A Sermon based upon Acts 2:1-8, 12-17, 36-42
This is Pentecost Sunday, the “birthday” of the Church, but it is also the Sunday when we recognize and appreciate those faithful folks who have been church members for fifty (or more) years. You see the list of names in the bulletin, starting with our longest-tenured member, Mary Davison, who joined First Congregational way back in 1936 ! That is 83 years ago. (Wow!) Congratulations!
My Mom and Dad (Dodi & Les Lance) joined this church in January 1966 -- 53 years ago -- a few months after our family moved from Cadillac (which was Dodi’s hometown) to Alpena. That puts them in the cohort with Blair Diamond, Mary Minnick, & Dave Zeller … which also makes me realize that Edith Gerber and Jim McNeil, Andy Cruise, and I would have been added to the list this year had we not lived elsewhere for 30 - 40 years!
For me, this anniversary brings to mind Confirmation Class with Rev. Barksdale, and then Pilgrim Fellowship with “Mrs. B”. How many of you, like me, remember Rev. Barksdale & Madge? (I thought that he looked a lot like President Johnson; and with his slightly Southern drawl, he even sounded a bit like L.B.J.!)
Rev. Barksdale was at the helm 64 years ago when this sanctuary was built. We give a lot of credit to Jesse and Anna Besser, faithful members of this congregation, (first) for creating the Besser block machines that produced the concrete masonry used in constructing this church, and (second) for generously underwriting the enormous expense of building it!
Jim McNeil was told that his was the first baptism in this new church building. (Now that dates us, doesn’t it!) How many of you remember Jesse Besser? How many of you remember the old brick church that formerly stood on this same property?
Going back a bit earlier in time, Jere Standen says that he was baptized by a German Minister here at First Congregational -- the Rev. Albert Kauffman, who served as Minister prior to the Barksdales (from 1942 until 1947) during the war years! Were any of you here with Rev. Kauffman? Imagine: the minister here in Alpena during World War Two was a German who (according to Jere) supported the Nazis. (’Nuff said about that!)
There may be only a few of you who remember even earlier the Rev. Clayton Stowe, who served here from 1939 to 1942. That’s the man who would have been the Minister of our church when Mary Davison became a member. Rev. Stowe left Alpena in order to serve as a Chaplain during the Second World War. May I have a show of hands if any of you knew Rev. Stowe? (My family & I knew Rev. Stowe at the First Congregational Church in Cadillac, which is the church he served after the war. That’s the church where my Grandma was the organist and I sang in Jr. Choir; where I received my 4th grade Bible, signed by Rev. Stowe & my Dad, who was the Church School Superintendent.)
The past is still alive in the stories we tell; in the memories and remembrances we have. Events from the past have greatly influenced who we have become over time. (We talked about that at length last Sunday: how in our minds we give “meaning” to certain events, which later inform our view of the world.)
A case could be made that people’s lives are (mostly) an accumulation of events & experiences from the past which have shaped us influencing our thinking, our values, and our emotions along the way… sometimes consciously but most often in unconscious ways. The accumulated weight of the past, for good or for ill, burdens our present life with its remembered meanings, messages, & familiar patterns.
In our Call to Worship, we recognized with gratitude “those faithful church members who are here today… but also those who have gone before us… In good times and in bad, in times of war and times of peace -- in periods of comfortable wealth and Depression-Era poverty -- we’ve been there (First Church)… all the way back to our founding in 1862, just as America entered a period of Civil War. We were the first church organized “Up North” in Alpena during the lumbering era, and I think of that history when I look up at all the beautiful North Woods lumber overhead.
However, in fact, our “church roots” are much, much deeper than that! We stretch “in unbroken line” all the way back to that first Pentecost Sunday some 2,000 years ago! Pentecost: the Birthday of the Church! The day the Holy Spirit unexpectedly entered the Upper Room (with the rush of a mighty wind and tongues like fire) and filled the followers of Jesus who were gathered there. Pentecost was the day that God got everybody "revved up" and running (so to speak)!
The day of “Pentecost” comes fifty days after Passover (or, as we in the Church say, fifty days after Easter). The disciples and other followers of Jesus had been hiding out together -- not sure of what to do, where to go, or who to trust. It had been (after all) less than two months since Jesus had been arrested by the Jewish authorities and then executed by the Romans on a cross like a criminal! They were still barely hanging on -- hanging out together, hanging in there as best they could -- together… waiting, just waiting, in Jerusalem.
Waiting was (in fact) what Jesus had told them to do: Wait for the Holy Spirit to come upon you. “Stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high..." (Luke 24:49)
Now, they didn't know what that actually meant. They didn't know who, or what, the Holy Spirit was -- but they knew they weren't supposed to head for home until the time was right.
Easter (as I said) was already seven weeks behind them. Jesus had ascended into heaven, and left them behind. (Acts 1:8-9) The amazing experiences that they had had of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection were powerful, memorable… but they are in the rear-view mirror now! Retro-spective, like our memories of the Barksdales & the Bessers, and Jack Fitzgerald and the rest.
The new challenge (for them back then, as for us in our day) was: how to keep the momentum of Jesus’ ministry going! How to take their rich, personal experiences from the “past” and project them into the “future” for God’s sake in Jesus’ name!
Should they start doing "Bible studies"? Should they start a school… and call "disciples" of their own, like Jesus did? Should they come up with some theological doctrines? Or, should they just start telling the story... the stories of Jesus? But if they did that… who would listen to them, this common lot of Up-North Galileans!? Moreover, who would believe it? Who would care?
I hope some of you saw the big blue banner I put up on the Church wall. It says “Be YOU. Be BOLD. Be the Church.” That’s what I think happened at Pentecost. Jesus returned in a powerful way as the Holy Spirit filled each and every one of them – re-kindling his memory and giving them his confidence – to get up, get out, and get going again as the re-newed, re-energized, re-formed Body of Christ in the world.
As I said in a sermon a few months ago: The Holy Spirit is God’s way to make sure that Jesus Christ is always with us.
In today’s text – the story of the Pentecost event, which took place in Jerusalem 50 days after Easter – that memorable occasion when the Holy Spirit blew through the gathered disciples with the sound of a mighty wind, and with light & heat like tongues of flame dividing and settling on each one of them… Peter went out and spoke to the amazed and perplexed crowd, which had gathered in the street outside, saying:
“These men are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day! But this is what was spoken by the Prophet Joel: ‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and daughters shall prophesy; and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.” (Acts 2:15-17)
Isn’t that what’s been going on for-ever-after? From one generation to the next – from parents to their daughters & sons, to grandsons & great grand-daughters… Young men see visions of what’s possible, and old men dream dreams.
“Dreams” are more than mere fantasy – even though there are often fantastic elements in them… Time and space get all mixed up in our dreams; locations and characters shift. But much of what we older folk encounter in our “dreams” actually draw on “retrospective” life experiences. Phantoms from our past live again. Relationships that had deep meaning return.
I say: trust your dreams.
A couple years ago, Kat Tomaszewski gave Patty & me a plaque that we have on a wall in our home. It’s a quote from Walt Disney: “If you can dream it, you can do it.” So… dream! Saint Peter said that when God’s Spirit was poured out, old men would dream dreams!
He also said that young men shall see “visions.” While “dreams” tend to draw on retrospective experiences, “visions” tend to be “prospective” – that is, forward looking… with a focus on what’s possible… what’s coming… a hoped for future.
The class Bob Case is leading just now on Thursday mornings is not only about “near-death” experiences, but consciousness that manifests in other startling ways: as though it’s coded in our very DNA, or cosmic memories we’ve inherited, perhaps from former lives, perhaps from experiences in utero… Savants who are very young; children who know things no one could possibly have taught them. (!) It is sometimes baffling what the mind is capable of doing. When God’s Spirit comes, young men (& women, of course) “see visions”, says the Prophet Joel, while old men and women “dream dreams”. There’s hope for the future in all that! All is not lost; all is not “past.” Have vision!
“Vision” is forward-looking, and no matter how old or young a person is, they can have a “vision” of what’s ahead. I’d like you all to begin to ask yourself: “What is my vision for this church in this community this year and in 2020?” I’m going to have us follow up on that over the summer. We’ll call it our “2020 Vision”!
This congregation really relies on the steadfast support of our older members – all 29 of you who are listed as “fifty-year” veterans of taking on the responsibilities of church membership. Thank you!
May the vision and dreams of our elders -- together with the visionary aspects of newer members -- “balance” the realism and the idealism (the memories of the past, and the challenges of the present) in order to steer a faithful course ahead. The Church spans the generations much like a family does. Combining the rich resources that come with age… and the energy that comes with youth… can complement and supplement one another nicely. (What is your vision for 2020?)
One vision I have is for our Sunday morning worship attendance to grow.
According to Acts 1:15, the number of persons in that Upper Room fifty days after Easter was 120. (120) That's only 30 people fewer than the current membership size of our Church! A group of that size would fit perfectly in our sanctuary here in Alpena. (!) Can you imagine us printing 120 bulletins instead of only 80? That’ll be the day! I hope you’re praying for it, working toward it. Our average attendance right now is around 70 people; 120 is just 50 more! It’s a "do-able" goal. How about that as a target for year 2020?
When that blast of “Holy Spirit wind” burst into town -- and blew right into that upstairs room! -- and those weird noises started coming from the house where the church was gathered -- we are told that it got the attention of the passers-by! (Maybe that’ll happen next Sunday when our “Choir Appreciation/ Father’s Day” drum circle and four anthems raise the roof with music & noise! Be sure to invite someone to come next week!)
We are told that a "multitude" drew together… bewildered. And this Pentecost-Day crowd on the streets of Jerusalem was a really mixed bag of races, creeds, & national origins.
Gene Bacon & I didn’t read that part of the text, but people came from all parts of the Roman Empire for "shavuoth" (the feast of Weeks)… 50 days had passed after the Passover (seven weeks of seven days made 49) so this 50th day commemorated the day that God gave Moses the Ten Commandments/Torah.
Normally the population within the old walled city of Jerusalem (an area about one mile square) was 100,000 citizens -- that’s already about 5 times the population of Alpena County! So, add to it the festival celebrants who had come from all over the Mediterranean world (all the tourists in town and foreign strangers!)… we must admit, they had a lot more folks on that Pentecost to draw from than we do here in our Downtown area.
The point is: with only 120 followers of Jesus inside the building, and so huge a crowd outside... it is really remarkable that anyone would have even noticed (let alone heard) what was going on with the disciples. (!) Still, we are told that after Peter's sermon: "those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about 3,000 souls!" What a day! What a way to start a Church!
Just THINK of what that means… A group of believers about our size (easily able to fit in our pews), in the power of God's Holy Spirit -- and in the name of Jesus -- spread "the Good News" such that 3,000 total strangers joined their fellowship by day's end! Even a large, beautiful sanctuary like ours couldn’t fit that many people in… We’d have to start a second, or even third, service each Sunday to manage it... like Alpena’s “All Saints” Roman Catholic Parish already does.
(Which reminds me to encourage you to attend the LARC Covenant Renewal Service at Grace Lutheran Church this Wednesday. There is a soup supper at six, with worship at 7.)
Actually, the early Church solved the problem of their huge growth by having locations all over town -- small settings where people ate together, got to know each other, and told stories about Jesus as they passed the wine and bread around the table. Multiple locations for fellowship and instruction, rather than everyone having to be together in a single congregation.
Pentecost -- like every birthday party -- is not merely about nostalgia (looking back on how many years have passed) -- it should also be a happy, forward-looking occasion -- a day when we make a point of inviting new people to join us! Come to the common table… Join us in worship! You are welcome here!
I’ll admit that it takes some energy to go out to others (it’s always easier to stay indoors, with your same clutch of old friends)… It takes a bit of courage to make space available beside you to a stranger. (You don’t know who they are. You have to introduce yourself! Maybe wear a name-tag!) It takes an inclusive spirit to decide you are going to embrace people in God’s name… but that’s our job, if we want to call ourselves “Christian”.
For those who have faithfully served and supported this congregation for fifty-years and more, we commend you and congratulate you. The depth of relationships and wealth of memories associated with the names in our bulletin are almost overwhelming! One wonders -- after fifty years of faithfully attending worship, organizing mission activities, teaching Sunday School, or singing in the choir -- what possible “new thing” is in store for you long veterans of Christian service?
I hope that your (& my) physical health will cooperate, giving us more time and good functioning for years to come!
The Pentecost experience that “launched” the Church, led the early disciples to boldly go out from their locked Upper Room and tell others (townspeople & strangers, even talk to foreigners, visitors & tourists!) about how God had been working in their lives and in our world. “Whoever you are, and wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here” is more than just a tag-line, a slogan. It’s our calling! It’s our job, in Jesus’ name. May we do so with boldness, and may God get the glory!