Church Names

    We perhaps don’t think enough about the names of our churches, and how the name connects to the ongoing life of the congregation. If that’s right, then let’s change it.  We should think more about it.
    An instance: There is a smallish parish in the Hudson Valley called the Church of the Resurrection. When I became its rector, they already had a great Easter Vigil celebration. It was in the middle of the night, starting about 11 p.m. on the Saturday and finishing after 1 a.m. They did everything: there was a purple curtain hung in front of the sanctuary, there were candles, there were lots of flowers (you could smell them but not see them). Baptisms were held for the vigil. Every “stop” they could pull out was pulled out. They even followed it with a pancake breakfast.
    It seemed to me fitting that a church named for the Resurrection would have the most complete and well-attended Easter Vigil in the county. My job, as I saw it, was first of all not to harm it, and over time even to build it up a bit more. As people wended their way home in the wee hours of Easter morning, they knew—we all knew—that Jesus was indeed risen from the dead. Music and joy and color and smell all lingered with us.
    (We had a very simple service on Easter morning. No church can do everything.)
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    Now that I’m interim dean of a cathedral dedicated to Saint Matthew, I’m thinking about the connection with this patron saint. In the Gospel that bears his name, very shortly after Jesus calls Matthew, Jesus says: “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy.’” Jesus says it to his critics—he is eating with sinners, and Matthew, a sometime tax collector, knows what it means to be a sinner. Mercy is big in Matthew’s Gospel. And indeed he seems to have learned mercy.
    How do we learn mercy?
    Matthew draws our attention to its importance. He uniquely has Jesus saying, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.” He shows us Joseph deciding not to break off from Mary when she is pregnant—surely an act of mercy. He tells us that parable where a man was forgiven a large debt, but then immediately didn’t forgive a much smaller debt owed to him. He has received mercy but failed to learn anything, and he ended up in a bad place. And it is Matthew who tells us about the great separation at the end of time between the sheep and the goats. The point of difference is quite clear. “I was hungry and you fed me”—or “I was hungry and you fed me not.” Mercy is the criterion of final judgment, it seems.
    I think Saint Matthew, having so acutely experienced mercy himself, wanted to see mercy everywhere in the world. And it wouldn’t surprise me to find that kind of spirit in a church dedicated to him.
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    What about you? What is your church’s name? What sort of connection can you see between your church’s name and its life?
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    Out & About. This Saturday, Feb. 17, I am to lead a Quiet Morning at the Church of St. Michael and St. George, 6345 Wydown Blvd., St. Louis. The morning begins at 8:30 a.m.; the theme is “Friendship: What We Miss and What God Offers.” I am also to preach there at the Sunday morning services: 8, 9:15, and 11:15 a.m.
    Wednesday, Feb. 21, I will be speaking on Losing Susan at St. Matthew’s Cathedral. This talk will be on suffering and caregiving, with attention to the many God-questions that arise in situations of chronic illness and loss. St. Matthew’s is at 5100 Ross Ave., Dallas. The talk begins at 7 p.m.; anyone interested may come earlier at 6:30 for a light supper, or even at 6 p.m. for Stations of the Cross.

Heavy Metal

The preacher was showing us how in Christ all things hold together. We see it in Saint Mark’s Gospel: Jesus is a teacher, a physician, and an exorcist; he has authority over all things, and the human good that his authority offers is such as to draw all mankind to himself.
    Theology, the preacher reminded us, is “the queen of the sciences.” To speak and think about God is where everything comes together. Science, philosophy, economics, art, politics—everything in the world has its being thanks to God, and all their various purposes have their places within God’s overarching purpose.
    Another way to look at this is to recall that Jesus is the great reconciler. All things hold together in him, in whom (it is also said) all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell. This is good news especially in our time of discord, marked by technological means of living within our own echo-chambers and not communicating with others. We divide ourselves by politics, by interest, by music. And here the preacher said the most remarkable thing.
    He said there are those who like heavy metal music, and there are those who are wrong.
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    I can’t recall ever before hearing “heavy metal” and “the queen of sciences” in the same sermon.
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    Talk about echo chambers. I’m not even sure what “heavy metal” is. I imagine oriental gongs of different sizes, hanging and being played, probably loudly. I doubt this is what I should be imagining.
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    He said it with a smile, and while I honestly couldn’t pick out heavy metal if I heard it (nor, for that matter, could I recognize Lady Gaga if she walked into the cathedral) (I once gave communion to Bono and it greatly amused my rector that I didn’t recognize him) (this is what happens when you get your news from dead-tree print sources)—I say, while I couldn’t distinguish heavy metal from synthetic grunge, the preacher was ironically putting himself on a level with all of us. We all think, somehow, that we don’t need the people who disagree with us, that we can just write them off as wrong.
    But Jesus doesn’t do that. He holds it all together.
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    Out & About. Sunday, Feb. 11, I am to teach on the final chapters of the Song of Songs, at 9:30 a.m. at St. Matthew’s Cathedral, 5100 Ross Ave., Dallas. I will also be preaching at 8 and 10:30 a.m.
    Saturday, Feb. 17, I am to lead a Quiet Morning at the Church of St. Michael and St. George, 6345 Wydown Blvd., St. Louis. The morning begins at 8:30 a.m.; the theme is “Friendship: What We Miss and What God Offers.” I am also to preach there at the Sunday morning services: 8, 9:15, and 11:15 a.m.
    (The fine sermon mentioned above was preached by the Rev. Ryan Pollock.)
 

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The Rev. Canon Dr. Victor Lee Austin is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Losing Susan: Brain Disease, the Priest's Wife, and the God who Gives and Takes Away."