I want to share with you an experience of profound thanksgiving. My wife, Heather, my daughter, Allison, and I took vacation in August, touring in Texas, visiting friends in Pennsylvania and spending a night in Rochester, N.Y., where I ministered as a young priest. It was a renewing time away from the daily grind of parish ministry.
And yet, on the first Sunday in September that I returned to my parish church in London, Ont., I was literally overcome with emotion as I saw and greeted the many dear people in the congregation, shared stories of our summer experiences and expressed our hopes and dreams for the coming year. It was good to be home again.
Perhaps you know that feeling. After being away for any length of time, you return to your church family, sit in your favourite pew, participate in the liturgy and think, “Gee, it’s good to be home!” There is something reassuring about coming home to your parish church-the place where you worship God, meet friends, serve others and experience the overwhelming, abundant love of Jesus in your life. I would go so far as to say that being a Christian without the church is impossible, for where, except in the church, can you receive the body and blood of Christ in the eucharist, or hear pronounced the forgiveness of your sins, or find support in sickness, or comfort in dying, or help in understanding the Bible, or navigating all the ups and downs of life?
It was the English Jesuit John Coventry who said that the church is a community of resurrection-a place where sin and death never have the last word. We all need strength for the journey, hope for living and assurance that at the heart of the universe is not a black hole but the ever-present, ever-living love of God. We find that in the local church.
Yes, I know…the church is not perfect. We all have our quirks, character flaws and personality disorders, but the good news is that God loves us anyway. I remember one of my professors in divinity school defining the church as a community of forgiven sinners called into companionship with Jesus. The church is a place where people can make a lot of mistakes and still feel loved, accepted and forgiven. The church is a community of people, bound together by their strength and their brokenness, who are limping toward the sunrise but know that God’s love claims them, every one. Despite our failures and shortcomings, Jesus loves us-he really loves us! All he asks is that we accept his love, and then seek to share that love with others. That is the church at its best, receiving God’s love and then passing it on to someone else.
Perhaps some of us have been away from the church for a long time. Perhaps we are not sure about the new rector, or we had a run-in with a parishioner, or someone said something that hurt us; or the sermon, music or liturgy was not up to our expectations. There will always be something to fault in any church. The church is not perfect; no church is. Think of the church as a religious version of AA-recovering sinners-for that’s what we are. The church is a place of grace for everyone willing to live with grace toward everyone in need of grace. I like Robert Frost’s description of home, because it applies to the church: “the place where, when you go there, they have to take you in.”
In the church we always leave the light on for you. You are always family. You may not like the family, you may disagree with the family, you may not want to be part of the family, or you may even disown the family, but you are still family-always welcomed and accepted, whoever you are and wherever you are on your journey of faith.
Isn’t it nice to know that we always have a place in the church, warts and all, because we are part of God’s family? And with God, there are no outcasts, no throwaway children, no rejects or discarded persons. With God, every one of us is precious and dear, so dear in fact, that God looks at us, smiles and says, “Why, I love you so much that I could die for you!” And in Jesus, God did.
This November, why not give the church another chance and attend one of the special services that will be offered in most Anglican churches, such as Remembrance Sunday? Know that you are loved, accepted and welcomed just as you are because God loves us just as we are. Come home to your church family. Come home to Jesus who meets you in the bread and wine of Holy Communion. Come home to the God who loves you, blesses you, embraces you and never turns you away.
The Rev. Dr. Gary Nicolosi is rector of St. James Westminster Church in London, Ont.