There are a lot of reasons not to go to church. It is inconvenient at the very least, and often uncomfortable, being on one of only two days that you have off for yourself. Your work week, like mine, is probably relentless–from Monday to Friday just hanging on and trying to keep incompetence and exhaustion from marrying themselves together and ruining your wellbeing. To finally be able to take a breath for two days, to sleep as long as you need to and then be able to run a load of laundry and drink a whole cup of coffee without it going cold–that’s what you hang on for in the rush of Monday morning. By Friday you’ve filled both days with tasks you just can’t get to in the evenings, with the backlog of life that never gets to be lived. You might manage to sleep in on Saturday, but Sunday finds you looking at another list.
The last thing you feel like doing is getting up and going to be with a lot of people you don’t know very well and who, when you do get to know them, are guaranteed to irritate you. There are better and more interesting things to do.
Lots of people in the West have figured this out. There’s no reason to go. So they don’t. And lots of churches have responded by trying to make a reason–the great music, the coffee bar, the light show, the Ted Talk, I mean sermon, that’s crafted just for you. Some churches have tried to lure you in by being up to date with the times–politically and socially perfect so that when you go, you can feel affirmed by and connected with all the like minded woke.
But what about all those other little churches, meeting in buildings that leave a lot to be aesthetically desired? Where the bit in the middle with the talking isn’t immediately and obviously relevant to you, and the music is, well, old maybe, and not great to listen to, and you’re not the singing type. And while you’re sitting there in the pew you are counting over to yourself the thousands of things you could be doing instead.
Why go? Why darken the door? Why bother?
If you stumble into one of those small churches that uses a lectionary, you’ll know that Jesus has been in the temple the last few Sundays, arguing with the Scribes and Pharisees, poking them deliberately in the eye by telling parables that are directed straight at them. The Vineyard–where Master of the Vineyard sent his servants to collect the rent and the Vineyard workers beat and killed them, finally killing the Master’s own son. Matthew reports that the Pharisees perceived that Jesus was talking about them, and were enraged, but couldn’t do anything because of the crowds. Then there was the Wedding Banquet–where those invited to the feast refused to come, treating the messengers shamefully. Then, when the host discovers a guest sitting at the feast without a wedding garment, he chucks that guest out “where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.” The texts are alarming, dark, meant to cut right at the heart and leave you shaking there in your pew, wondering what sort of person would use such imagery.As if, if he could make it worse, he goes on and does. No one wanted to come, and now that they’re here, he’s making them wished they hadn’t.
That’s the rank foolishness of the whole enterprise. From the world’s vantage point, and it might be yours too, it doesn’t make any sense. It is worthless, troublesome, a bother. Your time would be more wisely spent elsewhere.
From a vastly different vantage point, though, one lifted up against a turbulent and darkening sky, the Son fixed there between heaven and earth, his arms nailed to a hard piece of wood, his shoulders stooped and bloodied, it is the wisest, the cleverest, the most sensible thing you can do.
Because, if there really is a Master of the Vineyard, a Host of the Feast, and he really did invite you to come, and gave you every good thing, everything that was Good for you, and you refused, what kind of peril would you be in? No amount of folding your laundry or powering through your list will get you out of the terrible predicament of having refused an invitation from the God who made you and gave you breath. And then sent his Son to rescue you after you had gone ahead and refused anyway.
Because God is forever. He is bigger and longer lasting than a work week. He holds all time together in his hand. One moment is like a thousand years, the thousand years that encompass you sitting in an uncomfortable metal chair drinking the worst cup of coffee and smiling at some total strangers.
Going to church acknowledges the upside down nature of the cosmos, the ruination of the way things are and will be no matter how close to the top of life you manage to climb. It’s a way of looking God in the face, on his own terms. It is coming into the feast and helplessly accepting the garment that he gives, which is the blood of his own Son. And then, thus clothed, chewing on the words of the text, swallowing hard on the thin wafer of his forgiving love. You wander away from the rail and go back into the week, seemingly no better than you were before.
Except that each time you go the overturned cosmos tilts a little bit more towards order. The demons tremble. Satan is knocked down a peg.
It is perverse, of course. God could have organized it anyway other way. Why did it have to be this way?
But then, he didn’t have to die. He didn’t have to go willingly to rescue you from the darkness of your own self, your own sin, your own rejection of him. But he did. For the sake of love. So go, go to church. It’s the place that he chose, for now, the place he’s prepared for you, to bind you together to himself, to cure you of your spiritual illnesses, to make you be with all the other difficult sheep.