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Joel 2.26-29

Acts 2.1-13

Busy Being Born


I want to begin in the same place we began last Sunday, because so much of last week’s focus was on Katie Wilcox, we didn’t really get to the Bible readings, and they deserve a bit more attention on this Pentecost Sunday.  You’ll remember we lifted up the story of the great commission Jesus gave the disciples at the end of Matthew’s gospel:  “Go now and make disciples of all the nations… teaching them all I have commanded you.”  Then we moved to the ascension of Jesus into heaven, leaving the disciples behind with little more than a promise that somehow God’s spirit would appear to them and give them agency.  And this morning is the story of that Spirit’s appearance, the story of Pentecost, which signals the birth of the church.  It is an important movement, from Jesus giving the mission, to his leaving the disciples on their own, to the creation of the church.  Note the order:  the mission precedes the church.  We often talk about the church having a mission, but seldom notice that the mission existed before the church ever did.

I may have shared this with you before; in fact I probably have because it struck me so powerfully the first time I heard it.  Before I came to Chester I attended a series of seminars designed around the topic of the church maintaining a kind of nimble flexibility during times of change, which, let’s be honest, is pretty much all the time.  Life is always changing and the church not only needs to be adaptive to the change around us, but we also need to lead the way through.  One seminar speaker seminar said something along these lines:  the church does not have a mission.  The church does not have a mission.  God has a mission and has given it to the church.  That is, the mission belongs to God, not to us.  And the speaker went on to say that if the church will not live out God’s mission, God is perfectly able and willing to find someone or something else to get the job done.  And this is directly in line with the way the story unfolds this morning.  Jesus gave the mission to the disciples, and the Spirit created the church as the vehicle through which the disciples – and we – can accomplish and sustain that mission.  The mission precedes the church.

And the mission is not complicated:  go and make disciples.  Share the good news.  The love, compassion and justice of Jesus is meant for everyone.  It is not the sole possession of the church.  As Jesus showed us, it belongs to men and women alike, it belongs to the neighbor and the stranger, it belongs to the poor and the outcast, it belongs to the hated Samaritan and the injured Jew, it even belongs to you, and it belongs to all of us.

Nobel laureate Bob Dylan turned eighty-two this week.  Nobel Laureate / Bob Dylan.  How many of us growing up with his music could ever have imagined those two phrases belonging together, Nobel laureate Bob Dylan?  Dylan wrote his song, “It’s All Right Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” in 1965; it is on his album “Bringing It All Back Home.”  I thought of Dylan’s song earlier this week as I was reading about the birth of the church in Acts, because it contains the memorable line, “He not busy being born is busy dying.”  If you’re not busy being born you’re busy dying.  On this birthday of the church, when the Spirit of God called people of multiple backgrounds and nationalities and ethnicities together and with one loud whoosh and those mystifying tongues of fire upon them and around them, when the crowd coalesced and became one body, I think it is good to ask the question, is the church busy being born or is it busy dying?

The story we heard from Acts, which as Michele reminded us the prophet Joel anticipated hundreds of years earlier, holds a few clues.  First, people from at least seventeen different regions, nations and realms had come together in one place, and when the spirit filled them, they could understand one another.  They spoke different languages, but in that moment, in the church’s borning moment, language was no longer a barrier.  Everyone understood one another.  Remember the story of Babel, when the nations of the earth came together and presumed to build a tower to the heavens, and God foiled their presumption by scattering them to the four corners of the world and confounded their speech?  Pentecost, in an important respect, is Babel reversed.  People gathered from the four corners of the world and were united as one.  People with different backgrounds, different lives, different experiences and yes, different languages understood each other.  They understood each other.  This is one of the things we ought to expect of the church, that this is a place where in spite of any and all differences, we understand each other because we are filled with the spirit of God.  If we have this understanding of one another for the sake of Jesus Christ, then we too are the church that was born on Pentecost, and we are busy being born.

What else happened that day?  The spirit of God fell indiscriminately on the crowd.  It didn’t look around at who was faithful and who was not, who was closest to Jesus and who had never even heard of him, who had means and who had need, the spirit fell upon and filled them all, every woman, man and child.  Or as Paul might say, on men and women, on Jew and gentile, on slave and free, on rich and poor, on the hale and the ill, the Holy Spirit of God washed over them all.

And they were amazed.  Filled with the spirit, they were simultaneously amazed and perplexed at what they could do, at the power and the possibilities inherent in that moment.  But it is a testimony to what people can do when they put their differences aside and work together.

I want to take this moment celebrating the birth and life of the church to note the slate of nominations we voted on and passed by acclaim during last week’s Annual Meeting.  It is thanks to the good-humored and warm-natured tenacity of Deb Calamari, whose words of appreciation are printed on this morning’s insert, and thanks to all of you who were willing to say Yes to Deb’s invitation to be the church.  We are so fortunate to have a dedicated and gifted group of folks leading our ministry, taking on God’s mission on behalf of all of us.  Many thanks to those of you who stepped up when asked, and equal thanks to those who stepped off after serving your terms.  It is all of you who make certain our church is busy being born, over and over again, in every new season.

I went to a retirement party Thursday afternoon.  Dawn Hammond, who has been the glue holding together first the Massachusetts Conference, and then the Southern New England Conference since 2001, is stepping down after the Conference Annual Meeting next month.  Dawn has been the Executive Administrative Assistant to the Conference Minister and President, she has been the Director for Policy and Finance since the new Conference formed, and she has been the informal help and all-around go-to for all of us who worked with the Southern New England Conference in any way.  A lot of people went to Framingham to celebrate Dawn Thursday afternoon, and I saw a lot of familiar faces and heard a lot of church stories that day.  Some were happy stories, but not all.  One of the refrains I kept hearing that day was how many churches have been struggling both through and since the pandemic.  Some were paralyzed by the push and pull of people who wanted to close and those who wanted to keep the church open during Covid, between those who went hybrid and those who saw no need to, among those who spent the pandemic looking at their ecclesiastical navels and those who found new opportunities and avenues for God’s mission and outreach.  Now I will grant that maintaining the institution during Covid was a real challenge for all of us, but Covid or no, maintaining the institution, while important, is a short-sighted goal, and it does little to advance the mission you and I have been given.  The church that exists for its own sake and survival needs a vision reset, I would argue, while the church that exists for others, for all those Parthians and Medes and Elamites we have never met, all those Jews and proselytes and Cretans and Arabs, is the church that remains true to its Pentecost vision.  Or put another way, the church that exists for its own sake, in Dylan’s words, is busy dying.  The church that exists for others is busy being born with every new day.

You probably caught that little bit of sarcasm at the end of this morning’s Pentecost story.  For when the citizens of multiple nations and speakers of myriad languages could suddenly understand one another, when it was clear that the Holy Spirit was raining indiscriminately on them, on the good and the not-so-good, on the religious and the agnostic, on the friend and the stranger, on the native and the foreigner, when the individuals themselves were amazed at what was happening in their midst, indeed, within their very souls and spirits, there were still those skeptics and sophists who explained it all away by presuming that the entire crowd of them was drunk:  “But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’”  They could neither recognize nor imagine that God was doing a new thing before their very eyes, creating community where once there was none, and filling them all with mercy and grace.  So if someone sees you spending your hard-earned money to buy extra groceries for the food bank, or giving your time to a neighbor who needs a ride to an appointment, or hears you redirect a conversation that is turning racist or sexist, or sees you ally with a gender-fluid young person, or simply knows you have chosen, on this glorious last spring morning to spend an hour of it indoors, and thinks you must be drunk for doing any or all of this, well, my friends, I say drink up, drink deeply, and I raise a toast on your behalf, for you are most fearlessly and wondrously busy being born.

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United Church of Chester, 29 West Main Street, Chester, CT 06412. (860) 526-2697


From the North: Take CT Route 9 South to Exit 8 (old exit 6) (CT 148). Turn left; we are 1 mile on the right.


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