Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Reflections by a priest on the closing of his parish

Sermon preached by Rev. Rick Sorensen for St. John's Glenbrook on May 20, 2012. Rev. Sorensen was called to be a priest by St. Stephen’s Church, Reno, Nevada and was a member of the Vestry when the church decided to close.

The Gospel reading from John we just heard sounds to me like Jesus tying up loose ends with God.  The 17th chapter of John works as a heartfelt expression of Jesus's relationship to God and to his friends; as a benediction of love and blessing for those he will leave behind; and as a telling of the completion, the fulfillment, of the work God gave Jesus to do.
As we are reminded every year during Holy Week, what looks like defeat on Good Friday is actually a door to victory on Easter.  At the previous two Sunday services I've been here with you, I mentioned that I was a priest at St. Stephen's in Reno, which closed its doors a year and a half ago.  When that uncomfortable fact is mentioned, people often avert their eyes or shake their heads sadly and express their condolences.  
What is it like to have to close a church?  It's very much like facing death, with the same stages of searching for alternatives, then denial, anger and sorrow, and -- with God's help -- acceptance and peace. 
We at St. Stephen's shared Holy Week services several years ago with the Lutherans across the street, when their sanctuary was damaged by fire just days before Palm Sunday.  We invited them to one of our last services, after we'd made the decision to close.
I was told by one of our members that, at the conclusion of the service, one Lutheran said to her, "Well, we're not quitters."  That comment reminds me of the line from this morning's Psalm: "Happy are they who have not...sat in the seats of the scornful." 

The reasons for St. Stephen's closing filled about two pages, single-spaced.  Here are a few of the reasons: the Reno-Sparks area doesn't have the necessary critical mass of Episcopalians to support four Episcopal churches.  St. Stephen's was located only two miles from Trinity church in downtown Reno.  My own spiritual energy was being directed to prison ministry. 
We had one young woman pursuing ordination to the priesthood and one in process for the diaconate.  For very valid reasons, they both terminated the process.  Our 20-plus years of Total Ministry living had, to borrow a sports term, exhausted our bench strength. 
One of our most devoted members, Peg McCall, delivered a St. Stephen's farewell at the last Diocesan Convention.  She said, "At a series of parish meetings, we reflected on the joys and celebrations at St. Stephen's and talked about what the loss of our parish building would mean to each of us.  We talked about what had been important to us and what were our most meaningful ministries.
"We learned again that it was 'we, the people' -- the faith and the love that we shared, rather than the building.
"As a group we decided when we would hold our last service...We closed with over $30,000 in the bank because it was time to move on. The bank balance has been contributed to the Diocese, as well as an anticipated $48,000 yearly income from rental of the property.  And we are still here as members of the Diocese."
My message is that we, as an entire parish, came to see this inevitability NOT as a failure, but as a fulfillment, a completion.  Like the 17th chapter of the Gospel of John.  Like Easter.  Our last two Sunday services were meaningful beyond words, and I cried like a baby  at both of them.  Mine were tears of grief, loss, gratitude and love.
NOW.  Let me make it very clear that St. Stephen's story is not intended as a cautionary tale for St. John's, Glenbrook.  Each parish has its own identity, history and destiny.  We do not know what God has in store for us.  We only know that God's plan is more perfect than anything we can come up with.

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