Sunday, June 12, 2011

How a Church Gets Started

Acts 2:1-12
June 12, 2011
William G. Carter

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”

Her name is Opal and she is new to town. Just ten years old, she has moved to a small town with her single-parent father. She calls him “The Preacher,” because that’s what he is. Seven years ago, her mother moved out somewhere, preferring the bottle to her husband and little girl. So Opal and the Preacher have moved to Naomi, Florida to start over – and to start a little church.

One of my daughters introduced me to Opal through a children’s book called Because of Winn Dixie. We went to see the movie when it came out. There was Opal, sitting in the front row of her daddy’s store front church, cheering him on while he preached and prayed. It was a bit different from our family’s life, but not so much that my own little girl couldn’t relate.

Opal doesn’t know a lot of people. When she moved with the Preacher, she lost all her friends. She wants to desperately to meet some kids like herself. Sadly all the others aren’t much like her. They have their own friends and aren’t very interested in including her. All she has is her daddy, the Preacher, who is so busy trying to start a church out of nothing. Even then, she describes him as an old turtle, always sticking his head in his turtle shell and scared of the real world; he is still so sad about how her mother ran away, so he throws himself into his work.

Well, one day Opal wanders into the Winn-Dixie supermarket. She discovers a mangy dog making a mess. The store manager is yelling at the dog and Opal says, “That’s my dog.” The manager tells her to take that dog away so she does, and she names him “Winn-Dixie.” Opal says, “It’s hard not to immediately fall in love with a dog who has a good sense of humor.”

The great thing about Winn-Dixie is that he has a way of making friends. He’s so funny looking that everybody stops to say hello. So friendly that everybody wants to meet him. And since Opal says, “Winn-Dixie is my dog,” suddenly she begins to make friends, too.

One of her new friends is Miss Franny Block, a kind and strange librarian. She runs the Herman W. Block Memorial Library and she knows a lot of stories. Miss Franny says one day she was reading a big thick book called War and Peace, and she looked up, and saw a bear standing in front of her. To scare it away, she threw the book at the bear. The bear took the book and went away, and Miss Franny has never forgotten it.

Then Opal met a woman named Gloria Dump. She’s blind. She is getting over a bad addiction to alcohol, and she hides out in a shack surrounded by a lot of overgrown brush. Gloria has a tree in her backyard with a hundred and ten beer bottles hanging from it. She calls it her “mistake tree” and says it is haunted with the ghosts of all the mistakes she has made.

Opal needs to get a leash and collar for Winn-Dixie, so she gets a job sweeping up at the local pet store. That’s where she meets Otis. He works there too. Otis is shy, a little nervous, and embarrassed that he recently got out of jail. Opal finds out that he plays the guitar – that is his passion – so she gets Otis to play her a song.

Suddenly she finds herself with a number of new friends, because of Winn-Dixie. Her daddy, the Preacher, hasn’t had much success starting his church. Apparently there are too many other congregations in Naomi, Florida. But Opal has gathered these new friends. She learns something from each one of them. She discovered that each of them has some sadness in their lives – just like her and the Preacher.

It’s not so different from our story in the book of Acts. There’s this odd combination of different people. They have some sadness in their lives, too. They had gathered around Jesus, as lovable as a puppy with a good sense of humor – and he left them, not once but twice. Ten days before, he had gone up into the sky, as far as they could tell. They are left behind, left with one another, left with his mother, for God’s sake! And what do they do? They pray - - and they hide. They stay out of sight.

This is how the church gets started: some scared and sad people are huddled together. Outside their door is a major religious festival – it’s the Feast of Pentecost, the annual event when Israel remembers how God spoke, how God gave the Bible as a gift to all the people. And how do the disciples of Jesus mark the moment? By staying inside, with doors locked, window shades drawn. Safe from every act of God – or so they thought. And then all heaven breaks loose.

The miracle of Pentecost is not the great wind. It’s not the fire. The miracle is not the speaking in many languages, as dramatic as that was. The miracle of Pentecost is the forming of a community. A new human entity is created out of these sad, lonely people. It was ripe to happen. And the only way to explain its formation is to point to God, to point to the invisible God, and to declare that this invisible Spirit intends for them to be together.

On the first Sunday of August, we will begin to celebrate our congregation’s one hundredth year. The plans for an extended celebration are coming together and we are going to have a lot of fun. We will have a lot of parties, a number of special worship services. We will bring back some of the old duffers who used to preach here, as well as some of the sons and daughters of the church who now preach and prophesy. And I, for one, am curious to hear how all of this got started.

I know there were some praying women who started a missionary society. I know they convinced their husbands to cough up the bucks to purchase land and construct a sanctuary. I know the congregation had a very modest start and that we have always struggled to have adequate parking. And for some of those years, the preachers came and went, and the people came and went.

But underneath it all, how did it all get started? It’s not enough to merely list the founders who signed the charter. It would be superficial to do an organizational analysis. Why would anybody ever think to start a church? Whose idea is this?

Pentecost tells us that church is God’s idea. That God huffs and puffs on a gathered group of people – and suddenly they speak of Christ’s resurrection. Suddenly they are no longer scared and alone. Suddenly they are not bound by the ghosts surrounding the “mistake tree.” Suddenly they are a diverse community with only Christ in common.

Luke is pretty insistent on the diversity. He reminds us that the Pentecost holiday was an international event. All kinds of Jews came back to Jerusalem from every corner of the earth. On his list were no less than fifteen different countries and regions where Jews had scattered. As they come back to celebrate the Living Word of God, this time God speaks again – and all of them can hear and understand. This is God’s doing.

In a way, it’s the undoing of the ancient story of the Tower of Babel. According to that story, all the people of the world decided to get organized and build a tower all the way up to God’s heaven. God looked down, laughed at the human presumption, and effectively sneezed all over the arrogant plan. With a blink of the eye, God confused everybody’s speech – and that’s the primal legend of how different languages began.

But on Pentecost, God undoes the confusion. God brings the scattered nations together. And for the moment, they understand what God is doing. All of them understand. That’s the miracle. As Sheldon Sorge points out,

“People from every part of the human family are brought into the community of the redeemed, not because they wanted in, but because God grabbed them by the ears. How could they ignore a message that came to them in their native languages through mouths that knew nothing about them, their culture, or their language. The Galilee eleven had no demographic study to help them figure out their target population. They had no clue what they were saying – it was all God’s work, God’s word, God’s way. At Pentecost, a band of strangers with nothing in common ends up with everything in common. What starts out as a disparate crowd becomes a single fellowship.”

Down in Naomi, Florida, wherever that is, a girl named Opal, a sad preacher, and a mangy dog named Winn-Dixie find themselves with a whole new assortment of friends. Opal decides they must celebrate with a part. Everybody agrees to come. The old librarian brings a box of throat lozenges. Somebody else brings a jar of pickles, declaring, “I've been to several parties with no pickles...and not one of them was any fun.” Sad, old Gloria Dump turns to the preacher and says, “I think you should pray and bless this gathering.” Sad, old Gloria with her ghost tree full of beer bottles wants the preacher to give a blessing!

So the preacher starts to pray. Just then, God thunders and a huge rainstorm blows into town. The little party is drenched by the abundant rain, coming down, as it were, out of heaven. That strange assortment of new friends is soaked and baptized. And Opal says to the ghost tree, “My heart doesn’t feel so empty anymore.”

That’s the miracle of Pentecost, whether in thunder and rain or wind and fire. It’s the miracle that God repeats over and over, wherever unlikely friendships are forged, whenever people are strangely empowered to live together in community, wherever and whenever empty hearts are filled with consolation.

The church gets started every Pentecost, as God comes invisibly but powerfully. Strangers find themselves curiously bound together by a deeper love than they thought possible. Those who were frightened like turtles peep out of their shells with something life-giving to say. Whenever that happens, I say it’s a miracle. It’s a miracle that can happen on any given day.

God breathes on us, lonely disconsolate children, and one more time the church is born again.

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

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