A week ago I reflected on my brother’s death and funeral. Thank you for your prayers of support!
But now, I want to reflect a bit differently – on the funeral and the church. And perhaps there are some things for us, over 800 miles away, to learn.
The funeral was…interesting! It was held at a small Methodist congregation in Western NY, in the small hamlet of Protection. The church is on a side road, in what was once a more vibrant community. Today, only the church, several homes, and the township garage remain. The pastor served this congregation for many years, and now in retirement, was thinking of coming back, for the sake of the congregation. More on that in a moment.
Now, I’ve heard of funerals featuring an “altar call.” The preacher proclaims how you need to be saved, so come on down to the altar and make a commitment to Jesus. Not my theology, and certainly not my pastoral style. That’s not happening with me.
This pastor didn’t do that. Instead, he did a “church call.” Early in the service he said that two weeks earlier he had been in Florida, but then the church called – they had no one to lead Easter worship! He returned, and led worship for 40 on Easter Sunday. Now, he was trying to keep the church from being closed. And then came the “church call.”
“Yeah, I hope some of you will come and worship with us on Sunday morning. You know, I’d like to build up this little church, sort of resurrect it. So I hope some of you will come back. We could sure use you.”
I know the church is important, and as a pastor, I think I can relate at least a bit to the pain of seeing a church you have worked in for many years, slowly decline to the point of closing its doors. But really, in a funeral? Moreover, most at the funeral were not from the area. Who does he think is going to flock to this church next Sunday to keep it alive?
Yet, I really can’t bash the guy too much (for starters, his sermon wasn’t all that bad – hope in the crucified and risen Jesus was there). The fact is, he’s the not the only one who sometimes thinks that way. I know I do. I want to engage new folk, and welcome new members. I want to encourage people to grow in their faith and their discipleship. But sometimes I (we) miss the point – and badly. I begin to see my goal as enhancing the life of Our Savior’s, rather than the mission of Jesus, the Savior. I begin to see the maintenance of our community as more important than the work of Jesus through the community.
So, listening to the “church call” I cringed – both for what he said, and for what I have sometimes thought (and maybe said too).
But let’s go back to the funeral and congregation. I noticed something else.
This small church is about three doors down from the house Mike and his ex-wife lived in and raised their children. For a number of years they attended the church, fairly faithfully, and made sure the kids went to Sunday School there.
Then, the marriage ended. They all went their own ways, and the house was sold. Mike moved to Michigan for several years, and when he returned, he was in another community. His ex-wife moved north about 20 miles, and his children went their ways as well. The closest is about ten miles away; the furthest is in Oregon, but she’s been to Chile and even Cuba for a while (seriously!)
About two years ago the closest child had her newborn baptized there. Other than that, however, there has been no involvement by any of them in that congregation for 15 years. Long enough to be removed from the membership rolls, as they should be.
But not long enough to be outside the mission field. For when my niece needed make funeral arrangements, she reached out to them – and with an awesome display of (God’s) grace, they welcomed them back. Welcomed them back to use the building for a worship service, with the pastor presiding (left me free to be family!), and even to use the lower level for a lunch. And since it was a bit chilly that day (in the low 40’s), the heat was on…along with the lights…“dirt and grime” was tracked in…and at least a bit of wear and tear on the building.
And so it was that they did their mission. In a congregation that may not survive, they were still able to fulfill, for that day at least, their mission and ministry. They opened themselves up to a crowd of strangers, probably none of whom (much to the preacher’s dismay) will ever return. A mission that will do nothing to sustain the congregation and help them keep the doors open. A mission that will not serve them in any way. Yet, a mission that responds faithfully to the call to discipleship.
I’ve preached and proclaimed this before – that our mission and ministry is not about us, it’s about being faithful to what God calls us to do. It’s about doing “God’s work with our hands,” for God’s sake, and the sake of the world – not ours. Or to put it another way, God’s mission is not to simply keep our doors open. God is up to much more than that!
What was different this time was being on the receiving end of that ministry, of being the one to whom others reached out. For this one moment, I could be the recipient of “God’s work, their hands.”
These are challenging and stressful days in the church. We struggle sometimes with numbers, and we forget sometimes that God is up to so much more than just our survival. God has a mission in the world, and we are called to a small part of that mission. That’s our calling as faithful disciples of Jesus.
So perhaps this is a good witness and model for us – a small community of faith, unsure if they will even survive, but quite sure of their calling on one cold, gloomy Saturday. Can we be like them?
And perhaps too it is a reminder that God’s call to each of us, in the midst of our daily lives, is to a mission that is not about us, but about people – God’s people – wherever we encounter them. Sometimes in small ways, sometimes in ways that seem to have little or no payoff, yet always putting people – God’s people – first.
So, thanks to the folks at South Protection United Methodist Church. You were there for us – you were faithful – and you may not realize it, but you are great witnesses!