May 24, 2015, Pentecost Sunday
Church of Peace, United Church of Christ
Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield
Psalm 81, Acts 2:1-21
Next Year, Who Knows?
This is a day of remembering. On Memorial Day weekend, we remember the lives of the people we love. We remember things like their names, and their stories, and that one time we got locked out together and had to climb up to the roof and in through the window. But in another way, on these days so deep and heavy with meaning, we find it is also possible to remember people we never even knew. Or maybe we’ve always known them somehow, somewhere so deep and heavy.
Alongside Memorial Day, this is also the day of Pentecost. We remember the story of the church coming to life in the wind, and the fire, and the crisis. For many of us, thinking of the church means remembering the way things used to be, whether that means thinking back to the thirties, or the sixties, or the nineties, or last year.
I know it seems like this work of remembering should bring comfort. It should smell like coffee brewing in the morning. It should taste like butter melting on rolls just out of the oven. You’d think. Ask anybody who’s ever tried and they’ll tell you, remembering is the work of grief. It’s uncovering the old stories and piecing them back together, and it’s so measured and analytical until it knocks the wind out of you cold. The truth is, those who remember well carry sorrow deep and heavy.
Even if the memories are perfectly pleasant, there’s no way to remember without seeing the glaring present not like it used to be. Remembering exposes all the change. We could measure the distance from there until here, from then until now, and there’s no going back to the way things used to be.
No wonder it is so tempting to trade actual remembering for an approximate sense of nostalgia. No wonder it’s so tempting to give in to complacence, to toss a tired sigh toward the way things were. (But be careful what you sigh for; the Holy Spirit has made of habit of intercepting our sighs and making them into a prayer.)
Now when the day of Pentecost had come, the believers were all together in one place. Pentecost was a Jewish festival celebrated fifty days after Passover. Alongside the festival, this group had come together in these days following the resurrection and ascension of Jesus. They knew Jesus, and he had left them again. And now what? Next year, who knows, right? But today. Today they were together in their remembering, and their celebrating, and their grief.
Suddenly the Holy Spirit burst into the house where they were gathered. She burst through the ceiling and seeped in through the windows. God heard these people sigh for the way things used to be, and the Holy Spirit took those sighs and poured them into the rush of a violent wind, then set the whole scene on fire. The people came to voice and began speaking, and the church was born. Remember in the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.
Remember the precarious danger of the church in its earliest days, and you could measure the distance from there until here, from then until now. Indeed, the church is not what it used to be.
About two weeks ago, the Pew Research Center published a study showing the changing religious landscape in the United States. Between two thousand seven and two thousand fourteen, the number of Americans who identify as Christian dropped from seventy-eight percent of the population to just over seventy percent. Notably, the number of Americans who identify as unaffiliated or having no religion jumped from sixteen percent of the population to nearly twenty-three percent. Many in this group are young adults, while the median age of Christian adults is getting older. 
This kind of data provokes the question: in the coming generations, what will happen to the church without young people? Another question is this: in the coming generations, what will happen to our young people without the church? These days, there is no shortage of hand-wringing, anxious sighing, and the ritual sharing of articles on facebook that highlight the growing divide between millenials and the church. We get it.
Here at Church of Peace, we are feeling this instability and danger. Please know this, the very good news is the Holy Spirit is moving through this congregation and calling us into the future. The terrifying news is the Holy Spirit is moving through this congregation and calling us into the future. And next year, who knows?
It could seem like the problem is that the church is changing or even dying. And maybe it is. But I don’t think that’s our biggest problem. The bigger problem is it seems like the church is changing or dying, and we can’t do anything about it. It’s like when grief comes along and knocks the wind out of you cold.
What happens if Church of Peace becomes overrun with young people? Can you imagine! What if we attract new members but they come bringing their own needs, and their own problems, and they need to receive more than they can give? (If this were to happen, you know we’d be doing something right..)
One of the greatest fears about a changing church, is common and poignant. It goes like this: But where will I sit? Who will I sit next to? People tend to find their spots and hang on to them for a while, so you can tell who’s missing. We remember those who have died because they’re not sitting where they used to.
Another way to ask this goes: What if the church changes, and I find there’s no place for me anymore? What if I don’t know the language or I don’t fit in? If you have ever brushed up against these questions, you are not alone.
In the core of our being, we human people understand that change is scary. Death is scary. There’s a popular belief that says older people are especially resistant to change. I will tell you, I have not experienced that to be true. Now I have met preschoolers who have great difficulty adapting to a change in their routine, and who can blame them? But older people are veterans of change. They are the ones most equipped to measure that distance from then until now, from now until who knows…
Maybe the problem isn’t change; it isn’t even death. The problem is when this happens to us without our consent. But it doesn’t always have to go down like this! The very good news is that we are part of this impending, unfolding change. It’s up to us. Of course the terrifying news is that we are part of this impending, unfolding change. It’s up to us. Our sons and our daughters shall prophesy. Our young people will see visions. Our old people shall dream dreams. The Spirit gets poured out and no one is left out. Everyone gets a speaking part; everyone has a place to sit.
Next Sunday we will dedicate our Time & Talent sheets during church. Maybe you have never filled out one of these sheets before, or maybe this is something you do every year. But this year, I invite you to approach this with prayer and discernment. How is the Holy Spirit plotting for your participation? How is God nudging you to put checkmarks on that form, not in dreary obligation or responsible commitment, but with delight? God knows there are always chances to work hard. Instead, let these Time & Talent offerings be led by joy, by the stirring in each one of us to join in the changing of the church.
Now when it comes to the future of Christianity in America, let me tell you where I see the Holy Spirit. Back to that study from the Pew Research Center, the decline in the number of Christians in the United States was not the only impressive number; the rise of those who are unaffiliated was not the only impressive number.
Here’s one more statistic for your Sunday morning: Forty-two percent of Americans have chosen a different path than the religion of their childhood. Some have left the church, some have joined the church, some have joined other denominations or religions. Friends, this is exciting news.
This means people are not afraid to change course. It suggests that people are making choices about their faith community with discernment and deliberation. They’re not passively inheriting a tradition, or identifying as Christian because their ancestors have always been Christian. Increasingly, people who identify as Christian do so because they mean it. We’re seeing greater change and greater choice, and next year, who knows?
Today we remember the day of Pentecost when all the believers were together in one place. The Holy Spirit poured into the house in the rush of the wind and the sizzle of fire, and the people began to speak in other languages. I imagine that it was terrifying! For a whole minute. Then the surprise erupted even more shocking and perplexing. Wait a second, I know what he is saying! The people heard each other testifying to God’s power in the language they have always known. No wonder they say to each other, “What does this mean?” Are we drunk? It would be like hearing a song in a new TV commercial and realizing your grandma used to sing that to you thirty years ago.
In all the chaos, there should be confusion! Instead, there is understanding. There should be grief and sorrow; instead there’s hope. There should be terror, and instead we find love. The church is dying, or changing, or getting born, and we should feel loss so deep and heavy. Instead we are found. We say to each other, “Here you can sit next to me.”
On this day, we’re all together in one place. Inside the grief, in the hard holy work of remembering, we find each other. We get found by the LORD whose voice we know, who turns our grief-soaked remembering into imagining all brave and hopeful. We can measure the distance from then until now, from now to what could be. Here we gather in the rush and sizzle of possibility, and what will happen next year, who knows? Thank God. Amen.