Sermon for Sunday, February 4, 2018 || Epiphany 5B || Mark 1:29-39
There’s a certain line in this morning’s Gospel lesson, and I can’t decide whether it is hyperbole or not. “That evening, at sundown,” Mark tells us, “they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door.” The whole city. Archaeologists tell us the city of Capernaum had a population of about fifteen hundred in Jesus’ day, so imagine a group larger than the student body of Fitch High School crowding around one house on a quiet side street near the sea. “The whole city was gathered around the door.”
Now you might be wondering why I’m harping on about this rather innocuous verse, and I’ll admit it has stuck in my craw this week. To be honest, reading about this whole city gathering around Jesus made me sad and wistful. Imagining this great throng trying to get near this wonderful source of healing made me long for a return to another time in the history of our little piece of the world.
You see, back in colonial times and stretching even into the first decades of the United States, towns in the state of Connecticut were not recognized as such until they boasted a congregational church located on their greens. In those days, the church was the meeting space for the town. It served as local government as well. Every Sunday, the whole town would show up for worship. It’s just what you did.
My favorite high school teacher ran an exercise in a United States history class, in which we built a colonial town based on the occupations of our parents. Some students lived in town, others in farms on the outskirts. And I remember feeling perhaps a little bit too proud that I got to live in the center of town, right next to the church because my father was the pastor.
You might remind me that currently I do live in the center of Mystic because I’m the pastor, but the Connecticut of 2018 bears little resemblance to that of colonial times. According to a 2016 Pew Foundation study, Connecticut is the fifth least religious state in the country. Want to know the four we beat? Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts.*
They brought to him all who were sick…and the whole city gathered around the door. That doesn’t happen anymore. We don’t live in the world were the whole town turns out for church, and people go check on you if you miss, just in case you fell down the well or something. According to Pew, just over a quarter of Connecticut residents attend worship weekly. Seventy-two percent of our neighbors are home sipping orange juice and watching Meet the Press.
And yet here we are. Why?
Because we found something. Or better yet, something found us. Someone said, “Follow me,” and we did. And we discovered that such following was so much more fruitful when done together. Whereas our ancestors went to church because it’s what they did, we come here because we have made church a priority in our lives. Our lives are enriched because of our participation in God’s mission in this place. And that enrichment ripples out from us and touches everyone we meet.
My wistful desire to return to the colonial model of church got me thinking: besides the fact that you all pay me, why do I come? Why is church, and by extension, living out my relationship with God among you, a priority? Four main reasons spring to mind.
First, this is a place of worship. The other three reasons I will list could be fulfilled by other organizations, but not this one, which makes worship the church’s primary responsibility. Worship simultaneously grounds us and elevates us. Worship connects us intentionally to the Foundation of all existence. Such connection keeps us grounded: granting peace in the maelstrom of activity that tends to rule our days; lending perspective when we begin to think of ourselves as either more or less than we truly are; and steadying us with the gift of fundamental identity – that of God’s beloved children. At the same time, worship lifts our spirits, as God’s very presence draws praise and adoration forth from us. Thus we exist between the depths and the heights of God’s love, ever wrapped and enfolded by the One we worship.
Second, this is a place of community. While we have many other communal outlets we could and do attend, church is special. Nowhere else do so many generations rub shoulders. Think about that. Can you come up with another institution where a teenager and an unrelated great-grandmother might sit and share together? Nowhere else do people gather who have such diverse interests and skills. Most community groups meet around a specific affinity or passion, but we come together simply because we are God’s children seeking to follow God’s Son. I have learned so much from so many people because their life experiences differ so widely from mine.
Third, this is a place of service. Our God is a God of mission and so we are a people on a mission. Indeed, throughout scripture, God holds up caring for the orphan and widow as the ruler by which God’s people will be measured. They were the most vulnerable in their society, and by extension, God calls us to care for the most vulnerable in our own. Several of our newer parishioners have told me that they were excited to come to St. Mark’s because of our partnership with St. Luc in Haiti. They saw the God of mission active here, as indeed God is. The God of mission is alive in Haiti, as well. Did you know that the vast majority of schools in Haiti are attached to churches? Education is their mission, and we are partners in it.
Fourth (and lastly for today, but certainly this is not an exhaustive list), this is a place of both solace and celebration. In this place, we mark the passage of our lives: birth, baptism, marriage, death, and all the sad and joyful moments in between. We love hard here even at times when it is hard to love: when tragedy strikes, when pain is near, when grief drains the light from our eyes. When someone is given a terminal diagnosis, we are there. When someone goes through a divorce, we are there. When someone loses a child or a parent, we are there. We are there bearing witness to the God of love, who moves through both tragedy and triumph. We are there praying and embracing and sitting silently in the next chair in the hospital room.
At its best, the church is a truly wonderful place of worship, community, service, solace and celebration. After reciting this list, I no longer wish for the colonial days of compulsory attendance. I wish only for the grace to show others by my words and actions what I have found and what has found me.