Lessons: Acts 2:1-21
I heard for the first time last week that Martin Luther King didn’t arrive at the podium during the March on Washington in 1963 ready to give his “I Have a Dream” speech. He’d prepared a different speech. But Mahalia Jackson, who was standing behind him, said, “Tell ’em about the dream, Martin.” What followed, straight out of his heart and mind apparently, is a rhetorical and theological masterpiece that transformed the March on Washington, and transformed America. It is also a compelling and maybe even a little disturbing illustration of the power of the Holy Spirit, particularly to those of us who wouldn’t think of leaving our manuscripts even if Mahalia Jackson told us to do it.
Today we celebrate the arrival of the Holy Spirit and how it changed the disciples, changed the course of history, even changed the world. The passage in Acts we heard today is supposed to be the biblical equivalent of pulling out all the stops in our organ: a sound like rushing wind, descending fire, a babble of languages – we are supposed to get it that what happened knocked everybody’s socks off. You know how it feels when something huge happens and then you try to explain it to your friends, and words fail, and all you can do is shake your head and say, “I wish you’d been there”? That’s what’s happening here.
Based on the power of that experience, Peter, like Martin Luther King, gets up and gives a sermon; the first ever Pentecost sermon – again, no manuscript – and at the heart of it he quotes the prophet Joel’s promise that God’s spirit plants dreams in all of us – young and old, male and female, slave and free. All of us, through the power of the Holy Spirit, have been commissioned to be official Christian dreamers. Peter is saying that even though the people listening to him thought the time of the prophets was over, in fact, God gives the power of the prophet to everyone – all flesh. The power of the prophet is not foretelling the future, not reading crystal balls and tealeaves as we sometimes think, but speaking truth to power, and dreaming – holding up the dream of what could be, what is actually possible even though all the voices of fear and scarcity and cynicism say it is not. That is a pretty astounding power, when you think about it. And it is given by the Spirit to each and every one of us.
It’s interesting that being called a dreamer isn’t necessarily a complement these days. Often it means someone has lost touch with reality. But a dream, a dream powered by the Holy Spirit, has a firm handle on reality, although that gets tricky: what is real, and what isn’t?
Let me explain what I mean with something near and dear to me, and I hope to you: The state of the church. In particular, the mainline Protestant church, and even more particularly, our church. Lately church leaders are being inundated with articles, blogs, books and Facebook posts with titles like, “Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore,” “The Death of the Church,” “The Five Ways the Church Shot Itself in the Foot,” “The Fifteen Ways the Church Is Going to Hell in a Hand Basket,” “The 257 Million Things Millennials Would Rather Do on Sunday Morning Instead of Going to Church,” and “Why No One in His Right Mind Under Age 90 Will Ever Walk into Your Church.” OK, I made up some of those titles, but not all of them.
You could start thinking that’s reality. You could start thinking we just have to face the facts. OK, then, let’s face the facts but let’s face the real facts: Somebody does want to go to church. YOU want to go to church. You are here this morning. And some of you are even under 90.
If you buy a red Dodge pickup truck, suddenly you see red Dodge pickup trucks everywhere you look. .. Pregnant women appear out of nowhere about eight months before your baby is due. In the same way, if you shine attention on obstacles and problems, they multiply before your very eyes. What these doomsday books and articles point to are cultural trends that may or may not have anything to do with you, me, and First Presbyterian Church of San Anselmo. They create in our minds a story of fear and scarcity that is not actually about the way things are but if we let them, can shape us and what we do – in other words, these stories can become self-fulfilling prophecies. What we say creates reality. How we define things sets up a framework for life to unfold.
So we need to be careful that we look at the way things really are, not somebody’s glass half-empty version of the way things are. After all, the so-called optimist, the one who describes the glass as half-full, is the only one who is describing something real, something really there, a substance actually in the glass.
Let’s look at some actual facts: Worship attendance here at First Presbyterian Church goes up and down, if you look at the numbers month to month and year to year. Membership has stayed very close to even for ten years, going up a few people in some years and going down a few people in other years. As far as worship attendance and membership, our congregation is one of the larger churches in our presbytery. We have lost some dear saints in recent years and among the people who died were people who gave very generously of their financial resources. Although there are still profoundly generous people in our congregation, our budget feels the loss. This is not a dire situation. It is a problem to solve. That is why we’re holding our two visioning conversations. The first one was May 3rd, when about 65 people filled Duncan Hall with tremendous energy. The take away, in a too simple nutshell, was that our congregation has a strong sense that God is calling us to a ministry of social justice and great music. The second event is next Sunday, May 31st, when you’ll be invited to look at ways to sustain our ministries financially. The little slip of paper in your bulletins is there for you to suggest a strategy for doing that, to put in the suggestion boxes either in Duncan Hall or the narthex this morning.
As we work through this process, I invite you to remember, allow and expect the power of the Holy Spirit, poured out on all flesh. I invite you to dream. All the assumptions, all the stories that people are telling themselves and that we might be telling ourselves, the many things “everyone knows” about the future of the church need to be called into question by some active dreaming that invites the Spirit to help us see possibilities we hadn’t seen before.
Let’s dream, beginning with what we really do know. We really do know that many people are busy on Sunday mornings. You know this. I know this. Kids’ sports, dance classes and birthday parties are on Sunday mornings. People hike, visit relatives and sleep in on Sunday mornings. So why fixate on Sunday mornings? A couple of weeks ago, 250 people “came to church” on a Saturday night to hear “The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace.” They experienced the gospel. They saw and heard the Word proclaimed. Every couple of months we have between 50 and a hundred people here on a weeknight for the Green Chautauqua speaker. I dream of a church that measures success by hearts transformed and lives touched, not by counting people on Sunday morning. I dream of a church that isn’t defined by what members practice when they gather together, but by how they live when they’re apart.
Another thing we know is that we’re coming out of a period of history when people participated in church because it was considered the respectable thing to do. Which is ironic for two reasons: Jesus was pretty close to the opposite of respectable his whole life, and he saved his harshest critique for religious hypocrites. I dream of a church that celebrates that the people who find their way into the church today aren’t here for show, or because they have to be here. I have a dream of a church that rejoices that people are here because of a genuine desire to explore what it means to be disciples. I dream of a church that welcomes people who are struggling with questions.
Reading Scripture, another thing we know is that Jesus’ ministry was to heal, to transform the world one person at a time, one heart at a time. I have a dream of a church that embraces healing, and that doesn’t care whether that healing happens through some other religious tradition or through secular practices such as Twelve Step groups, meditation, psychotherapy, self-help, just as examples. Because healing of the individual in turn results in healing of relationships, and then healing of families, and then schools, and then communities, and then economic structures, and then nations and then the planet – beginning with one person at a time. I read an article last week in which a Christian blogger was receiving hate email telling her she isn’t a Christian because she meditates, which according to her detractors, isn’t Christian. But Jesus said, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” I dream of a church that joins hands and links arms with people of other faiths and of no faith, people doing the work of healing and justice. I dream of a church that says, “Whoever is not against us is for us.”
My friends, the truth is that our church is pretty darn close to my dream. But I also have a dream that we figure out what it is we don’t know. What do our neighbors need – our neighbors here in this little corner of San Anselmo? Do they have spiritual longings? Are they worried about raising their kids with good values? Are they trying to figure out how to get off the treadmill of overscheduling? Do they need help figuring out how to balance life and work? Do they need a night out, a tutor, a place where young moms can gather, an intergenerational experience, a book group, affordable housing, help negotiating health care options, a way to feel useful or find meaning? Do they just want one day that they don’t have to get up and dressed and out of the house? Is the last thing they need one more responsibility, one more activity? A church member reminded me a couple of days ago that two wonderful things about our contemporary culture are that people are more participatory and empowered. As much as I appreciate this congregation’s affirmation of my sermons, do people not want a church experience that’s a one-way discussion? What is possible that hasn’t occurred to us because we are so used to doing things the way we do them? I’m not talking about organs versus guitars. That is an old and worn out argument. I’m talking about more radical change. I’m talking about aligning ourselves with like-minded people to accomplish God’s work. I’m talking about changing our language and the way we tell stories so we don’t exclude people. I dream of a church willing to hear God’s revelation to us through our culture and world, recognizing that the church doesn’t control the voice of God.
And I wonder: What is God already doing in our neighborhood in which we could join, in which we could participate? What might we learn if we canvassed our neighborhood? Let’s not assume we already know; let’s not assume they are not already dreaming, too; and let’s not assume they don’t want to hear from us. “Imagine if Martin Luther King had said, ‘I have a dream. Of course, I’m not sure they’ll be up to it.’”
This morning’s passage in Acts tells us that all around us is God’s vibrancy and energy; God’s creative power. We call it the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is that passionate energy to connect, express and communicate; to heal, to touch, to join. The Spirit lights “sparks from person to person, scattering light in all directions. Sometimes the sparks ignite a blaze; sometimes they pass quietly, magically, almost imperceptibly, from one to another.” This still happens. Pentecost was not a one-time event, never to be repeated. And so here is the most important question of all: What, if anything, is getting in the way of our hearing the Spirit roar through this place, empowering us to catch the vision, and dream the dream?
There’s an old story about a shoe factory that sends two marketing scouts to a region of Africa to study the prospects for expanding business. One sends back a telegram saying, SITUATION HOPELESS STOP NO ONE WEARS SHOES. The other writes back triumphantly, GLORIOUS BUSINESS OPPORTUNITY STOP THEY HAVE NO SHOES.
Which story are we telling ourselves? Are we allowing God to dream God’s unlimited possibilities through us? That piece of paper in your bulletin. Please tear it in half. On one piece, write your strategy for financial sustainability. On the other piece, tell us your dream. Your dream for our church. Begin it with, “I have a dream…” or “My dream is…” Put that in the suggestion box, too.
I have a dream. May it be so for you, as well. Amen.
© Joanne Whitt 2015 all rights reserved.
 John M. Buchanan, https://jmbpastor.wordpress.com/2013/09/08/more-thoughts-on-the-dream/.
 Thom and Joani Schultz, Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore: And Four How Acts of Love Will Make Your Church Irresistible (Loveland. CO: Group Publishing, 2013).
 Mike Regele, Death of the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996).
 Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander, The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life (New York: Penguin Books, 2000), p. 110.
 Zander and Zander, pp. 109-110.
 Benjamin Zander, “The Transformative Power of Classical Music,” http://www.ted.com/talks/benjamin_zander_on_music_and_passion?language=en.
 Zander and Zander, p. 139.
 Zander and Zander, p.9.