Saturday, May 19, 2018

“The Church and the Spirit” - May 20, 2017

Text: Acts 2:1-21

As you probably know, we have been waiting for literally months to have our parking lot repaired.  We have learned a lot about city regulations and requirements along the way.  Well actually, we haven’t learned that much except that it is all pretty murky.  But we did learn late this past week that contrary to what we had been told before, we will not need to plant about 150 shrubs and grasses as part of parking lot striping plan, that our existing landscaping meets the new city standards, and the plan will be approved - hopefully this week.

Thinking about repaving our parking lot reminded me of my favorite church parking lot repair story.  I mean, we all have a favorite church parking lot repair story, right?

You may be familiar with Robert Fulghum, the author of All I Ever Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten.  Besides being an author, Fulghum is a minister.  In one of his books he told about one of his parishioners, a man named Dave Dugan.

While he had a degree in civil engineering, Dugan was a successful business owner and liked to be known as a simple, hard-working guy.  Dugan played defensive tackle in college and he was a heavy equipment operator.  He lived the way he played football - straight ahead, right up the middle, nothing fancy.

Dave Dugan met Fulghum and was intrigued by this guy who wasn’t your typical pastor, so he went to his church one Sunday.  He kept coming back and became an active member.  Behind his tough exterior, he was a kind and generous man and was eager to use his resources to help the church.  If there was trash to haul, he brought a 4-¬ton dump truck.  He believed there were very few problems in life that could not be overcome with heavy equipment and a go-get-em attitude.

Fulghum visited Dave Dugan at his work site.  He sat in the office trailer, drinking a cup of coffee, and was shocked when Dugan opened his briefcase. There were bundles of $100 bills and a .38 revolver.  Dugan said not to worry, many of his projects were far from town and he hired lots of temporary labor and made his payroll in cash.  He was bonded to carry $500,000 and licensed to carry the gun.

Since he was out of town for long stretches at a time, Dugan turned down an invitation to serve on the church board, but he came to the meetings anyway when he was in town.  But he was surprised by the board meetings.  He thought it would be an honor, but the meetings were taken up with issues like leaking roofs and where could they buy paper towels wholesale.

One night they spent hours talking about potholes in the driveway.  Patching had not helped and the drive needed to be repaved, which would be a big expense.  On the other side of the church, by the Sunday School, the cars drove too fast, and speed bumps were needed, which would be another expense.  The board had examined this problem from every possible angle, and there was still no end in sight.  Finally, Dugan, who wasn’t actually a board member, spoke up.  “Leave the potholes on the entrance side and dig potholes on the exit side.  Spray a little tar in them and call them speedholes.”  He would do it with a shovel and a couple cans of tar in a couple of hours.  For free.

The board chewed on that for an hour.  What would the neighbors think? Could they be sued?  On and on it went.

And so finally, in exasperation, Dugan stood up, set his briefcase on the table, and asked forcefully, “What’s this church worth - the whole blankety-blank thing, buildings, land, everything?”  The startled church treasurer said, “Oh, maybe $400,000.”

“Great,” said Dugan, “I’m gonna buy it.  He opened his briefcase, set aside the pistol and began throwing bundles of $100 bills on the table until he reached the amount.

There was stunned silence.  “Gimme the deed, and it’s done,” said Dugan.  “What are you gonna do with it?” someone asked.  “I’m gonna get my crew in here and we’ll level the whole thing and haul it to the dump before sundown.  And I’ll use the land for the cemetery you guys are headed towards in these meetings of the living dead.”

He went on to chew out the board for not spending their time on important things, and how he came to this church for religion and what he got was worthless construction workers he wouldn’t hire for a day and if they were ever serious about doing the things a church ought to be doing in the world to bygod let him know.

Have you ever felt like Dave Dugan?  There is no doubt that the church can be a frustrating institution.  Ralph Beatty, who was a regional minister and denominational leader, said that there were days he’d give the church a million dollars and there were days he wouldn’t give it a dime.

Most of us can relate to that.  And we shouldn’t be surprised.  The church is made of people--flawed, imperfect, very human people.  Imperfect people make up an imperfect church.

But that being the case, what makes the church any different from any other institution or organization? What makes the church any different from Rotary or the PTA or the Historical Society?

What is different is that while the church is a human institution made of imperfect people, the church is more than that.  We speak of the church as the Body of Christ.  And the church is brought into being by the Holy Spirit.  It is the Spirit that makes the church more than just another human institution.

Today is Pentecost, and we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit.  The coming of the Spirit was dramatic and powerful.  Luke says it was like a mighty rushing wind.  It was like descending tongues of fire.  The Spirit turned timid and uncertain disciples into bold and fearless witnesses.  

I have mentioned before that when I was in high school, I worked at a place called Burger Farm (home of the Big Silo!).  Across the alley behind Burger Farm was a little Pentecostal church.  They had meetings all the time, especially in the summer.  I would take out the trash or empty bread racks or milk crates or something at night and hear their service.  They didn’t have air conditioning, so the windows were always open, but it really wouldn’t have mattered; I would have heard them anyway.

The place just rocked.  Tambourines, guitars, drums, loud singing, clapping, and not just that, but all kinds of hollering and carrying on emanated from the little concrete block building.  It’s not that I was used to an especially formal worship service, but this somehow seemed to cross the line.   Often, folks from that church would stop at Burger Farm after their Sunday night services.  Many of them ordered chicken gizzards, which in my mind just confirmed everything I suspected about this church.

For a long time, I let those kinds of churches define what the Holy Spirit was all about – as though the Holy Spirit belonged to little Pentecostal churches that met in concrete block buildings.  We can be afraid of talking about the Holy Spirit too much.  But the Spirit is not the property of any one group.  In fact, it is when we start to think that we have a handle on God and how God works that we can get in real trouble.

Those times when we are frustrated by the church, those times when the church looks like just another human institution, that is when we need a fresh outpouring of God’s spirit.  As we read this account from Acts chapter 2, we are reminded of the incredible power of God made available through the Spirit – a power that we need today.

At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit made it possible for people to do things they could not do on their own.  Disciples speak in languages they have not learned.  And not only that, they have the boldness to speak publicly.  (From reading the gospels, we gather that boldness had not been their strong suit.) 

In Romans, the Spirit gives believers power to pray when they cannot pray on their own.  Jesus said, “The Spirit will guide you in all truth,” revealing to us more than we might discern on our own. 

When was the last time you attempted something you knew to be utterly beyond your reach?  When was the last time that we as a church attempted something that we all knew good and well was beyond us?  When was the last time we really depended upon the Spirit of God and through God’s spirit were able to do what we could not do on our own?

In the end, success in the church, however that is defined, does not depend on the brilliance of the leaders or adherence to the latest “best practices” or following ingenious strategies or finding our market niche.  Rather, it depends on God.  It depends on the power of the Holy Spirit.

Look at the people we meet in scripture.  So many are inconsequential or marginalized or powerless or just plain failures.  They are too old or too young, they are foreigners and outsiders, they are women who are ignored and Samaritans who are avoided and lepers who are unclean and troubled people with a past and tax collectors who are despised and fisherman who are without social standing.  But God uses them all, not because of their intelligence or strength or power, but through the power of the Holy Spirit.

On the day of Pentecost, God gave the gift of understanding.  The work of the Holy Spirit brought people together.  Those who were separated by language were able to understand one another.

My brother-in-law Brett, who is married to my youngest sister Amy, is a pastor in the Church of the Nazarene.  Brett is on sabbatical right now.  Part of his goal for spiritual renewal is to experience different cultural settings.  And so he just got home this weekend after spending a couple of weeks in Europe.

First he went to Taizé, in France.  Taizé is an ecumenical Christian community where a few thousand people, mostly young people, visit every week during the summer to experience their unique worship style and community.  We sing some Taizé music here from time to time.

Then Brett spent a week in Rome.  He did a lot of walking, checked out a lot of religious and cultural sites.  On Wednesday he was visiting a church and realized that a mass was about to begin.  Even though he didn’t understand the language, he decided to stay for the service.  He was impressed with the number of people there – people talk like Christianity is dying in Europe, but this church was pretty well packed.

So Brett stood through this service, even though he didn’t really know what was being said.  And then – they carried a casket down the aisle.  He realized that he had crashed a funeral!

Sometimes it really does help to know the language.  It is important to actually understand what is being said. 

Modern travel and communications have made the world much smaller.  And people from all over the world come here to Ames to study.  But even if we are able to speak the same language, that does not guarantee understanding.

One of the big news stories of this past week had to do, amazingly, with listening to a recording.  You have probably heard it.  One group of people hears the word that is spoken and it is clearly “Laurel.”  Others just as clearly hear “Yanny.”  How can this be possible? 

It’s not just that recording.  It can feel sometimes like people hear the same thing but come away with entirely different meanings.

There is a long list of nationalities present on the Day of Pentecost.  They did not all understand each other; they probably didn’t even all like each other.  There were stereotypes and prejudices and bigotry then, as now.  But the Spirit brought them together.  Everyone heard the gospel, everyone understood in their own language, and these diverse people were made one in the Church.

Face it: we may all be English speakers, but we do not speak the same language.  Engineers and artists speak different languages.  Senior citizens and youth speak different langauges.  Parents and children speak different languages.  Faculty and students, Democrats and Republicans, those who are wealthy and those who are barely getting by speak different languages.  Men and women speak different languages.  Not to mention all of the various ethnic and racial and social groups we may be a part of.  It’s a wonder that we communicate at all.

The Spirit opens our hearts so that we may listen and understand one another, and so that we may become one people.  We sometimes think of the miracle of Pentecost as speaking in various languages.  But the real miracle here is hearing.  The miracle is understanding.

The coming of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost marked the beginning of the Church.  The Church exists through the power of the Spirit.  And that is as true today as it was at Pentecost.  The Spirit brings life and energy and power and hope and understanding.  The Spirit knits us together as a family.  And the Spirit brings reconciliation with one another and with God.

When the church depends on our own human efforts, the results are not always pretty.  But when the church lives in the power of the Spirit – then, there is no telling what might happen.  Amen. 

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