, churches that take their place with those felled by a diagnosis and with those who have gone their rounds on radiation, churches that take their place with the weary and the frail, the sick and so, so scared, those sunk in depression, churches that take their place with all who have ever wept and writhed with grief. Imagine with me, churches that take their place with people who long for a love that’s never come, and people – strange people – who hunger for meaning, for more to life than they’ve yet found on offer, whose souls ache and always will for a significance beyond what can be bought or earned. Imagine with me, mercy-drunk churches seeking out the most misunderstood and the most hated. Imagine with me … churches out of the spotlight, sitting down at the lowest place, and there, in the presence of the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind, there, funnily enough, finding themselves to be in the most honored company of all.” Amen.