Sermon by Reverend Dr. John W. Mann | May 23, 2021
Act 2: 1-21
When I was in high school there was a teacher named Mrs. Armstrong. She was a fairly good teacher and she wanted to relate to young people. But she went about it the wrong way. She tried to speak our language; to talk our talk.
She would say things like, “I think that’s a groovy idea.” Groovy was a word that had a very short shelf life back in the late 1960’s. By 1971 when I sat in Mrs. Armstrong’s sociology class it was long past its sell-by date. Even if “groovy” had been the word of the day, for an adult to use it, especially a teacher, would have immediately consigned it to the language wilderness.
We tend to take for the granted the language we speak. It just is. We hear it, we think it, and we dream it. The English language has hundreds of variations and to an outsider those variations can sound fairly foreign. Different words with different meanings and different accents.
When we moved to Scotland, we had to learn a new a new language: Glaswegian. Learning Glaswegian involved many months of concentrated listening. It’s like English, sort of. I had to learn it well enough not to speak it, but just to understand what people were saying to me. It was perfectly acceptable to hold my end of the conversation in American English.
For fifteen years I was the foreigner – the one with the accent – the one who got asked, “Where are you from?” or “What brought you here?” To some ears, places with names such as Wahkon Minnesota can sound as foreign as –
Cappadocia, Phyrgia and Pamphylia.
Foreign places with foreign ways and foreign languages and probably odd customs. Other people; them; not like us. Keep an eye on them – they’re different. They like different food and they have different ways about them.
The story is told that the followers of Jesus were all around Jerusalem when strange things began to happen. The Holy Spirit came to call. There were amazing sights and sounds and the most amazing of all was something familiar. Language that people could understand in their own words. All these people talking at the same time, obviously foreigners, yet hearing one another and understanding. As if the woman speaking Swahili and the guy from Bemidji were suddenly in complete accord, one with the other.
How do you tell a story like that? How do you describe the Spirit of God? It was as if there was a sound of a mighty rushing wind. As if tongues of fire came to rest on each person. Yet not as if, but truly did they understand what was being said. As if to say, God speaks in every language. There is no one language that speaks exclusively for the Almighty. Any language will do. And when God speaks you don’t need an interpreter.
The story of the Spirit at Pentecost might seem foreign to us. Especially the part that says, “about 3000 were added to their number that day.” The message we often hear in relation to this story is “if you would show some enthusiasm then you can add to your numbers too.” They grew not because they were enthusiastic, but because they had a message of good news. God empowered them to share it. Good news can be contagious.
Contagious like a fire. Fire takes a lot of energy and trying to generate enthusiasm can lead to burn-out. I’ve been around churches that consume a lot of energy trying to create just the right program that will somehow create in people the urge to cross the threshold of the of the church entryway. What was the method that the early church used to add to their numbers? What was their secret?
The story begins, “when the day of Pentecost came, all the believers were gathered together in one place.” It doesn’t say what they were doing. They might have been singing a song; they might have been praying a prayer; maybe they were listening to sermon or studying a bible. Maybe they were in the fellowship hall sharing a meal. And they could have been at a board meeting.
Whatever it was they were doing, they were together and that was the important thing. God found them all in one place. God added Spirit to their gathering. Holy Spirit and that’s all that was required for a breathtaking church experience.
In my brief sojourn in the church I’ve seen any number of presbytery plans and general assembly initiatives. Ideas put forth with good intentions hoping to somehow stem the tide. The tide not of people masses of people surging into the church, but the tide of loss. The tide of diminishing returns. The tide that goes out and doesn’t come back in quit as far the next time.
I remember a day long ago when I was discouraged about church. I was living in Iowa and serving a two-church parish. 1st Presbyterian Church in Dows Iowa and United Presbyterian Church of Clarion. They too had their glory days of long ago. Their golden age was described by people saying, “We used to have three grocery stores in this town.”
On the surface it seemed as if there wasn’t much happening in Dows, Iowa. One day I was sitting in the church office in Dows reading a book and wondering what difference I made to the life of the church. It was always something – drought, flood, illness or death; always some conflict or slow ebbing away of members. What possible difference am I making around here?
Sitting there thinking those thoughts and I heard a scraping sound. Someone was scraping paint off the outside of the building. Then I remembered this was the day that the painting project was to begin. Rather than hire someone to do it, the people would do it themselves. Money could be saved. But it was just about money.
It wouldn’t do to sit in my office while people were outside working, so I wandered out for a look. There was Ernie running the project. Ernie was a local handyman. Every church seems to have an Ernie. If something needs to be patched, reframed or fixed, call Ernie.
There was Ernie’s son Steve moving ladders and hauling gear. Steve was a big guy with a big heart. He helped his dad carrying tools or going after supplies. He could pound nails or scrape paint all day and be perfectly content.
Up on a ladder scraping paint under the eaves was Herb. Herb was a retired navy cook. Elmer was too old to climb ladders, but he could hold one while someone else was on it. Jim was mixing paint and wisecracks at the same time. Willis came in from the farm to get things organized, or disorganized depending on your view. And standing off to the side as supervisor emeritus was Henry, the retired banker.
It was close to noon and some of the women arrived with lunch. A sampling of sandwiches and their famous chicken noodle stew. The stew had been frozen after the last Fall Bazaar. The women would get together weeks ahead of time to make the noodles. The chickens were fresh off the farm. The women griped every year about chicken plucking day, but they never gave up the practice.
After lunch, the men went back to scraping and painting and the women sat in a quilting circle embroidering the quilt they raffled off every year. There was always a quilt in progress stretched out on a rack in the church basement. Every Wednesday various women just showed up to work on it.
So, after a day sharing in the fellowship and feast of a painting project, as I drove home, I thought again about my musings of earlier that day. What possible difference does the church make in the lives of its members? For that church and those members, all the difference in the world.
“We used to have …” that’s not an inspiring mission statement.
Mission comes from what we have now. What we have now is the church that held fast. The ones for whom the fire kept burning and who still feel the Spirit moving in their hearts. What we have now are people with a sense of spiritual longing; people who want to be together in one place. With each other and with God.
There was a time when I thought that having a big congregation was what church was all about. Every preacher likes to imagine the crowds gathering to hear what he or she has to say. This time of pandemic has shown us that when the Spirit is present, you can have three people or three thousand. It’s all the same when God is here. When God is here then people will tell about it. What keeps me going in ministry is the thought of warming to the fire that God has already lit.
They were together when the Spirit came. We have that, just like they did. Together is where we are. The Spirit is here, and God is capable of great things. What more do we need? Amen.