Pentecost: A Time To Preserve The Dream

Acts 2: 1-13 – Festival of Pentecost, May 23/24, 2015
Washington Memorial Chapel, Valley Forge, PA – The Rev. Roy Almquist

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. (Acts 2:16-18, NRSV)

Today we observe the Festival of Pentecost, the third great commemoration of the Church year. Pentecost reminds us that we have been called to be a fellowship of sacred dreamers. We live in this world but with a special vision that prevents us from being completely of this world.
We are not a people who claim that we have a special relationship with God or an extraordinary access to God … we are not special in and of ourselves.
We know that what makes us special is that through our baptism we are joined to a unique community of faith that exists for the primary purpose of sharing God’s love with a confused and troubled world.

The story the Evangelist Luke tells us of the First Pentecost, we have heard many times. We know that the disciples were locked away in that Upper Room, still fearful and uncertain. Suddenly, Luke tells us that a mighty wind howled, disrupting their meditation. Then he tells us that tongues of fire descended upon all of Jesus’ followers, a symbolic refining of their hearts. Finally, we are told that these uneducated people received the ability to speak in a variety of languages, communicating with the vast numbers of visitors who were in Jerusalem.

In many ways the events of Pentecost stagger the mind and cannot be easily explained. Nevertheless, the Church has found strength and purpose from this narrative which relates how these early converts formed the Jerusalem Church and began a movement that has traversed the world.

Once the telling of these stories electrified people and compelled faith. Today many have trouble believing these stories, and they find little comfort or inspiration in their recitation.

The great heartbreak for me in 2015 is the realization that many of our children and grandchildren, young men and young women who have grown up in our congregation … appear to have lost their way and any sense of connection with Christian community. They have wandered off to see where demons dwell and many have not found their way back to the fellowship of believers in Jesus Christ.

I am convinced that the challenge for the Church in our time is to find a way to accompany these people, to come along side them to encourage them to dream again. This is not easy. We live in a world that no longer has a vested interested in promoting congregational participation.

I am certainly not ready to join the doomsayers who are eagerly writing the obituary for the Christian Church, but I am concerned. I am aware of the changing patterns in the lives of many who were once active in the Church. I am aware of the trends.

For that reason I read with interest the recent Pew Research Center analysis entitled: America’s Changing Religious Landscape. The Pew Research Center’s study claims that the Christian share of the population in the United States is declining.

No doubt as a corollary to this trend, the number of Americans who do not identify with any organized religion is growing. The Pew Study claims that these changes are taking place across the religious landscape, affecting all regions of the country and all demographic groups. While the drop in Christian affiliation is particularly pronounced among young adults, it is occurring among Americans of all ages.

To be sure, the United States remains home to more Christians than any other country in the world – roughly seven-in-ten consider themselves to be Christian. But the wind is dying down in the lives of many … the tongues of fiery inspiration are burning low … and fewer people feel any compulsion to share their faith in any measurable manner.

More and more children are being raised in homes where there is no sense of faith commitment or religious practice. Many of their parents were raised in the Church and have not necessarily rejected Christianity, but they are extremely busy and, as one young mother said to me … I have trouble believing that my children will be better people for having colored pictures of Noah’s ark in a church basement!

Ouch. Is that what the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church has come to mean … a place where children color pictures in a dark basement? Excuse me if I share my frustration. I think many people have confused their own struggle to form a viable faith for their lives with the intrinsic value of the Christian faith. The Gospel message has been proclaiming hope and purpose to multitudes in Jesus’ Name for over two-thousand years. Must we now accept the premise that the Gospel is no longer relevant because Becky and Steve and their kids have trouble finding their way to church? I think not.

I recently came across a poem by Stephen Dunn, a contemporary American poet. His whimsical lyric addresses the very challenge we face this Pentecost Sunday. Dunn calls it … At the Smithville Methodist Church:

It was supposed to be Arts & Crafts for a week,
but when she came home with the “Jesus Saves” button,
we knew what art was up, what ancient craft.
She liked her little friends. She liked the songs they sang
when they weren’t twisting and folding paper into dolls.
What could be so bad?

Jesus had been a good man, and putting faith in good men was what
we had to do to stay this side of cynicism, that other sadness.
OK, we said, One week.
But when she came home singing, “Jesus loves me,
the Bible tells me so,” it was time to talk.

Could we say Jesus doesn’t love you? Could I tell her the Bible
is a great book certain people use to make you feel bad?
We sent her back without a word.
It had been so long since we believed, so long since we needed Jesus
as our nemesis and friend, that we thought he was sufficiently dead,
that our children would think of him like Lincoln or Thomas Jefferson.
Soon it became clear to us: you can’t teach disbelief to a child,
only wonderful stories, and we hadn’t a story nearly as good.

On parents’ night there were the Arts & Crafts all spread out like appetizers.
Then we took our seats in the church
and the children sang a song about the Ark, and Hallelujah
and one in which they had to jump up and down for Jesus.
I can’t remember ever feeling so uncertain about what’s comic, what’s serious.

Evolution is magical but devoid of heroes.
You can’t say to your child, “Evolution loves you.”
The story stinks of extinction and nothing exciting happens for centuries.
I didn’t have a wonderful story for my child and she was beaming.
All the way home in the car she sang the songs,
occasionally standing up for Jesus.
There was nothing to do but drive, ride it out, and sing along in silence.

So let us not lose faith. We have that better story … Jesus does love us … we do not have to sing along in silence. May it be our prayer that the Holy Spirit will come along side us and shake us up, preparing and equipping each of us to live lives that make a difference. May it begin today. AMEN.

Washington Memorial Chapel