No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he is not the same man. This quote comes to us from Heraclitus of Ephesus, a Greek philosopher who lived who lived millennia before we learned to understand rivers as water made up of moving molecules. Simply put, this is a comment about the ever-changing nature of things that seem to the eye to be static, and about the ever-growing, ever-transforming nature of our spirits. Between two visits, the river will change, and the woman or man will change, perhaps imperceptibly so. No man ever steps in the same river twice.
We can use the metaphor of the river to understand the church. Whether we’re talking about the wider church or of St. Andrew’s, the church is very much like the river: filled with living waters, a place of beauty and danger, a place that looks familiar and in many ways is. But ultimately the church is changed, imperceptibly so, every single time we wade into it. The church is new every Sunday.
In change, there is life.
We want the river to flow. The alternative isn’t pretty: if the river isn’t flowing, that means there is either parched earth beneath a dry riverbed, or the current is blocked, or the water itself is frozen. Those are not things we want to happen.
We want to be a part of a dynamic, living body of Christ. We naturally see good things in dynamism, because it means that we get to celebrate new life, new people, new friends, new ways to explore faith together. The river changes because there’s more water! The church changes just a tiny bit whenever a new person enters, or whenever someone already there grows in their own faith. We grow in many ways, and the whole church is changed.
But the river & the man are changed, the church is changed, when in the midst of loss as well. I believe that kind of change is every bit as important to the growth of our spirits and our faith as the changes that come easily. If fact, I think it’s far more important.
This is a sermon about the church. And its title – I’m going to tell you the title because it’s a little bit provocative – is “How to leave a church.” This is a sermon about understanding loss as an indispensable way of living out our mission as the body of Christ.
When I was hired almost six years ago, I was given a kind of unspoken job description that I’ll distill into its most simple parts: Preach the Gospel. Grow the church. And then the fine print that emerged soon after: whatever you do, don’t lose anybody. Do those good things, but don’t lose anybody. The grief of loss is too disheartening. The feelings of woundedness when folks go elsewhere is too strong. The strain of filling in the gaps in time, talent and treasure is just too much.
Those feelings can be particularly acute in seasons of loss, and for no reason other than the mystery of the spirit, we are in something of a season of loss right now. Many of us are feeling the grief of losing loved ones. Losing six folks in just a few months is a lot for a church our size. But there’s more going on: Margie Baker left last week for seminary, and her wonderful family has had a huge impact on this church. Others have retired and are moving now to be nearer to their children and grandchildren: Finley and Teresita Middleton returned to Cuba; Ellen Lewis is moving in a few weeks to Sewanee.
Forgive me for dwelling overmuch on loss, but the truth of the matter is that I, too am grieving the loss of so many people. Even though I know all the things that I’m supposed to know: I know that more people join this church every year than we lose. I know that we have 476 folk who are an active part of this congregation (I looked it up). 476 souls who today make up this tributary of the mighty river. I know all that, but the ones we lose are the ones we know and love, so that even when growth and loss happen at the same time, the feelings of loss can stand out.
These are normal feelings. But when this pain fails to transfigure into something more holy, more open to the wild movement of the spirit even in the church, we risk falling into a spiral of fear that can limit who God calls us to be. If we live our lives perpetually out of fear, we start buffering ourselves against loss, instead of making the sending of people out a vital part of our life together.
Notice in the gospel what the community of disciples looks like[i]: There is no staying. There is only sending. Two by two, Jesus sends the disciples out. He does not hold back 48 to pay the bills and run the book study, and send 2 to do outreach. He sends them all out.
Don’t underestimate how risky that was. Jesus was sending these new disciples, people who time and again misunderstood the message themselves, out into a world they could in no way control. What could go wrong? A lot could go wrong! They could stop at a tavern along the way and lose their momentum after a few sips of wine. They could be assaulted on the road. They could meet and fall in love with someone in one of these villages, choosing to settle instead of evangelize. They could – perhaps most frightening of all – meet someone out there who could teach them a thing or two about God.
The early Jesus movement was about sending people out, despite the great risks that were entailed. But in fact, God calls us to send people out not in spite of the risks, but because of them.
In Anam Cara, John o’ Donahue tells us that “The soul loves risk; it is only through the door of risk that growth can enter.”[ii] We want to grow. But the great irony is that we can’t grow without risk; we cannot grow without experiencing loss.
Churches (well, any community really) want to grow despite loss. But being the church means understanding that even losing people is a vital and necessary part of being a river that is changed and renewed every moment.
When people leave, there is something sacred happening. Now, why do people leave a church? Of course, we leave a church when we die, but we do not leave the church. This is part of the mystery and miracle of death, and the church is particularly gifted at celebrating this while caring for folks in their loss.
We have a much harder time, though, when people choose to leave. Even when that has nothing to do with us, it can be hard to find the holy in it. But we must, because the holy is there to be found. People move to other places, because life is filled with moments of change and transition. Or, people move on because the church no longer speaks to their heart, or never did. There is something holy in that, too, because the hunger for God expresses itself in many ways, and we do not have a monopoly. People leave (and this one can be more tender) because the clergy say or do something dumb, or because the clergy say or do something courageous. There’s a lot of subjectivity here, and while that does not feel good we must honor that the spirit is moving in folks’ lives in ways that we cannot ourselves see.
I have learned that these losses are part of life, and they cannot be wished away. They don’t feel good, but this is part of living together as the church. (Now, I’m not including in this when people leave because they’ve been wounded, either by family feuds or gossip or by priests behaving recklessly. These do not have to be normal parts of church life.)
But the more normal reasons – those are a part of life in the church. If the unspoken part of our strategic plan is to be all growth and no loss, then this will always add up to more than we can afford. But if we can see these changes as sending forth beloved friends into the world, as commissioning each and every person who leaves, regardless of the reason, then we will begin to see some of the new things that God is doing with all of us.
Welcoming people is of course a vital part of Christian hospitality. A church that closes its doors to new people is not one with a bright future. But perhaps the way that we celebrate and remember those who leave our church says the most about who we are as an authentic community of discipleship. Are we afraid of risk, or do we embrace it? Do we send folk out, or try to convince them to stay put?
We could instead see such moments as sacramental, as God working in our lives through the bittersweet act of leave-taking and change. God is doing something new: in that person’s life, in the life of the church changed by their absence, in the church or the community to which they will go. We could seek out the gift that comes amid loss by thanking God for the time and presence we’ve had together. We could pray for those who will welcome our beloved friends, and pray for the change unfolding in their lives. We can hope to honor the change happening in us through loss. These prayers could open us up in ways we can barely imagine.
Sending people out is a vital and necessary Christian practice. There is no substitute for it. It is filled with uncertainty and loss. It is profoundly risky, but remember that the soul loves risk; it is only through the door of risk that growth can enter. We get to practice this when we send our loved ones off to seminary to take a new role in the church, even though we kind of wish their family could stay. We get to practice this when we send beloved longtime members to new places and new churches to be with children and grandchildren, just as we welcome the beloved longtime members of faraway churches here for exactly the same reason. We get to practice this even when people leave for reasons we don’t understand, by seeing that God is doing something new there as well, and we don’t have to understand it in order to find grace in it.
No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river, and he is not the same man.
The Rev. Bernard J. Owens, Proper 9, Year C, July 3 , 2016, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Greensboro, North Carolina
[i] Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
[ii] John O’Donahue, Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom (New York: Harper Perennial, 1998), p. 156.