Sermon, May 15, 2016

Day by Day the Lord Added to Their Number
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder

The Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ,
Bradford, Vermont
May 15, 2016   Pentecost
Psalm 104; Acts 2:1-17, 37-47; John 14:8-17

The Holy Spirit is like the wind, the Bible says. We cannot see the wind, and we cannot know what it will do next around us. The Holy Spirit is even more mysterious because when the leaves move we can say it was the breeze, but when something moves us, we cannot say for certain that it was the Holy Spirit.

So I can say only that I believe the Holy Spirit moved the members of this congregation to write our Identity and Aspiration Statement. We asked ourselves what God was calling us to do or become, and this was the answer that we found. I believe it was from the Holy Spirit.

The Statement in its original form says, “We aspire to grow in numbers as we make this an increasingly welcoming, loving, helpful congregation where we take the love we find here out into the world around us, and where people want to participate because the church makes a positive difference in their lives throughout the week. We will seek to maintain healthy communication and a positive, hopeful attitude as we face inevitable challenges.”

That is a daunting set of aspirations. How can we hope to grow when almost every church around us is shrinking? How can we become increasingly welcoming, loving and helpful—aren’t we as welcoming, loving and helpful now as we can be? In our society today the challenges threatening every church’s survival are overwhelming, and those struggles often bring out our worst selves so that we spiral into negativity and hurtful forms of communication and conflict. How can we possibly maintain healthy communication and a hopeful attitude?

The Holy Spirit came upon the first church as tongues of flame. Today the changing reality of our world is coming upon the church like an out of control wildfire. What can we do?

Several years ago a New Yorker article told the story of Wag Dodge. Wag Dodge was a forest fire fighter back in the 1940s. One day he led a team of fifteen men who parachuted into a remote canyon in Montana to put out what was supposed to be a small fire. They found it burning out of control. Dodge moved the men so that the wind was at their backs and led them down into the canyon to fight it.

Once they were well down in the canyon the wind suddenly shifted, and a fifty-foot high wall of flame came howling toward them on a fierce updraft. Dodge screamed for the men to run, but the flames were moving at seven hundred yards a minute. He looked over his shoulder as he ran and saw the fire only fifty yards away. He knew he had only seconds to live, and he thought there was nothing he could do.

He stopped running, and in a flash of insight, he suddenly saw exactly what to do—something no one had ever thought of before. He lit a fire ahead of him even as the flames came up behind. The fire ahead of him quickly made a large buffer zone of burned grass with no fuel left for the wall of flame. He threw himself into the smoldering embers, covered his mouth with a wet handkerchief and a few minutes later arose shaken but unharmed. The fire had jumped over him. All but one of the others died.

The New Yorker article was about how the brain comes up with completely new insights—breakthroughs that solve problems instantly that generations of research or anxious thinking had never figured out.

Scientists can identify the truly amazing way the brain works in such moments, and they can tell us what we can do to open ourselves to intuition and insights. The same article talks about a contemplative master, someone who had spent years practicing what we call mindfulness or meditation or centering prayer. The man was part of a scientific study where he was given a set of word puzzles to solve. At first he was terrible at it as he strained to think. Then he used his well-developed skill to let go of his thoughts, quiet his brain and open to the Spirit, and suddenly he started solving problem after problem, better than anyone else in the study had been able to do. Like Wag Dodge, he hit an impasse and realized his way of thinking was not working. He stopped, let go and opened, and insight came.

In today’s Gospel passage the disciple Philip is straining his brain trying to figure God out. He says to Jesus, just “show us the Father, and we will be satisfied!”

Jesus says back to him, Philip, it is staring you right in the face! Can’t you see it? I’ve been with you all this time, and you have seen God working and speaking through me. Have you not believed? “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these.”

Jesus says that the world, meaning those who do not believe, cannot receive the guidance and power of the Spirit because they do not see it or know it, but those who believe discover that the Spirit lives within and around them, and gain access to it.

Notice that belief is not being talked about here the way most Christians think of it. Belief in Christ is not a key to the pearly gates, it is a key to a door in our mind that gives us ability to understand and do things beyond what our own knowledge and ordinary powers could accomplish.

Belief opens us to the higher power of the Holy Spirit inspiring and enabling us to do the works Jesus did, and even greater ones. Belief turns us into the body of Christ, striving as he did to establish the realm of God on earth.

Jesus helped people undergo a transformation by means of faith so that they could receive the Holy Spirit and live as citizens of God’s realm here and now. He said, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.”

Metanoia is the original Bible word translated as repentance. It is a poor translation because repent is all about regret and remorse, whereas the word metanoia is positive, and focused on the present, not the past. Metanoia means simply to change our heart, mind and soul, to turn ourselves toward the Spirit and open to transformation.

Note that Jesus did not tell his disciples to go and think really hard about their mistakes or their challenges after he left. That first church had plenty of those on their minds. Their leader had just been executed by the Roman Empire as a dangerous revolutionary, and the disciples had all abandoned or denied him when he was arrested. Now they were at risk of arrest and execution, too, if they continued the movement that Jesus had started. They also knew that without Jesus, they were likely to fall apart and the movement die out.

Jesus did not tell them to think or work their way through all this. He told them to gather together and pray and wait in faith. He told them to turn their hearts, minds and souls toward God and open to the possibility of miraculous guidance and power. We are here because that is what they were doing when the Holy Spirit came upon them, “and day by day the Lord added to their number.”

We as a congregation have received new guidance from the Holy Spirit, I believe. The Holy Spirit has given us our Identity and Aspiration Statement. We could throw up our hands and call it impossible, or we could rely solely on our intellectual and material resources to attack its challenges, or we could do what Jesus asks us to do. We could open ourselves to the possibility that the same Holy Spirit that put these dreams into our hearts and minds will come again and show us how to make them real.

We can open to the Holy Spirit and let it show us how to grow in numbers. We can open to the Holy Spirit and let it show us how to become increasingly welcoming, loving and helpful. We can open to the Holy Spirit and let it show us how to maintain healthy communication and a positive, hopeful attitude in the face of all our challenges.

We can open to the Holy Spirit to fulfill the rest of the Statement’s dreams, too, providing support and programs for children and adults, growing our music program, shining like a lighted window into the world around us by working for social justice and serving those in need.

And guess what? The Holy Spirit has already been guiding and empowering us to do these very things. Look at how far we have come in the eleven months since we adopted that Statement. Look at the steeple and the clock and all the ways in which the building is shining more brightly. We have had three extremely successful workshops on healthy communication. The feeling in the church has been positive and hopeful. Beautiful music has filled this sanctuary every Sunday and in concerts. Our Sunday School has grown and flourished and so have our mission and social action programs, and so have the Diaconate’s activities caring for those in need.

Who would have thought two years ago that the church we are today was possible? Look at all the Holy Spirit has done through us!

We still face the calling to grow, and to become increasingly welcoming, loving and helpful. We still face the same social forces that threaten to kill every church, the wall of wildfire coming our way at seven hundred yards a minute. Yet if we turn in faith and open to the Holy Spirit, help will come. Help will come from outside in the form of wise guides like Nancy Brown who led our workshops, or like the Rev. Molly Baskette whose book Real Good Church we will be reading. Help will come from inside, too, from within our own hearts, minds and souls, in the form of the insights and gifts that God has given us each for just these tasks, and just this moment.

The Holy Spirit needs us to fulfill our dreams. That is why it gave them to us. The Holy Spirit needs this church to flourish and shine its light like never before. The Holy Spirit needs us because the world needs us so desperately.

Throughout the ages the Holy Spirit has worked miracles, as the hymn we are about to sing says. It moved on the waters of Creation and formed the earth, it gave life to all living beings, it led the children of Israel on their impossible desert journey out of slavery to the Promised Land. The Holy Spirit gave us Jesus, and formed the first church. The hymn “Spirit, Spirit of Gentleness” ends saying to the Spirit,

You call from tomorrow, you break ancient schemes,
from the bondage of sorrow the captives dream dreams;
Our women see visions, our men clear their eyes.
With bold new decisions your people arise.

We are the people the Holy Spirit wants to arise, and then day by day the Spirit will add to our number.

Let us practice turning, opening and inviting the Holy Spirit to fill us and use us here in this church and in the world. Let us pray in silence…