A Place to Call Home
First United Methodist Church, May 20, 2018
Pastor Toni Carmer
Two churches, Pleasant Grove and Pleasant Hill. A little over a year ago, each of these churches had about 40 members—mostly older folks.
Pleasant Hill Church decided that it really wanted to grow, to get back in touch with its neighborhood. So the older women of the church started running an after-school program for the children in the community. The after-school program attracted many children. The children were not only cared for after school, they were also invited to church. The children came to church, with their parents. Today, Pleasant Hill Church has about 75 active members, a rather amazing growth in less than a year.
Pleasant Grove Church on the other hand, though it had the same number of members, didn't really want to reach out to the neighborhood. Their neighborhood had changed. People of a different color than the predominate one in the congregation, people of a different culture, moved into the neighborhood. If by chance one of them visited Pleasant Grove, they got the distinct impression that they weren't welcome.
This year Pleasant Grove Church was closed due to lack of viability.
So what's the difference?
What gave one church the courage to take a chance while the other one ended up shutting down?
This is an important day in the life of the church. It's Pentecost, the day we Christians celebrate as the birth of the church. But it's not only "our" day, it's a festival day we share with the Jewish faith, whose calendar is very similar to ours this time of year. While we celebrate Easter, Jews celebrate Passover, both of which are calculated by the moon, in case you ever wondered why the date of Easter varies from year-to-year. Fifty days later, as we celebrate Pentecost as the birth of the church, our Jewish brothers and sisters celebrate the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. In Hebrew, the day is Shavuot, which (along with the New Year, the Day of Atonement, Tabernacles and Passover) is one of the five holy days of the Jewish year.
For Christians, the church year is pretty much split in half, like a circle with a line drawn across the middle. It is a year that begins with Advent in late November/early December, arching upward toward the high seasons of Christmas, Epiphany, Lent and Easter, and then dropping back down below the horizon for the long, eventless months of summer and fall. The Sundays starting next week don't even have a name of their own: we just call them "Ordinary Time," or Sundays after Pentecost, which would be kind of like being referred to throughout your life as Joe's little brother, or Sally's oldest daughter. But traditionally, the first half of the year is known as Jesus' season, and the second half is known as the season of the church. Pentecost is the feast day that marks the transition between the two.
On Easter, we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. On Pentecost, we celebrate the birthday of the church, which also is a resurrection of sorts: it's the transformation of a bunch of frightened disciples into the apostolic founders of the church, thanks to the gift of the Holy Spirit. Because of the gift of the Spirit, everything changed—for them, and for us.
On this day, Jews from all over the civilized world came to the temple in Jerusalem. It was one of the 3 obligatory feast days of the year, and so they were there: Medes and Elamites from the East; Romans from the West; Libyans from the South; and Cappadocians from the North. All of them were streaming into the city, setting up their own camps, so that walking through the crowded city was like taking a walk around the world, with Arabic singing over there, Libyan laughter over there, and the smell of Egyptian food cooking from an open fire wafting over it all.
But there was one group missing: the small band of orphaned disciples, who weren't walking the streets and enjoying all the activities; they were huddled together behind closed doors, fearful of their enemies. They were almost like dead men: they'd lost their leader, they'd lost their confidence, their direction, their vision—it was as though they were the sole survivors of a catastrophe that had robbed them of their future.
The world had become a frightening place for them, and so they had barricaded themselves against it, believing their only chance for survival meant sticking together and keeping everyone else out.
If things hadn't happened differently for them, they might have gone on that way, establishing a church that was basically a hideout, a place for threatened, like-minded people to get together and agree on everything that was wrong outside while they held themselves apart from the confusing and dangerous world in which they lived. They might have decided that only their own descendents could belong to the church, and that even they would have to pass certain tests in order to be allowed to enter. They might have kept everything they had learned from Jesus to themselves, using all the fuel he gave them to keep their own stove warm. In less than a year, they might have shut down completely, no mission, no purpose, no church.
But that's not how things happened for them. When the Day of Pentecost arrived, Luke tells us that the Holy Spirit invaded their hideout and set them on fire. Barbara Brown Taylor describes it saying that it was as though God had turned them into human candles, giving them flaming crowns to wear, and when they opened their mouths to say to each other, "Hey, watch out! Your head's on fire!" what came out instead were strange languages, languages that none of them had been taught or had known before. It sounded like gibberish to them until all the ruckus they were making drew a crowd. Travelers from all over the world began to come to the place where they had been hiding, looking like a delegation from the United Nations—some of them wearing fine Roman togas and others in the long flowing robes of the desert, some with homemade tunics and others in animal skins—all of them leaning through the doors and windows of the hideout to hear that they were being spoken to in their own tongues.
This was just the beginning. The next thing that happened was that some of the onlookers accused the disciples of being drunk, and Peter took advantage of the situation by telling them all about Jesus of Nazareth. It was all so surprising, what was happening right then and there—and the things that he was telling about Jesus. Those who were listening were so moved that they asked, "Brothers, what should we do?" Peter told them, "Repent and be baptized." So that's what they did—3000 were baptized that day. There wasn't enough room in the hideout for all of them, and so it became very clear on that first Pentecost that the church wasn't supposed to be a hideout. It was supposed to be an outpost of heaven, it was supposed to be a convention of human candles—all those set-on-fire and breathed-on ones—sent forth by the same Holy Spirit who would continue to breathe on them and in them and through them until they filled the whole world with God's heat and light.
That makes Pentecost a kind of Easter for the church. Fifty days ago we celebrated the resurrection of Jesus, our crucified Lord. Today we celebrate the resurrection of the church that was crucified with him. For a little while his followers had wandered in the wilderness and had wondered what to do without him. They had considered staying behind shut doors forever, but on the day of Pentecost, a mighty wind blew open the doors, tore off the shutters, knocked down the "Keep Out" sign they'd posted, and the disciples came stumbling out, with their faces lit up and their voices proclaiming a word of life and hope and resurrection power.
Alleluia, the church is risen! Alleluia, the church is risen, indeed!
And it's not a place for a select few, it's not a place to hide away, it's not a place where fear rules, or where complacency lives—it's a place where all are welcome, it's a place where God meets us and fills us with what we need, empowers us, and then sends us back out again, into the world, to preach, to teach, and to DO what God wants to be done!
Alleluia, the church is risen! Alleluia, the church is risen, indeed!
So, what does Pentecost say to us today? Was the Spirit given and then, at some point taken away? Has so much already been done that the Spirit is all used up; there's nothing left to draw from anymore? What encouragement does Pentecost bring? What response does it require?
There are at least a couple of things that I want us to think about today: and the very first is that the Holy Spirit has been promised to us, and continues to live among us, and is a living, breathing, life-changing force in our lives and in our world. The Spirit is here, with us now.
We don't always call upon the Spirit when we should, we frequently don't trust the Spirit though we can, and too often, we simply forget that the Spirit is available to us, and we try to do our life and our ministry on our own.
We hesitate to dream big dreams…maybe to even dream at all.
We limit ourselves by focusing on our own gifts and abilities and forgetting that when we give ourselves to God, when we trust God, some pretty incredible things happen.
Think of Pleasant Grove and Pleasant Hill—two real churches, two real outcomes.
It seems to me that we want the church—in a whole lot of ways, to be a quiet and safe place. We like the thought of it being a sanctuary. And sometimes that's exactly what the church needs to be: a place where the broken and wounded in the world can come. Where they can be accepted and loved and cared for.
But the church needs to be as well, the kind of community whose work is risky, whose mission is so bold, and whose success is so unimaginable, that it will fail unless the Holy Spirit empowers it to be what God calls the church to be.
I don't think we're supposed to always play it safe.
I'm not sure that we're to always work within the bounds of logic, and what makes sense to us.
Sometimes, I think that we're to trust the Holy Spirit and GO FOR IT!
A second thing that Pentecost offers us, is a vision that the word of God is intended for all people. We don't always think alike or practice our faith in the same way. When the Tower of Babel collapsed, human language shattered into a thousand different shards and human beings came to know the limits of communication. But on the day of Pentecost, that trend was reversed. At Pentecost, God didn't give us back one language, but we received the ability to understand one another across the cultural borders that had once contained us.
Our world is getting smaller in all kinds of ways…as people move from place to place, as we read and watch television and browse the internet, we learn other languages and cultures and ways of living. We come to understand one another better, we learn how to better listen to one another.
In church gatherings over the years, I've had the opportunity to have conversations with women from places like Guatemala, the Philippines, Zambia and Estonia. Our lives are so different, and yet we each have a love for God, for the church, and for the people we serve in the church. It's so important to be able to listen to one another and to hear God speaking to each of us in our languages.
When we, like the first disciples, leave our fortresses/our comfort zones to share our fire with the world, it's so important that we listen, as well. If we insist that others live and speak and move like we do, we will miss much of what God has in store for us. Perhaps as we step out, we'll be challenged to learn new ways, to speak in new ways, so we can talk to people who have lost their faith or who never had any, or who have experienced God in a different way.
So, I can't help but wonder—was the miracle of Pentecost in the speaking or the hearing…or both?
Jesus said to his disciples, I came to give you life; I want your life to be abundant! I want you to have all the good things I have to offer. As Christ's followers today, we, too, are to share the good news, because what we have can bring help and life and hope. And, what's been given to us is best lived and expressed when we share it with others. As we've been blessed, so, too, are we to bless others. And little by little, the world begins to change.
But it won't happen if we lock ourselves away and focus on ourselves. It won't happen if we rely on our own power and energy, because there will never be enough when we do it on our own. It won't happen if we don't ask for the Spirit's guidance and power and then step out, and boldly go for it!
Nothing will happen.
So, I wonder…are we willing to be lit up like human candles for God?