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.)
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.
What about you? What is your church’s name? What sort of connection can you see between your church’s name and its life?
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.