The Stand-In Church

Tom was the sexton at the first church I served, in charge of maintaining the physical plant of the church. Sextons, not Saint Peter, hold the all important keys in church life, securing the building after twelve-step meetings, cleaning up before Sunday worship, making sure the boiler is ready and running. A fifty-year rock and roller who had turned his life around, Tom the sexton had finally met the right wife, finally quit drinking, finally quit drugging and finally started to think about one day quitting smoking.

With his ever present dark jeans and tee shirts, salt and pepper beard, and rock star skinny build, people were always telling Tom he looked just like Eric Clapton. He still played the guitar with other men in that New England suburb, who parked minivans after work and descended into basements where tube amps and Stratocasters kept out the noise of the children's cartoons upstairs.

As sexton, Tom spent as much time visiting with the church members as he did fixing up the church, more comfortable sharing his philosophy of life than hammering in solitude, unless it was on that guitar. In that church, I lived next door to the sanctuary in a parsonage, which is a home for the minister that is owned and cared for by the church. The beauty of working with Tom as the sexton was that he might come over to my parsonage to fix a leaky pipe, but he'd end up being convinced to have just one cup of coffee, and then another, and then another. Soon you'd discover that three hours had gone by. While the sink was not yet fixed, you sure had learned a lot about Masonic conspiracy theories, the hazards of a bad acid trip or why life in the New Jersey suburbs had never been much for Tom. 

After I left that church, Tom and I remained friends as I followed the gossip of the congregation I had left behind over yet more cups of coffee, now in my own home where leaky pipes did not beckon to him to be fixed. The news he brought from that old church was nuanced in that Tom did everything there except attend worship.

Long ago scarred by some church of his childhood, Tom had been drawn into an intellectual dance in which he read as much as he could about all religions but could not bear to rest in one. He was both fascinated and horrified by the life of faith, but he had found a job that pulled him deep into the inner workings of a spiritual community without demanding any confession of faith. In many ways, Tom practiced the Christian faith, but his early experience of a church that had been obsessed with doctrines and with judgments had left him gun shy of the institution. And no matter how many times I tried, unsuccessfully, to convince him over coffee that our church was different, he never sat in those pews at the appointed hour, And yet he participated in the church in every other way.

When the lung cancer caught up with him, when a cup of coffee became too heavy to hold, when bad cells had wrapped themselves around the last safe breathing space in his thinning body, his wife called me to the old Catholic hospital where I saw Tom be still for the first time in my life.

To watch his wiry, normally fidgety, body at rest, moving only with the up and down of the respirator, to hear the gurgling of fluids in his chest that would end up bringing on a death by drowning, to watch the tears of the "right wife at last" hold on to him in the last, in this small moment, I was suddenly the church.

I was just a former associate minister, one who had stayed too short a time to affect much at the church at all, but suddenly there I was the Church of Jesus Christ writ large, present at the moment when Tom would die, and I would witness my very first experience of life leaving one body and going somewhere else.

I think we do this for one another all the time, we mad people of faith. We interact with those who will not step foot in the institution we love. We make friends with non-believers who claim that we are crazy. I think everybody knows someone like Tom, someone who would love what the church is about if they came; but for complicated reasons, usually from their own personal history with some other church, they can't bring themselves to enter a church building. But they talk to their friends about it, they debate it, they wonder intellectually what it all means. And then they experience some moment of utter crisis, and they turn to you and ask for some kind of spiritual help, and you find yourself called into the eye of the tornado. And, suddenly, you have become for them the church, called to play a role greater than the role of friend, or family member or colleague.

"Do you believe in heaven?" they may ask, as Tom had asked me many times over coffee, just checking to make sure I still thought it was true.

"Do you still believe in God as you watch him suffer?" they may ask, as the wife of a dying man asked me, angrily challenging yet longing for some word of hope as her love slipped away. Forever?

And, suddenly, instead of thinking that a debate is about to ensue, you realize that you have been called upon not for your answer, not for your argument, but for your testimony. And not just your testimony, but the testimony of the church that has stood in the midst of utter sadness and made claims that only the mad would make.

Many quietly faithful people struggle with the idea of testimony. We don't want to shove our faith down people's throats. We don't want to sound pushy or obnoxious or self-righteous. But sometimes people put us on the spot, put us on the witness stand and ask for our testimony. 

Testimony is calling out that you have seen light in the midst of darkness. Testimony is telling the story about how you met God, even when you have forgotten it. Testimony is telling the story of a community over time, of a particular people and how God has intervened. And when the unchurched, the people with no spiritual home, call us into the most intimate and sad moments, we become the church. We can either sit mute or give our testimony.

It may not be eloquent. Some of the best testimonies are stumbling words choked out of the same sorrow that the nonbeliever stands drowning in, but at least the believer can say, "Yes, in the midst of this tragedy that we are all sharing, I still believe there is more than all of this."

I remember when I walked into Tom's hospital room that day, that not only was my role unclear, but my place was unclear. Was my role to be friend or to be some kind of pastor? And then what was my place in this situation? My place in this physical room? Tom's wife was right next to him, and there were no free chairs and no one to act as host. I wondered where to place myself physically.

Like the disciples who asked Jesus where they should sit with regard to who could be at his right side, loved ones around the bed of a dying person often wonder the same thing. Where is my place?

There can even be a sort of hierarchy of the grieving. Who sits closest? Who does the doctor address directly? Who is forgiven from speaking and who is always called upon to explain?

And then the newcomer, entering the hospital room where death has settled, is always unsettled. Do I hold the hand of the one who is slipping away? Or do I hold the hand of the one who will be slipped away from? 

In this case, I felt my place was at the foot of the bed. Tom's wife had his head in her arms, his heart next to her heart, but I at least could keep vigil over his feet. I rubbed his foot, first one then another, gradually realizing that indeed I had found my place, not just here but in a longer story.

The great prayers of the church, the testimony that life will go on and the dead will live forevermore, often get heard from the feet up. They come, for most who grieve, as background noise in the surprising busyness of death. Even the details of the funeral overshadow the words that are spoken at the funeral, and family members worry about who brought the chicken salad, or who's going to read the poem at the graveside.

But God has never objected to speaking from the bottom end of things. It was, after all, his son Jesus who washed the feet of the disciples, who preferred to argue over who would sit at Jesus' right hand. But Jesus preferred to proclaim from the foot of the bed, to take his cues from the foot of his own body.

Sometimes, the church just has to work through church stand-ins. Sometimes, as people of faith, we are going to be called upon to witness to the good news to people who have no interest in our beliefs, until suddenly they really do. Suddenly they need us at their sides in a moment of crisis, as friend, family or comforter. And we could no longer leave behind our faith than we could leave behind our bodies. So we are there, present, being as much of the church as they will see. Sometimes you have to be the stand-in church.

The membrane between the church and the world is thin. We want to cross it lightly, gracefully, so that, suddenly, even for those who do not show up on Sundays at God's physical house, that image of heaven, as a house with many mansions, could still shine through in their imaginations.

Now this kind of agility is not born by taking the physical house, the church, lightly. No, it is worship that prepares us for the strangeness of life. And we realize--and this is so important and the heart of why come together--we realize that those stories from the Bible are not about people thousands of years ago. They're about us.

When we hear in church about Jesus washing the disciples' feet before the last supper and his death, God's been preparing us for a later moment in real life when the only seat at the table will be at the bottom of a hospital bed. We don't read scripture because it's interesting. We read scripture so that in the middle of our own real lives, scripture can read us.

Rather than hammering the unchurched with the gospel from our mouths and our heads, rather than arguing with them or badgering them, rather than capturing the moment like a pious pirate, the stand-in church is called not to be brilliant, not to be persuasive, not to even to tell the entire story right then and there. Rather, the stand-in church is called to simply be, to say a quiet word like "We're praying for you." After all, we follow a savior who knew when to preach but also knew when to be content washing feet. Jesus delivered the gospel from the bottom up. And as the stand-in church, we can do that too.

As I rubbed Tom's feet, as the stand-in church, suddenly his body buckled under the white blankets. He left us with a violent shake of an old rocker whose guitar solo had taken it all out of him.

And while I already believed that the soul and the body do part company and that the soul lives on, there is nothing like being in someone's presence when that happens, to convince you that is true. It was like the real Tom was right there, and then so obviously somewhere else, and a strange energy filled the room.

Jesus told us, "My father's house has many mansions," and Tom had just found the dwelling place just right for him, where I am guessing his spot was somewhere in the basement, filled with guitars. 

I held onto his feet a little longer, as they grew cold, until I knew that the foot of the bed was no longer my place. It was time to move to the rest of the room and to the tears of the living, where Tom's song played on.


Let us pray. And now may the peace of Christ, which passes all human understanding, feel our hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God and the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.