Today we celebrate Pentecost, which we often describe as the birthday, the very beginning, of what we now call church.
The Book of Acts describes a rushing wind and something that looked like tongues of fire coming upon the disciples, all gathered together, and they were filled with Holy Spirit and empowered to speak and be understood by a crowd of people from many nations who were gathered there in Jerusalem. And these moments, this experience led to the spreading of Jesus’ message and the formation of groups empowered by it to spring up all across the Roman Empire and beyond.
Indeed, the more I learn about the varieties of structures and beliefs that make up what we call the Christian church today, the more I suspect that the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of the Living God,
is still looking for ever new and different ways to get people’s attention,
and to challenge us not to feel too comfortable and settled
in any particular organization or way of doing things,
still trying to alert us to notice, and be attentive
to whatever new thing it might be that God is calling us to see and to do right now,
in each and every new moment of our lives.
The last two times I preached in this space—-on the first Sunday after Rev. Dee resigned, and on Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent—-on both of those occasions I described us as standing on a threshold, and preparing ourselves to cross over into something new and different. Into a time, from my perspective, for deliberate and careful listening and seeking to discern where the Holy Spirit might be leading us. Is that how YOU would describe where this church, and all of us, find ourselves now?
It can be an exciting time, a scary time, in some ways a difficult time for our church.
It’s certainly a time for thinking about who we are as a church body—-including who this congregation and organization of Bethesda United Church of Christ, has been in the past, who we are now, and also who we might want to become and what we want to accomplish as a church—- how we will choose to move forward into a new season of our life together. And hopefully we will also be asking ourselves what God might want this church to become and taking time to listen, and be attentive, to discern what God’s answer might be!
Who do we want to be? In what directions (plural) might we want to go? What kind of leader and spiritual guide will we choose to help us to move forward? Do all of us see ourselves as having some part to play in that process? And are we allowing and seeking to ensure that the Holy Spirt’s voice is a primary part of that process? Are we asking not just where and how do WE want this church to move forward, but also asking ourselves and listening/ to consider how God’s Holy Spirit is working among us to move us forward.
So on this Pentecost Sunday, as we celebrate God’s gift of that Holy Spirit to us all, let me ask each of you, all of us, a question: HOW and WHERE do YOU, personally, experience the Holy Spirit at work in your life? and also in the life of this, your church?
The experience of Pentecost which we read about in the Book of Acts opened an awareness of God’s Holy Spirit to a much larger group of folks. Not just to those few who had followed Jesus during his lifetime, but now to all those people who found themselves becoming newly aware of the presence of God’s Holy Spirit moving within and among them.
And from what I read in the Book of Acts and beyond, they all got busy, and began to minister to one another as well as to the larger community beyond their little group.What gave them the power? The Bible clearly tells us that It came from that Holy Spirit, which they began to recognize more clearly within and among themselves in those Pentecost moments and beyond.
Is that who WE are? Are we—each one of us—empowered by God’s Holy Spirit? Is it something we recognize and foster in our lives? Or do we just take for granted that as members of the church, as people who call themselves Christians, it must BE there, so we don’t need to pay close attention to it regularly, or to nurture it, maybe even on a daily basis?
Now you may have noticed that the first story from scripture that we read—-one I deliberately chose—-offers a very different picture from the New Testament Pentecost story.
Ezekiel was both priest and prophet at a time when Israel was in exile; he describes his people as a valley of dry bones, unsure whether God can bring them back into fullness of life. “Can these dry bones live?” he wonders. “Can God bring us back to newness and fullness of life?”
As I look out today at this half-empty sanctuary —- (and no, I am by no means discounting those of you who participate on ZOOM)—-and as I ponder the chilling and disorienting impact the pandemic has had on our life, both as individuals and together as a community of faith, I cannot help but ask myself Ezekiel’s question, “Can these dry bones live, come again to fullness of life?”
I am convinced that the voice and movement of the Holy Spirit in our lives is not something we are meant to take for granted.
I believe that the Holy Spirit surrounds and enfolds each of us at all times, but that it takes time and effort on our part to discern that presence, that guidance, and to be able to distinguish and differentiate God’s will for us from our own desires, expectations, and wishes.
I believe that the Holy Spirit is waiting patiently for each of us, both as individuals, and as a community of faith. To wake up, to truly listen, and to consult that Holy Spirit within and among us as we seek to move forward, and then to follow the guidance we are given into the newness and fullness of life that God intends and wants to help us to discover.
Another thing I have learned about the Holy Spirt in my own life, is that more often than not she works in surprising, often even disruptive ways. The Spirit seems too ask, “So you think you know what’s coming next in your life, for your church? Well, just watch me!”
I think one of the most common barriers and obstacles to the Spirit’s movement is our assumption that we already know what God wants and expects of us, and that we don’t have to keep listening or looking for that new thing that God is always—-always seeking to do among us.
What might Holy Spirit have in mind for this church now? As Ezekiel said, “O Lord God, only you know.”
But I do know that God doesn’t want us to make excuses, or give up. To say, “our bones are dried up and our hope is gone.” God alone knows what God intends, and what God is capable of doing through us. It’s not a question of what WE are capable of doing on our own!—-to think only in those terms is to block the Holy Spirit’s work among us. It’s rather a question of what GOD is capable of doing among us.
What God wants of us, I believe, is for us to be faithful, to wake up,
to acknowledge and seek the working of God’s Spirit among us,
to take the time and effort actively to look for it!—
And then to cooperate with it! —
to let the Spirit move in and through us,
to bring our dry bones back to fullness of life!
As I close my reflections on where this church is at this threshold moment in its life, I want to pose a couple of questions for you to ponder, and I want to give you a couple of minutes to reflect and see what thoughts might come to you, if any, and then I’m going to allow a few moments for any of you so moved to share those thoughts with all of us. And if you don’t want to speak up now, or perhaps have some thoughts after you go back home today, I would very much appreciate your writing them down and sending them to me or to Rev. Vertie so that they can become a part of the process of this church’s finding its way forward into new life and ministry at this rather critical time in our church’s and our country’s history.
- What are the challenges the Spirit presents to us today and how would you like to see this church address those challenges?
- What would it take to bring back an outbreak of Spirit and energy and action in this church’s life together?
- What do you most miss in your church life at the present time and what part might you be willing to play to address that loss?
Let us close our time of reflection with prayer:
O Spirit of the Living God, as we find ourselves in a new phase in the life and ministry of this church, we ask and invite you to fall afresh on all of us. Melt us, mold us, fill us, and yes, God, use us. Bring us out of the valley of dry bones into fullness of lie into the life that You, through the presence and work of the Holy Spirit, offer and invite us to enter. Be alive among us, Holy One, and show us the way forward. Amen.