Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | May 20, 2018

2018.05.20 Pentecost Sunday “Tell Me How This Ends” – Acts 2: 1 – 21

 

Central United Methodist Church
Tell Me How This Ends
Pastor David L. Haley
Acts 2: 1 – 21
Pentecost Sunday
May 20th, 2018

mosaic-pentecost1

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.

Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia,Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes,Cretans and Arabs — in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say.  Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

“In the last days it will be, God declares,that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.

– Acts 2: 1 – 21, The New Revised Standard Version

 

It was March of 2003, the invasion of Iraq was underway, and Major General David Petraeus was in command of the 101st Airborne Division heading for the Iraqi capital of Baghdad. Six days into the campaign, the division was stopped 30 miles southwest of Najaf by a blinding dust storm and an attack by Iraqi irregulars. Rick Atkinson, a Washington Post journalist, reported that Petraeus hooked his thumbs into his flak vest, adjusted the weight on his shoulders, and said: “Tell me how this ends.” Today we know the answer to his question; it doesn’t.

Today, in the Book of Acts, we hear another episode that involving wind and fire, how the Church begins. Today, however, in my third to last sermon, I would also like to ask General Petraeus’ question: “Tell me how this ends.” I’m not talking about the end of the world, nor how the Church in the world winds up, but about local churches like Central: what is the future for us? I am not a prophet not the son of a prophet, nor do I have a crystal ball, I can only read the signs of the times and speculate about what might lie ahead.

Today, on Pentecost Sunday, in our reading from Acts, chapter 2, we hear how the Church begins, at that dramatic and mysterious outpouring we know as Pentecost. Pentecost was the day 50 days after Easter when the church received the promise of the Spirit that Jesus had promised, turning them from a Memorial Society for Jesus into his Spirit-filled Church, such that by the power of the Holy Spirit they stopped waiting for something to happen and made things happen.

It included special effects, the sound of a mighty wind and the sight of flames as of flames of fire, and with people speaking in multiple languages, united in the praise of God. Even though I’ve been preaching this story for over 45 years, I’m still not clear what Luke is telling us. Was this an actual historical event that happened as Luke tells us; or was this a symbolic event, so obviously full of symbolism, such as the wind of the Spirit, the flame of God’s presence, and the sound of many languages spoken yet understood, a reversal of the Tower of Babel.

Either way, it is a fantastic story, which may leave us with one of two reactions. The first is that – not having such an experience as they had – we have failed. Thom Shuman, the Presbyterian pastor who writes our communion liturgies, suggested recently on Facebook that pastors and churches need to address what he called the Pentecost Syndrome. Because – in his conservative estimate of 99.9% of our churches, windows aren’t going to be blown open, tongues aren’t going to be uttered, flames aren’t going to dance on our heads, and 3,000 folks aren’t going to rush through the doors to be baptized and join. Not having had such an experience, we may feel like we have failed as churches and pastors, because we are not ‘successful’ (whatever that means!), we are not growing, we are not fill-in-the-blank. Which of course, as he says, “is a massive lie.” Because in Christ’s Church, numbers do not define success.

Others might conclude that what happened to the Church on Pentecost is the ONLY way to proceed, that when the Spirit arrives we don’t have to do any of those mundane things that concrete-and-mortar, real people churches do. In response to that, several years ago, teacher of preachers Thomas Long called us to note where the Pentecost story is positioned in the Book of Acts. It’s sandwiched between two stories: on one side is the story of the selection of an apostle to replace Judas; on the other side is a story about the early church breaking bread, attending to the teachings of the apostles and trying to take care of the poor among their midst. In other words, the Pentecost story is positioned between the election of officers and struggling over programs of Christian education, worship, and service. So whatever Pentecost was about, it doesn’t relieve us from these mundane responsibilities. (Thomas Long, What’s The Gift, Day 1, Pentecost, May 27, 2012)

So, given how The Church begins, given where we are now, tell me how this ends? As I said before, I can’t do that, but I can speculate.

In terms of the global, national, institutional church, in case you haven’t heard, we are faced with the prospect of division and schism. While the specific issue that divides us is are two very different perspectives on human sexuality, the underlying issue is two different approaches to the interpretation and authority of Scripture, and I am not sure that can be resolved, without implications not only for human sexuality but other important issues as well.

Just a week ago, the Commission on the Way Forward met here in Chicago and proposed 3 approaches, only one of which they recommended, the One Church option, which would be to remove the prohibitive language regarding homosexuality in the United Methodist Book of Discipline, and allow conferences, local churches, and pastors to practice their conscience. It remains to be seen whether this will be affirmed in a special session of General Conference scheduled for February, 2019, any more than previous proposals in the past. Even more incredibly, a constitutional amendment affirming the rights of women and girls, which required a two thirds majority, somehow, incredibly, failed just short of passing; although I understand there is some question whether the wording which may have led to confusion.

Meanwhile, across the church, there is evidence of decline in denominations, congregations, worshipers, and finances. This is not peculiar to United Methodism, but to every form of the Church in the U.S. (and Europe.) It is not so much a failure of the Church – not so much what we have done or not done – as it is a major shift in the demographics, culture, and practice of religion. Most of us do not have to look far to see this; we see it in our own children.

What will happen to bureaucratic, institutional, brick-and mortar forms of the Church like Central United Methodist Church? This remains to be seen, as we find ourselves in that “no man’s land” between the Church as it “used to be,” (as most of us have known it), and the church as it will be, in the future. Given this, you might not be surprised at the theme for next month’s annual session (my last) of the Northern IL Conference: “Navigating Uncharted Waters.” Change is certain; exactly what change will be required is not.

Historically, this is nothing new; it is only new to us as we have experienced it in our lifetimes. Historically what has happened is that the Spirit has moved, and new movements have been born. Out of Pentecost, the Church was born. In the third century, after the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, monastic orders were born. In the middle ages, St. Francis and St Claire became wandering preachers, and the Franciscans were born. In England, John Wesley was banned from pulpits and churches and preached in fields and streets, and Methodism was born.

But over time, everything once again solidifies, as Bishop Robert Schnase once said of the United Methodist Church, into a “giant hairball” of denomination and discipline and rules, and soon, everything is cold and gray again. It is at such times – such a time as now – when the Wind of the Spirit blows again and new movements are born.

Dear people of Central, as my time here comes to an end, be open to the winds of the Spirit that will blow through your next pastor, Rev. Timothy Biel, Jr. Be open to the winds of the Spirit that are already blowing in town and community, making our town quite likely even more cosmopolitan than ancient Jerusalem. This weekend you can observe this firsthand just a few blocks from here, at this weekend’s Festival of Culture: people from different countries and cultures, speaking different languages, practicing different religions, yet united in the praise of God and the service of neighbor.

Dear people of Central, don’t hide out or hole up in this place and this building waiting for people to come to you – as the early Christians did while waiting for Pentecost – but by the wind of the Spirit be blown out into streets and homes, as happened on the day of Pentecost. Deep down at heart, we know that in Christ’s Church, institutions and buildings are never an end in themselves; only a means toward an end, which is the love of God and the service of our neighbor, the first and greatest commandments. Anything short of this becomes idolatrous.

Dear people of Central, don’t berate yourselves, that our Pentecost is not their Pentecost, like the one we read about in Acts, as though somehow, we have failed. On the contrary, give thanks to God, that our congregation is a modern form of Pentecost: people from all over the planet, united here in the praise and service of God, caring for each other.

Tell me how this ends? I can’t! Because thanks to the perpetual gift of the Spirit to the Church, you never know what’s going to happen, even when things are at their worst.

I end with a story about such a church, as told by retired United Methodist Bishop, William Willimon, in his sermon on A Sermon For Every Sunday, “Presence Matters.” (Note: The story begins at about 9:10 in Bishop’s Willimon’s 13:5 minute sermon) [video]

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