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 Surprised by the Spirit

Sermon - 6/3/12
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

John 3:1-10

The text for this first Sunday after Pentecost is another story of the surprising way in which the Spirit moves. It comes to us from the Gospel of John, the third chapter, verses one through 10:

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.2He 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.’ 3Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ 4Nicodemus 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?’ 5Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” 8The 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.’ 9Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ 10Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

So it is the season of Pentecost. And if Pentecost is about anything, it is about the surprising way that the Sprit often moves. And the things that She does.

I hope you found last Sunday a pleasant surprise (if you were here), I sure did, as soon as I turned on my computer and looked online (I was out of town), and I saw the Red River flowing down from the chancel, and I thought "Oh, that's new, I like it!". And that was just the beginning of many surprises throughout that service that was so delightful. And it's just always wonderful to know you can leave, and leave things in such good hands with so many folks who did such a great job.

I had a less pleasant, but equally surprising, experience in the midst of watching it online, in that this logo appeared in the middle of the screen and a voiceover that said "This is a demonstration of U-Stream Producer", every 30 seconds for an hour and a half throughout the entire service! Another little technological glitch that we hadn't discovered before (it won't happen again :).

The story of Nicodemus coming to Jesus with his questions by night, speaks to the surprising way that the Spirit works. The wind blows this way and that, and you have no idea where it's coming from or where it is going.

But poor old Nicodemus doesn't quite get it, does he? He's used to the way things have always been before. That's how God speaks, tradition! Right? Through the written word. Through the established institution. Through worship familiar and comfortable, the way that we're used to. You know anyone like that? Like maybe most of us?

How many Disciples does it take to change a light bulb? Change?! My Grandmother gave that light-bulb to the church!

So, I want to challenge us, in the spirit of Pentecost, to think outside the box on what it means to be 'churched'. And to learn to trust the leading of the Spirit.

I want to do so this morning with the help of 3 other congregations and their stories of transformation, and a young film-maker who tells those stories.

Let me first of all set the stage for why I think the church always has to be open to change. To renewal. To rebirth, as even this text suggests. It's not just a one-time thing, but an on-going process.

In 1998, hurricane Mitch perched itself over the Gulf of Mexico just off the coast of Honduras. And for three days, pummeled that poor impovershed nation with rain. Lots and lots and lots of rain. It was like a pipeline had been erected from the Gulf, directly over Hondurus, and just poured that water out directly over the country. Over 100 inches -- that's over 8 feet of rain in 3 days! That's too much for anybody, right?

Entire communities disappeared, mudslides just wiped them off the map. Over 5,000 people that perished. 150 bridges were wiped out. Now, think how hard it is to deliver aid -- Week of Compassion was on the scene immediately afterward with emergency supplies, but how do you get there when you don't have bridges?

There was 1 bridge, however, that withstood the onslaught. It had been been built by the Japanese, with the world's best engineers just 2 years before, and they were so proud that their bridge had survived when so few others did. There was only one problem:

The river moved :) Nature has a few surprises of her own, right?

Brian McClaren, the leading spokesperson for the 'emerging church' movement, uses this image to talk about how the world has changed all around us, sometimes literally underneath us. I heard him speak 6 years ago at a conference up in Portland, and he talked about how, over the span of his lifetime (50 years) how much the world had changed in those 50 years. But we could think about just the last couple of decades, since I came to Eugene in 1991, how much it has changed. When I came here, we had 2 -- count 'em, 2 -- DOS-based computers. All text-based, no mice, right? My phone is 1,000 times more powerful than those computers.

All of our recording was done on cassettes. All filming and pictures were taken on film. A 'mobile phone' was as big as a bread-basket -- remember those? Amazon was a river :) And if anyone had said to you back in 1991 that the day will come within 2 decades when we will have an African-American President who will endorse same-sex marriage, they would have locked you up for being crazy! Inconceivable.

Think about the changes that have occurred just since the start of this millennium. Sept 11th -- literally changed our landscape. The war in Afghanistan became the longest war in U.S. history. The economic collapse of 2008 literally changed fortunes for millions of people across this country. And, same-sex marriage is legal now in 7 states. Of course, the biggest change of all? The Rose-Bowl became green-and-yellow :)

Now, granted, some of these changes have had bigger impacts on the church than others. But the cumulative effect is no less than 100 inches of rain.

Society, indeed, has shifted so much underneath the church that Diana Butler-Bass says we're now living in a "post-Christian" world. That is, a world in which Christians are increasingly in the minority, and we're not being replaced by another religion. It's rather the case that we're being replaced by a religion-less spirituality. That is, a spirituality without the comfort and familiarity of institutionalized relgion. She told us on her recent visit to Eugene that she loves coming to the West coast because we're a good 10-20 years ahead of the rest of the nation in this trend. That just means we have been more effective in chasing people out of church than the rest of the country :).

But, she says, the good news is that we are showing the way for the rest of the country. Of what it means to live in this new post-Christian world. We're showing the way -- not necessarily on how to lead people back into church, but how to go out and find God where God is working, where the Spirit is very much at work and alive in the world. That's the change.

That brings me now to the stories of transformation of 3 congregations -- all of them Disciples churches, all of them smaller than ours, that have been re-born in some rather surprising, non-traditional ways as they follow where the spirit leads. And the story told by this filmmaker I re-discovered only because we were in Delaware, and showing videos to my wife's family, of our son, who sings in On The Rocks, we're very proud parents, you know, showing videos. And I thought, well, gosh, I've got to show something of my daughter. And the only thing I could think of is that I still had this video on my computer that she had made last year of a story of transformation of 3 congregations, as a result -- as a personal request by her father :) -- and also to fulfill some requirements at college, and a result of a conference I had attended on transformation and mission. And I first met a couple of these pastors and heard these stories there, and so this video has been used all over the state of Montana amongst Disciple churches there, and hopefully will be used a few more places.

It's a little bit longer than what I would typically show in a sermon, but I think it tells the story so well, I'm going to devote the rest of my time to it. So here we go:



So what did you think as you were listening? Did the Spirit touch you in some way? Did some ideas come to your mind?

You know, we are part of a larger movement -- the Disciples of Christ -- a movement of wholeness in a fragmented world. And we were reborn out of death, as she spoke, a Phoenix arising out of the ashes of a dying church. And one of our founding documents was actually called the 'Last Will and Testament' of the Springfield presbytery. Because the old way of 'being church' didn't work any more on the frontier. And so those early Disciples sought sought to find a new way to follow where the Spirit leads.

And you see, that was true 200 years ago when the Spirit fell upon those Disciples at Cain Ridge who wrote that will and testament. It was true 2,000 years ago when the Spirit fell upon the first Disciples gathered for Pentecost.

It is still true today as we seek continually to find new ways to create that space where God changes lives and we partner with God to change the world.


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