In one of her books, Teaching a Stone to Talk, Annie Dillard notes the curious way in which we come to church on Sundays. Here we are, she writes, with padded pews and carpeted sanctuaries. A place where everything is orderly, neat, tied down, respectable – just so. Yet, says Dillard, if you know much about the Bible and what it says about what it is like to meet God, to experience God’s presence and allow ourselves to be changed by it, then the ushers ought to be handing out crash helmets rather than bulletins.
Another, very different view of the church was poked fun at in the cartoon, Doonesbury, when it was doing its series on the Church of Walden. One of the cartoons shows the minister of the Church of Walden meeting a couple of prospective members. He asks them, “So what would you like to know about the Little Church of Walden, folks? Don’t hold back – I know how difficult it can be to choose a church.”
The man begins, “Well, what’s the basic approach here, Reverend? Is it traditional gospel?”
The minister replies, “In a way, I like to describe it as 12 step Christianity.” He continues, “Basically, I believe that we are all recovering sinners. My ministry is about overcoming denial, it’s about recommitment, about redemption. It’s all in our brochure.”
“Wait a minute,” the woman interrupts, “Sinners, redemption? Doesn’t that imply guilt?”
The minister answers, “Well, yes, I do rely on the occasional disincentive to keep the flock from going astray. Guilt’s a part of that.”
“I don’t know,” inserts the man. “There’s so much negativity in the world as it is.” His wife adds, “That’s right. Were looking for a church that’s supportive, a place where we can feel good about ourselves. I’m not sure this is going to work for us.”
Looking down at the brochure, the man reflects, “On the other hand, you do offer racquetball.”
His wife turns to him and whispers, “So did the Unitarians, honey. Let’s shop around some more.”
In one scenario, the church is a place of challenge, risk and uncertainty. A place where you need to be properly outfitted with a crash helmet and pads. Christianity as an extreme sport. In the other, the church is a feel-good service provider. A place that exists to cater to the individual. Two different visions of what the church should be – and what is our vision?
In our text for today we begin with the disciples and other followers of Jesus waiting. To back up just a little, Jesus, forty days after his resurrection ascends into the heavens, but before he does so he instructs his followers to remain in Jerusalem for what he terms “power from on high” and “what was promised by my Father.” In some ways, things have been moving very quickly. In a month and a half, they have seen their beloved leader, mentor, teacher crucified. They have mourned his loss. They have been amazed and rejoiced at his resurrection. They have cherished time and teaching with the risen Christ. They have seen him return to the Father… and now they wait. Despite how fast circumstances have been moving – they come to a grinding halt – for 10 days. Imagine the house where they were staying on the first day. People are talking, reliving the past weeks, praying, rejoicing, wondering what this gift will be from God. Day four, day six… day eight. Do you imagine there is more wondering than anything else? Why are we here? What should we be doing? Worry, maybe, has begun to creep in. Did we miss something? Is Jesus trustworthy? What is our future?
And then comes the answer in the careening roller coaster ride of the Spirit. Suddenly with a rush of wind and flame the Spirit of God descends upon them, calling out and birthing the church. Luke uses the same Greek word when referring to God’s voice at Jesus’ baptism and the sound of this mighty wind. Here is not just the birth, but the baptism of the church, its beginning point. God, through the rushing wind of God’s Spirit, is calling the church into being. Those gathered are suited up with crash helmets and sent out into the world. I can almost see them moving from the inside courtyards of the house, spilling out into the streets with excitement. Empowered but also challenged with speaking the truth of the gospel in many languages. The Spirit takes the passion of their experience of Christ and creates a bridge of language to help these Galileans express that experience to people very different from themselves. And we can see the risk that is inherent in their actions by one of the very first responses to that Spirit-filled moment – They’re only drunk with new wine – derides someone in the crowd. Actually, that is one of the milder responses to the gospel – future missionaries will be beaten, jailed, stoned, run out of town… And then Peter, the one who weeks before would not stand up to one person and admit to knowing Jesus, now risks all boldly and stands up before the crowds and begins to preach the good news to be found in Christ. So powerful is this event and this witness, that over 3000, imbued with the Spirit come to the living waters of baptism.
This story is both a promise and a warning to us who gather years later celebrating that moment. For this story is not just about red balloons and cake and the church congratulating itself on another birthday. This story tells us that God is not forever silent. When we find ourselves mired in the waiting and wondering and worrying – about the age of our membership or the size of our budget or the replacement of our speakers – one night or one day God’s Spirit will speak to us in a whisper or the rush of a mighty wind and we will hear our name called like that early Christian community. God promises God’s presence amongst us.
But the warning is that with God’s Spirit, God’s presence in our lives and in our midst, our world then changes – or should change if we don’t ignore it – and we should prepare our crash helmets accordingly. Andrew Young, an associate of Dr. King and a UCC minister, testifies about the danger of receiving that Spirit… about the danger of the church…
He once told a group of people that he was delighted when his eldest daughter had become active in her local church. With each deepening level of involvement he became more and more pleased. But one day she announced to her parents that she was going to join Habitat for Humanity in building homes for the poor of Uganda – and at that time Uganda was embroiled in the midst of conflict.
Andrew Young confessed, “I tried to talk her out of it. I mean, I wanted her to go to church, to find a nice Christian man to marry, to develop a relationship with God and to settle down. Believe me, I didn’t have anything like this in mind. I didn’t intend for her to go so far with it. I mean – Uganda! But she said she felt called. What could I say?”
The church, if we are doing our job right should be both a place of support and of challenge. What we do here in the church, inside these walls as we worship and fellowship and study together, is only half the story. We need to leave this place ready to live lives of faith in the world, to follow the breeze of the Spirit right out the door. The gift of the Spirit comes laden with risk, for we are ever challenged by it to step outside ourselves, to break new ground, change old habits, attempt new things, speak in a different language.
The congregation’s suggestions and input during our 5 in 10 campaign last fall are beginning to bear fruit as the Session looks to nurture new ideas and discern where the Spirit is blowing our congregation at this time. We are looking forward to connecting with other faith communities and Coe College and beginning work on a Habitat House later this summer. Conversations have occurred with Chris Buresh and his medical outreach in Haiti and in June we will be welcoming Veeda Javaid, Director of the Presbyterian Education Board in Pakistan, to worship and speak to our congregation. Our staff, worship committee and CE Board are studying and considering additional worship opportunities. The Deacons have taken on some additional ministries of care and welcome to those who enter our doors. These are just a few of the many ideas that are being prayerfully considered as we strap on our crash helmets and ask the question – where is the Spirit’s wind taking us?
There is risk, of course. Any one of those ministries, attempts at outreach and ideas takes commitment – sometimes commitment of funds, sometimes commitment of time, sometimes a commitment of flexibility or imagination. And there is no guarantee of success. We might try something new – and fail, or have it bear fruit in a way that we did not foresee. But here I end with another promise. If we are willing to take the risk, God will be with us. Those gathered at Pentecost spoke from their heart, acted out of their passion and belief – and God’s Spirit took that and made a bridge of understanding to all those who had ears to hear. A bridge that led to baptism and community and vitality and a sending forth again.
Will Willimon comments that once he was in a church, and as he was moving along the hallway into the sanctuary, he noticed a sign on the closed sanctuary door that said, “Silence Please. People at Prayer.” to warn people as they entered that they would be disrupting a service. Wouldn’t it be great, he muses, if that sign said, “Warning: God at Work.”