by Pastor Sarah Stadler
Hey, church, happy birthday!
Today is Pentecost, the birthday of the church. Not the birth of a building, not the birth of a denomination like Lutheranism or Presbyterianism, not the birth of a hierarchy or structure. Today is the birthday of the church, the people of God gathered together in community. Peter and James and John and their friends accompanied Jesus as he healed and taught, preached and fed, but all the while, they were Jewish, Jesus included. After Jesus ascended into heaven on the fortieth day of Easter, the Holy Spirit came down and filled the disciples on Pentecost, the fiftieth day of Easter. On that day, the disciples shared the good news of God’s deeds of power, baptized thousands of people just as Jesus commanded them to do, and began Christian community, the church.
Pentecost is my favorite day of the church year, the day we celebrate the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit that dances and sings, the Spirit that moves us and shakes us, the Spirit that enlivens and disturbs us. The Holy Spirit is the mover and shaker of the church, literally. It is because of the Spirit that anything of God happens in the world. All that we do here at Grace is because of the Spirit of God at work among us and in us and through us. On the day of Pentecost, the Spirit came in three forms: wind, like fire, and language, but today, we know that the Spirit comes in many forms, including spiritual gifts and all the work of God that we do with our hands.
Despite the fact that Pentecost is my favorite day of the church year, I had never noticed before this year that the Spirit didn’t come on just any old day. The Spirit came on a day when the disciples were gathered together, AND Jews from all over the known world were gathered together in Jerusalem. At the very heart of Pentecost is community, and thus, it occurs to me—though it may have always been obvious to you—the church is nothing if it is not community. It’s not like we are celebrating buildings or institutions or structures or bishops today. Those things are all well and good; they enable us as ELCA Lutherans to do lots of good things, things that 4 million people can do that 150 just cannot, things like form colleges and universities, coordinator domestic disaster relief and international relief as we do in Lutheran World Relief, organize the global malaria campaign, form Bible camps all over the country, and send missionaries all over the world.
Buildings and institutions and structures and bishops help us do all those things, but in the end, it is all about community. In the ELCA, we are one big community so that, for instance, when the youth and other chaperones and I go on the mission trip to New York City, we are staying at an ELCA congregation, Our Saviour’s Atonement Lutheran Church in Washington Heights, a connection that was easily made because, as ELCA Lutherans, we speak the same language. And the youth have slept on ELCA church floors all the way from here to Eugene, Oregon because I posted something on my Facebook page. And our own church kitchen has hosted pancake-flipping, dishwashing groups from ELCA congregations all over the valley. The story I’ve heard about how Grace got other congregations involved in the pancake breakfast was that Pastor Roger asked his pastor friends to ask their congregations to participate. Every week, Lutherans from Sun City West, led by Tom who I know at least as well as I know most of you sitting in this room, sort clothing donations and share clothing and hygiene products with those who need them. Every month, we host Lutheran women who are studying the Bible together and Lutherans who are putting on Campfirmation together. These are all examples of friends who got together to do something they felt drawn to do by the Spirit of God. Of course, in addition to Lutherans, Roman Catholics and Presbyterians and Methodists and Congregationalists and Episcopalians and even Sikhs and Muslims have logged hours in our kitchen. We are all people of faith drawn together by the Spirit of God who dances and sings, moves us and shakes us, enlivens and disturbs us. So even before we go on mission trips or flip pancakes or sort donations or study the Bible, we are drawn together in community. Quite simply: we know each other, love each other, and care for each other.
Just this past week, I experienced this in a very vivid way. When I came to church last Sunday, I was feeling ill but was determined to lead worship, to preach, to share Holy Communion. It was the strangest feeling—of not really being able to tolerate stimuli, including people talking or people touching me. I was dizzy and lightheaded and just not well. When I told Chad, our praise band leader, that “I’m ill, just so you know,” he joked that we should just call off worship and all go home. It was then that I burst into tears and said: “Actually, that would be great.” And then, “I need to go home.” What I remember Joe saying was, “Pastor, don’t worry. We’ll take care of everything (meaning the praise band).” And Joe continued: “Solveig and I can lead the second service.” I don’t think I have ever been more grateful. I hurried out of worship and drove home and went straight to bed for the next two days and worked only 4-6 hours per day the next few days. During that time, I received numerous emails and text messages and phone messages from people who told me that they were praying for me and that I should contact them if I needed anything. And when people saw me here at church this week, they said: Go home. I am so grateful to all of you, whether you reached out or not, whether you prayed or not, just that you accepted me with my limitations. For indeed, I did not receive any negative emails or text messages or phone messages saying: Why weren’t you in worship this week? It has become very clear to me that Grace IS a community of people who love me and care for me.
What I hope and pray for us is that we would love and care for each member of our community in the same way. The community we form here is a community centered around Jesus, the One who healed and taught, preached and fed. Jesus formed community in a very particular way. As he traveled the countryside, he included everyone in community. There were the regulars, of course, Peter and James and John. But there were crowds of people whom Jesus healed and fed who followed him too. And if you think about it, the Pharisees were never far away. And the women, they provided for Jesus the entire time he was traveling, “provided” meaning they cooked food and drew water and lit lamps in the evenings. Jesus’ community included not just Jews but Gentiles as well—even though Jews and Gentiles were not supposed to come in contact with each other. Jesus’ community included not just healthy people but people with leprosy and blindness and chronic illness that left them isolated and marginalized by everyone else. Jesus’ community included children—even though children were the most vulnerable and neglected group among ancient people.
On this day that we celebrate Pentecost, the birthday of the church, the birthday of Christian community, we celebrate the formation of a certain kind of community. There are communities everywhere, right? Book clubs and sports teams, neighborhood associations and writing groups, bowling leagues and people who play online games together, Facebook groups and You-tubers. I am in no way criticizing these many and various groups; indeed, I am a part of many communities myself. But the church is Christian community, and while all those other groups may succumb to gossip or back-biting, to intolerance or hate, the church is different—because we are centered around the One who in his very body made manifest LOVE. The community we form here includes all people because the community Jesus formed invited all people to share in it.
Oh, there is so much good news today! The Spirit is alive and well here at Grace Lutheran Church. The Spirit has been poured out on us, and because of that, we and all those who gather here are able to do the work of God with our own hands. Happy birthday, church!