Message: Columbus First’s Closing Service
There’s an urge, in a moment like this, to focus only on celebrating the life of First Brethren. It’s an urge to avoid the grief, the sadness, in what we’re gathering for today. And yet, that urge is misplaced, you know? At least in part.
If today is something like a funeral–and it is–then today demands not only that we remember the great, good things of Columbus First Brethren Church, that we celebrate its impact and legacy, that we look to the future of what God will do with this place that is surrounding us, has surrounded some of us our entire lives. But it also demands that we grieve what is passing, grieve the passing of an age, the end of the institutional life of Columbus First Brethren Church, and the symbol of what it has been for so many of us.
Now, the truth is that the legacy of Columbus First Brethren is all around us. Harrison West itself has been shaped by the presence of the congregations that have called this building home over the years. There have been times where more children in this neighborhood came and went from this building than didn’t, a time when Columbus First was a symbol of the health, the hope, and the future of Harrison West. It has been a neighborhood church in the truest sense, as those who have made up its congregations over the years were this building’s neighbors. Harrison West, aware of it or not, has been shaped and blessed by the congregations, pastors, and friends of Columbus First. This church has been an angel, a prophet, a samaritan, and a friend to its neighbors and neighborhood.
Our lives are the legacy of Columbus First. This church has not only shaped the community around us, around this building, but it’s shaped us. We wouldn’t be in this room, we wouldn’t feel whatever it is we’re feeling, if it weren’t for the ways God has used Columbus First Brethren’s changing congregation over the years to make us who we are. You bear witness to God’s power working through this church, and you are who you are because of the relationships–in their joys, in their frustrations, in their intimacies, and in the complexity of love–that have been formed and nurtured and protected by this Church.
None of us in this room have been untouched by Columbus First Brethren Church.
But some of us, those of us here who form the congregation that right now calls this building home, those of you who make up Columbus First Brethren today, you are, very likely, being touched in more sorrowful ways than some of us today might be.
And it’s because you have sat up with Columbus First Brethren, sat watch with this building and its bricks, the history and the hopes, the pastors and the prayers made by and for them, you have, lately, sat watch with this church as if you have been sitting up with someone who is dying. You have been keeping watch, keeping present, giving your time, your prayers, your cash, knowing that you are facing an end: Your own end, as a congregation, but the end of an age, the end of the idea, the institution, of Columbus First Brethren Church.
And whatever great work of God is born and nurtured and grows up in this place, it is…other. Different.
So, I’ve simply got to say this: You must grieve. Now is the time to grieve. When we sit with those we love, keep them company until they die, we must grieve their passing, and you all must grieve the passing of the church you have called home.
Grieving With Hope:
How, though, do we grieve with hope in this situation?
That’s what I’ve been wondering. Because of course, Paul tells us that because of the resurrection, because Jesus rose from the dead and the whole world will break out in resurrection, we must grieve the passing of those we love with hope. Hope that we’ll see them again. He writes:
13 Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. 14 For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.
And if we grieve Columbus First’s passing without hope, we will almost certainly plant in our hearts what the author of Hebrews calls a “root of bitterness.” We’ll wrap ourselves in sadness, nurture anger, and resentment will grow up toward whoever is close enough to bear the blame of our frustration with the situation we find ourselves in.
That is just not what God wants for us. That’s heartache, tended until it bears a poisonous fruit, instead of grief giving way to hope.
And you’ve grieved lately, with Richard and Pat’s deaths, but even then…you’ve known you’d see them again, whether at the hand of God in heaven when you yourselves pass away, or, perhaps, if Christ should return today, this afternoon.
It’s easier to grieve with hope, to do as Paul suggests, when it comes to a person who’s died in the faith, when it comes to one of these many who we’ve been the Church with.
But to grieve with hope when it comes to the passing of a church….that’s a harder thing. It shouldn’t be, of course. The truth is that those who have built and blessed and been blessed by Columbus First Brethren will, at the resurrection, gather and rejoice in what God did through the years with those who have called this building home. If Columbus First has been the body of Christ through the years, that body will resurrect, too, and rejoice in a fellowship that is powerful, that is driven by the stories all will tell about their time in the church, and what became of the work they did, and how God blessed the neighborhood through them during that time. It’ll be fantastic, and I hope even I can be invited to that potluck that all of Columbus First Brethren will have on the other side of Christ’s return.
But to grieve with hope requires, truly, a depth of character that can be hard to muster. It requires a supernatural grace. Because it requires, in the end, selflessness. The truth is that you who make up Columbus First Brethren today, you’re passing on what you’ve cared for and shaped and loved to a group of people who are not yet here, to a child who is yet unborn. There will again be a congregation who calls this building home, there will be Christians who gather here and discover how God is inviting them to bless their neighborhood. There will be hope that permeates this place like air, and a desire to see God’s glory shine out from this place, and shape Harrison West as deeply as it already has.
But to leave a legacy for those who aren’t yet born is a big ask, a hard ask. It calls us back to the basic truths of our faith: That we live not for ourselves, but for God, whose glory we will share in, that we live not for ourselves, but for others, who don’t yet realize how deeply God loves them. To grieve with hope in this situation, in Columbus First Brethren’s passing, is to grieve knowing that what God will do with the future, while it may not actively include us, it depends entirely on what we ourselves have given: our time, prayer, cash, work in sustaining this building for as long Columbus First has.
And it requires a deep belief, I think, in the promise Paul lays out in that reading from Romans, which is that “we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” And God does this, ultimately, because God refuses to allow anything to separate us from His love for us.
Do we believe God can use even this grief, this sadness and the situation that has given rise to it, for our personal good? Do we believe that God still, for each of us, has “plans to prosper us and not to harm us, plans to give us hope and a future?” Do we believe that this can be used for our good?
When we participate in the funerals of those we love, we’re forced to ask questions, questions about God, about ourselves, about what matters in the world, and always, always, about our own mortality and future. Today invites us to ask whether we believe, truly, that God loves us? Can we imagine a way in which the closure of Columbus First Brethren Church is actually worked out by God for our good? What might that look like? What relationships and experiences and hopes and blessings might come of all this, which, if it does anything, shakes up our routines, our relationships, and our expectations?
These aren’t rhetorical questions we can ignore. For some of us, these are the only questions that our grief ought to give rise to, because these are the questions we’ll have to live with, live into. Life after Columbus First begins tomorrow, and God wants that life for each of us to be so, so good, even as God begins to till the soil to plant new life in this place that you have blessed.
Do we believe that God “is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us?” Can our sadness include hope? Hope for ourselves, for this building and its walls, for this neighborhood and all the people God loves who live here? How deeply we believe in hope depends, in part, on how deeply we believe God is for us, not against us, and will work out even this sad thing for our personal good and His permanent glory.
I believe that even now God is with us, attentive, hopeful, longing to help each of us grieve with a hope that sustains us through our sadness and comforts us in the days to come. You who have made up Columbus First have so much life left to live, and God wants to do great, great things with it. He wants this building and its bricks and walls and floors to still be a place where His People are energized for His glory. I don’t think he will fail to reveal his goodness to you, and to the world still through each of you, and I don’t think he’ll fail to bless Harrison West, its neighbors and friends, through the body of Christ that calls this address home.
May we be in prayer for each other, that we find the strength to grieve with hope, and discover God alongside us in love as we go forward in our lives.
~Pastor Rich Hagopian