Friday, May 1, 2015

Spirit and Structure - May 3, 2015

Texts: Acts 1:15-26, Ezekiel 37:1-14


Before I begin this sermon I want to ask you to please look at the back page of your bulletin.  You will find a number there.  OK, we are going to have our drawing, and the winning number is  ___.   Congratulations, you are our winner!  As hopefully most of you know, Susan and I will be on a 10-week sabbatical that begins after worship next Sunday.  You may have been wondering who will be preaching during the sabbatical.  As our grand prize winner, ___________ will be bringing our messages this summer. 

OK, we actually do have a plan already in place.  Just a little fun here on a Sunday morning.  Now many of you might think that drawing a preacher out of a hat is a terrible idea, or an example of the evils of gambling.  Or you might just be glad it’s not you.  Or you might be thinking, why don’t we do this throughout the service, hand out door prizes, maybe it will keep people awake?  But some perceptive souls may say, “Finally we are beginning to recover the faith of the early church.  Matthias, the disciple chosen to replace Judas, was chosen by lot.  If it’s good enough for the early church, it’s good enough for us.”

The Book of Acts open with Jesus telling his disciples to wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit, and that then they will be witnesses to Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria and the uttermost parts of the world - and then he ascends into heaven. 

So the disciples are waiting for the coming of the Spirit.  Jesus has ascended but the Spirit has not yet come.  What happens in between the Ascension and Pentecost?  What happens as the disciples wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit?  They have a business meeting.  Seriously.  A business meeting, of all things.  Why do we find such a mundane event in the middle of such important, dramatic happenings?

It’s a good question.  The simple answer is that twelve was an important number.  Jesus had called twelve disciples, and this matched the twelve tribes of Israel.  Eleven just wouldn’t cut it; Judas was no longer with them and they needed another apostle.  There was tradition and there was symbolism; twelve was important. 

But that still begs the question of “why now?” Why have a business meeting when the Holy Spirit is scheduled to show up any minute?

Our reading from Ezekiel may help us.  This is the familiar reading of Ezekiel and the dry bones.  The bones were put together, but they needed the breath, the Spirit, of God to be breathed into them in order to live.  Likewise the Spirit needed the bodies, the bones, for there to be life.  In order to live, there had to be Spirit, but there also had to be structure.

That is exactly the case with the Church.  The Church needs both Spirit and structure.  It may seem like a crazy time to have a business meeting, but maybe it was exactly the right time.  There needed to be structure so that when the Spirit came, they would be ready.

There are a lot of people who complain about the “institutional church.”  I have a book on my shelf titled They Love Jesus But Not the Church, which is written about millennials but describes a lot of people.  There are people out there who have perhaps been hurt by those who seem more committed to the institution of the church than they are to loving God and loving their neighbor.

On the other hand, Spirit with no structure can be chaotic.  Faith can turn into emotionalism.  I have known people who have inspiring ideas, who seem like spiritual powerhouses, but who never get around to putting ideas into action because there is no structure.  They may be sincere; they may have a kind of spiritual fire about them, but nothing ever seems to come of it.

For the church to truly be the church, we have to have both structure and spirit.

In high school, I played in the jazz band.  What was great was when we improvised.  There was a basic tune we played, a basic melody, and then we would take turns improvising.  But we had to have both order and creativity for it to work.  There had to be structure beneath all the improvisation.  We played in a particular key and counted out a particular beat.  If it were all improvisation – if there were no structure at all – if everybody just played whatever they wanted, whenever they felt like it - it wouldn’t work. But if it were all structured, with no improvisation, no opportunities for originality, no creativity, no freedom, then it would have been lifeless.  It wouldn’t have been jazz.

I think it’s that way with most of life.  We all need a starting place – we need structure.  The structure is to help us and guide us – it’s not there to weigh us down.  If the goal is to fly, then structure and tradition can be our wings.

The apostles would go on to do all kinds of things that had not been done.  God would lead them in new directions.  God would give them power and courage and strength to face all kinds of adversity.  This was all the work of the Spirit.  But they were able to do what they did only as they were tied to the community and as they worked together.  That was the structure.

God often speaks to us as we gather together for worship.  We may find wisdom, or comfort, or inspiration through prayer or Bible study or music or as we serve in the community.  Worship services and Sunday School and choir rehearsal and committee meetings and volunteering your time - these are all part of the structure that allows the Spirit to work in our church and in our lives. 

An increasing number of churches are offering sabbaticals to pastors – a time away from the responsibilities of church ministry to focus on attending to one’s spirit and on renewal for continuing ministry.  A time of sabbatical can be beneficial for both the pastor and the congregation.  I am very thankful for the opportunity Susan and I have for a sabbatical this summer.  Since next Sunday is Music Sunday, this is the last sermon I’ll preach here until July.  (I thought I would get at least a few Amens on that.)  A sabbatical might be thought of as a structured way for the Spirit to be at work in renewing both clergy and congregations.  When we approved a policy for sabbatical leaves at our church, we made room for the spirit, but also built in some needed structure.

Seven years ago, as part of my sabbatical, I visited some emergent churches.  That was the name given to a new kind of church – the idea being that we’re not sure what the church will look like in the future, but it will be different, and a new movement of God is emerging - so emergent churches.  They were made up mostly of people in their 20’s, and they rejected the megachurch model of doing church.  While definitely a new and different thing, they were also open to traditional and ancient liturgy, and many had a strong focus on the arts.  In a sense what they did - and do - is very new and at the same time very old.  The whole movement is hard to describe, partly because there is so much difference from church to church, but I decided to visit some of these emergent churches.

There was one church in particular that was very interesting to me.  They had started out several years before as a church of 20-somethings, mostly single or at least without kids.  They were doing something new and exciting – it was a movement of the spirit.  By the time I attended this church, they had been around a few years and were now in a new location – they had grown a bit, and they met in a theater in a hip urban neighborhood.  Dogs were welcome – a couple of worshipers arrived with their dogs, which I really liked.

But here was the thing: they had been very focused on spirit as they started out, on this new thing that God was doing, but in time they realized they needed structure.  They were getting married and having kids now.  They had to think about a nursery, and do we have children’s church or just have the kids in worship with everybody else, and what kind of programs and activities do we have for our children?  There has to be a structure for the Spirit to be able to work. 

I hope to visit that church again this summer, 7 years later, to see how it is all working out.

There is so much that goes into our being the church that seems mundane, that may not seem all that spiritual.  Paying the bills.  Picking up beer cans in the parking lot.  Operating the sound system.  Changing diapers.  Watering plants.  Fixing leaks.  Trimming hedges.  Making coffee.  Counting the offering.  Tuning the piano. 

But all of this is necessary, because it takes both structure and spirit for us to be the church.  Without spirit, our structure can be meaningless.  But without structure, the spirit has no place to work.

Maybe it is exactly right that in between two big, dramatic, spiritual events, the Ascension and Pentecost, we find a business meeting.

The Church needs leadership.  Another apostle was needed to replace Judas.  It was decided that the new apostle, as a witness to the resurrection, needed to be someone who had been with Jesus from the beginning.  Two were put forward as being qualified and worthy: Justus and Matthias.

Then we come to a very interesting part: they cast lots to determine who would serve.  This is where our little exercise at the beginning of the service comes in.  Actually, this seems to be a fairly common approach in the scriptures, and this was not seen as mere chance; this was seen as God’s choice.

Some have continued this practice.  In some Amish traditions, several qualified men will each take a Bible from a table; one of the Bibles is marked to indicate that the one who chose that Bible is to be the pastor.

And it’s not just the Amish.  An Episcopal priest in Grand Rapids, Michigan shared that her congregation chooses its vestry – its governing board - in a similar way.  A group of people is nominated, and at the annual meeting, all hear the responsibilities explained and agree to serve if selected.  The names are placed in the offering plate, the church prays, and then names are drawn to fill vacancies on the board.   The church has been doing this for over fifteen years, and has found that more people than before are willing to serve.  It has helped to encourage the mindset that all church members have gifts to share.  The decision to go to this form of “election” was based on this scripture from Acts.

This summer we will have a kind of experiment in leadership.  Our boards and committees will take on more responsibility as Susan and I are away.  Our deacons will be responsible for pastoral care.  Our co-moderators and our committee chairs will have a little extra responsibility.  There has been a lot of planning for the summer, especially in the area of worship, and we have attended to some of the structure of the time of sabbatical so that we might be better open to the work of the Spirit among us.

Both Justus and Matthias had been faithful in following Jesus and were willing to step in and serve.  In the Bible, we don’t hear of either of them again.  But they are an example for all of us: willing to serve and open to the Spirit.

I grew up in a church culture that had certain structures.  One rule was that there was a limit on how women could serve in the church.  They could do a lot of things, but they couldn’t be pastors.  So when Susan and I became American Baptists and went to our first regional denominational gathering and saw women praying and preaching and leading in worship and elected to leadership positions, it was every refreshing, very freeing.  It felt like home, and it felt like there was a real openness to the Spirit.

A couple of years later I remember attending that same gathering.  I was looking forward to hearing the Bible Study leader, who was a friend and an outstanding scholar.  There was music and there were reports and presentations, all of which probably went a little longer than they were supposed to, and then before the Bible Study segment, new congregations were recognized.  The pastor of one of these churches was asked if he wanted to say a few words about this new congregation.  As often happens, he said more than a few words, and so the program was running late.  

I was proud to be part of a denomination that would invite a woman to be the Bible Study leader for this gathering, but the person in charge of things, who was extraordinarily time conscious and had everything planned down to the minute, was in a near panic and decided that we didn’t have time for the Bible Study and we would just skip it in that session.  Never mind that this invited guest had been preparing her presentation for weeks.  It felt like a complete triumph of structure over spirit.

We need a balance of structure and spirit.  But to paraphrase Jesus, the structure is always in service of the Spirit, not the other way around.  As we work and serve together, we need to remember that the purpose of it all is that we might better follow the Spirit of God.  Amen.