20 May, 2018

Chaos, Cacophony, and Community

20 May, 2018

Chaos, Cacophony, and Community

by Louise Westfall at Peoples Presbyterian Church

It’s a joy to be here worshiping with you, Peoples and Central.  A word of gratitude to Peoples’ session and clerk Verniece Vafeades, Central’s session and clerk Emily Nease, and the “dynamic trio” of music directors Mark Boykins and Wil Smith and organist Kimber Smith.  Thank you for persisting in bringing us together with some regularity, even though it disrupts the routine; creates some confusion for worshipers who didn’t know or didn’t remember the change; and to be perfectly frank, extracts a financial cost to the congregation that moves.  But Oh! Is it worth it!  Our worship together is a visible sign of an invisible gift, one that makes the difference between a nice group of people and a dynamic community of transformation.  We celebrate that gift today on Pentecost, the birthday of the Church.  The gift of the Holy Spirit brought us to life.  The gift of the Holy Spirit unites us across all boundaries and barriers.  The gift of the Holy Spirit fills us with the power to carry out a high and holy mission beyond imagination.  Please pray with me: God of the living, awaken us to the truth of your word.  Amid the chaos and noise around us, may we experience anew the baptism of your living Spirit and grow strong as your people.  Inspire us to witness to the ways you are still working to bring your Kingdom to earth as it is in heaven … and courage to join you.  Amen.

The Church’s “origin story” is told in the book of the Bible we call the “Acts of the Apostles,” chapter 2.  I wonder if that misses the mark a little, for it might be more accurate to call it the Acts of the Holy Spirit.  Hear what God did then … and what God is doing now.  [ACTS 2:1-21]

Who would have thought that something that takes your breath away could be the thing that fills you with the breath of God?!  (Come to think of it, singing does!)  The drama of that first Pentecost must have left the disciples breathless.  On an ordinary day, when they had gathered as they always did to pray and sing and break bread, something happened.  Dramatic changes, loud noises, rushing wind, unlike anything they’d experienced ever.   And suddenly they are speaking in languages they never learned; sharing the good news of God’s love through human words that people from every nation and region could understand. More alive than they had ever been.

The New Testament Pentecost experience is often contrasted with the Old Testament account of building the Tower of Babel.   In that story, human beings seeking god-like power start to construct a building reaching into the heavens, but fail when God “confuses their language” so that they can’t understand each other.  They separate into different language groups, their unity destroyed by egotism.    Though we sometimes consider this separation “a curse,” I wonder if instead it was God’s way of affirming diversity, of sending people into the farthest reaches of the wide world with the authority to create culture according to a rich variety of contexts and geographies.  At Pentecost, the power of God was manifest NOT through one single, perfect language, but in the ability to hear the good news in native tongues, the language their mothers spoke to them as they sang them to sleep or lovingly murmured their names.  [From a presentation by Princeton Seminary New Testament Professor Eric Baretto to the Community of Pastors, May 7, 2018]

And think of the consequences: the small, exclusive group of friends who shared the common experience of following Jesus became a universal, diverse community embodying Jesus in every time and place.   The band of brothers and sisters who had gathered in fear behind locked doors felt them blown open so that the whole world might come in.  People separated by human-imposed dividing lines of color, race, and creed became united, much to their amazement:  How is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?

When was the last time you were amazed by something like that?! -- something that took your breath away or ignited a fire in your belly?!

No, the latter day Church seems more preoccupied with decline and death; our dwindling numbers and our decreased status.  We rarely dream dreams and see visions because we are captives to “reality.”  We see the statistics, remember the “good old days,” and wring our hands at the way things are for our children and grandchildren.  We despair at yet another school shooting, yet seem incapable of offering more than thoughts and prayers.  We greet new ideas too often with sighs about how we might pay for them, or fear that it would change things drastically.  The Church born at Pentecost has been weakened by division, paralyzed by fear, and pushed to the edges of society. We seem a pale shadow of ourselves in those heady early days when followers were so enthusiastic (the word itself means “filled with God”) they were accused of public drunkenness.

It’s easier to imagine death than resurrection.  Easier to bewail reality — who occupies the seats of power and controls the message — than it is to follow the One who raises the dead.

There is a story told by the Desert Fathers and Mothers, those contemplative saints who devoted their lives to reflection and sacrificial service long, long ago.   A certain congregation had served tirelessly in a city notorious for its tyrannical leadership and oppressive practices.  In frustration they sought the counsel of one such holy priest.  “Father, we have tried to be faithful; we have worshiped with powerful sermons and uplifting music; we have prayed and given many alms to the poor.  Yet we are ignored and even ridiculed; our church is on the brink of extinction. What else can we do?”  Then the old Teacher stood up and stretched out his hands toward heaven and his fingers became like torches of flame.  And he said, “Why not be turned into fire?”

I have never quite understood people who say they come to church for some peace and quiet.  Oh, I get that after a full and busy week, it is kind of relaxing just to sit in God’s house and breathe in the aura … at least through the prelude.  But the purpose of worship is to keep us from going to sleep too soon.  If Jesus is a rock in weary land, it’s to shelter us in order to renew and revive us for service out there, not a place to take up permanent residence.  It’s time to experience again the power of God that first set us ablaze; time to engage with God’s disruptive, unsettling Word; time to “get woke” with the good news that startles us from complacency; time to feel the rush of renewing winds that propel us from the safety of sanctuary into the world of suffering, great division, and a sense of hopelessness sometimes bordering on despair.   It is time to glow with Divine fire that warms cold, lonely, and fearful hearts with love that changes everything.  Love that changes everyone. 

I know that both Peoples and Central have reputations as activist congregations, committed to serving our community.  But, friends, let us take care to tend the Spirit in our souls.  We need that connection to a power higher, deeper, greater than our own.  We need our reality to be challenged continually by God-inspired visions and dreams.

I wonder, for example, about our relationship.   Are there ways we might collaborate to address the needs of our neighbors more broadly and effectively?  Together could we witness to the unity made possible by the Spirit still moving?  I come away from our Sundays together encouraged and heartened by worship and table fellowship that trespasses on what’s still considered “the most segregated hour in America” — and then despair of headlines about increasing incidents of violence and racial division tearing the soul of our City and nation.  Dear Friends, the good news of Pentecost is that reality does not get the last word.   God is pouring out the Spirit upon all — black and white, Central and Peoples, young and old, men and women, to see and dream and dare and do.   

Out of the chaos, a joyful purpose.

Soaring above the cries and babble of white noise, God’s love songs.

And for the long loneliness every one of us knows, a community where we belong, where we are filled with the power to carry on.

What would that look like?  Listen for the Spirit speaking to us in this contemporary version of the day when God made Church.

What would that look like? Listen for the Spirit speaking to us in this contemporary version of the day when God made Church.

The Day When God Made Church
Readers Theatre from the book by Rebekah McLeod Hutto

Reader 1: We all gather and wait. Jesus is gone, and we are nervous.

Reader 2: Everyone is curious to meet the One that Jesus would send us.

Reader 3: The room is dark. Men, women, old people, young people and animals WAIT

(pause in quiet)

Reader 4: WAIT for something to happen.

Reader 2: Suddenly the animals move with excitement.

Reader 4: It grows louder.

Reader 1: It feels like the wind and it pounds like drumbeats.

Reader 2: It fills the room, LOUD and FULL.

(pause in noise)

Reader 3: Then the room grows brighter.

(lights go on)

Reader 1: Something hot and blazing shines on us.

Reader 2: Darkness is gone. Fire fills the cold space.

Reader 4: Now we feel warm inside our bodies.

Reader: 1: Smiles paint our faces.

Reader 4: We all know something new is happening. We feel our hearts change inside.

Reader 2: Is this what Jesus promised?
Reader 3: A new sound comes.

Reader 1: WORDS!

Reader 3: Words, like raindrops, fall across the room.

Reader 4: Some with LOUD sounds

Reader 2: some with quiet whispers….

Reader 4: words like drumbeats,

Reader 1: words that tiptoe through the air

Reader 2: People crowd around. They recognize the Words. They recognize the languages.

Reader 3: Something new is happening

All: The Holy Spirit has arrived!

Reader 2: Everyone around me begins to ask questions

Reader 4: Who is this Holy Spirit?

Reader 3: What is happening?

Reader 1: Why do we feel so different?

Reader 4: Why do we hear so many languages?

Reader 2: Peter stands. He walks around, looking at each of us. I wonder. Is he going to speak?

Reader 1: The Peter opens his mouth. He starts to preach. His powerful voice fills the spaces around us—and between us.

Peter: Friends—something new is happening! Jesus has given us a wonderful gift. Don’t be surprised if you all start to preach and dream too. Young and old, men and women—we are called to something NEW! God is changing us so we can see old things in a new way.

Reader 4: We all listen as Peter tells the story of God’s love in Jesus.

Reader 2: We hear again how Jesus loves us. We remember when Jesus healed our friends, told us stories, and shared GOOD NEWS.

Reader 3: We listen as Peter describes the day—that horrible day—when Jesus hung on the cross,

Reader 1: and we remember how SAD we were.

Reader 4: The dark clouds covered the sky; the earth shook;

Reader 2: and Jesus died to save us.

Reader 3: But our sadness did not last forever.

Reader 1: Peter reminded us that soon there was

Reader 2: JOY

Reader 3: Laughter

Reader 4: and DANCING!

Reader 1: Jesus came back to us. God raised him from the dead and gave us new life.

Reader 2: We all hear the Word Peter preaches, and the Holy Spirit changes us.

Reader 4: The rivers of baptism pour out and we feel God’s love.

Reader 3: a love for us, our families, our friends and even people who are far away!

Reader 4: People, People everywhere!

All: All hear this GOOD NEWS
We all begin this new life together.

Leader: We become a new FAMILY. We share our things. We break bread together, and we worship God. This is what we call the day of Pentecost: The day when CHURCH was born. Men and women, boys and girls, people from everywhere—we are all filled with the Holy Spirit and we worship Jesus,

All: Alive and Risen. Alleluia!

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