Today is Back to Church Sunday, and I may be as confused as you are about what it is supposed to mean.
I think it is supposed to suggest something about the importance of being in church, of being the Church, of gathering, of connecting with God, in solidarity with others.
I think it’s meant to remind us that what we are doing on Sundays has enough relevance that it’s worth sharing with others.
I think it serves as an initiative toward growth, a reminder that the church is not meant to be a static community and that we all are responsible for the health and future of our Church.
I think it creates an opportunity to open the door, to extend an invitation, to practice being a welcoming community, and to give someone we know an opportunity to come closer to God.
For some, inviting someone to church would be like inviting someone to see your collection of exotic underwear – it’s something too private, and thus relegated to the “unmentionables” of life.
Some are uncomfortable with the title. That is, maybe it should be Welcome Sunday — or Invitation Sunday – or Come As You Are Sunday, or maybe even Bring A Friend Sunday. Back To Church suggests a return to old patterns of obligatory church attendance and Sunday Schools swarming with kids, just like in the “good old days” (by which we typically mean the 1950’s). Back to Church suggests a focus on those who have lapsed, jumped ship, given up, or disappeared, and as such, it’s not very positive.
For some people, Back to Church would be similar to saying Back to Prison (imagine promoting Back to Prison Sunday!) – it represents something oppressive and boring and mandatory rather than something life-giving and engaging.
We all know that on any Sunday morning, there are numerous activities and responsibilities to attend to, from children’s activities to shopping to yoga classes to community 10K runs, to catching a football game on TV, so one positive thing to take from this is that people are here not because they have to but because they want to. Church people themselves are also caught up in the rat race and often find it hard to muster the energy and time available to be fully involved.
Indeed, when Church became the “normal” thing to do, the expected thing to do, it lost its edge, it lost its counter-cultural emphasis, and it ceased challenging the majority to do justice and love kindness and walk humbly. It became instead a means of showing others that you were respectable, decent and normal – it was your ultimate flag of conformity. We were Comfortable numb,” as the Pink Floyd song says. But Christianity started out as a movement of the oppressed – the poor – the marginalized – the radical — the despised. For centuries, it was against the law to go to church. In many countries today, Christians are persecuted and going to church can be dangerous.
Being the church in the 1950’s was relatively easy, because no matter how badly you did things, you were guaranteed to have lots of kids for the church school and a full church on Sunday morning, because, well, that’s just what everybody did on Sunday mornings (in the way that people show up in droves for soccer and hockey today). As I say, many think of it as the Golden Age of the Church as they know it, but the “golden age” is often when the rot sets in.
Being the Church in this 21st Century context is not easy, and we need to be more actively creative and daring than Anglicans of past generations have been. We’re being encouraged (maybe even pushed) to become a different kind of church – one which is mission-oriented – one which is much more intentional about identity and personal formation and authentic community – a church that not only sits and listens to the Gospel but puts the Gospel into action – a Church that listens to the voices of those on the margins — a church that is not just concerned about its own survival or its own salvation, but willing to risk and reach out — a Church that not only promises a new life but demonstrates it and gives meaningful expression to it on Sunday mornings (and every other day as well). We acknowledge that many people left the Church for good reasons, and that venturing back is not easy, but I believe that if we could be that kind of church, it would be very appealing.
Jesus was constantly issuing invitations. He said: “Come, follow me;” He said: “Come to me, all who are weary and heavy burdened, and I will give you rest;” He said: “If anyone is thirsty, let them come to me and drink.” He talked about invitations to weddings and community feasts and he was critical about the way some people choose to opt out of the community aspect of life. One of his more significant invitations was telling Peter to get out of the boat, and come to him in the water. If Peter symbolizes the church, then that invitation suggests the need to take those risks, those steps, that lead us out of the familiar and safe and certain places and into the realm of faith, which is where people who are followers of Christ belong in the first place.
Stories in the news of young children wandering off and becoming lost reveal to us how communities will instantly mobilize every resource at their command to bring the child back home. The parable Jesus tells reveals that to God, lost people are valuable and beloved, as much as any parent’s lost child would be. When you care about someone, no effort is too great.
Luke’s Gospel constantly suggests to us God’s concern for those who lose their way – that it is important to actively seek out those who have become isolated, cut off from community, and out of touch with those who care about them. The question becomes: to what degree am I supposed to care about someone who is lost? As long as I’m safe and sound, why care about the losers?
In today’s Gospel we see the outrage of the established religious leaders – the old guard expressing shock at the way Jesus was reaching out to a new generation; we see their resistance to newcomers and their inflexibility in the face of new challenges, as Jesus welcomed in the people they didn’t want to associate with, the people they believed were ungodly or evil or just plain failures.
“I once was lost . . .” The old hymn Amazing Grace is very much the theme today. If Back to Church Sunday can put us in touch with that mindset of concern for those who have lost their way – if it can remind us how we ourselves need to be summoned back into closer relationship with Christ, then it is a good thing.
Jesus, from Day One, challenged people to leave behind stale and outmoded ways of doing things, and his invitation was like an act of liberation to people trapped in the endless cycles of social norms, dysfunctional families, racial separation and religious traditions. His Gospel is a summons to life.
Back to Church is meant to be a summons to the church to go back to being a different and distinctive kind of church – one that is more conscious and aware of the circumstances of real people in our time and place, not trying to be the church of our grand-parents or of the Medieval era, but trying to be a faithful and supportive and relevant community in the midst of today’s events and issues.
Think about it: Did you apologize and hesitate to invite people to your last birthday, or your wedding, or your retirement party, or a significant anniversary celebration? Did you act as though it would be a real imposition for them to come and celebrate something that is important to you? If so, I feel sorry for you, but the invitation to church must be based on a sense that this is something necessary and life-giving. We can’t be sorry, or ashamed — we have to think in terms of offering something unbelievably positive, and of giving them an opportunity to have a new lease on life itself.
I think people might be willing to come back to a church in which we join together to celebrate life, to explore more deeply our meaning and purpose, to develop an informed and open faith stance, and to be in a community where we receive positive affirmation and appreciation for who we are.
The Rev. Grant Rodgers+
RCL appointed readings for Pentecost 18:
Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28 At that time it will be said to this people and to Jerusalem: A hot wind comes from me out of the bare heights in the desert toward my poor people, not to winnow or cleanse– a wind too strong for that. Now it is I who speak in judgment against them. “For my people are foolish, they do not know me; they are stupid children, they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil, but do not know how to do good.” I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light. I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking, and all the hills moved to and fro. I looked, and lo, there was no one at all, and all the birds of the air had fled. I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert, and all its cities were laid in ruins before the LORD, before his fierce anger. For thus says the LORD: The whole land shall be a desolation; yet I will not make a full end. Because of this the earth shall mourn, and the heavens above grow black; for I have spoken, I have purposed; I have not relented nor will I turn back.
Psalm 14 Fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is no one who does good. The LORD looks down from heaven on humankind to see if there are any who are wise, who seek after God. They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse; there is no one who does good, no, not one. Have they no knowledge, all the evildoers who eat up my people as they eat bread, and do not call upon the LORD? There they shall be in great terror, for God is with the company of the righteous. You would confound the plans of the poor, but the LORD is their refuge. O that deliverance for Israel would come from Zion! When the LORD restores the fortunes of his people, Jacob will rejoice; Israel will be glad.
1 Timothy 1:12-17 I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners–of whom I am the foremost. But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.
Luke 15:1-10 Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. “Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’
Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”