Sunday, May 31, 2020
Living a Spirit filled life.
The Rev. Mark Wilkinson, Rector
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Before I start, I must comment that the events in cities across America had me considering tearing up the sermon that I had written. This morning I found a profound and moving statement from the Presiding Bishop in my email. Click here to read his statement. He speaks on the subject with a depth of feeling and understanding that I cannot have, for I have not experienced what he has growing up in a segregated world as an African American. I have posted the link to the statement on the church’s Facebook page and I urge you all to take some time after this morning’s service to read it and pray about what you feel called to do. However, as I looked again at this sermon early this morning, I found it did in fact have something to say about our current situation because this sermon is about the power of the Spirit.
As we conclude one of the most unusual Easter Seasons I have ever experienced as a member of a parish, a seminarian or a priest, I keep going back to how what I believe we are experiencing and feeling may be very close to what the early church experienced in those beginning days.
On this Pentecost Sunday I do want to make one thing absolutely clear. Our church is not closed! Let me say that again, the church is not closed. We may not be meeting in person in the way we are accustomed, be we are open and worshiping as a faithful community. If you carry nothing else away from this service today, it is the idea that the church is not a building but a community of people gathered to worship and more importantly follow Jesus. Some even refer to Pentecost as the birthday of the church. The day when the church became that group of followers of Jesus that has continued on for almost 2000 years.
I have an early experience that will illustrate some of what I mean. When I was still serving at Holy Spirit on Cape Cod as Curate and then Assistant Rector, the rector had announced to the diocese that he intended to retire. The bishop wanted me to be in a new parish before that was announced to the parish. I interviewed at a parish in Western Massachusetts near Tanglewood where the Boston Symphony played in the summer. It was an historic church built in 1870 in the center of town but had a small congregation. They were looking to revitalize and grow. After the interview, I knew this was not going to be a good fit. There were some significant challenges I didn’t think I as a first time rector was ready to handle. At that point they only wanted to grow to balance the budget and that is always a disaster. After a long search they called a friend of mine at the end of her career. I asked her why and she said they had done a lot of work in-between my interview and hers (18 months in fact) and she was willing to accept the position.
Fast forward a couple of months and one day the wall of the chancel collapsed on my friend’s car. A survey of the building produced at repair bill of $1.5 million for a congregation with only 65 attending on a Sunday. They did a remarkable thing. They gave up the building and started to meet in the banquet hall at a local brewery and rented office space at the hospital. They started looking around town for ministries and freed from the expense of the historic building hooked up with a food pantry and a local farmer who was struggling. With their assistance the farmer produced food for the food bank and managed to keep his farm. They became essential to the community and then surprise surprise they started to attract new members, especially families. Now some 10 years later they are the poster children for a missional community. They learned the difference between going to church and being the church. That’s what happens when you open yourselves to the Spirit.
One thing I have learned is the Spirit speaks in many and varied ways. Look at our story of the disciples receiving the Spirit in John and in Acts. Those are totally different experiences. In John Jesus greets the gathered disciples on the Easter evening with the words “Peace be with you.” The he breathes on the disciples and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit. As the Father has sent me so I send you.” This is a quiet gentle gift of the Spirit and a sending out into the world.
In Acts we have something very different. The sound like a rushing wind (notice it is the sound like rushing wind) fills the house. There are the tongues like fire and all the chaos of everyone speaking different languages. The noise and commotion is so great that people from all over the city come to see what is going on. All this sounds very dramatic. Then Peter inspired by the Spirit gives what is probably his first sermon and quotes the book of Joel with a very end of the world sounding speech.
Now my experience of the Spirit includes that quiet voice, that gentle nudge and sending forth. There have also been times in my life when the Spirit has taken a holy 2×4 to the side of my head and said, “Now that I have your attention will you please listen to me.” Sometimes the Spirit seizes on a moment of challenge like now to say, “Are you paying attention yet? I have something for you to do.”
We also need to remember that the early church had no buildings, no liturgy no traditions. Most of what we are missing right now was something the early church could not even imagine in the first half of the first century. In fact when both gospels were written even the great temple in Jerusalem has been destroyed. The early church was creating everything that we now take for granted from scratch and in a hostile environment on top of it. To use a modern analogy, they were building the plane as they flew it and so are we right now.
Over the past couple of days, I have been working on a Technology grant from the Diocese. This is funding to help us purchase and set up video and audio equipment that will help improve our livestream capabilities. Now this is something I have been thinking about but it was very much a back burner item. Well it was a back-burner issue until about 10 weeks ago. The grant asks for a vision statement about digital technology in our parish and how this project fits in. So, I had to come up with that. Then I will need to train some folks on how to run the video on Sunday mornings. Think about this, we have ushers, altar guild, lectors, eucharistic ministers and now a video tech as part of our Sunday worship morning team. Yes, I’m taking volunteers. That wasn’t even on the radar screen 3 months ago. Talk about building an airplane while we are in flight!
Yet as crazy at is seems I find this really exciting! Just like the early church we have some new possibilities, new ways to be church and share the love of God with a world that desperately needs it. I am not discouraged but encouraged about the future.
I do want to end with one more important thought and this is where the sermon ties into the events of the past few days. If I were doing a baptism this Pentecost after baptizing with water, I would put Chrism oil on the forehead of the new Christian. The words I say at that moment are some of the most important of the entire service. “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever.” This is each person’s individual Pentecost moment.
When I am doing the preparation for baptism I stop here and ask the person being baptized if they are old enough or the parents an important question. How can you live in such a way that the cross becomes visible to the entire world? How do you show the world that you are a follower of Christ?
The disciples obviously lived lives that showed the world who they were and what they were. All those in that room lived a life, lit by that heavenly fire, that proclaimed who they were. In just a few minutes we will all reaffirm our baptismal vows with those 5 important questions that give a very good outline for living a life that will make that cross on your forehead shine as bright as the fire of Pentecost.
In particular are the challenges to persevere in resisting evil, proclaiming by word and example the Good News, seeking to serve Christ in ALL persons loving your neighbor as yourself, and striving for justice and peace among all people and respecting the dignity of every human being. This is how we fight what is going on in our world, this is what you promise to do every time you say the Baptismal Covenant. These words have great power on a morning like this and we all need to respond.
The Spirit is calling us to be the church and I know we can all do this, with God’s help of course.