Happy Birthday, Church!
How old are you today, anyway? Have you hit the old 2-0-0-0 yet? Truth be known, we’ve kind of stopped counting—partly because every year is but a second in God’s sight, but mainly because Christ makes you a new creation, over and over. That is, it’s kind of like you are new each day, constantly renewing yourself like a Phoenix or in the way a forest fire makes way for new growth to spring up in its path. Nevertheless, it’s easy to remember Pentecost as the day you officially came into existence. Just as Easter is a celebration of our Lord’s resurrection from the darkness of the tomb, Pentecost is remembrance of new life, too—the new life the Spirit brings. It was shortly after Jesus’ triumph over death when you burst forth with power from the tomb of confusion and doubt, the Holy Spirit giving birth to you among the disciples in Jerusalem.
So, here we are to wish you—to wish us—a Happy Birthday.
|a congregation in Africa|
Look at us! We’re still gathered here today, just as diverse as we’ve always been—some of us full of faith and vitality, fired up and ready to do something for God, others of us feeling a little worn around our edges, needing replenishment. Some of us here are soaking in the time-tested liturgy and relishing the hymns, while others of us are still timidly testing the waters of communal religious practices, skeptical of doctrine and dogma. Some of us are here because we love Sundays and the chance to gather with the saints, and others of us are here just because of the doughnuts.
Whatever the reason, dear Church, God’s Spirit has blown and grown among us once again and brought us here on this first day of the week. Don’t let the apparent lack of diversity in areas like race or nationality within this congregation blind us to the other ways in which we are truly different from each other! Each of us here, for example, has his or her own story and his or her own unique personality. Each of us here has a distinct combination of talents and skills. Each of your members in this very congregation has come to know you and God a little bit differently, and we all contain within us a slightly different spark of that Spirit’s ability to give life to the world around us. We are a diverse bunch even before we factor in all the other congregations across the planet who are meeting and worshiping right now, all in the name of Jesus, who is Lord.
Sometimes all these differences, church, really pull us—and therefore you—apart. Rather than bringing us closer in unity to each other, these gifts, as the apostle Paul calls them, often fracture our unity. This has mainly happened in two ways.
|building a church with marshmallows and toothpicks|
The first way is that we start to value certain gifts and activities over others, essentially giving more power and control to people who do certain things or have certain titles. Just think of the ways over the years that we’ve elevated the gifts of the clergy. So many us are prone to think that people like pastors and bishops, diaconal ministers and music ministers have more of the Spirit’s gifts than anyone else in the congregation, or that their gifts are better suited for your ministry. Gifts and activities like preaching or singing a solo or developing a Bible study are for some reason favored over the gifts of patience or good listening or activities like cutting the church grass and reconciling the church checking account. Service that is visible on Sunday morning is elevated above the services that goes on behind the scenes and out in the world Monday through Saturday.
We’ve also looked down upon those who bear some gifts. Women have for a long time been overlooked, especially for their leadership gifts, as have people of color, those and who speak difference languages than we do, and those we label “disabled.” The gifts and services of those who are not as economically well-off often get by-passed or downplayed, too. In short, we let the divisions present in worldly communities creep into the work we do as part of you, and as a result, people often get hurt and, unfortunately, blame that hurt on God.
|gifts of quilt-making|
Overall, our valuing of certain gifts and services over others and our valuing of certain people over others has really diminished the amount of work you’ve been able to get done in the world. Help us to remember, as Paul says in his letter to you years and years ago,“for in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free.” Help us to remember that “to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good,” not principally for our own self-betterment and definitely not to the detriment of others whom you’ve gathered in your embrace.
The other main way all our diversity in gifts and abilities pulls you apart, dear church, occurs when we downplay our gifts too much. This, you know, is a particular problem in a culture like ours where we are so accustomed to being consumers and spectators rather than contributors and participants. Whether we realize it or not, we come to worship in the same frame of mind that we attend sporting events or theater shows, expecting to be entertained, expecting mainly to “feel something” while we’re here. We file in to our pews and wait for the pastor and the musicians to put on a show, and when we’re not entertained or when we end up not feeling something during worship we leave somehow disappointed. We fall into the trap of thinking that we’re primarily supposed to “get something out of church,” full well forgetting that we’re not here to be an audience at all.
Your audience, O Church, is not we, the people who gather. Your audience—our audience—is God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
|a church in Norway|
We, by contrast, are the ones who have come to share our gifts and our voices and our prayers and our services in praise of the Most High. We are the one whom the Spirit gathers to sacrifice time and energy to perform an offering of time and talent for the Lord who has named and claimed us all in his death on the cross. If anyone is be “getting anything out of church” it should be God or the world who is being served by our hands.
In fact, dear Church, I thought of you this week, as I watched a kindergarten chorus presentation. I stood in the back of the elementary school gym as they all streamed in, a bunch of 5 and 6 year olds wearing brightly-colored t-shirts corresponding to their different classrooms—red, yellow, green, blue. It took them a while to get organized on the risers, and for a while I thought they’d never get started. There was a moderate level of confusion, and several of us were likely snickering under our breath: could they pull this off?
My goodness they were squirmy. It was like they were filled with new wine. Some kids looked downright unhappy with the whole ordeal. Here and there I noticed quite a bit of pushing and shoving going on, grumpy faces, kids’ stepping on each other’s toes, intruding in other’s personal space. With no adults immediately nearby to mediate conflict the children were left to themselves to sort it out. Most of them spent more time waving to moms and dads out in the audience than paying attention to where the director was asking them to stand.
Hand motions went along with almost every song. That was cute, but borderline disastrous at times. You could tell that kind of coordination was still a stretch for some of them. I watched several kids unknowingly clock the person next to them as they stretched their hands out in some gesture. Those who had been selected to deliver a spoken line to introduce a song often stood far too quickly or softly to be understood. Some sounded like they were trying to swallow the microphone: “GeorgeWashingtonwasourfirstpresidentHewasborninVirginiain1732.”
All in all it was a little chaotic, but, you know what? It was amazing. And in the end, it we “got a lot out of it.” We received what they were trying to give us. The kids really weren’t putting on the program for themselves. I’m sure some of them enjoyed doing it, but that wasn’t the point, now, was it? The point of all their practice and performing, was to give something to us. We were delighted. We were, you may say, fed.
So, beloved Church, as we venture into a new year of grace, may we see ourselves more like that kindergarten choir, diverse and different, but gathered into one body through our baptism into Christ. May we see ourselves as those who are performing not only in worship on Sunday but on every day through the week. For, truth be told, a whole world is watching…watching to see if we can pull it off.
And, since on birthdays gifts are in order, let us we dedicate our gifts and services once more to you, the gifts that the same Spirit gave us—the singing and the prophesying, the healing and wisdom, the services of grass-mowing and budget-balancing, and occasionally even those of preaching and Bible study leading. Use them for common good, O Church, not primarily for ourselves. We re-commit them to your service with the hopes that the Spirit will, once again, take our squirminess and make it amazing. As we step up to the task of proclaiming to the world what God’s Son has done, we pray the Spirit will take our inarticulate, incoherent murmurings and give us clarity of voice.
And as we try to stand next to each other, we pray that the Spirit take our childish grumpiness, our ugliness, and make us beautiful.
O Holy Spirit, take all our kindergarten-like chaos and give it order.
Make us one.
Make us holy.
Make us catholic.
And make us apostolic.
Jew, Greek, slave and free—let the Spirit of Christ breathe again and make us…Church.
With all our love,
ourselves, the people of God.