May 24, 2015: The Church’s Birthday

The Rev. Dr. C. Steven Teague, Rector

I’m uncertain. You confuse me. I asked you to sit in someone else’ spot and you did it. I am confused. I can’t tell who’s here and who’s not. But that’s not why I am uncertain. Did the first disciples become Episcopalians between Easter and Pentecost? About what other religious gathering could it have been said: “For crying out loud, it’s 9am, and they’ve already started Happy Hour.”

On the other hand, we Episcopalians are a reserved, quiet people about our faith. “Live and let live” – that’s us. We try not to offend anybody. Few of us will grab strangers and give witness to any mighty acts we’ve seen, God’s included. We’re a bit reticent of speaking of God in English, let alone getting entangled with people who don’t speak our language. We are orderly and measured, generally unfriendly toward praise bands, happy-clappy outbursts, or an “Amen,” shout-out during the liturgy.

But today is raucous, the Church’s Birthday, Pentecost. The Holy Spirit descends, upends and disrupts. What a startling gift God wraps and sends. Wind blows like a cyclone through a room. Tongues like fire ignite dense, mentally damp disciples. Happy Birthday, church. It’s the gift of the Holy Spirit for folks like us God now uses to raise the dead among us. It’s dramatic and bold. Without the coming of Spirit in this way, we’d just be a club honoring a guy who tried hard.

Some confuse Pentecost with speaking in tongues no one understands. Not this story – spirit-infused disciples speak clearly, miraculously in the languages of people gathered in Jerusalem from many nations. 3000 join the infant church that day. That’s another miracle – one sermon – such church growth. Come Holy Spirit and visit us.

The church doesn’t have so much power and clout today. If you’ve heard about the recent Pew Report, you know we are wilting like a dying flower. Members are aging, numbers are falling, and the Millennials have little interest. It’s safer to ignore decline, pretend we’re okay – or blame them for leaving. We resist the Spirit that calls us out of our denial – the Spirit that wants to send us out into the streets, asking “What can we do for you? How can we bring God’s love, healing and hope to you?” People get that – but not the church’s bickering and judgmental attitudes. We too often speak in unknown tongues to them.

Maybe the church looks for power and influence in the wrong places these days. The cross, if it says anything, tells us failure, not just success is of God. What we do with failure matters. Jesus looks anything like a roaring success to his disciples by Good Friday afternoon. Yet, failure can lead us into deeper places of truth. As a friend long ago wisely counseled me – “You get to resurrection through crucifixion, not around it.” As Paul says it’s in our weakness, God’s power becomes our strength.

The power unleashed at Pentecost guides us into the world in unlikely ways. Don’t look through the world’s power lens. Our power is of God – a hope that speaks to brokenness and suffering like none other. We follow a story that says one day God will dry our tears. Dying and pain will be no more. We live as Jesus, getting to know sinners, loving and welcoming those who’ve been excluded from church. In God’s story love wins out over fear.

A friend spoke to me in tongues last week. I probably should tell you this. She responds to my uncertainty. Should I send the Vestry the Pew Report and my reflections on what it means for us?  I didn’t want to be an alarmist. Her speech needed no interpreter: “Damn straight I’d send it to my vestry if I had one. Tell them it’s a map to the current mission field.” I interpreted that clearly and heard a divine authority in it, to boot. She wanted to read what I sent. And she loves that I quoted her emphatic, southern tongue – “D.S.” in my report. My friend knows more about the state of the American church than all of us put together. In an interview published last week about her, she’s quoted as saying, “Christianity isn’t going to die. It just birthed a new tributary. It’s reconfiguring and will come out better – no question about that.” She often says, we need to talk to those “neither spiritual nor religious who we ignore.” They’re the key to our future. But the interview that Phyllis Tickle granted – isn’t about the church. It’s about her last chapter that came on her quickly.

Nearly a month ago Phyllis learned she has Stage IV lung cancer – and a few months left, maybe more since as she tells me, “I am rather distressingly healthy otherwise, so it may take a bit longer.” She’s not exactly grateful, nor is she unhappy and fearful. She sees it as a gift – the material she’s now given to work with – not a gift I wish she’d been given. How can one say something about a final chapter as she does? She lives a Spirit-filled life, the Spirit that birthed the church and keeps rebirthing us. She lives in confidence of the peace God gives, not the world’s. She’s fails and laughs. In her suffering she hears a divine voice of hope. She seriously takes herself lightly. She lives in the deeper trenches. She knows her dying won’t have the last word. God will. And in these next months I imagine the light of God in her life will grow even brighter, before it gets turned out here. In this chapter, God will shine. Trust me on that.

That’s the power God gives us at the church’s birthday. What we do with it matters – if we’re willing to lift our sails and get blown out of safely guarded harbors into troubled waters, and hand out buckets of love and grace to give thirsting people. God is at work through the Holy Spirit, and so must we be. I like what Pope Francis recently said: “It is better to have a Church that is wounded but out in the streets than a Church that is sick because it is closed in on itself.” That can be said of saints like Phyllis Tickle as well – that’s where she has been, and even more so as a witness to God now. We must decide where we’ll be – in here with each other – or out there with God – or both. You know – Pentecost says we need each other so we can be with God in the world.


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