Sunday, May 19, 2013
TEXT: Acts 2: 1-18
At our church council meeting last week we wondered: What is the birthday of Open Table? Is February 16, 2009, our birthday? That’s when a handful of people met for dinner at the Sims house to hear a vision for a new church in Mobile, which we’ve been pursuing ever since. Or is January 2010 our birthday? That’s when the Southeast Conference welcomed Open Table as a ministry of the United Church of Christ and we began regular worship services. Or should we hereafter mark May 5, 2013, as our birthday, the day the SEC welcomed OT as a church in full standing in the UCC? Depending on what we consider to be our church’s birthday, Open Table today might 2 weeks old. Or 3½ years old. Or 4½ years old.
Even the date and reason for marking the birthday of the Church Universal is unclear. Sure, it’s customary to celebrate the birth of the Church with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost Sunday. But the Spirit of God didn’t suddenly appear for the first time in history in Jerusalem 50 days after Jesus was resurrected. For instance, John’s Gospel says that the first disciples received the Holy Spirit when the newly resurrected Jesus breathed on them (John 20:22). But to claim the Holy Spirit for the church only is overreaching and proprietary. After all, in the first chapter of the first book of the Bible, we learn that the creating Spirit of God swept over the primordial waters (Genesis 1:2). Let’s be sure to tell the story of Pentecost and the birth of the church when the Spirit inspired a certain group of people, but not as the story of the first and only coming of the Spirit to planet earth. The Church doesn’t own the Spirit of God.
Pentecost is, for Christians, a way to recall that the church was birthed when a group became a movement: when early Jesus followers gathered and others gathered together and were so transformed that the group started a movement–a movement and not an institution, which I’ll say more about later. The first followers of Jesus were joined by others—strangers, people very different from them—and a new energy seized them. People who spoke different languages were in one place, open to the Spirit of Love. And something extraordinary—but I believe repeatable—happened. They began to understand one another. They shared with one another and connected at some deep level. They began to “see visions” and “dream dreams” and a power and excitement so overtook them that the first group was no longer a “group” but a growing source of loving energy that expanded and expanded and could not be contained.
I wonder where we are, new church, in the process of spiritual evolution. I think we are on the verge of transitioning from group to movement.
Unless we like too much the idea of being a small and safe and comfortable group.
I see room in these pews and in our hearts for folks who need to be here.
Long before February 2009, I began praying for you. Long before I met you, I believed the Spirit would bring us together—first as a group, then as a movement that other people might call a church. Long before you met one another, there was this vision of what our life together might be. And that vision includes others who are not here yet, others who need to be included, others we need for the long journey ahead. We’re at a major juncture, having recently achieved our status as a church in full standing. We may think we’ve arrived. We could grow complacent.
I invite you to spend a few moments envisioning those who are not sharing a pew with you. Who might be sitting next to you in that now-empty space? First, think about someone who is not here today but who is already a member or participant of Open Table. Is someone not here because of illness? Maybe for some other reason of which you’re aware? Hold that person in your heart and consider some way you might help bring comfort or reach out with an encouraging words. Make a point to check on that person this week.
SILENCE FOR REFLECTION
Now think about someone you know—a good friend or an acquaintance—who has never visited Open Table and who is not active in another faith community. Consider how you might, in just a sentence or two, tell him or her why you participate in this faith community or some story about something that happened at Open Table recently and invite him or her to come with you next week or the week after.
SILENCE FOR REFLECTION
How do you feel about sharing with others some of the energy you experience here? Are you fearful that our close groupness will be disturbed? Are you concerned that someone will think you are some kind of religious nut if you mention your church? Are you discouraged because you HAVE invited others before and they’ve said no? Pay attention to your thoughts and feelings at the prospect of trying to include others. Where does God’s loving, welcoming, and energizing spirit take you with these thoughts?
SILENCE FOR REFLECTION
There is nothing wrong with forming small groups for comfort and guidance. But “church,” according to today’s story, happens when a group, infused with new and different folks, becomes a movement. I don’t mean that only megachurches are real churches. Not at all. A big church can be more insular and stagnant than a small church. I’m talking about a movement that energizes beyond its members, that adds to its membership, yes, but also that makes waves in its community, that impacts others, that disturbs some. When God’s creative and connecting Spirit is recognized and utilized, some people say, according to the story in Acts 2: “Those folks must be drunk.” But others catch the Spirit.
I hope we can become a movement, but I hope that movement avoids eventually becoming so institutionalized that the movement stops and we no longer “see visions” and “dream dreams” through the Spirit’s power and movement out into the world.
A well-loved mentor of mine, Rev. George Williamson, used to preach that the “inbreaking of the Spirit” usually happens out in the world, not in the church. This phenomenon, according to George, happens just out ahead of the Church. He believed the Spirit’s activity could be detected by identifying places in the world where people were being stirred up to act for justice and peace. So if you find instances of injustice, you’ll see the Spirit at work where a few souls are exposing that injustice.Unfortunately, the church is often part of the system upholding inequities. So the Church as an institution tends to be several steps behind the Spirit and by the time the institutional church catches on and catches up, the Spirit has moved ahead to stir up other actions of justice and peace.
For instance, George said that the Spirit was operating within the civil rights movement, which he participated in and for which he was arrested years ago. Unfortunately, most white churches were oblivious to the Spirit’s actions to advance civil rights, and by the time they finally recognized God in this movement, the Spirit had moved on. George Williamson did not mean that God at that point ceased to be interested in justice for African Americans or that racism had been conquered; simply that the most institutionalized forms of the Church often came late to a daring movement, after it was “safe,” after the risks were reduced. Ironically, people outsidethe church were usually the first to be used by the Spirit.
The feminist movement was another example of people outside the church being the first to notice inequities that the church was, in the meantime, shoring up. Likewise, the Stonewall Riots in New York that birthed the gay rights movement and the peaceful protests to oppose American wars were started outside the walls any religious institution—but started by the Spirit nevertheless, George would hypothesize. I suppose George would also conceded that some ministers and some churches HAVE indeed been on the leading edge of movements for social justice. But not many.
Do you see why I wonder if it’s right for us to conflate the coming of the Holy Spirit with the birthday of the Church? Seems presumptuous, don’t you think, to imply that God’s spirit started with and works exclusively through the auspices of the Church, as Pentecost often gets explained. Maybe it’s truer to say that Pentecost reveals that the Spirit of God started a movement that would later get tamed into what we now call the Church. When the Church is at her best, she startles us with acts of inclusion and justice out on the margins– inspired by the God of love. Unfortunately, the Church too often focuses on building or preserving institutions and ends up coming very late to the party of justice and peace.
Take a moment to think about your responsibility to be noticing where the Spirit is at work in the world. Visualize some who are the margins of society, because that’s where you’ll find current injustice. What’s the newest justice issue? Is there any movement stirring at these edges? Do you have a role—do we as a church have a role—in getting out there on the leading edge? The point is not to be first, as if we are reporters competing to break a big story. The point is to be looking for the inbreaking of the spirit so that we can join in God’s work in the world, so that we can offer the world a prophetic vision of God’s realm, so that we can catch up with and cooperate with the Spirit.
SILENCE FOR REFLECTION
One challenge is to keep our own spirits replenished. I think our retreat last weekend was one way to do just that. And I hope each Sunday becomes true Sabbath for you, a way to refuel for the week ahead.
One writer on Christian spirituality has helped me appreciate the difference between being led by the Spirit to do something versus being driven to do so. If you’re like me, this challenge to follow the Spirit can become ironically “dispiriting.” We have no trouble noticing the troubled parts of the planet or in our own backyard, and we feel overwhelmed by the hurt and the mess. Some of us over-function to the point of burnout. Others just shut down and don’t try to do much of anything because there’s no end to the injustice and the pain in the world.
Patricia D. Brown (in Learning to Lead from Your Spiritual Center) advises those trying to discern where the Spirit is leading them to ask this important question: Am I being led or driven? If I am acting out of frenzied or hardened “drivenness,” a pressure to do what is expected or to control another person or situation, then I am not acting in response to the Spirit. It helps if I have been very honest with myself to identify the roots of the forces that drive me to do even well-intentioned actions. But if I am acting because I am led and loving lured by God to do something, there is a sense that I am able to carry love and hope into that situation. If I’m led, I’ll be challenged to dare and work and stretch and grow, but I can leave the outcome up to God. To act with care for others while retaining compassion for myself is healthy for all. The Spirit of Love is not a spirit of fear or anxiety or timidity or depletion.
Our reading from Romans 8:16 teaches that the Spirit is “bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” If we have caught up with the Spirit and caught the Spirit, we will know at a deep level that we are beloved children of God. We will feel as if God’s spirit reverberates within ours.
What is a decision that is on your mind today? Maybe you’re trying to decide whether or not you should undertake a new challenge. Are you feeling driven or led?
SILENCE FOR REFLECTION
PRAYER: Spirit of Gentleness, Spirit of Restlessness: Lead us as individuals toward healthy decisions. Energize us as a group so that we become a lively movement. Amen.