Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The unexpected God

Acts 2: 1-21
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
May 24, 2015 – Pentecost Sunday

            A colleague of mine called Mr. W. “spooky”. Hasn’t that been our relationship with what we used to call the Holy Ghost? Hasn’t the Holy Spirit been misunderstood in our mostly-white, mainline Protestant enclave? In its unpredictability, we can experience the Spirit as annoying. This holy wind gets on our nerves. Sometimes the Spirit can be intense, can come on too strong. Sometimes I think the Holy Spirit just wants to play, but we often don’t know how. And this image of the Spirit as wind that gets lonely because the wind is unrecognized, unappreciated, undervalued—that God’s Spirit is trying to get our attention in the only way it knows how—conveys to us that this Holy Ghost is indeed a friendly one.

            What would it look like if the church—that community created long ago by the Holy Spirit, and this one created not so long ago by the Holy Spirit—what if we sat down with that same Spirit, shook hands, and accepted this mercurial, whimsical, change-loving God, just as God has been, is, and will be, in all of God’s glory?

            What happened on that day of Pentecost so long ago was not what was expected. Jesus’ disciples and many others had gathered for the festival that celebrated the harvest and the giving of the Ten Commandments 50 days after the exodus. God had been known to be disruptive and showy in the past: thunder and lightning and a thick cloud on Mt. Sinai, God descending like fire, shaking the whole mountain with God’s unearthly presence; Moses’ face shining like the sun and the moon after speaking with God; Jesus’ clothing and body transfigured into a dazzling spectacle, keeping company with prophets of the past, long since gone.

            These were mostly revelations to a select few, a holy and intimate confab. But different languages zooming around the room, all understood, tongues of fire alighting on the heads of these Galileans for all to see—it was almost like that lyric in “American Pie”: “Oh and there we were all in one place/a generation lost in space/with no time left to start again”. This was a sight for all the sore eyes of Jerusalem and beyond. The author also takes pains to remind us that these were not just Jesus’ disciples but Galileans—what we would call hicks or hillbillies…or lower and slower. Jerusalem was where the educated elite gathered, the movers and the shakers. Once again, God upends human trends and expectations. #Thereisnohashtagforthis. Just as Jesus was born in a shed and worshiped by poor migrant shepherds, the Holy Spirit filled the hearts of backwater illiterate peasants, and it would be they who would spread the good news of Jesus.

Pentecost, from St.Aloysius' Church, Somers Town, London, UK.

            Again and again God goes to the margins of human experience and calls to us from that wilderness, “Over here!” Just when we think we’ve got church figured out, the church needs reforming. We’ve heard that we are living through another great reformation, what some are calling the Great Emergence. This can be difficult to imagine when what we are witnessing is the decline of not only Christianity but of religious community and affiliation in general. In fact, this emergence is about 40 years old by some folks’ reckoning. This church, most likely without realizing it, was part of that emergence—the desire to witness to one’s faith in a new way of being community, with fresh winds of the Spirit.


           Thirty-five years later the New Ark, for all intents and purposes, has settled down and into some of the same ruts other United Church of Christ congregations find themselves in. We have the same amount of ministry, tasks, and roles to be filled as a congregation twice our size. We have similar expectations of church for a congregation twice our size. We have an increasing retired segment of our church as well as empty nesters and families with one or two working parents with not much time for volunteering. Everyone is busy and facing their own challenges, teetering on the verge of being tapped out. The emerging church ship has sailed. “Geez, Cynthia, when you put it that way, it sounds worse than I thought it was.”

            How are we to be church in this 21st century, given our ruts and our challenges and each of us with our own take on reality? How are we to be church, with the still-increasing rise of those who are spiritual but not religious, the unaffiliated seekers and believers and those hurting from what can truly be called spiritual abuse and church bullies? Where is the unexpected God in all of this? From what far corner is the Holy Spirit gusting? From what margin is God calling?

            As always, ironically, God is calling from the center of our faith, the whole of the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ. It’s we who have pushed the gospel to the margins, to the edges of our spiritual experience, of our religious community. We cherry-pick the gospel as much as anyone else. Marcus Borg wrote that when we read scripture in worship, we ought to conclude the reading with the injunction “Hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church”. What is the Spirit saying to us through the good news of Jesus Christ? By what authority do we truly live? What difference does this church make in our lives and in the life of this community and the communities we live in?

            Molly Phinney Baskette, senior minister at First Church UCC in Somerville, MA, says that their church exists for the last, the least, and the lost, right out of the gospel, directly from Jesus’ lips. Jesus said that the last shall be first and the first, last; that those who minister to the least of these have ministered to him; that he came for the lost sheep.

            A new neighborhood of apartments is going in behind us. We need to be able to speak clearly what difference the gospel makes in our lives, not only for ourselves but those who need a church like this one. When the gospel is visible in our lives and in our life together, we will have the renewable energy to serve that gospel and to be church, not just for ourselves but for the last, the least, and the lost. When we get to know the spooky Spirit and accept the abrasive, life-upending parts of our faith as well as what comforts and sustains us, the Spirit’s potential then becomes our potential as well.

            Where in the gospel does Jesus give us sass? (The youth in our church call The Message by Eugene Peterson, the Sass Bible, because Jesus gives people sass.) What is it about the gospel that annoys us, gets on our nerves, that comes on too strong, is too intense? Let’s go there. 


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