Sunday, May 31, 2020
"(Be)Coming the Church"
Rev. Dr. Scott Landis
Originally “Pentecost” was known as a the Jewish “Festival of Weeks” or the “Festival of First Fruits.” Pentecost was one of the three major pilgrimages made by the “heads of household” who would travel to Jerusalem to offer a thanksgiving sacrifice – in this case for the spring – wheat – harvest. Pentecost was celebrated 50 days after Passover (another occasion of pilgrimage) when devout Jews would offer their gratitude to Yahweh who spared their ancestors from the final plague wrought on their Egyptian captors thereby initiating the Exodus from slavery to the Promised Land.
On Pentecost, Luke records in the book of Acts, “they were all gathered together in one place.” We can imagine they were huddled together out of fear. You will remember, the last time they were together in Jerusalem was during the previous festival of Passover. That was a terribly sad time as the one they thought was their Messiah had just been crucified. Jesus appeared to them shortly thereafter offering his blessing of peace and breathed on them the gift of the Holy Spirit. But this scenario was completely different.
When Jesus appeared to those gathered following his resurrection – the Holy Spirit was given specifically to the disciples. On Pentecost things changed – and dramatically so. As Luke describes, “And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.”
The Spirit blew through – and not only filled the room – it filled the bodies – indiscriminately – of EVERYONE attending the festival. Each one – gathered from around the known world – heard the gospel proclaimed in their native tongue. As the story continues, Peter preached to all those gathered. Approximately 3,000 people welcomed his message, were baptized, and joined the church. Now that’s some preaching.
You see, what happened at Pentecost – was a kind of outpouring by God – a no holds barred blessing – an anointing – a stirring among and within them that gave them singleness of purpose and a desire to live boldly, and (as the scriptures say) “with glad and generous hearts.” (2:46) [Pause]
Pentecost is sometimes referred to as “the birthday of the church,” because from that day forward Peter and the newly baptized disciples were empowered to proclaim this radical message of love and hope for ALL people – inviting everyone – “As Haumāna of Jesus Christ to welcome all, love all, and accept all into our ʻohana,” to use our words. [Pause]
None of us remembers our first birthday, but you may have heard stories about it. Perhaps your birth was traumatic or as natural as water flowing rolling off a duck’s back. Regardless, you have now likely celebrated more than a few anniversaries of that historic day – and in very different ways, no doubt – each one marking the beginning of a whole new year – a year of opportunity and possibility. Birthdays give us a moment in time to reflect on what was with an eye toward what could be.
If your life is going along just fine, you might want to keep things pretty much the same as you step with confidence into the next year. But if things are out of whack, or you are not happy with your current circumstances – you might echo the words of those gathered on that first birthday of the Christian church when they asked, “What does this mean?”
I’d like us to consider that question as I offer some ideas that have been rolling around in my head for the past several weeks. As I see it -- Pentecost, this year, has a whole different meaning as we think about the birthday of the church in a time of global pandemic. Might we consider – just what is trying to be born anew or perhaps for the first time as we discover not only what it means to “be the church” but of “(BE)coming the church” in brand new ways? The deeper question being, “Are we willing to allow fresh winds of the Spirit to blow through our house of worship – and our lives – as we begin to hear the Good News being spoken in new ways? What might God be inviting us to consider as we imagine the church – our church – in the future?
One of the primary tasks of interim ministry is to invite members of the congregation to name those things they love most dearly about their congregation. It’s a time to celebrate those aspects of Keawalaʻi that are most meaningful and important to you. Those qualities that you want to see continue as we move into the future and as you consider the kind of leader you will need to foster those qualities and care for you as you dream of the next phase of your mission and ministry. Folks typically love that process of assessment and planning as they take pride in their history – as well as the present - while pondering what God might be calling forth for the future.
But then COVID 19 came along, and that has changed everything. Things are uncertain, out of whack, and we really don’t know the best way forward as we listen to the advice of doctors, scientists, government, and ecclesiastical leaders. We all find ourselves confronted with the question of those first disciples, “what does this mean?” I’d like to lay out for you some of my thoughts that, I hope, will help as we celebrate Pentecost – the church’s birthday – this year:
1. The church is never static. It is always undergoing change – and rapidly so – long before the Coronavirus made its appearance.
a. Most main line congregations were aging as younger folks found our worship either irrelevant or in some cases outright hypocritical. The Roman Catholic church was particularly hit hard by this phenomenon.
b. We know now, the fastest growing group – as far as religion is concerned – are called the “nones” those who claim no religious affiliation whatsoever. If you doubt that, think of your children or grandchildren. How do they spend their Sundays?
c. Overall church attendance was dropping at a rather precipitous rate.
d. There are increased demands on folk’s time, the pressure to participate in other activities, along with increased secularization of society all of which have added to attendance drift.
Don’t get discouraged just yet – contrary to what you might think. This is not all bad.
2. The church has often done everything it could to maintain the status quo – feeling that tradition is important to preserve and adhering to what have been called the 7 last words of the church, “We’ve never done it that way before.” I’m sure this is not the case at Keawalaʻi, but in some churches there have been many heated discussions over the use of video screens in the sanctuary, genres of music including praise chorus, chants, gospel, or classical. Whether the choir and/or clergy should wear robes. Who can serve as leaders, or be ordained. In some cases, it’s as if preservation of “the way we have always done it” was a commandment from on high rather than a practice that made sense for a season.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting we throw the baby out with the bath water, but I wonder if holding on too tightly might not be in our best interests.
3. The surrounding culture, in which we all exist, is deeply divided on many fronts – certainly politically, but also theologically, and also ecclesiologically as we consider how and when to return to our houses of worship to participate in religious services.
All of these become issues for our congregation – in light of a global pandemic as we reflect for ourselves on that important question “what does this mean?”
I want to suggest that God is inviting us into a deep season of reflection. COVID 19 is not just a horrible disease that will one day be controlled through a vaccine and a series of medications allowing us to return to life as we once knew it. I think this historical moment has generated a paradigm shift in world history – the critical nature of which we ought to pay close attention. Might this be a time when we radically evaluate the mission and ministry of church today – with an eye toward what does it mean to be-come the church today?
There is no going back – but we must find a way forward that, I hope, will engender a deeper compassion for one another and for the planet that supports our lives. We may see fear and racial tension try to divert that new way of love – but we can do better – we must.
We have a message to share – one that is not only relevant – it is critical to humanity’s survival. We must allow for fresh winds of the Spirit to blow through us – to empower us – to embolden us – to speak lovingly while insisting that our world is a place where all can live in peace, in harmony, in freedom, and in justice for all.
We could throw up our arms in frustration, in disgust, or in helplessness simply decrying all that is bad with our world today AND that there is no hope for the church – OR we might allow a new Pentecost to wake us up and demand a better world – a new church – fit for all God’s children. That will not be easy – but it begins when we open ourselves to the question of how God wants to shape our church to love and serve the world “rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit.”