October 15, 2017

The United Churches, ReVision 5

Since this past Monday the fires in the Napa Valley have been constantly on my mind. Monday morning was spent checking in with relatives and friends to see if they were safe. Had they evacuated? Were their houses burned to the ground? How were their pets and livestock? You might remember that Napa was the place where my husband was born and raised and the place from which we moved here seven years ago. We are very familiar with each canyon that we saw burning on the news. The church I served, First Presbyterian Church in Napa was filled with people who worked in the wine industry. I watched with sadness as acres of farmland went up in smoke. When a fire rages through, people are lucky to escape with their lives and perhaps a few items of clothing and some family photos. When they eventually return to where they had been living, they have to start over. We don’t know yet what starting over looks like for the Napa, Sonoma, Santa Rosa and Lake Counties any more than we know what starting over looks like for Houston, the Florida Keys and Puerto Rico. These folks have had a dramatic ending to their lives as they know it.

I’ve also lived in a community that suffered a slow death, much like someone battling a chronic disease for some time. Tim and I lived for years in small coastal town in Oregon. The beauty of this area is incredible. Mountains are all around covered in Douglas Fir and deciduous trees. Morning mists gather over the Umpqua River that empties into the nearby Pacific Ocean. The town was a powerhouse in its day, the economy booming with timber and fishing. Business taxes funded the schools, city services, programs for youth and a small local hospital. People made so much money working in the woods or on a commercial fishing boat that they didn’t bother finishing high school. Eventually there were generations of people who didn’t go any further than the sixth grade. As you already know, we eventually reached the point where we had cut every tree down, before people learned about forest management. We overfished the waters of the Pacific before we set limits. Then there were no jobs in timber and fishing. Worse yet, there was a populace without even a basic education to prepare themselves for employment in other industries. The town now suffers from an extremely limited tax base. It has a Jr. -Sr. High School that is so poor that it couldn’t meet the basic educational requirements of the Federal and State Governments and had to become a charter school. Everything for children and youth is funded through bake sales. You can’t buy a pair of socks in this beautiful little town. Without jobs, without decent schools, young families have moved away. This beautiful place has suffered decades of decline.

As I reflected on this familiar passage from Acts Chapter two this week, the reminder that the Holy Spirit descended upon the people with wind and fire made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Did the Holy Spirit come upon the church like the Tubbs and Atlas Peak Fires, billowing flames across the landscape? What an incredible image!

The passage says that people were all gathered together in Jerusalem celebrating the Jewish Feast of Pentecost. This is a Jewish Festival celebrated 50 days after the feast of the Passover. Devout Jews from every nation are gathered together practicing their faith. Those who followed Jesus were there and they “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayer.” When this rush of a mighty wind came upon them leaving the tongues of fire behind, they were perplexed and amazed and asked one another about the meaning of this event.  The Galileans who were there, were suddenly able to communicate in the various languages of the many different people groups who had gathered to celebrate this feast, from all over the world.

The people were amazed! “Are not all of these speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?” The Spirit granted the disciples gifts beyond their abilities. That would be as incredible as me suddenly being able to speak Japanese with my grandsons who are fluent in the language. The working of the Spirit called into question the very world view of those gathered. Onlookers were “amazed and perplexed.” They asked one another “What does this mean?” In other words, how can we suddenly understand people that are different than us? How are they able to speak to us in our own language? How can they reveal something to us more clearly then we have ever experienced?

In the midst of this very exciting and ripe moment, Peter steps in with a sermon. He announces to those gathered that the Galileans are not drunk as many feared, but that they are witnessing the vision of God pouring out the Spirit on “All Flesh.” He goes on to remind them of the promise of 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.”

I had a long conversation last night with a friend from Napa who lost her house in this fire. This woman is the poster child for the “Glass half full.” I have seen her negotiate a number of devastating events, and she always seems to focus on the positive. Part of the positive is that everyone in the North Bay is pitching in to help each other. People are opening their homes to strangers, taking animals into their barns, providing transportation, giving one another anything needed. Comcast even stopped charging for the internet and phones, where they work, are free. People are taking one another meals and bands of high school students are going about doing pop up musical performances to bring cheer. The fire is the most devastating fire that California has ever seen, and yet people…people who are very different from one another, people who speak at least two different languages, are forming a tender and profound community.

If you are wondering why I am comparing the stunning and immediate loss of a wild fire to the slow but crushing decline of a fishing community, it is because I think that the latter is a good metaphor for the church today. Instead of a fire carried by a rushing wind, forcing not only fear and panic, but also creating an environment where people connect with one another and care for each other in an open and loving way…the institution of the church (the big C) has been unable to adapt, like timber and fishing, in a meaningful way with the changing times.

There is something about slow decline that drains the vision, energy and prophetic voice of the people. There is something about slow decline that voids imagination and drags us into depression.

That is why the Spirit of God comes to the church hot and fast. That is why the Spirit of God clears the way for communication…people could hear Good News in their own language. That is why the Spirit of God clears the decks of old expectations and deconstructs the social ladder so that those gathered could be taught by the Galileans. If you remember other things noted about the Galileans in the Bible they might be compared to red necks from Mississippi. In John 1:46 when Philip is excitedly telling Nathanael about Jesus, Nathanael exclaims to Philip: “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Nazareth is the heart of Galilee…Hicksville if you will. The Holy Spirit breathes the truth through the mouths of unexpected people from an unexpected place.

This is our last sermon in our ReVision sermon series. We are gathering in small groups and in the coming months the whole church will gather to think together about what God has for us, for our future. We cannot be like the beautiful coastal community in a slow and deadly decline. The institution of the church is under tremendous pressure these days along with every other institution.  I was talking to one of you in the last weeks, who was sharing that her children, though raised in the church don’t really go anymore.  I think younger generations aren’t really interested in institutions. As a culture, we have seen a huge decline in “joining” stuff. I do know, however that younger generations are interested in faith. They are interested in the Spirit. They are interested in hope and good news. They are interested in connections, in love and in relationships.

So I want to end with this quote from a book that I read called Leaving Church, A Memoir of Faith by Barbara Brown Taylor for all of us to think about: “What if people were invited to come tell what they already know of God instead of to learn what they are supposed to believe? What if they were blessed for what they are doing in the world instead of chastened for not doing more at church? What if church felt more like a way station than a destination? What if the church’s job were to move people out the door instead of trying to keep them in, by convincing them that God needed them more in the world than in the church?”

I don’t know what the future holds for us here at the United Churches, or for the institution of the church. But, we can see that when the Spirit comes, things get stirred up, excitement ensues, people can hear and understand one another, dreams are dreamed and vision is shared. I believe that things are stirring here, look with me in the unexpected places.