May 12, 2019
In the Book of Acts, we meet Dorcas, a woman “devoted to good works and acts of charity.” In baptism, responding to five covenantal questions, we promise to perform the same.
Here is the first question. “Will you continue in the apostles teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers?” We answer: “We will with God’s help.” That is a promise to stay actively involved in church. Coming to Sunday church is a good work.
I know not everyone agrees. Bill Gates, for example, has said for the record that he finds better ways to spend a Sunday morning. Richard Dawkins sees Gates’s bet and raises him a dollar: faith is dangerous he claims, and to “implant it in the mind of children is a grievous wrong.” So let’s test my claim that coming to church is a good work.
That coming to church is work, I am sure we can agree. For those who come with children, the work multiplies by two, per head. The question isn’t “Is it work?”––but “Is it good?”
“Good” is an important word in the Christian faith. Let’s define it. According to Aquinas, “everything is good so far as it is desirable.” Things can be desired, he continues, in different ways. If something is desired for its own sake, he calls it “virtuous;” if it desired for the sake of something else it is “useful;” and if it is desired for the satisfaction of an appetite he calls it “pleasant.”
Is coming to church pleasant?
You may have heard the old joke about the fellow whose mother told him he had to go to church. I heard it in the sermon when I was installed, at the age of twenty-eight, as vicar of Trinity Church, Van Buren. It goes like this:
One Sunday morning, a mother went in to wake her son and tell him it was time to get ready for church, to which he replied, "I'm not going."
"Why not?" she asked.
“I'll give you two good reasons," he said. "(1), They don't like me, and (2), I don't like them."
His mother replied, "I'll give you two good reasons why you SHOULD go to church: You are 59 years old, and (2) you are the priest.
I have been regularly attending church for sixty-four plus years, thirty-seven of them wearing vestments. Looking back, I can report that coming to church is often very pleasant, but in all churches there are days, and in some churches, there are years when it is not. I might guess that extra sleep would be pleasant more reliably so I will not claim that going to church is good because we like the way it makes us feel. That isn’t guaranteed.
Is church-going good because it's useful? Cynics might give it that. In a letter to Walker Percy, Shelby Foote offers a jaundiced take on the benefits we seek from church. Reading between the lines, I take it that Foote was a lapsed Episcopalian.
All religions except the Catholic and the Jewish are absolute junk. I went to church Sunday; they were dedicating a window to my uncle—the Bishop preached. The whole affair . . . made me want to stand up and call them fools. There was Johnny Kirk, chief vestryman and a lot of ex Methodists wanting to capture the carriage trade, and Ben Wassen enjoying the beauty of the language and the proximity of Alice Haycraft. There wasn’t the slightest touch of sanctity; they weren’t even lukewarm. The blasphemer is ten times closer to God than they will ever be.
One might suppose that if church-going were very useful for finding clients or dates and making deals we would be a lot more crowded Sunday mornings than we are. On the other hand, to Shelby’s point, I did meet my wife here.
Un-cynically, coming to church can usefully help us deal with stress, cope with loss, and navigate life’s vicissitudes. Going out on a limb, I will say that this has been medically confirmed. Last year, Time ran a story about the health benefits of church attendance. The article cites a report that found, in women, a 33% lower chance of dying over a sixteen-year period of comparative study. (The source for that statistic was the Journal of the American Medical Association.) Another recent study “found that regular service attendance was linked to reductions in the body’s stress responses and even in mortality—so much so that worshippers were 55% less likely to die during the up to eighteen-year follow-up period than people who didn’t frequent the temple, church, or mosque.”  Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Richard Dawkins.
But what would we say to a suggestion that coming to church is also virtuous? That would mean we see it as something desirable for its own sake—like kindness, honesty, and reliability. If Aquinas were to answer yes to that suggestion, he would first consider the objections to it. Let’s use that method. It would seem that church-going is not virtuous, because virtues such as kindness, honesty, and reliability, can’t be spoiled—but faithfulness at worship can be. For example, it is sometimes soured by self-righteousness. Jesus was speaking of church-goers when he called a group of people “whitewashed tombs”—pretty on the outside, but on the inside “full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.” Paul said a worshipper without love is a “clanging gong.”
So, according to the bible, absent other virtues we churchgoers can be obnoxious. Like yeast, church-going needs other ingredients to make good bread. But if yeast is desirable, then so are Sundays in a pew. Marilynne Robinson wrote it and I’ll quote her again: “God doesn’t need our worship. We worship to enlarge our sense of the Holy so that we can feel and know the presence of the Lord, who is with us always.” It is a kindlier kindness that is infused with worship, and a loftier love that is regularly replenished by reflection on the sermon on the mount. With yeast, desirable things expand—which is desirable.
I think of Richard Arnold, the great judge: first in his class at Yale, first in his class at Harvard Law—the smartest man in every room, but quietly, and humbly so. Come Sunday morning, he was always on his knees. For his funeral, he picked the simple little children’s hymn so that justices, governors, and senators would sing it: “I want to walk as a child of the light, I want to follow Jesus.” That made Richard’s greatness that much more attractive.
Here is the second question for the baptized: “Will you persevere in resisting evil, and when you fall into sin, repent and return to the lord?”
Evil is one of those loaded words we should be careful with. Like calling someone a liar, it blazes hot. Aquinas cools it down. We tend to think of evil as opposite to good. Aquinas saw it as a privation of the good— the privatio boni. In plain English, evil is spoiled fruit. Something good is misused or has become corrupted. In people, it is a bad choice or habit. Augustine said it: sins are misguided choices in the search for happiness.
In the great old television show Hill Street Blues, Frank Furillo was an able precinct captain, a good cop who went to Sunday mass religiously. One season on the show there was a problem in his marriage. In a period of separation, he found himself emotionally attracted to another woman, who returned the feeling. She was ready to move on the attraction and puzzled by his resistance. She asked him if she had misread his feelings. He said she hadn’t. But then he added, and from that long ago, I can almost quote him: “But how I feel is one thing, and what I do about my feelings is something else.” The way remained clear for Frank and the Mrs. to get back together, and happily, they did. “Living your baptism,” we call that.
The third question: “Will you proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ.” We will. Now some of the ways that Christians have had of spreading the word are neither pleasant, useful, nor in any other way desirable. Jesus led with his deeds, which spoke volumes, and then used words to color in the picture. The example made the words attractive and words made the example’s meaning clear. Both word and example are still important.
The last two questions speak of love and justice. “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” and “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?”
Love and justice are crucial words that beg for definition.
Martin Luther King beautifully spoke of justice as one of love’s expressions. “Justice,” he said, “is what love sounds like when it speaks in public. Civic piety is love’s public language, equality its tone of voice and freedom its constant pitch.”
Aquinas was less poetic and more precise, than King. As Aquinas defined it, justice is a choice that with practice will become a habitual desire for two good things. One is the common good—the benefit of a people as a whole. The other is fairness to the individual, that each might receive for he or she is due. So that is justice.
Love, according to Aquinas, desires another person’s good, which may be more he or she is due. If Smith pays Jones the negotiated wage for an honest day’s labor, that is justice. If Smith helps Jones locate a better paying, more fulfilling line of work, that is love.
Foolishly, people disparage love as weakness. Dr. King knew its strength. One of his books is titled Strength to Love. Despite our sins, it is natural to us. There is, King writes, “a willingness of [people] to obey the unenforceable.” Think of the driver stopped at a red light at 4:00 a.m.—no police, no cars, no pedestrians in sight in all directions. It isn’t a fear of punishment that holds her still. Out of habit, for the common good, she waits for green. Now think of the Good Samaritan. Now think of Kendrick Castillo, eighteen years old, unarmed, who charged a shooter, laying down his life for friends at school.
In just societies, this willingness to obey the unenforceable runs strong. In loving communities, it overflows.
In baptism, we say “I will with God’s help” five times. With those promises, we step forward into a life far beyond any law’s enforceable requirements. We hear “the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus” as St. Paul describes it. Thoreau is also apposite: We are stepping to the far off music of a different drummer, by answering that call.