Death and Renovation
March 8, 2015
This morning’s Scripture passage is no doubt familiar to many of you. We hear it frequently at funeral and memorial services, and, indeed, we heard it just last Monday at the memorial service for our dear friend Jim Shonkwiler.
“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” The great 20th C theologian Paul Tillich says that these are among the most powerful words ever written.
But they were not written to an individual whose death was close at hand, nor even to a congregation facing imminent death. (Although being a Xn in 1st C Rome was certainly riskier than anything we know in 21st C America.) That’s because Paul wasn’t writing about death; he was writing about life! He was writing about the true, abundant, eternal life of faith that we are called to live, how it requires great courage and willingness to risk. And how we can do that because we live in confident faith that nothing – nothing! – can ever separate us from God’s love.
In my years of ministry, I have witnessed good deaths and bad ones. I have been inspired by those who die in confident faith, knowing that with death comes new life with God. These are the ones who, once death has become clearly imminent, look forward with joy and even curiosity to the wondrous, mysterious future that lies ahead. I have been saddened and disturbed by those who die surrounded by guilt or anger or regret. They can’t move past all that went wrong. They fight their death, and their loved ones fight their death, because their eyes and hearts are still fixed on the past.
Those who die well (which Jim did) do so with their whole selves planted firmly in the steadfast love of God through Christ Jesus. They do so knowing that nothing can separate them from that love – not their mistakes or failures, not their achievements of successes. They too have experienced guilt and anger and regret – you can’t be human without knowing those things. But they are not held captive by them. They can die with their eyes and hearts turned to God, because they know that God’s love for them is steadfast and unbreakable. With that knowledge, risk is possible, stepping out into something new and unknown is possible, new life is possible.
One of the statements I hear most frequently these days from members of this congregation is “We never used to have any funerals.” I hear it most often, of course, when one of our longtime members, like Jim, has died. “We never used to have any funerals, Pastor.” The statement is spoken with dismay and a hint of surprise, as if funerals were unanticipated and unexpected. Or as if something has gone wrong, now that we’re having funerals.
I know that the folks who tell me this know that death is inevitable. They are intelligent, thoughtful people. They never expected death to pass over University UMC without stopping. It’s just that now…it’s actually happening to us.
The Latin phrase, memento mori, loosely translated, means “Remember that you will die.” We say something like it every Ash Wednesday: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.”
A story about ancient Rome says that a victorious general once paraded into the city in triumph. His troops proudly marched in columns behind him, and his captives were driven, in chains, before him. Standing beside him in his chariot was a servant he had employed specifically to repeat, from time to time, “memento mori” – remember that you will die. Remember, in other words, that you are mortal and that, like all mortals, you will one day take your final breath. On that day it will no longer matter that you once rode into the Eternal City at the head of a victorious army. On that day, your fate will be exactly the same as the most miserable prisoner standing here in ragged despair.
Death cannot be denied and it should not be ignored. It represents loss and sorrow and is often accompanied by regret and remorse. But it is also a great teacher, perhaps the greatest teacher of our lives. If we are willing to learn, it can help us to recognize what is important and essential…and what is unimportant and non-essential. It can help us see ourselves with clarity and honesty. Death helps us take stock of where we are in our life cycles, to reassess our goals and priorities, so that we can truly live.
And that is true not only for individuals, but for congregations too, because congregations – just like individuals – also have life cycles. They, too, are born, grow into maturity, and decline…and – if things are working right – they too are born again to new life.
Many of you, maybe most of you, know that our congregation has embarked on a visioning process called VCI, Vital Church Initiative. If you are a guest, or have just returned from several months away (probably someplace warm), VCI is a 3-year process that involves the cultivation of a leadership team, a lot of congregational learning and self-scrutiny, and after 2 years, the development of 3-5 prescriptions that will renew our life as a church body, helping us to turn outward rather than focus inward.
Beginning in January, the leadership team -- which we call the Travel Team –started meeting once a month with other leadership teams from other United Methodist churches in West Michigan – for day-long learning sessions. Of course, there’s homework. Last month our homework was to read an article about the Life Cycles of Congregations. We passed that article out in our Home Team meeting; maybe some of you read it.
Religious congregations, we learned, have a childhood, in which the vision of the founding members predominates. People are passionate about making this new thing happen, and they work to create forms worship and discipleship and outreach that identifies who they are and invites others to join them.
In 1957, when The Methodist Church of East Lansing was born, its vision – printed on the invitation to attend its Opening Service – was “to minister to the rapidly growing East Lansing and University area in the ‘Warm Hearted Tradition of Methodism.’”
In a congregation’s adolescence, the development of relationships becomes as important as the maintenance of the founding vision. What kinds of people is this church meant to attract and nurture? On whom do we focus our evangelism efforts? What kinds of opportunities for fellowship do we offer? How are new people assimilated? Do our members develop lasting, supportive friendships?
Every funeral or memorial service held here for a longtime member of UUMC teaches me about the strong relationship-building that happened in our adolescence: book groups, sports leagues, meals at church and in homes, building projects, camping. The friendships that knit our congregation together in those early decades continue still, to this day.
In maturity, programming and management join vision and relationships as dominant elements in the life of a church community. New and expanded learning and ministry opportunities require a new or expanded staff. A facility is built and renovated…and renovated again. The budget gets more complex. The pastor’s job becomes more administrative.
Slowly, church members begin to the think of their pastors and staff as the ones doing ministry, while their role is to support that ministry. The founding vision is forgotten, or becomes obsolete. Programs start to stagnate; they’re continued just because “that’s what we’ve always done.” Current relationships feel good…and good enough; the outward-looking focus turns inward.
Finally, when vision has died, and there are no new relationships to be formed, and programs end due to lack of attendance…all that’s left is management. Taking care of the building and paying for an already-reduced staff consumes the time and resources of the congregation. Their spirit is consumed too. Some churches close their doors.
Friends, we are not even close to that end point! In many ways we are in the prime of life. In fact, there are groups within our congregation that are in their youthful phases: they are newly alive, inspired by vision, building relationships. The Reconciling Ministries Exploration Committee is passionate about its mission to facilitate a dialogue about whether we should be publicly inclusive and welcoming of people of all sexual orientations and gender identities. Several of our Gateway groups are strong and growing, welcoming new people and assimilating them into our congregation.
But we can also see some signs of retirement. The sanctuary is not as full as often as it used to be. I hear many voices acknowledging the need for change…but hoping it’s not too much change. The lenses through which they see the church tell them that the church is here for the people here….not the people who aren’t here. Change is fine if it brings us back to the way we used to be – when Sunday School was an automatic top priority, and families had time for mid-week programming, and knew what tithing meant, and understood our committee structure…. It sounds wonderful. After all, we never used to have funerals.
This month’s reading assignment for the VCI Travel Team was a book by United Methodist minister Bob Farr, called Renovate or Die. Building on the life-cycle idea, Farr helps us understand why renovation – renewal, rebirth – is essential for every congregation.
If you don’t regularly revisit the visioning stage, he says, if you don’t engage in regular, periodic, thorough renewal – you will find yourself sliding into death. And the farther you are along that slide when you decide to turn it around, the harder it will be to experience renewal.
I get the reason for the title of his book, Renovate OR Die. He wants to convey a sense of urgency. “Many people,” he says would already say that we United Methodists are already an endangered species. We can’t simply redecorate,” which means making a few surface changes but nothing structural. Redecorating is what churches do “when they go off to find the one silver bullet program that will bring back all the people and the 1950s church culture.”
“If we don’t [truly] renovate” -- if we aren’t brave enough to peek behind the walls and really examine the overall structure and systems of our church – “we will watch our church fade into the history books.”
Bob Farr is coming to Michigan in a couple of weekends. You can attend a workshop with him on Saturday, March 21, at Cornerstone Church in Caledonia. (There are postcards about that on the table in the Gathering Space, and you’ll see an announcement in the next Tower Alert.) Some of the Travel Team members and I are going to meet with him the next afternoon for a conversation with VCI churches.
I understand his book title, but what I want to tell him, is that it’s not Renovate or Die, it’s Renovate and Die. With Paul, I believe and claim that with every death, something new is always birthed; and with every renovation, something old always has to die.
For every “no” there’s a “yes”; for every “yes” there’s a “no.”
That’s what we say in the rite of baptism. On behalf of their son, Scott and Ashley Walter said “no” to the powers of wickedness, evil and sin. That “no” is as important as the “yes” they said to God’s gift of the freedom and power that rejects those powers. In fact we ask the “no” question first! What must die in order for Emmett to truly live? What must die in order for University UMC to truly live?
It’s really Death AND Renovation not Death or Renovation.
The idea that for something new to live, something old must die, can be hard to hear. It is an uncomfortable, even scary, truth. But if we refuse to go there; if we refuse to ask “what must die in order for something new here to live?”; if we decide that we in here and what we’re comfortable with is more important than them out there and what they need… then University UMC will move through maturity into retirement and then death.
But if we believe, with Paul, that our ultimate future with God cannot be taken from us, we will have the courage to step into the future unafraid of death or dying. We will know -- with Jim Shonkwiler and all the saints that have gone before us -- that there is no power on earth, no height or depth, no ruler or principality, there is nothing in all creation --- not even life or death – that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. If we believe this, we will go forth to live as those willing to die; and die as those who truly live.
O God who gives us life, you are ever more ready to hear than we are to pray. You know our needs before we ask, and our ignorance in asking. Give to us now your grace, that as we shrink before the mystery of death, we may see the light of eternity. Help us to live as those who are prepared to die. And when our days here are accomplished, enable us to die as those who go forth to live, so that living or dying, our life may be in you, and that nothing in life or in death will be able to separate us from your great love in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.
Bob Farr and Kay Kotan. Renovate or Die: Ten Ways to Focus Your Church on Mission. Abingdon Press: 2011.
George Bullard. “The Life Cycle and Stages of Congregational Development.” http://sed-efca.org/wp-content/uploads/2008/08/stages_of_church_life_bullard.pdf
Paul Tillich. The New Being. Chapter 7. Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1955. Available at http://www.religion-online.org/showchapter.asp?title=375&C=20 \