Pastor Tom Sorenson
May 19, 2002
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen
Today we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the first disciples. Scripture tells us that before he died Jesus promised the coming of the Spirit. The Gospel of John is full of such promises. Weíve heard some of them in the last couple of weeks. The passage from John that we heard this morning tells us that before Pentecost the Spirit was not yet with the disciples, not yet with the Church. But on that Pentecost day so long ago the promises were fulfilled. The Spirit came like tongues of fire and rested upon the gathered community. The Spirit animated them. It transformed them. They began to behave in a way they never had before. We are told specifically that they began to speak in other languages. They began to speak in languages they have never known before, the languages of all the people gathered in the great city of Jerusalem. Their behavior was so changed that people thought they must be drunk. The Holy Spirit will do that to you. It changes you. It animates you. It makes you do things youíve never done before. It even makes people think youíre behaving oddly, so that they have to find explanations for your behavior that they can understand, like you must be drunk.
The Holy Spirit is the power of God at work in the world and in our lives. It is the Spirit of Christ, and it is through the Holy Spirit that Christ remains present to us and alive in the church and in our own lives. We donít normally pay much attention to the Holy Spirit in our tradition. We arenít Pentacostalists, after all. Thatís what we call Christians who emphasize the Spirit over the other persons of the Trinity and who are given to what seems to us unseemly exuberance in their worship. The presence of the Spirit certainly can lead to unseemly exuberance, and that is so un-Congregational. Yet, I think there is something we can learn here from the story of Pentecost, and maybe even from Pentecostalism, that may be of value.
In her siren song in the classic German movie The Blue Angel Marlene Dietrich sang, in her low, sultry, come hither voice: "Männer umschwärmen mich wie Motten das Licht ...." "Men swarm around me like moths round a light." Weíve all seen how moths are attracted to light whether from a light bulb, a Coleman lantern, or an open flame. They canít resist it. But moths arenít the only ones attracted to light. We are too. We are drawn to places of light and warmth. We love to gather round an open campfire on a chilly summer night in the mountains, or to snuggle up in front of a roaring fireplace watching the dancing flames and basking in the warmth of the glowing, crackling logs. Thereís something irresistible for many living beings about light and warmth.
Thatís what we get from the Holy Spirit--light and warmth. The symbol for the Spirit that we take from this morningís reading is flame. Flame gives light and warmth. If we will let it, the Holy Spirit can bring light and warmth to our lives, light and warmth that sustains us, gets us through the day, keeps us going. If we will open ourselves to the Holy Spirit in prayer, the Spirit will descend on us something like it did on those first disciples so long ago. Try it. This week, try meditating on the Holy Spirit. Imagine opening yourself up to it, inviting it into your heart, letting it do its work there. You might be surprised what at what happens. You might even decide later on in life to close your law office, go to seminary, and become a preacher. Itís been know to happen.
The same is true for us as a church. You never know what might happen if we let the Holy Spirit transform us into a place of even more light and warmth than we are now. Because it is the day when the Holy Spirit entered the life of the disciple community, Pentecost is celebrated as the birthday of the church. And so I thought that as part of this sermon we might reflect a bit on our hopes and dreams for this church. And I think the imagery of the light and warmth of the Holy Spirit may help us do that.
In an article called "The Moth Principle of Church Attraction," published in the e word, an online service of the UCC web site ucc.org, Pastor David Ray of First Congregational Church (UCC) in San Rafael, California, who is a recognized expert on church growth, used the imagery of light and warmth to talk about church renewal and growth. He says:
Despite our higher standing in the evolutionary process, humans, like moths, naturally gravitate to light and warmth. Churches that offer the light and warmth of genuine hospitality and personal meaning will experience visitors coming through the door. Visitors who are received as guests and who find light and warmth are likely to stay.
[Iíve given copies of this article to some of you. Iíve made more copies and put them on the round table in the fellowship hall. It is well worth reading for all of us.]
Pastor Ray calls this "the moth principle of church attraction." The idea is very simple. If you want your church to attract people the way a flame attracts moths, make your church a place of light and warmth. To put that in the terms of Pentecost, make your church a place where the Holy Spirit dwells, bringing that light and warmth that attracts people the way a light attracts moths. People wonít come to a cold, unwelcoming church (not that I mean to suggest that this is one. Far from it). They will come to one that is full of the light and warmth of the Holy Spirit.
OK, but what does that mean, exactly? To get a better idea, letís look at what Pastor Ray says about his church in San Rafael. The parallels between that church and this one, while not exact, are striking. Eight years ago, so about 1994, Ray was called as a half time pastor. You hired Diane, and you have called me, as half time pastors. The church had shrunk from 281 members in 1957 to 33 active members, with 19 involved in church leadership and about 30 in worship each week. I donít know if this church was ever that big, but right now we have just under 40 members, considerably fewer than that involved in leadership, and worship attendance of about 35 to 45 each week. That churchís budget was $56,000. Our budget is a bit higher, but inflation would account for at least most of that difference. The parallels between San Rafael First Congregational eight years ago and this church today are striking.
Today that church has 70 active members with 42 involved in leadership and an average of 60 in worship. Ray says that it has "an effervescent spirit of optimism, openness, commitment, and hospitality." And he attributes the turn around to precisely two things: light and warmth. I would attribute it to the increased presence in the life of that community of the Holy Spirit that brings that light and warmth.
What specifically did they do at San Rafael First Congregational to open themselves up to the Holy Spirit, to generate that light and warmth of the Holy Spirit that attracted new people to them like moths to a flame? Well, I wonít rehash Rayís entire article here. As I said, I encourage all of you to read it and learn all the specifics for yourself. Let me just point to a couple of major emphases that I think are worth paying attention to. First, Ray says, they worked at being a truly welcoming congregation for all people who came to them. One thing that church did in this regard was to work at becoming intentionally Open and Affirming. They made room for newcomers in the church leadership. They made themselves open to the changes that the new members brought to the community.
And they developed a strong mission focus. They had an advantage. They already ran a low incoming housing complex that had been built years earlier, apparently when the church was much bigger. But the point for us is that they became more intentional about that and other mission projects. Social justice mission projects attract people to churches like ours. Iíve seen it happen in Seattle. It happened in San Rafael. It can happen here to.
So, what does all this mean for us? I think it comes down to the fact that we have a very exciting opportunity here at Monroe Congregational United Church of Christ to become a light to this community. Monroe is a growing town. It is a changing town. It needs Godís light. It needs the empowerment and guidance of the Holy Spirit. We arenít the only church in town by any means, but we may be unique among the churches here. So many Christian churches today are so dogmatic, and dogmatic along certain conservative lines that are so foreign to us. To us, being welcoming means welcoming all people without requiring a particular theology, without requiring a particular faith experience. We welcome seekers. We welcome doubters. We even welcome people like me who are believers, seekers, and doubters all at the same time. We are, or can be, more genuinely welcoming of more people than any other church I know of.
Moreover, here in the UCC, we have a great history of social justice ministry that we can share with this community. If you arenít familiar with that history, we need to talk about it. Our world cries out for justice-justice for the poor, the marginalized, the imprisoned, the differently-abled and those with different experiences of their sexuality. We can be a voice for that justice, a voice speaking from convictions firmly rooted in the Gospel of Jesus Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit. Are we up to it?
There are some notes of caution in Rayís article. The growth to which he points was not spectacular. His approach didnít turn San Rafael First Congregational into a mega-church. It took 8 years to double the membership. But thatís what healthy church growth in a UCC church like ours looks like. It is slow and steady. It attracts people who are truly committed to the churchís vision and does not attract people who are looking for a quick spiritual fix and pat answers to difficult questions.
Growth isnít easy. Growth requires change. Growth produces change, and change is hard. Churches, even relatively progressive churches, tend to be pretty conservative institutions with a built in resistance to change. That resistance is understandable. We all cling to the familiar and to the things in our lives that have meant so much to us in the past, and you donít throw the baby out with the bathwater. Yes, resistance to change is understandable, but it is still the biggest obstacle to growth. Growth isnít easy, but we have to do it. As the author of another article in the e word says: "So if itís so hard, why grow? Simply put, itís the only game in town. Stop growing, my friends, and you die. Those are the choices God has given us: growth or death."
And we can do it. We can be do it through the power of the Holy Spirit. The good news is that if we will let it, the Holy Spirit will descend on us like tongues of flame, making us even more than we are now a place of light and warmth. It will make us speak Godís truth in new ways and dare to do things weíve never done before. The Spirit will do that for us in our personal lives, and it will do that for us in our life together as well. Moths swarm round an open flame. People will come to join us if we let the Holy Spirit shine Godís eternal light and warmth through us into the world in this place. Together we can do it, and I believe we will.
Let us pray: Loving God, we pray today for your Church universal, whose birthday we celebrate. Make her truly a vessel of your Holy Spirit, shining your eternal light of love, justice, and peace into the world. And we pray for our church. Small as we are, Lord, we know that we are called to be your people in this community. We are called to witness to your love for all people here in this place. Help us do it. Help us truly welcome all who come to us. Help us to be a voice of justice for all people, and voice for peace in your world. And we pray for ourselves. Lord, we need your Spirit to bring light and warmth to our lives, to sustain us, to give us courage and hope and purpose. Send your Spirit on us as tongues of flame that we may live as you would have us live. We pray in the name of Jesus, whose Spirit and whose church we honor today. Amen