Great to be with you,
and grateful to Dan and also to the Visioning Committee for the
hospitality this weekend, it really is great to be back with you
[Editor's note: Dick is working as a consultant with First
Christian Church on a visioning process throughout 2007].
Eugene is just such a
lovely place, I love coming here. I would do this for nothing [to
shouts of "good!" from the congregation J].
I intend to bring my wife with me next time -- she wasn't able to make
this trip due to surgery, but she's doing great, and we're thankful for
I don't think I need
to tell you, even though Dan would never tell you, that you have one of
the finest preachers in the country, right here in this congregation
[applause from the congregation]. There's a lot more going on here
every Sunday morning than there is in those radio and T.V. pulpits that
get so much play. I so much appreciate Dan's ministry, such a
pleasure to work with him. And also with this congregation,
because you really are a flagship church for the kind of church I think
God is calling all Disciples congregations to become. I'm proud to
be associated with you and to be able to work with you all.
I'm going to jump
ahead this morning to Pentecost -- I know we're still in Easter time,
but I wanted to move to Pentecost and read for you this morning from the
second chapter of Acts.
We remember at this
time of the church's life that Jesus had been crucified and resurrected
just 50 days before the occasion of Pentecost. At this point in
the church's history, all Christians were Jews. And so they were
gathered for the Jewish celebration of Pentecost, in Jerusalem, 50 days
after the resurrection. The resurrection appearances of Jesus were
over, so the church was now in a very real sense on its own.
The question of the
hour was: now what do we do?
I suppose they could
have called a convention, instead of meeting in Jerusalem for the
celebration of Pentecost. They could have had a General Assembly,
and someone could have brought a resolution to answer that question --
now what do we do? They could have voted on it, and they could
have moved forward that way. Thanks be to God that's not what they
chose to do J.
Not that the Holy Spirit can't move through the occasional General
Assembly resolution, I've seen it happen, but as a general way of doing
its discernment about how to move forward, I think they made the better
choice. They just determined to be open to the Holy Spirit on that
occasion of Pentecost.
And the Holy Spirit
showed up. And this is a timely word for the church today, I
think, because we are in these post-modern times. I talk about
post-modern a lot, and people say "well, what does post-modern
mean?". And I have to respond "Well, mostly we don't
know. The name itself says it all -- it's 'post-modern'.
It's after the last thing that we really understood, the modern
era. Now we're after that, we're in a post-modern time".
A time of
transition. It's a time, really, a lot more like the first century
(which is where this text comes from) than it is, say, like the 19th
century, when this congregation was shaped and formed. It's more
like the first century even than it is like the 20th century in some
So the operative
question today for this congregation, as for every congregation of
Christians in this post-modern era, is "Now what do we do?
What does God have in store for us now? What is God calling us to
be, and to do?".
With that in mind,
let's look at the second chapter of Acts, a wonderful story, one of my
When the day of
Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly
from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it
filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3Divided tongues, as
of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.
4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in
other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
5 Now there were
devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And
at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one
heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7Amazed and
astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking
Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native
language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia,
Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt
and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome,
both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages
we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ 12All were
amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this
mean?’ 13But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new
14 But Peter,
standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them:
Now, remember, this is the same Peter
who just 50 days before had denied his Lord three times.
He had been uncharacteristically quiet for these last several
weeks. Peter, who was always, it seemed, the first to
speak. Maybe the boldest of the apostles. The one who
boasted 'I will follow you to your death, Lord, I would never betray
you'. The same Peter who then turned around and betrayed his
Christ three times. He had lost his voice. But on this
occasion, seeing these tongues of fire, he found his voice
again. Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and
‘Men of Judea
and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to
what I say. 15Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is
only nine o’clock in the morning. [I
love that little footnote J]
16No, this is what
was spoken through the prophet Joel:
And then Peter goes on to quote
directly from the prophet Joel, you can find it in the book of Joel in
the Old Testament -- it's word-for-word the same speech. He
17“In the last days
it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
18Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy".
Now, a couple of things about this
passage. First of all, it says "In the last days".
Peter understood that after the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we were in
the last days. We are in the last days. We don't know how
many 'last days' there will be -- there's been 2,000 years of last-days
so far. And, you know, it might be that there's only 1 more
last-day. There may be an asteroid hurtling toward the earth right
now that we don't know about. Or, it may be millions of
years. We don't know. I hope it's awhile -- not too long
ago, I bought a pop-up tent trailer, and I'd really like to get some use
out of that J.
But, we don't know how many days there are left, we just know it is the
last days. It's time, you might say, to get busy.
The other thing we want to say about
this is that Peter, the one who had betrayed his Lord, is now quoting
from Joel. And we see that this is an equal-opportunity Holy
Spirit that we have. The spirit is poured out on men and women, on
slave and free, and on young and old.
That means a lot to me, because
recently I have made the passage from being a young man to being a
not-so-young man. And so I focused in on those two verses --
"Your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see
visions". And I wondered about that. I thought, well,
maybe this is just a Hebrew couplet. Hebrew writers do that a lot
-- they'll say something one way and then they'll say the same thing in
a slightly different way, just to give emphasis. So maybe that's
all that is.
Then I thought, what if there's more
going on here? What if I need to take it a little more
literally? What would be the difference? I thought about it
and I thought, maybe, young people get to see visions because they don't
know all the things that are not possible. Young people have not
become so cynical, that they know ALL the things that God cannot do, in
spite of the fact that we say that with God all things are
possible. They haven't learned that yet, and so God can just give
them a vision. God's got something in mind for us to do, God just
gives a vision, and young people can see it and run with it.
But when we get older, we learn all
those things that are not possible. We become so cynical that the
only way God can get a fresh word into us is when we're unconscious J.
We have to be asleep. And then, when all our senses are
disconnected, God is able to lay on us a challenge that God has in mind
for us. Hmmmm.
Well, not everybody who was gathered on
that Pentecost day in Jerusalem recognized the Holy Spirit. Some
thought they were just filled with new wine. But the rest of them
began to discern what God was leading them to do.
Discernment is messy business. To
discern, you have to engage in the spiritual disciplines. There's
a difference between democracy and discernment. Each one has it's
place. But democracy is determining the will of people.
Discernment is seeking to understand the will of God. And as you
know, those are not always the same thing. Although we seem to
have confused discernment and democracy in the American church (and not
only the American church). So that our axiom is: "Is
this the will of God? We don't know, so let's vote on it and
see". But as you know, the majority can often be dead
wrong. So there's a difference between discernment and democracy,
and discernment is kind of messy business.
To discern, you have to engage in the
spiritual disciplines. Especially prayer, and dialogue with one
another, in the presence of the Holy Spirit. There's really two
primary enemies of discernment, I find. The first enemy of
discernment is all of those things that we are absolutely sure of.
That's the first enemy of discernment -- all the things that we're
absolutely sure of. Discernment requires our suspension of all the
things we think we know. Long enough to be able to hear a new word
from the Sprit. Discernment, then, like all true spirituality,
begins with humility.
That's why the prophet Micah answers
the question "What does the Lord require of you?" with:
"To do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your
God". That's why Jesus, when he gives us the beatitudes,
gives us the first one first: "Blessed are the poor in
spirit". Or, more helpfully translated from the Greek,
"Blessed are those who recognize their spiritual
poverty". Blessed are those who recognize their spiritual
need. Discernment begins with humility.
So the first enemy of discernment is
everything we're absolutely sure we know. Because it's hard to
learn a new thing when you think you already know the
The second enemy of the Spirit, and
enemy of discernment, is anxiety. Anxiety drives us to do exactly
the wrong thing. Favorite example -- when a person is drowning,
they will forsake a life ring or a rope and continue grasping at straws
that cannot save them. But in their anxiety, in their panic, the
straws are all they can see. Or it's like a person who marries too
soon, on the rebound after the death of a spouse, or after a
divorce. It's a bad time to make a choice, when you still have
that anxiety that remains.
So, two enemies of discernment --
everything we think we know, and anxiety. You have to be able to
rest in the Lord, and wait on the Lord, to allow the Lord to speak to
I love this sanctuary. We all, as
protestants, refer to this room as a sanctuary, but church architects
have another word for it, they call it a 'nave'. This comes from
the same Latin root as the word "Navy". Has to do with
boats and ships and such. Why would they refer to this room as a
nave, a boat? In the first century, you'll remember that the
Christian community was not always greeted warmly. Sometimes they
were persecuted. Many of the early Christians were fishermen in
Galilee, and one of their practices when they would gather on the first
day of the week to break bread and worship God was to gather under an
over-turned fishing boat. So that they were not so obvious to the
community. It was a place of sanctuary, under that over-turned
boat. And that image stuck for the church. It's been called
the 'ship of faith' through the ages. A frequent symbol used for
the church is a sailboat. That's where that allusion comes from.
this (First Christian) is a marvelous kind of architecture, but it
doesn't have quite that traditional ceiling, where it's pretty obvious
you can see all of the works of the bottom of the boat over the top of
you. This is a little more like rub-a-dub-dub, three-men-in-a-tub J.
But you get the point. It's a nave, it's like an over-turned ship.
So, if the church is called to be a
ship, what kind of boat are we called to be? Maybe we're called to
be an ark. An ark has no means of propelling itself, it has no way
even to steer. An ark is more like a tub, and it's something in
which people huddle against the storm hoping to God that when the storm
is over they'll come somewhere worth being. I don't think that's
the kind of ship God is calling the church to be.
Or, there's cruise ships. I love
cruise ships, my wife and I love to cruise. I don't think there's
anything wrong with cruising from time to time, you know, it's a way to
get away for a week. The most stressful thing you have to do on a
cruise is decide which buffet you're going to eat off of next.
It's a wonderful thing -- it's a hotel that follows you. But I
don't think God is calling the church to be a cruise ship, where
everybody is just getting their own needs and desires met without regard
to what's going on in the rest of the world.
When I think of what kind of ship God
might be calling the church to be, I think of those tall ships.
The tall ships in New York harbor with sails unfurled.
Now, I want to tell you something about
ships. I'm not a sailor. I am a pilot. And I enjoy
telling my sailor friends that sails are really nothing but wings.
And that's true.
people think airplanes fly by the force of air pushing up against the
bottom of the wing. But that's exactly wrong, actually. Look at a wing
sometime -- you'll notice that it's relatively straight across the
bottom of the wing, and it's curved across the top of the wing.
The idea here is that when the air meets that wing, it splits and in
order to meet up again at the back of the wing the air going over the
top has to go faster than the air going across the bottom. This
creates a low-pressure area on top of the wing, which creates a force
pulling upward -- that force is called
lift. And so an airplane is actually lifted by the air, not
pushed up by the air.
That's exactly how a sail works.
When a sail fills with air, it creates a dead space behind the sail, and
the front of the sail is curved. And so as the wind passes over
the sail it passes across the front of the sail faster than it goes
across the back of the sail where it takes a shortcut. In the
process of doing that, it creates a low-pressure area on the front of
the sail. So you see, sailboats are not pushed by wind, they are
drawn by the wind. They are actually pulled by the wind.
Now, hold on to that thought, and move
to the gospel of John and the story of Nicodemus. One of my
favorite stories in the New Testament. You remember Nicodemus, he
was a wonderfully religious Jew. And he came at night to Jesus to
ask him some questions, even though it was dangerous for him (which is
why he came at night), because he was a leader among the Jews. But
he wanted to ask some questions. It says:
"Now there was a
Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus by
night and said to him, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who
has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart
from the presence of God." 3 Jesus answered him,
[recognizing that he had somebody here who was a serious student of
religion, he went right to teaching]
"Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God
without being born from above." 4 Nicodemus said to him,
"How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a
second time into the mother's womb and be born?" 5 Jesus
answered, [it's a metaphor,
stupid. Oh, no, that's not here in the text. I'm sorry,
that's a note I had in the margin J.
Don't you think there were times, though, when Jesus wanted to say
"that's a metaphor, stupid"?] "Very
truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being
born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and
what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I
said to you, 'You must be born from above.' 8 The wind blows where it
chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it
comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the
Spirit." 9 Nicodemus said to him, "How can these things
be?" 10 Jesus answered him, "Are you a teacher of Israel,
and yet you do not understand these things?"
The key to understanding Jesus'
teaching here is to know that in Greek, which is the original language
in which this appears, the word for 'wind' and the word for 'spirit' are
the same word -- pneuma, like pneumatic tires. Pneuma, wind,
spirit. The wind, or the Spirit, blows where it chooses and you
hear the sound of it but you do not know where it comes from or where it
goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.
Nicodemus said to him "How could
these things be?". And Jesus answered him "Are you a
teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?".
We need to let the Spirit blow through
the church. But right now, in a post-modern era, our churches are
suffering from what I might call "ecclesial sclerosis" -- a
kind of hardening of the spiritual arteries. It is time for us to
once again open ourselves to the movement of the Holy Spirit. To
allow ourselves to be drawn in the Spirit's tether.
I don't like the idea of God pushing us
around. But I love that image, from the gospel of John, where
Jesus talks about the Spirit as drawing us. The Spirit goes where
it will, and it draws us forward. Let us be drawn in the Spirit's
tether, as the song says.
Now, maybe you've done this with me
before, so if you have, just join right in. You know about this, I
learned about this on the 'left' coast, and here I am, so just do it
with me. This is the mantra of the unchanging church:
"Ohhmmmmmm. . . but we've never
done it this way. . . . ."
"Ohhmmmmmm. . . but we've never done it this way. . . . ."
You're not ohhmmmming J.
Let's do it the opposite way, the opposite mantra -- you know this one:
"Ohhmmmmmm. . . but we've always
done it this way. . . . ."
"Ohhmmmmmm. . . but we've always done it this way. . . . ."
Like all institutions, the church needs
to change. I call that "Ohhmms Law" J.
First Christian Church, Disciples of Christ, in Eugene Oregon -- be that
tall ship. Be led and powered by the Holy Spirit.
love your vision statement -- calls you to be a light in the heart of
Eugene. Yes. But let me give you one last image before I
close. My sailor friends tell me about those little strips of
cloth that are hung from the mast of a sailboat. They're called
"telltales". A telltale tells the pilot of the boat
which direction the wind is blowing, so he or she knows how to steer
into the wind.
May each of you, as members of this
body, First Christian Church, Disciples of Christ, Eugene Oregon, be
telltales of what the Spirit is seeking to do among us.