I was talking with one of our members recently about St. John’s mission to the wider community and she told me about a letter in one of the local papers from an Occupy activist who had been protesting the eviction of low-income tenants from the Petaluma Hotel by its new owner. The author raised a question that had pricked her conscience—“Where are the churches?” Why weren’t members of Petaluma congregations acting on the biblical moral imperative of defending the poor?
It’s a good question, one that I take personally to heart, and it reminds me of a man I met seven or eight years ago on vacation with my family. My brother had let slip to some of the other guests at the resort that I was a priest, and this fellow caught me by myself a little later and took the opportunity to vent his frustration with the churches for not stopping the invasion of Iraq. I didn’t bother pointing out to him all the fruitless efforts that millions of Christians had made to do just that. Instead, I asked him when he had last been to church. He said he left the church in disgust when his Roman Catholic priest had failed to take a stand against the Vietnam War, which would have placed it thirty years in the past.
In a way the question “where are the churches?” is an underhanded compliment. It implies the recognition that the churches are unique institutions, and ought to be the moral conscience of society. But how can the church take responsibility for being the conscience of a town, or of a nation, when the people of the town won’t take responsibility for the church? There seems to be an assumption underlying these complaints that the churches are sitting on large reserves of social and political capital and their members are just too lazy or complacent to put it into play. But the churches I’m familiar with, at least, are comprised of people who care deeply about the common good and want to make a difference in the world, and who are, indeed, giving generously and working hard to do what they can. But these churches are also half-empty, and struggling to survive.
Someone might accuse us of devoting too much energy to carrying on our worship services and maintaining our organizations, energy that could otherwise be spent on social action. And that accusation carries weight with us, not because it comes from Occupy activists, but because it comes from the Hebrew prophets. What makes people who have not been to church in thirty years still look to us with hope for a more just and peaceful world, are the transcendent demands of God. We may perceive those demands imperfectly, we may fall far short in our obedience, but we, with the other churches, synagogues, temples and mosques, are the only places in society where they are publicly spoken, where they are given a hearing and meditated on, studied and honored.
And that alone requires work. God’s demands and instructions do not come to us as a series of easily-diagrammed steps, or pre-digested principles. We inherit them in the form of traditions, biblical, cultural, liturgical, that are interwoven with the complex life and history of a great, and not always completely-functional, family. It is not easy to understand what this inheritance is, let alone sort through it for the precious treasures that meet the urgent need of our own day. To find those gifts, and hold them up, and pass them around the community, so that they can transform our fragmented, individualistic existence into the life of a single body acting in wisdom and compassion—this is a long, slow, labor of love.
We have a responsibility for the gifts that we have inherited that prevents us from spending ourselves too impetuously or carelessly. We have a grave responsibility to pass these gifts on to the next generation, in the midst of social and cultural currents that are antithetical to that process. We have the responsibility of honoring and caring for our elders, and the sick and differently-abled and poor in our own midst. We have the responsibility of nourishing our community with beauty and joy, so that life is more than grim struggle. Most of all, we have the responsibility of worship, of embodied, collective praise of the transcendent mystery that alone can make all our other work good, and enduring, and free.
People who don’t know about these gifts don’t value them, so it is understandable that they look for some other proof of the churches’ social purpose. They will point to the example of Jesus, and hold us to it, as a universal standard that they have as much right to claim as we do. And they are right to do so. But while the gospels narrate many dramatic episodes in the ministry of Jesus, and quotations of things he said, they give us almost no descriptive information about how he lived his life, generally speaking. There is one notable exception to this, and it is found in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 4, verse 16, where we read, “When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom.”
Where are the churches? In the yellow pages. On the internet. Ours has a tower and a steeple, which makes it easy to spot. It’s been on the same corner for over 150 years, which suggests that it’s doing something right. Where are the churches?--Where are you?