There was a baptism at church this Sunday.
The baptizee was a baby girl and like most baptizees, she brought an entourage of friends and family members. It’s fair to say that a high percentage of the people in baptismal entourages haven’t been in church for a while. That’s just an observation, not a judgment. Most entourages aren’t sure when to stand up and sit down, and they mumble through the prayers and responses, if they try to participate in them at all.
I was sitting a few pews away from a man and a woman who were clearly part of the entourage. A thirty-something couple decked out in their Sunday best, they spent the first 20 minutes of the service whispering back and forth, giggling in quiet tones like people who were passing time and wishing they were somewhere else.
If these thirty-somethings had ever bought into the idea of religion, they weren’t buying into it now. At some point, they quit the church and were simply enduring an hour for the sake of their friends or family members.
But then something interesting happened
Last Sunday also happened to be Global Solidarity Sunday. We frequently engage with social justice issues at our church. But on Global Solidarity Sunday, the moral and spiritual imperative of standing with the world’s least privileged takes center stage:
- During the homily, the priest talked about what it means when Jesus says he is the bread of life. He reminded us that breaking bread at table transcends boundaries and cultures. From South America to Europe to Africa, people show hospitality by sharing bread. When we consume bread at Eucharist, we are nourished and united by the living Christ
- After the homily, the Global Solidarity team spoke about the work our church has done in El Salvador, helping a community that is still struggling to recover from the bloodshed of the ’90s. Our church has built hurricane-proof homes, provided livestock and helped this village achieve dozens of other things that seemed impossible. The next project on the agenda is to build a village school so the kids won’t have to walk miles through dangerous territory to receive an education.
- During the congregational prayer, we prayed for the people in our parish. But most of our prayers were reserved for things outside of the parish. We stood before God on behalf of the poor in El Salvador, in our city and around the globe. We prayed for a world and a church where the dignity and gifts of women are valued the same as men. With one voice, we asked God to help us make the world a better place.
Over the course of the service, my thirty-somethings checked back into the service. Instead of whispering back and forth, they listened and engaged with the message. If I had to describe what happened, I’d say they were enthralled by that thing that happens when the body of Christ becomes the Body of Christ. For the remainder of the service — from the homily to the Eucharist to the closing prayer — the church had their attention.
That’s why I can’t quit the church
I have plenty of reasons to quit the church. As a former pastor, I’ve seen the church at its best. But I’ve also seen the church at its worst, when religious and political ideologies drown out Jesus’ meta-narrative of grace, love and respect.
I’m sure you have reasons to quit the church, too.
But last Sunday was a great example of why I can’t quit the church. Maybe my thirty-somethings expected the priest to lay them on a guilt trip. Or maybe they expected an assembly of navel-gazers desperately trying to protect their traditions and their real estate.
They didn’t find either of those things. Instead, they found something that inspired them.
There’s a sense of oneness about God. It’s a oneness that we all crave as we struggle to make our way in a fractured world. When the church stands in solidarity with the poor and marginalized (and in ways that deliver no apparent benefit to itself or its members) it gains authenticity and credibility.
But more importantly, when the body of Christ casts its gaze outward and lives in solidarity with the oppressed, the church reflects God’s Oneness and becomes a beacon of life for people living fragmented lives.
That’s inspiring. That’s magical. And it’s something no other institution on earth can do. Not government. Not corporations. Not the media.
Maybe I’m trying too hard and putting words into my thirty-somethings’ mouths. But on Sunday, I think they looked at a broken church and saw something different. They saw the reflection of a merciful and compassionate God who, against all odds, is still madly in love with the world.
And when we see something like that, why would any of us want to quit the church?