A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, May 24, 2015
Acts 2:1-4 CEB
Today, as is often the case in the later part of May, we celebrate two significant holidays on one day—Memorial Sunday and Pentecost Sunday. In light of the fact that we anticipated receiving new members this morning, I thought it most appropriate to frame my sermon around the Pentecost theme, since that day spoken of in the second chapter of Acts is a day when many responded to Peter’s sermon and were baptized and became members of the new Christian community.
What really happened on that Pentecost Day is hard to say. The events of that day must have been indescribable. Because the word “like” is used in an attempt to describe what occurred—“a sound from heaven like the howling of a fierce wind filled the entire house. They saw what seemed to be individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them.” And we must remember that Luke attempted to describe the event some 35 or more years after it happened. And maybe the description was meant to be symbolic or metaphorical than literal.
But all speculation aside, something significant had to have happened on that day that would come to be celebrated as Christian Pentecost, because that little band of Jesus’ followers were motivated and energized to go forth into the then-known world to spread their message and establish new Christian fellowships and churches. And often they did so at great personal risks and in the face of great dangers and persecution, and even with the prospect of death for doing so. Something happened to cause them to catch fire! So perhaps the tongues of fire that appeared to rest upon each one present is more symbolic than not of the inner fire that ignited within that small band of Jesus-followers that led them to go forth to also set the world on fire, as it were.
Such is the nature of new movements, of which early Christianity is the prime example. New religions or denominations begin as energetic movements that are propelled forward by people who are on fire for a cause they consider to be world-changing, and for which they are willing to give their very lives, if necessary. Many examples could be cited to illustrate the point. I think of Congregationalism that was born in England among some who sought to purify the Church of their day, and by others (the Pilgrims) who sought to separate themselves altogether and worship in freedom as their consciences dictated. With those early Puritans and Pilgrim separatists, a Congregational fire was born that grew in America and abroad, to the extent that at one time Congregational congregations in America numbered well over six or seven thousand.
I think of George Fox and the early Quaker movement that, likewise, found fault with the Church of their day, and how the early Quakers were on fire, as it were, and were willing to be persecuted and thrown into prison in order to follow their convictions and share their beliefs that the Light and Word and Spirit of God are shared with every man and woman without any need for priest or other mediator, and there is that of God in every soul.
I think of the early Wesleyan movement that drew eager and hungry souls by the thousands who gathered in classes to study the Bible, pray, and discuss “methods” (root for the word “Methodists”) of living a holy life in the world. The Wesleyan movement caught fire, and Methodists were to become the second largest Protestant denomination in America.
We could cite more examples, and you might think of an example that I might not, of new churches, new religions, and new denominations that began as a movement of people who were on fire with a new vision or for a worthy cause. And in the early days of a movement, there is a lot of excitement. And rapid growth. And the tendency to be on the cutting edge. And the willingness to take risks.
I think we could rightly say that this congregation began as a movement of people who caught fire with a vision to organize a united church that would bring together people from a great variety of denominations and religious backgrounds to learn, worship, and serve, bound together by a sense of unity, fellowship, and covenant, rather than a common creed or set of beliefs. And it was a success story, as we all know.
The not-so-good news about movements is, generally speaking, they don’t continue as movements. In the case of religious movements, they tend to evolve into institutions. And when movements evolve into institutions, that initial fire fades; passion to spread their message, the excitement, and original vision and reason for coming into existence wane. The foci and concerns of the institution are much different than were the foci and concerns of the original movement. Replacing the passion to share the unique message that brought the movement into being are worries about maintenance and self-preservation. Maintaining buildings and raising budgets can easily become the organization’s primary objective. And when that happens—when a group loses sight of its original purpose, vision, and reason for being—something is lost and there is the danger that decline can set in. And it has happened that way much too often.
I know, and you probably know, too, of churches that at one time were growing, thriving congregations, but have long since declined, died away, and closed their doors. I mentioned once such a church building that I often passed while walking to class for my doctor of ministry studies in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago. The windows and doors of the church building were boarded up with sheets of plywood, and the lot was overgrown with weeds, some as high as my head. It was a pitiful sight. The strange thing was this abandoned church building had at one time been a very beautiful and stately building. It was in an otherwise nice, suburban neighborhood with very nice, expensive houses on either side and all down the street. I could not help but wonder what happened there that the once-thriving congregation withered away and died. I so wish now that I had inquired and learned the story behind the church’s demise. Did they stray from their original vision and mission? Did they become too focused on buildings and budgets? Were there personality conflicts in the congregation that proved deadly? These factors and more can all contribute to a church’s decline.
But it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way. Even churches that have evolved into institutions, even churches that have seen decline, can catch fire again and find new energy and refocus on their original vision. There is a church in the community where my maternal grandparents lived—the church that my mother attended as a girl—that was a thriving country church when I was a boy. But over the years, the congregation began to dwindle, for various reasons. Some members died off. Others moved away. Others lost interest. And still others left for more evangelical churches. At its lowest point, the attendance dropped to about 14 on any given Sunday. In my own mind I had pretty much administered last rites to the church. But in the past year or so, that congregation has experienced new life. The members caught fire again, as it were, like a bed of faint embers fanned by a puff of wind can reignite into a raging fire. My parents passed by that church the other Sunday morning at church time (they had taken flowers to my grandparents’ grave for Decoration Day), and they said the church parking lot was full of cars. It is possible for a declining church to catch fire again!
That is at least one of the positive messages of Pentecost. No matter how old the congregation, no matter if a church has evolved from a movement into an institution, by being open to new life, refocusing on its original vision and reason for being, and by recommitting to the sense of mission that gave birth to it, or by finding a new vision and mission, a church can catch fire again. Might it be so with this United Church? I think it certainly might. But we must be willing to let it be so and work to make it so. Indeed, may it be so with us! Amen.