Come into this scene with me: a loved one has died and the family wants a clergy person to guide them through the really tough time of loss and grief. We clergy who spend much of our life at the crossroads of death and life are often able to bring not only some comfort, but helpful perspective at these times.
When the person who had died is unknown to me, I seek to learn the history and find the patterns of the life lived. I probe for the good and funny memories; I visualize a mental picture of this one whose voice will not be heard again, whose unique mannerisms are now a thing in the past, and whose secrets are gone.
On occasion, somewhere along the line, this statement pops up, "He (or she) was a wonderful person, but not a church-goer because he/she didn't like church people much." And so I give you Excuse Number 11 of 15 I've heard for not attending worship: disliking the people who do choose to worship together.
One possible reaction to that statement: "I wonder if that person will find heaven to a be kind of hell then, because it will probably be pretty well populated with those very ones she/he disliked and avoided during this physical life." But that is a flippant response for a serious situation.
First, what has happened that gave church people such a bad reputation? I wrote some about that earlier and will expand on it later but now I'm also pondering a troubling second issue: the hopelessness of the situation. The power of decision-making for a vital life experience has been placed in the hands of others. As a result, the individual has lost much of his or her humanity.
Hang with me for a minute on this while I sort out that last statement. By refusing the necessary action of soul and moral development found in the regular discipline of God-centered worship and instruction, a human will never reach his or her full potential. This loss is a loss for all of humanity. The loss takes place when "church people" are so disliked because . . . and here I get stuck. Whoever these church people are, and there must be many of them, they have been handed the power of life and death in ways they never wanted. Instead, they suddenly responsible for what are actually individual decisions for people they do not know.
I'm having trouble getting this down on paper, so let me try again. I won't do what is good and holy and necessary and joyful for me to do because . . . I don't like someone else, so it is really their fault because I don't find them likable.
I'm taking a deep breath here--those who heard my message last Sunday know what I'm taking about--that sign of exasperation.
What does liking someone else have to do with this anyway? Gathering with people we may or may not like in order to experience something far beyond those petty likes and dislikes brings vibrant life to expanded souls. Consider what it means, for example, to receive the sacrament from the hands of someone whom you don't care for--and who might not find you their favorite person either. This transcendent moment shows what the love of God is all about--that reconciling love that invites us to be more human . . . not less human. More in the image of God, not less, not shut down, not trapped by human dislikes that bind us in unforgiving chains of blame.
By willingly and with open hearts entering the presence of those for whom we hold some antipathy, we discover what Jesus meant when he said he came to set the captive free. Fetters are loosed, we leap with light spirits, and give space for true Light to enter.