Yesterday afternoon was the last worship service ever at Oakdale United Methodist Church in Grand Rapids. It wasn’t until I arrived at the church and observed 175 people filling every available seat that it hit me. I’ve been a part of hundreds of funerals over the past 26 years, but never have I officiated at a service for the death of a congregation. It was a bittersweet moment, for there is always deep grief when a congregation closes its doors.
Over the past 2 years, as I have helped the Oakdale congregation and their pastor, Andy Baek, discern their future, I have come to love them deeply. I began to weep yesterday when Leslie Waters Hess sang, “I sing because I’m happy. I sing because I’m free. His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.” I gave thanks to God that the members of Oakdale UMC, who valiantly hung on for so many years, were now free of the burden of keeping their small congregation together. The legacy of Oakdale UMC is not over, however, for the assurance of our faith is that out of death comes resurrection. Ministry will continue in a different form in different places. Lives will continue to be changed, and the journey will go on.
The most moving part of the service for me occurred when Oakdale members came forward to liturgically remove the Bible, communion ware, paraments and cross from the chancel as we sang Hymn of Promise. For a moment I lost my composure as I spoke the words of deconsecration, “This building, having been consecrated and named the Oakdale United Methodist Church, together with the land on which it stands and all objects remaining in it, we now deconsecrate and release for any honorable use. We declare that it is no longer a place of meeting of a United Methodist congregation.” There were few dry eyes in the sanctuary. So much love. So many memories. So much gratitude.
Our scripture for the service was from 2 Timothy 4, where the apostle Paul talks about his own life and impending death. Aware that he is about to pour out his life as an offering to God, Paul uses the image of a race. Paul has done his best. “I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith.”
Paul knows that in the Christian race there is not just one winner. The Christian life is not a competition to run better than someone else. It’s simply a commitment to finish the race, which is nothing more than being faithful to God’s call. The prize is the crown of righteousness. It’s the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. It’s the privilege and joy of being counted a disciple of Jesus Christ.
It doesn’t take long to discover, however, that this race is not easy, for nothing worthwhile in life can be achieved without struggle. Paul himself experienced more suffering for the cause of the gospel than most of us will ever know. But suffering will always lead us to Christ if it is understood in light of the cross. Darkness will always be absorbed by light. Defeat will always translated into victory. That’s the hope and promise of our faith.
Oakdale UMC participated in wonderful ministry in its 91 year history. The gospel was preached. Children learned about Jesus. Youth and adults felt the call to professional ministry and lay ministry. Human needs in this neighborhood were met through outreach ministries. People found a church home and loved one another. Tens of thousands of dollars were sent through the West Michigan Conference around the world to serve the least, the last and the lost.
I caught a vision yesterday of the glory days of Oakdale UMC, when hundreds of members silently pounded the pavements together over the years, joining with their brothers and sisters in other churches by quietly doing ministry. Having now discerned that God is calling them to discontinue the race at Oakdale UMC, they have passed the baton to others. They are handing off ministry by pledging to become active members of other churches and also by using the financial assets they have to bring new life to other urban ministries right here in Grand Rapids.
Oakdale UMC has offered its life to God and to us so that we might be inspired to invite all of God’s people to join the race. I see a church today where all of us are racing toward a kingdom which is already here but also not yet: young, old, urban, rural, Hispanic, Asian, Native-American, black, white, rich poor. I see a worldwide church where we are attentive to the wind of the Holy Spirit, which blows where it wills. I see a church which resists the powers of death in our world, powers than kill, demean, humiliate and oppress. I see a church which denies self in order to be in ministry not only to but with the poor, the homeless, the helpless and the hungry. I see a church where grace and joy oozes from every stained glass window, every bazaar, every dinner, every hymn, every face, every communion table. I see a church where we all receive the crown of righteousness and are united in the vision of a world of shalom. I see a church that pours out its lifeblood in service.
I am deeply grateful for the support that Oakdale UMC has received from other United Methodist churches, as evidenced by the huge number of people at the service yesterday. As the legacy of Oakdale UMC is absorbed redemptively into the churches that remain, will you continue quietly pounding the asphalt, step after step after step, everyone running at a slightly different pace but all moving in the same direction? Who will take the baton? Who will keep running the race? Who will keep the faith? Will it be you?
O God, as in your great goodness you have blessed the many ministries
Carried on by this congregation in this building,
So, now and in the days to come, we pray that you may greatly bless
Your many ministries in your ongoing Church.
Bless those persons who have worshipped in this building,
And will now be worshipping in other congregations and buildings.
As disciples of the risen Christ, may we be channels at all times
Of your steadfast love, through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
P.S. See you at annual conference!