Sunday, 31 May 2009

Transforming the wilderness

Readings: Ezekiel 37 v 1-14
   Acts 2 v 17-21

The birthday of the church.
The time when we celebrate that God sent the Holy Spirit into the world – to cause havoc.
To stir up and change things.
In that light, I want to ask this morning, is Pentecost, for us:
A time for celebration?
Or a time for containment?
Can we cope with things being stirred up and changed?
Do we want the havoc that she brings?

For children in this part of the world, in our largely affluent culture, birthdays are something to be celebrated.
Birthdays are events eagerly awaited and anticipated.
And then celebrated.
When is it that we grow out of that?
When is it that we get to the stage that we want to play down our birthdays, pass the day quietly, keep the fuss to a minimum.
Is that a sign of age?
Or is it an attempt, to rein in the inevitable?
We can’t stop the passage of time, so we’ll try and contain it a bit.
Pretend it’s not happening.
If we largely ignore each birthday as it comes, perhaps just celebrate special years – the ones with zeroes, maybe, but otherwise if we largely ignore our birthday, surely that will give us some control over the ageing process.
Surely that will allow us to control the unpredictable and the surprises that accompany ageing.
If we ignore it, there’s hope that it will go away.
Is that your attitude to birthdays?

It would certainly seem to be our attitude to the Holy Spirit in the church.
We might begin by celebrating, by welcoming the Spirit.
But that Spirit doesn’t always behave.
That Spirit often disrupts.
That Spirit sometimes surprises us in ways we don’t necessarily welcome.
So we want to play down her arrival and the potential she has to upset our carefully ordered ways.
The Holy Spirit simply won’t be confined to our hour of worship on a Sunday – (and today I’m at grave risk of overstepping that hour).
The Holy Spirit wants to burst out of these walls into the community we serve.
Indeed has already done so.
And we need to catch up.
Never mind our systems and schedules, our routines and our rotas.
The Holy Spirit will not be confined by those, no matter how hard we try – and believe it, we do try hard to confine and restrain that Spirit.
Because we do not like the unpredictable.
We do not cope well with things that are even just slightly out of the ordinary.
We do not like change.
Change means that we have to think rather than carry on as always in auto pilot.
God sent the Holy Spirit to blow a fresh wind of change into the church, to signal that the God of love was doing a new thing and that the good news was – and is – for all people.
No wonder we’re reluctant to celebrate that Spirit.
No wonder we play down her arrival.
Because the spirit might even call for a change in us.
The Spirit might upset our carefully ordered worship and our carefully organised devotional life and demand that we actually engage with our community, with our neighbours and the people we meet everyday.
The Spirit might want us to live out the gospel, live as loving, welcoming people every day because we serve a loving welcoming God.
And, for many, that simply is a step too far.
Its OK to proclaim that here.
Its OK to affirm our faith in the confines of this sanctuary.
Its another thing altogether to be moved by the Holy Spirit to live out our faith outside of these walls.
Live out our faith so that this community will be changed.

God, in our baptism, gives us the Holy Spirit and welcomes us as beloved children.
God, when we profess our faith, gives us that spirit anew and welcomes us again.
In baptism and in profession of faith, God commissions us by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit to go into all the world, sharing the good news.

As many of you will be aware, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland met last week.
There were many wonderful and varied items on the agenda, not all of which received the press coverage that they should have.
But good news does not sell newspapers.
Only sleaze and sexuality it seems are the stuff of headlines.
One of the highlights of the Assembly was the visit of the Most Reverend Bishop, Desmond Tutu.
What an amazing man.
A man of great wisdom, courage and grace.
A man filled with the Holy Spirit.
Bishop Tutu addressed the assembly and did not shy away from all the controversial issues.
A man who has been subject to the oppression of apartheid, who knows first hand the devastation wrought by injustice, a man who now is revered on the global political stage does not balk at controversy or stop short of addressing issues that see folk treated unjustly in the church and in the world today.

Bishop Tutu began his address with a story – one you might have heard before:
About the traveller who, passing through the countryside, stopped to pass the time of day with a farmer who was out by his cornfield.
The corn looked magnificent, swaying in the breeze.
The traveller congratulated the farmer on what he and God had accomplished with this marvellous crop.
The farmer paused for a moment, took a couple of puffs on his pipe and then said: Yes but you should have seen it when God had it all to himself.

Bishop Tutu went on to talk about the paradox of how our omnipotent God appears impotent in the wilderness of injustice and oppression
In the face of oppression, in the face of injustice, God doesn’t send down lightning bolts to wipe out the perpetrators of these travesties but waits… waits until there will be those who are willing to turn the wilderness into a beautiful garden of blooming flowers.
Turning wildernesses into burgeoning gardens.
That is what the holy spirit enables each of us to do.
To collaborate with God.
Each one of us is a God carrier.
Each one of us is a God viceroy – a stand in for God.
Constrained by the gospel of the God of love.
Compelled by that gospel to go and share, to cultivate gardens in the wilderness of our community and our world.
Thus saith the Lord… has always carried risks and continues to do so.
Folk who speak out.
Folk who act to make a difference.
Folk who follow the gospel imperative to love one another won’t always be popular, especially if their actions show up others ineptitude.
But that is how it is when we allow God’s spirit to blow through us and change us.
God’s master plan – relies on you and me.
That’s really scary isn’t it?
That’s why we need God’s Spirit.
That Spirit that breathed life into dry bones is the Spirit that we need to breathe into us in this place today.
Can these bones live?
Only by the Spirit of God.
Can this church survive?
Only by the Spirit of God.
The Spirit brings imagination.
And creativity.
And courage.
And wisdom.
And, vital right now, the Holy Spirit brings action.
Not just here in this place for an hour on a Sunday.
But in our daily lives, in our homes, our work places, our community.
Is Pentecost, the birthday of the church, the coming of the Holy Spirit, something YOU want to celebrate?

May we take the risk, allow the Spirit to blow through us and change us for the glory of God.

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