Broadway United Methodist Church was built in 1927 “on the northern outskirts of Indianapolis. It was then a flourishing area primed for growth. Within a decade, Broadway had 2,300 members. The pews were packed. The Sunday school rooms were buzzing. But by the late 1950s, Indianapolis began to experience white flight to newer suburbs. The neighborhood began a long, slow decline. And so did the church.
“By the mid-1990s, weekly attendance was down to 75. The pews were empty. The Sunday school was dark. Amid the surrounding decay, the church assumed a new role: caregiver. Broadway . . . came to see its neighborhood for all of its problems — poverty and abandoned houses, drugs and the related violence, high teen pregnancy and dropout rates,” and they wanted to do something about it (1). The problem was that even as they opened a food pantry and organized youth camps, the drop-out rate kept rising, obesity became a growing problem, and more and more young people became victims of violence. Disconnected from their community, the church had come to treat the people is served “as if, at worst, they [were] a different species and, at best, as if they [were] people to be pitied and helped” (2). The members of Broadway were aging, becoming more and more exhausted in the face of ministries that seemed to be failing.
Broadway United Methodist could be any number of congregations in our country. When I hear their story, I think of a metaphor developed by Joan Gray, a former moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA). She imagines the church as a boat (an old metaphor, indeed), but says that we can either be rowboats or sailboats. “Rowboat churches depend largely on human effort. When church budgets shrink and membership declines, rowboat churches frantically row harder against a current, often frustrated and disappointed at their efforts” (3). Churches and church people in this situation have diminished faith in God as a present and active force in their lives and community. They have become disconnected from God’s Spirit and its power to propel the church forward, as the wind moves a sailboat across the sea.
Have you ever found yourself in this place personally? A place where you are working harder and harder and getting busier and busier but finding no deeper sense of meaning or purpose? Have you ever looked at the things you do in your life: work, school, shuttling children from here to there, even leisure activities and wondered whether any of it really mattered? Have you found yourself doing good things but still somehow failing? Do you find yourself returning sometimes to old patterns and habits (maybe an unhealthy use of food or alcohol, maybe hurtful relationships, maybe even escapism through spacing out online), even though you know from experience that they are not life giving? Do you ever find yourself rowing?
At Pentecost, we are celebrating something that God did in past when his people were at a junction. The apostles were at the end of an era. Jesus’ earthly ministry had ended with the ascension. He had told his followers to wait in Jerusalem for the promised Holy Spirit, but I am not sure they knew exactly what they were waiting for. They certainly had no idea how long they might have to wait. In their waiting, they pray, they attend to some business about choosing a replacement for Judas, and they keep practicing the traditions of their Jewish faith. They are gathered in Jerusalem for the feast day of Shavu’ot – a holiday that marks the giving of the Torah to Moses on Mt. Sinai. In many ways they did what we all do in times of uncertainty or transition: they did what was familiar, even though it may have felt more like rowing than sailing.
On that first Pentecost, God showed up among his rowboat disciples, and he showed up with power and wonder and might. We heard it already in the first reading. The disciples (not just the twelve, but many followers of the Jesus’ Way) were gathered in one place when a sound like the rush of a violent wind filled the building. Fiery flames flickered around them. They began to speak in languages that they previously had not known. This phenomenon was not a strictly spiritual experience. It was visible and audible to other Jews who had come to celebrate Shavu’ot, Jews who knew nothing about Jesus. Everyone who was there, people from every nation, were able to hear the message of Jesus in his or her own language. The Jews of Jerusalem heard that God was up to something new – a new era of prophecy that would culminate in the salvation of the world. Before the day was over, 3,000 people were caught the wind of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:41)!
We celebrate Pentecost as the birthday of church, the day when the wind of God’s Spirit did something new 2,000 years ago. However, what God did on one day long ago was not the end of the story. Not even close. In the first chapter of Acts, Jesus charges his disciples to witness in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and even to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). The day of Pentecost in Jerusalem is only the opening act of a long story of Pentecosts. Throughout Acts, the Spirit is poured out again and again upon Jesus followers, empowering them to prophecy about God’s action in the world.
Prophecy does not mean predicting the future as we often think it does. When Peter preaches to the crowd on that first Pentecost, he is not so much telling them what is going to happen in the future as he is answering the question, “What does this all mean? What is happening now?” Prophecy uses promises and imagery from the past, as they are contained in Scripture, to interpret what God is doing in the present. A prophet is called to pay attention to the world around her, to pay attention to what God is saying in the Scriptures, and to proclaim how these two intersect. The prophet shows “how present events might connect to God and God’s purposes” (4).
What we are really celebrating today is not the memory of the first Pentecost but another of Pentecost where God is pouring out his Spirit of prophecy upon young and old, men and women. Today is the day when the Wind from God will open new horizons, initiate new activity, and save God’s people.
In 2003, Broadway United Methodist Church began to let go of their oars and raise their sails. They began to close their helping ministries. One by one they eliminated the thrift store, the food pantry, the summer camp. Fueled by the wind of the Spirit, they quit asking what was wrong with their neighborhood and started asking what was right. Instead of seeing themselves as privileged benefactors, they began to see themselves as neighbors and friends. They reinterpreted their mission as one of building community among equals. Today Broadway does not give away goods or services. Instead, they listen for people’s gifts and connect people to one another in the spirit of Jesus. The church and its people have found new, God-inspired life.
The Spirit who appeared with power at the first Pentecost and who moved at Broadway United Methodist Church is the same Spirit who is showing up among you, the people of Eliot Church, today. You are the ones whom Jesus has called to be his witnesses “to the ends of the earth.” You are the ones whom the Spirit is empowering for prophecy.
Is your sail up? Is our corporate sail up? Are you – are we – paying attention to our lives and our community to see where and how God is present and active? Are you – are we – rooted in Scripture to see how God has acted in the past? Or are we just rowing away feverishly without any awareness of or connection to the Spirit’s power?
I invite you to reflect for a second on the things you do from day to day and week to week. What is it that you are up to? What are you good at? What are some of the things that are happening in your world? (Let people name these things aloud for a few minutes, encouraging them to share both the important and seemingly insignificant things.) Now let’s think for a moment about what God has had to say about these kinds of things in the past. (Spend a few moments, off the cuff, connecting people’s experiences with promises from Scripture.) Friends, this is prophecy. This is the work that the Holy Spirit gives to all her children. We raise our sails and tap into the Spirit’s power when we pay attention to how God’s promise intersects with what’s happening in our world and in our lives today.
On this Pentecost, the middle school youth and I have a gift for you. Do you remember All Saints Day, way back in October? That Sunday, we had streamers hanging overhead, much like we do today. Only those streamers were made up of strips of cloth; each strip had the name of a saint written upon it – your loved ones who died in faith. For the past six months, the middle school youth have been turning those cloth strips into bracelets. Each bracelet has a dove charm tied onto it. As we sing our next hymn, the middle school students will hand out these bracelets, one per family. I pray that it will be a reminder for you of the good things God has done in the past, often through the saints whose names are written upon those fabric strips. But even more, I pray that it will be a sign for you that God is doing something totally new, and that through the Holy Spirit (symbolized in the dove), God is empowering you to prophesy about what God is doing and to participate in that work.
May it be so. Amen.
3. Joan Gray, Sailboat Church: Helping Your Church Rethink its Ministry and Practice. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014). Back cover.
4. Matt Skinner on WorkingPreacher.com