University Congregational Church
May 15, 2016
“Growing In Spirit”
Did you know that the word “conspire” means to breathe together? Take a breath. Now blow it out again. We have just conspired together. Think about that word. Do you see that a part of conspire also includes the spirit? To conspire is to be filled with the same spirit – to breathe the same air. It can happen with two people or with two thousand.
If you study earth science, then you may know that our gorgeous blue-green planet is wrapped in a protective veil we call the atmosphere, which separates the air we breathe from the cold vacuum of outer space. Beneath this veil is all the air that ever was. New air is an oxymoronic idea. No one can create new air to replace the air we currently have.
The same ancient air just continues to recirculate, which means that every time any of us breathes we breathe the air from others who have and do share the planet.
* We are still breathing the air present at the beginning of time.
* We breathe brontosaurus breath and pterodactyl breath.
* We breathe air that has circulated in the jungles of Africa and mountains of Nepal.
* We breathe the same air as Jesus, Plato, Mozart and Michelangelo. And also the air that Genghis Kahn and Attila the Hun, Pol Pot, Stalin and Hitler breathed.
* Every time we breathe, we take in what was once a newborn baby’s first breath, or the last breath of someone who is dying.
We take it in, we use it, and when we breathe out it carries some of us with it into the next person, or tree, or animal, who uses it to live.
Breath – the ruach in Hebrew – has a special meaning in the Bible. The word’s first use in the Bible appears in the second verse of Genesis: “The Spirit of God [Ruach Elohim] was hovering over the waters”. Ruach is translated “breath of life” and also the “wind” God sent over the earth to recede the Flood waters. Altogether, the word ruach is found almost 400 times in the Old Testament.
God’s Ruach is the source of life. It is the spirit within us and the Spirit of God simultaneously.
None of us can say exactly what happened on the first day of Pentecost in the first century. The images given in the traditional text from Acts 2 seem unbelievable, perhaps allegorical. The Jews who were observing the followers of Jesus thought that they were drunk. The breath of God seemed to be blowing all over those first believers -whipping them around and changing their trajectory.
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?
In our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.” Acts 2:1-8, 11-13
Barbara Brown Taylor explains this text in a beautiful way when she writes:
“When Jesus let go of his last breath – for the love of us – that breath hovered in the air in front of him for a moment and then it was set loose on earth. It was such a pungent breath – so full of passion, so full of life – that it did not simply dissipate as so many breaths do. It grew, in strength and in volume, until it was a mighty wind, which God sent spinning … on the day of Pentecost. God wanted to make sure that Jesus’ friends were the inheritors of Jesus’ breath, and it worked.”
The gift of God’s breath is meant to overcome the separation we experience between people. This story is told so that we understand that the very air we share defeats the brokenness of human community. It transcends our separateness and creates new life.
Several days ago, Eric and I attended the WSU Turkish Student Association for Interfaith Dialog dinner. It was held at the Rhatigan Student Center and about 200 people attended. The WSU Turkish Students leading this group only number about 4-5 students. They invited people all around Wichita to attend a free dinner to continue “interfaith dialog as an antidote to extremism”. These 4 or 5 young Muslim students brought people of all faiths together to dialog. They invited a Jewish scholar on communication as the keynote speaker. And they awarded several Wichita community members – most of whom were Christian – with awards. As I sat at a table with people of at least 3 faith traditions, I felt the breath of God blowing up a small whirlwind.
Before the first century Pentecost Day was over, the church had grown from one hundred twenty to more than three thousand. Shy people became bold, scared people became gutsy, lost people found direction, lonely people found friends. The disciples who didn’t believe themselves capable of carrying on after Jesus’ death discovered abilities within themselves they never knew they had.
• When they opened their mouths to speak, they sounded like Jesus.
• When they laid their hands upon the sick, it was as if Jesus himself was there.
• When they told the stories of Jesus, others joined in.
There was no explanation for it, except that they had dared to inhale on the day of Pentecost. They had sucked in God’s own breath and they had been transformed by it. God was born again in them.
University Congregational Church, do we believe in a God who still blows this kind of transformative air into us? Do we still believe in a God who is active in our world – active in our lives – a God with the power to transform us? Or, has our God gotten old and tired and inactive?
When I see grandparents raising their own grandchildren, I wonder where they get the strength. I’m not even a grandparent yet and I go to bed at the end of the day exhausted. Where do they find the energy and the patience and the love to take on young children? Perhaps they are breathing some Pentecost air.
When I see people risking their reputations and friendships to stand up for something they believe in that is not popular, I wonder where they got the chutzpah. They show up at events to stand in solidarity with those they do not even know personally. To advocate, demonstrate, raise their voices, educate, and lobby for change in our world. Maybe they got hold of some Pentecost air.
Of all God’s characteristics and names, I think the Holy Spirit is the hardest to understand. The tongues of flame and the disparate languages and the mighty wind seem just a little too, well, Pentecostal for us. We’re dignified Congregationalists, for heaven’s sake. We can sing a few spiritual songs without getting too riled up. We can mark Pentecost on the calendar as long as nothing really changes. We can postulate in a class about the Holy Spirit and discuss it. But act like God is blowing new life into us? That sends shivers down our spines!
But let me tell you something on this Pentecost Sunday, University Congregational Church of Wichita Kansas. Something is happening around here whether we are ready or not.
1. While most mainline congregations are declining at a rapid speed; we are growing!
2. We have an average attendance in 2016 that is 20+ more people on a Sunday morning than in 2015!
3. We are hosting 13 or more visitors per Sunday!
4. Our active membership numbers have increased to more than 300 people!
5. More and more people feel great about being here and they don’t want to miss a Sunday because they know it will be something significant and moving!
As your minister and your spiritual guide, I hope all of you are experiencing the same excitement and renewal and growth and personal development in your own lives. I hope you are feeling the wind of God blowing in your own life, rearranging things, opening things up, and maybe even setting you on fire with passion.
If you are a Kansan by birth or by choice, you may have enjoyed standing out in the backyard or on the porch to watch a stormy sky. The power of the wind whipping through the trees and the rain falling to the ground is an all-encompassing experience. It can be a spiritual awakening. There is power in the air we breathe, if we take it in. There is power in a fresh smell of earth as the rain comes, if we notice it. There is strength and renewal in the coming of God’s spirit, if we recognize it.
Whenever you take a risk you thought you did not have the courage to undertake, you might just have caught a breath of the Spirit of God.
Whenever you speak to someone you have not intended to or would rather avoid, you might just have caught a breath of the Spirit of God.
Whenever you step out of your comfort zone and invite someone to a church event, you might just have caught a breath of the Spirit of God.
Whenever you change your mind or move in a new direction, or ask for some help to change, you may have just breathed in a bit of the Spirit of God.
When you are in a bad mood and you notice something unexpected – the song of a bird or the movement of a bee – and it brings a smile to your face, you might have just caught a glimpse of the wind of God.
When you listen to a new point of view or open your mind to a new way of thinking, the wind of God is clearing your head.
A good friend of mine, a local pastor, found out he had leukemia last fall. He went through an atrocious series of chemo and was relieved to find in January that his leukemia was in remission. He went back to work. He scheduled a visit from his brother, who lives in New Zealand for this summer. Last week, he found out that his leukemia has returned. He is now taking more chemo. It will not save him. The only thing that can save him is a bone marrow transplant. The doctors predict that he will need to find a donor and schedule that transplant in June. His brother, who is an atheist, called him this week. He said, “I suppose you’re going to say that this was all orchestrated by some divine providence.” My minister friend replied, “I know that you think it is a coincidence. You may be right. But I chose to believe that it is God’s providence. If you are a match, you will be here at the right time to offer me new life. If you are not a match, you will be here to help me find another donor or as I become gravely ill. Either way, it’s going to be a sacred time.”
I cannot explain the Holy Spirit. I cannot precisely pin it down. Jesus himself said it was like a mystery… like a wind. You do not see the wind, and yet you know when it comes and when it goes.
Friends, take a breath. Now just keep breathing. This is God’s moment by moment gift to us. We can call it air – the divine ruach – or we can call it the Holy Spirit. We warm up that air when we breathe it in and it gives us life in return. It can fill us with life, set our heads on fire, and give us tongues to speak of things we cannot begin to understand.
We are continuing this “Growing in Spirit” series for the next two weeks. I can’t wait to see what the divine wind of Kansas in May brings to us!
Taylor, Barbara Brown. “Home By Another Way”. Boston: Cowley Publications.
Davison, Lisa. Phillips Theological Seminary Minister’s Week Lecture, 2015.