Acquainted with Grief

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Isaiah 52: 1-3, 13, 53:1-9

Awake, awake,
put on your strength, O Zion!
Put on your beautiful garments,
O Jerusalem, the holy city;
for the uncircumcised and the unclean
shall enter you no more.
Shake yourself from the dust, rise up,
O captive Jerusalem;
loose the bonds from your neck,
O captive daughter Zion!
For thus says the Lord: You were sold for nothing, and you shall be redeemed without money.
……

See, my servant shall prosper;
he shall be exalted and lifted up,
and shall be very high.
Who has believed what we have heard?
And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by others;
a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him of no account.
Surely he has borne our infirmities
and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have all turned to our own way,
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
By a perversion of justice he was taken away.
Who could have imagined his future?
For he was cut off from the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people.
They made his grave with the wicked
and his tomb with the rich,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.

Awake, Awake, Zion— This is a going to be a hard one. I’m going to name some hard truths, and do so with love. Church, let’s talk about grief. Institutional grief.

Why are are we grieving, Church? Because this isn’t the church we thought it would be 20, 30, 40 years ago, and it won’t be that which we expected.

Because space to grieve that reality is so important before we consider how we are going to be the church in the coming months, years, and decades.

I keep an eye on articles and statistics and pew reports and realities of the church at large in America right now, and we’re at a collective time of transition and grief. The pew report came out, again, and the numbers keep getting more and more stark. (http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/ ) Every major Christian voice has something to say about the “declining membership” and “how to attract young families” and pointing to how what the collective church *is* doing, *isn’t* working.

We point to money: Less people choose to give to church.

We point to time: More people choose something else for Sunday morning. No one volunteers for committees that feel like part-time jobs.

We point to priority and attention: Church is no longer the center of community that it was even just 20 years ago, but in conversation and sometimes competition with several other community centers for the time, attention, and money of the same people.

One researcher writes, “At one end of the spectrum, 50% of American Christians attend mega-churches. At the other end 50% of Christian churches have no more than 75 people in attendance each Sunday. Many of the members of these congregations are now over age 50. Many live in rural areas. Many find it difficult to maintain their church facility and keep a professionally trained pastor on staff.” He goes on to say that some estimate 50% of churches will close their doors in the next 5 to 10 years. (Louis F. Kavar,Contemporary Churches: Spiritual Transformation of Congregations, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015.) Churches around our town, state, country and world are feeling the strain. Church is collectively engaging— or choosing not to engage— with our changing role in the American landscape.

There is an undeniable reality of a change coming within the church! The United Church of Christ just called the Rev. Dr. John Dorhauer as our next General Minister and President— the face of our denomination— and he describes was is before us as “nothing short of a second Reformation,” and calls us to be attentive to what is already nailed to the framework of our door in the near future. (John Dorhauer, Beyond Resistance. Chicago: Exploration Press, 2015.)

Churches around the country are looking at this reality of what is before us and interacting with it in different ways. Another article I just read, and then tweeted about, is entitled, “Why the Church Needs Millennials, but Millennials Don’t Need Church.” In the article, Millennial minister Stephanie Vos writes, “From what I’ve seen, Boomers, by and large, are going to go to church. It would be nice if they found one they liked. And it would be even nicer if they found one that would cater to their needs.

…On the other hand, Millennials don’t care if they go to church or not – they are craving meaningful experiences, and that can happen at yoga or the meditation center, camping with friends or volunteering, protesting downtown or working in the community garden.” (http://thesaltcollective.org/why-the-church-needs-millennials-but-millennials-dont-need-church/#sthash.sehMRPoP.GgR2Uuzp.dpuf ) …As a millennial, I found truth all throughout that article, and reflected in my closest friends, and what they are up to right now.

And however we see—or choose not to see—this reality— here at Wapping Community Church …. will reflect the long term future of our church.

And Church? That means we need to be ready to make some decisions together.

Church? That means we need to have the courage to be in conversation. Especially when it’s hard. Opting out of the hard conversations is opting out of our future together.

Because Church? The alternative to this grief and conversation is finding or maintaining a church that will be a great one for a funeral.

Yet, Church, before we start those conversations and thoughts and wonderings… Before those who are brave enough look to the possibilities within Faith Formation and Open and Affirming and bravely enacting our statement of Welcome for All…. we have to grieve.

This isn’t what exactly what we hoped for, and what we thought, when we vision our community church. We visioned more children. A community center. A priority. So we grieve.

Church, though, I know one who will walk with us… a man of sorrow and well acquainted with grief. I know that we, as a people, have survived reformation after reformation… using words and sacred texts of old to point to the hope of the future, beyond and out of their original context, into a new context.

I can’t hear the scripture we read without thinking of Jesus Christ, and Handel’s musical interpretation, and sacrificial atonement. We know this scripture was written long before Jesus, and to a people that were seeking awareness in the midst of exile and despair. We know that the image of suffering servant was portrayed as the embodiment of the then people’s hurt and grief. And we know that vision grew in our Christian tradition through the generations to reflect One who Will came to heal… to take away the hurt… to help create something new in a different way.

We see how these IN words, FROM the context of which they were born, people read comfort and make meaning of their Babylonian exile. As Christians, when we read this, we think of how this particular text has been used to speak to balm the wound and the grief, and bring hope and healing, in the form of a Suffering Servant that we know as our Christ. Generations later, we still

read hope in the incarnation of a Suffering Servant— acquainted with grief. We read the text on Good Friday, because even still we see in these words evidence for our theological sense-making of the violence and perversion of justice as a man, acquainted with grief, hung discarded.

The text speaks to us even still today as we conceptualize the role of Church in this day and age, and grieve what we thought we would be. And as anyone who has interacted with grief knows, it’s a messy process that loops and surprises. To deny and suppress the work of it lets it sneak up in ways that are not healthy or helpful for church. It makes us act up and act out: lashing out at people who aren’t directly responsible, knowingly creating problems that would be easier to react to then the grief itself, speaking rumors in the parking lot instead of working together, putting bandaids on hurts that need much more extensive care.

When we think of grief, Kubler-Ross’ stages are accepted as norm: Denial. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. Acceptance.

Lou Kavar gives examples as follows for church:

Denial: Our church isn’t shrinking. It’s just a trend. We’ll always be here.

Anger: If it wasn’t for the poor leadership’s decisions, this wouldn’t be happening! It’s their fault! Or it’s the scandals, the TV scams, the media!

Bargaining: If we start another service at a different time with better music, we’ll have everyone flocking to the church!

Depression: We’ve tried everything and nothing works. Our kids don’t even want to come. Acceptance: “Perhaps, just perhaps, the important thing is the teaching of Jesus and not the organization. Perhaps there are different ways for Christians to gather and to live the message of Jesus that we haven’t explored. Perhaps there is a new form of Christianity emerging.” (Kavar).

Perhaps, even, you can recognize where YOU are in those stages of grief when you think of your relationship to church, and then to God.

Church, I’m so sorry. Have you heard that, yet? I’m sorry for this change. It’s going to hurt some. As we discern together, we will have growing pains. I’m sorry. We can grieve those pains— that it doesn’t meet what we thought it would, that people will leave without explanation, or effort, that we’ll have to let go of some of what we *thought* was *most* important in order to live the Gospel. I’m sorry. It will hurt.

Know that even as we grieve, there is one acquainted, intimately, with all of our institutional stages. One who finds self, and the ability to show up, even, and especially when our grief means that we behave badly in community—and then calls us to remember to love each other and then act like it.

Church, you who have grieved personal losses know, though, that no matter how you handle it, it doesn’t change the reality of what has happened, or will happen. We do know that it’s a process. Some push away their biggest supporters, and some come together as a community to grieve and receive support.

It is my hope that by naming this reality, we can intentionally look to our future together. We can sing the hymns of old that give us hope, and look to how we can vision for the millennial church. Because no more baby boomers are being born. And millennial culture is taking more and more of the American landscape. Church, we have to go there, too.

Church, you who are Israel feeling your grief, carrying the weight of emotion, you can relate to this passage, feeling beat up and interacting with grief of exile.

Church, we look to One who is the central message of our faith, who’s Gospel will live beyond this building and these boards and committees… to carry us through, and we relate to the suffering before we look to the hope.

Church, we have work to do, in naming this reality, we can grieve it in all the stages that will pop up and surprise us…

The importance of the message that we carry demands that we move forward in faith, even though we have not moved on.

Because, Church? we can come together and vision how to BE the Church for those who have yet to know the intimate and transformative love of Jesus Christ, himself well-acquainted with grief.

Amen.

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