June 9, 2019, Pentecost Year C, Acts 2:1-21
This Friday and Saturday I was at the DCU Center in Worcester for the New England Synod Assembly. For the Episcopalians among us this is the Lutheran equivalent of Diocesan Convention. And for those among us who don’t know what either Synod Assembly or Diocesan Convention are, they are annual meetings where Lutherans or Episcopalians get together to do the business of the church for their respective denominations in their geographic area.
As usual, we had a couple of times where attendees could go to workshops on topics of interest. I led a workshop on Saturday about Lutheran Episcopal church partnerships with the former pastor/rector here, Nathaniel Anderson, as well as Deacon Susan Lindberg Haley and Carol Esbig, council president, of the Lutheran Church of Framingham. Our workshop was called, “Making a Way in the Desert: What’s God Doing Now”, and we talked about how the Lutheran Episcopal partnerships started in Wilbraham and Framingham and what they each look like as they have developed – which is very different and unique to each place.
Happening at the same time and right next door to our workshop yesterday was another workshop called, “Partnerships, Mergers, Sustainability, Oh My!” There three pastors in the synod talked about Episcopal Lutheran congregational partnerships, but also about mergers among Lutheran congregations, and how to convert church property and assets to use for mission. Both workshops offered the opportunity for congregations to think about creative ways to continue to survive and thrive as the church today.
Sixty or seventy years ago you would never have workshops like these at a synod assembly. If they had workshops back then – and they probably didn’t because what did they need to work on when so much was going right in the life of the church that at the time was growing in leaps and bounds? But if they did have workshops back then, they would have been more likely to offer ones focused on offering information and advice on how to recruit and train more teachers to teach all the children in your bursting at the seams Sunday School. Or how to raise money to add onto your building to make room for all the eager church goers wanting to attend your congregation, especially all the families with young children. However, sixty or so years later and the world has changed and so too the church that lives in it. Thus, what we needed to know as the church back then is vastly different from what is needed for the church of here and now.
Often, we long for what we view as those glory days of the church though. We long for the days when it seemed the Holy Spirit was working overtime, and all was well in our congregations as we never had to worry about having enough people to sit in the pews or enough money to pay the bills. So many times when we dream about what we want for the future of our churches, we describe something a lot like those glory days. It isn’t surprising as Lutheran pastor and author, Dave Daubert, in his book, Living Lutheran, suggests that more often than not our vision for the future is nothing more than our memories of the past. In other words, when we dream about the future we would like, it looks remarkably similar to the good old days we used to enjoy as the church of the 50s and 60s.
And that is understandable. Because when we dream or vision about the future of the church, we likely don’t dream about the difficult times we are going through now where so many churches are struggling to simply survive. Where so many of us have to make really difficult choices about how to pay the bills to keep the lights on and pay the staff. Dreaming or visioning for the future of the church, we’d prefer to focus on what we view as success – bigger and better, more people and more money. That’s what we’d like to see again for the church. However, I wonder more and more as increasing numbers of churches face closure in this country and people become increasingly saddened and disillusioned about where we are at as the church, if perhaps God is up to something new in what’s going on. And I’m not alone in that wondering.
Pastor and author, Brian McLaren, in his book A New Kind of Christian, asks, “What if God is actually behind these disillusionments and disembeddings? What if God is trying to move us out of Egypt, so to speak, and into the wilderness, because it’s time for the next chapter in our adventure? What if it’s time for a new phase in the unfolding mission God intends for the people (or at least some of the people) who seek to know and serve God?”
I know we would prefer not to think like this, but like Brian McLaren, I wonder if God is up to something new. After all, the late author Phyllis Tickle said that every five hundred or so years the church has a giant rummage sale or a time of great upheaval and turbulence that transforms it in big ways. The last of those times was five hundred and two years ago with the start of the Protestant Reformation when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg and set off an explosion that rocked the church splintering it into multiple denominations. So, while these times we are going through are difficult for us as the church, maybe they are an indication that God is disrupting our comfortable lives and doing something new that we are being invited into.
Perhaps, it is much like the Holy Spirit does to the apostles in our first reading today that tells the story of Pentecost. Fifty days after Jesus’ resurrection and the apostles are all hanging out together in one place, minding their own business, when we read that a sound like the rush of a violent wind fills the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, a tongue resting on each, filling them with the Holy Spirit so that all began to speak in other languages. Everything is changed for those early apostles as the church is born on that day with the Holy Spirit’s arrival in their midst.
Yet, you can’t help but wonder if with Jesus now gone, if they aren’t just even a little bit hoping that they can go back to life as they knew it before they met him. For most of them that means returning to the quiet and relatively uneventful life of fishermen. The good old days before everything got crazy with lepers getting healed, the blind seeing, the deaf hearing, sinners being forgiven, and the dead being raised. Before they knew Jesus, life was easier and more predictable and stable. You couldn’t blame them for thinking it might be nice to go back to that. But then here comes the Holy Spirit blowing into town and disrupting their plans to go back to how things were in those good old days. Here comes the Holy Spirit, upending everything for them so that it will never again go back to how it was before. Here comes the Holy Spirit not letting anyone off the hook as sons and daughters are called to prophesy, the young to see visions, and the old to dream dreams.
Lutheran pastor and seminary professor David Lose says that is one of the paradoxes of Pentecost. That “the Holy Spirit does not come to solve our problems but to create them.” The Holy Spirit won’t let the apostles go back to life as normal. It thrusts them out into the world to share the news of Jesus’ death and resurrection. They can no longer hide behind closed doors and grieve Jesus’ death away from the world with just each other. Life is no longer quiet and predictable, it is chaotic and crazy as the Holy Spirit literally blows up the world as they know it and pushes them out to hit the road, to travel to far off and strange places, and face the unknown of sharing the message of Jesus with people they don’t know or understand the customs, or even the languages, of. The coming of the Holy Spirit didn’t solve their problems and return them to the way things were. Instead, the Holy Spirit created a problem for them in sending them out to this totally new and unknown life where they can’t help but share the good news of Jesus by preaching, teaching, and serving others – by becoming the church of their day.
In this time of such great upheaval in the church of today it certainly seems that the Holy Spirit is creating problems for us too. However, in spite of our fears and discomfort with these times not being quite what we hope they would be, perhaps like that first Pentecost with the trouble-making Holy Spirit disrupting our lives and calling us to something new as the church this time of upheaval isn’t such a bad thing? Perhaps by blowing up our comfortable and cozy Christian lives, the Holy Spirit is calling us to be the church the world of today needs, instead of the church that the world needed sixty years ago. While it might be our preference that the Holy Spirit leave us to the comfort and security of our dreams of the past, the Spirit won’t do that. That’s not its style. Its style is to blow into our lives, disrupt us and invite us all – men and women, young and old – into the new thing God is up to.
I know it can be hard in these times to think of what we as the church are going through with all the decline of churches as being a good thing as we face grief and loss over what was. However, with how the Holy Spirit tends to work I wonder if it is good? I wonder if what we are going through is God’s way of disrupting us as the church to shake us free from reclaiming our unrealistic memories of the past, so that we can embrace the new possibilities of the future that open up with imagining new ways of being the church not dependent on our human standards of success?
Of being a church where we come together within and across denominations, like we are doing here at Christ the King-Epiphany as we merge into one Episcopal Lutheran congregation, instead of dividing ourselves up by our differences. Of being a church set free from the burden of maintaining buildings to focus our resources on the mission of loving and serving all God’s people as some congregations make choices to sell their buildings and share space or renovate their properties to use their space more for outreach to the community. Of being a church empowered to depend on God alone for our security instead of trusting in the false gods of money and power that the world tells us we should rely on. The Holy Spirit is at work disturbing and disrupting us all still today, can we see it? Can we call it good and embrace it? Can we join in? With the Holy Spirit disturbing and disrupting us we can, we are, and we will. Amen.