Several years ago a group of Episcopalians looking at the reasons churches grow, plateau, or decline and why that happens, met at The General Seminary in New York. Their discussion focused on five Episcopal Churches in Manhattan—four of which had experienced a renaissance and were thriving—and one that was not. What was the common denominator for those four growing congregations? Why had they flourished and why was one still struggling to hold its own?
It turns out that all of those four had experienced a fire in one or their buildings and had to rebuild some structure on their property—in a few cases the church itself. The loss created by fire had empowered those congregations to rally and stand fast in their determination that their church would rise from the ashes. They would witness resurrection. They would grow. And they did. There’s something about fire that radically changes lives. And for some congregations that fire may come in different ways, in loss of members or finances or with clergy who were perhaps not the right match for them.
Today is Pentecost which for the population gathered in Jerusalem two thousand years ago was a spring agricultural celebration thanking God for the bounty of the first grain harvest. Little did they know what would happen that day. New power was unleashed in the house where the frightened, expectant small band of the followers of Jesus had gathered. The place was enflamed by the unexpected visit of the Holy Spirit. We heard the story this morning. There’s something about fire that radically changes lives.
Author Fredrich Buechner said “we become something new by ceasing to be something old.” That was true for the disciples two thousand years ago and it is still true today for each of us and for the church of this century. Those churches in Manhattan that experienced a renaissance became something new by ceasing to be something old. The work of the Spirit in the church today is to help us discern what of the old is essential to keep, what we need to let go of, and what of the new to welcome in.
Sometimes we need to ask ourselves what kind of church we are. I find that Bishop Steven Charleston, former President and Dean of Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, gives an eloquent and accurate description of our church. He writes, “We believe so strongly in all of the essential parts of our shared faith that we are not afraid to disagree with one another about what they mean to us. We welcome difference as the active presence of God's Holy Spirit moving amongst us.
Our witness is not to conformity but to community. We are not concerned that everyone in the pews believes exactly the same thing, in the same way, at the same time. Instead, we are concerned that no one is left out of those pews because of what they believe, who they are, or where they come from. Our witness is to the unconditional love of God through the grace of Christ Jesus. We respect the dignity of every human being and are never ashamed of who sits next to us in worship.
Our witness is to mission. We believe that it is not important to know if that person is "right" or politically correct. It is only important to know if she or he feels welcomed into the servant ministry of Christ. Our witness is to the reconciliation of God in a time of fear. We practice the radical hope of God. We embody a faith that says there are many rooms in the house of God, but one home for us all if we choose to live together.”
What is important for us to know about the Holy Spirit is that it is God’s Spirit, who in the Hebrew Scriptures is referred to as the ‘ruah,’ a feminine word, to describe the feminine aspect of the Godhead, the breath of God, the mighty wind that hovered over the empty waters at the beginning of life in the process of creation. That mighty wind, that breath of God is what makes the Good News we have to share with the world powerful—not a milk toast message. God declared that God would pour out the Holy Spirit on all – no exceptions.
In his daily Inbox Inspirations, Episcopal priest Father Bob Dannals says:
The story of Pentecost can be our story –the day, the period, when God brings us together and gives us three gifts: vitality, authority and solidarity. Vitality would be a Spirit of the heart, a spirituality of passion and compassion; authority is the promotion of a truth which is larger than us, born and authored by God; and, solidarity which tells us that our parish is more than a mere religious association.
The Spirit we honor today calls us to figure out what it is that we hope for, and then to live inside that hope, under its roof. The Spirit we celebrate today calls us to envision the future as it should be, and then to live as if that future is already here. “Hope is hearing the melody of the future. Faith is to dance to it.”
I love this story. The wise Mother Superior of the convent was dying. All of the nuns gathered around her bed, trying to make her comfortable. They offered her some warm milk to drink, but she refused. Then one maverick young nun took the glass back to the kitchen and poured a generous amount of brandy into the warm milk.
Back at Mother Superior’s bed, she held the glass to her lips. The old nun drank a little, then a little more. Then, before they knew it, she had polished off the entire glass. “Reverend Mother,” one of the novices cried, “give us some advice and counsel before you leave us.” She raised herself up out of bed with a satisfied grin on her face, and pointing out the window, she exclaimed, “Don’t sell that cow!”
Without the Holy Spirit, the very breath of God, the Good News of the Gospel, is like warm milk with little flavor, no kick, no power to animate and change. Do we want that fire! Do we want the “flicker of flame” to burst gloriously into a blaze of power and creativity beyond your wildest dreams? Do we want the gift and the grace and the wisdom to become something new by ceasing to be something old. That is the challenge that Pentecost offers us. It comes with the gifts of vitality, authority and solidarity and with the promise that the power of the Spirit will carry us in new hope, to be able to see visions and dream dreams and courage to live as though anything is possible with God.