You know the answer to this one. There is one question asked of birthday girl or boy over the age of 100. The question is asked by a local TV news reporter doing a human-interest piece, and the celebratory piece usually falls toward the end of the 30-minute broadcast. What's the question? What's the secret for living such a long life?
Next Sunday, First Congregational-UCC celebrates its birthday, or I should say its anniversary. We'll be 217-years-old. And there's a good question out there that some of us should be asking ourselves as we get ready for another year in our history book. How do we do it? How did we make it this far?
Today, we are going to look at how the Congregational Church of Harford has kept its doors open for over two centuries (plus a little change). We'll use the scripture we heard in the second chapter of Acts, the scripture on Pentecost, to do it.
It wasn't human might or the willpower of the congregation past or present that has kept our doors here in Harford open. Now, this is true: we have been, and we certainly are, a strong people. Our records show we are determined, faithful, giving, visionary, patient and loving—all of which are admirable qualities in a Christian group who devote themselves to Jesus' teaching; but the success of this truly beautiful church—this literal and living gem in American history—centers one two factors only. The first is how well we listen to God and follow Christ's teachings. And there's great love involved in this. The second, and this far outweighs the first, is how incredibly well God's good grace has looked past our flaws and shortcomings in the past, and continues to look past our flaws and shortcomings here in the present.
No, it has not been our tremendous ability to keep this church open and successful. It has not been our talent, our drive, our flair, our aptitude, our ability, our wherewithal, our staying power, or our resourcefulness that has kept our doors open. What has kept this Congregational church turned UCC church alive is this Spirit we hear about in our lesson today. This Spirit that, as you remember, suddenly comes in from seemingly nowhere with a sound from heaven that roars like a mighty windstorm. Imagine that sound! Imagine the feeling those in their pews with their little white doors all neatly closed experienced!
Okay, I need to share historical accuracy here before the historical police come in here and frown at me. You do all know that back in the day they didn't have little white doors on their pews, right? Yes, of course that's not accurate. Egad! What kind of pastor am I for not fact checking! They had what we have—little white doors on their pews that a beautifully trimmed and topped with a handsome, dark wood.
Okay, I joke, but here's the truth. That same Spirit, that godly, awesome, can't be messed with or quieted Spirit, is what brought those people to life. It is that same godly, awesome, can't be messed with or quieted Spirit that keeps life here in this church in Harford.
Okay, here's more truth. Somebody could be looking around this quieted church and think, "Hmmm...I don't see a lot of this mighty windstorm Spirit here. Those tall, wooden front doors behind me are original and certainly have blown open in the past during bad weather, but they blew open due to old age and sudden gusts of wind, not the presence of God. Where is God in this tiny, little, not all that vital church in the middle of nowhere Pennsylvania?"
Someone else could be thinking, "I heard this scripture in Acts before. I've read how this "Spirit" filled the house where they were sitting and what looked like flames or tongues of fire appeared and settle on everyone there. And everyone was filled with this Holy Spirit and began speaking in other languages, but I don't really see that here."
To those who don't see the Spirit at work here—and most of them are not here because they checked out because they were expecting a show during worship not worship during worship—I say this: you don't see air either, but you sure breathe it. Too many then, like now, expect worship to be circus-like event, a big light, entertaining spectacle. Well, circus-like, big light, entertaining spectacles, like the recent folding in of The Greatest Show on Earth, Ringling Brothers and Barnum Bailey Circus, do what? They close. Isn't it amazing? Ringling Brothers and Barnum Bailey Circus was....FILL IN. And then something brighter comes along. Something newer takes its place. Over the next twenty to sixty-some years—in other words, a single generation—watch the mega church's thousand seat auditorium, rock band, coffee house entertainment center. See what happens.
Now a church, large or small, one with surround sound and two-story projection screens or 217-year-old pulpits like this one survive only when the Gospel message of Jesus Christ's lifesaving transformation is heard. It is the redemption of sin (you know, that part each Sunday where we corporately bring to God our sins) and the message of salvation for all who believe in and follow Christ that draws people. It's communion together that sustains people. .
Isaiah 55:11 says that God's word does not come back to us empty. It does not return void. Now there can be a misconception on that verse. It's God's Word that returns. It's God's Word that comes back—and brings people back, not ours. Said differently, it's not what we do. It's not what we say. It's what God wants. God's Word is guaranteed to accomplish what God wants it to. We humans carry the message, but the message is not our own, it is God's. Think of churches that have not celebrated 217-years of history because they closed. Why? Well, there are a lot of reasons for church closures, but one of them is that God wasn't heard, people were.
So, our church as made it through this much time because it is not our ambition that has been our fuel. It is not our programming, our hard work, or our initiatives that have made us keep us going. It's all God. His Word. His way. His timing. His hand. His guidance. His love.
From our New England ancestors, and here I'm speaking to our starter church in Attleboro, Massachusetts, we inherited what you may or may not have fully named or appreciated yet, and it is this: Yankee stoicism, practicality, and the notion that no matter the hurdle, no matter the hardship, no matter the cost or what has been lost, we will persevere as the people of God. How? We catch that mighty wind. How? We feel the heat of that fire burning in our hearts. How? We let the Holy Spirit work within us.
This scripture today isn't an isolated incident. This scripture isn't some really weird story of some wild event that may have been exaggerated. This is us today. God made God's presence known then. God makes God's presence known now.
You cannot hear a word I'm saying if you're holding on to fear. You cannot hear a word I'm saying if you came here this morning expecting nothing. You cannot hear a word I'm saying if you believe the lie you've been telling yourself that God is distant, or God doesn't care. You will only hear my words if you say to that space between your ears, "Yes, I have a God, and yes, that God can move me."
The people then were completely amazed. Devout Jews from every nation living in Jerusalem came running when they heard the loud noise. Scripture says they were bewildered. What spectacle is this, they wondered. What a bold show!
Sometimes we think God isn't moving us as a church when we don't see the fireworks of the day. We wonder if God is present to us when it takes a long time to get a good idea moving. We have the resources. We have the ability. Why the block? Why the countless looping? Let's just go. Let's just do.
Yes, God certainly was present to these people just as God is certainly present to us. Sometimes the action is on a grand scale. Sometimes the action is much smaller, much slower, and requires us to do what God wants us to do—and that is speak to and work with each other. Are we going to have different points of view on how to get a mission goal accomplished? We have in the past, why wouldn't we in the future?
Sometimes I think we all deceive ourselves thinking that church is this Disney World place where magic happens all the time. There is no mess. There is no confusion. There is no waffling or waiting or wondering. It's just all beautiful all the time.
But that's not how God works, and it certainly isn't how congregationalism through the United Church of Christ. Maybe you're noticed this. We bump into each other. We speak without thinking and sometimes we really say stupid things that hurt. We fail to see someone else's point of view, and that commandment to love each other? Sometimes it looks like we don't even like each other. But that is a part of the process, a part of God's plan. Sure, God can sweep in with such things as wind and fire. God can, in an instant, change it all. But sometimes God doesn't swoop in. Sometimes God lets us sit and wait. Sometimes—and this can frustrate us—God makes us work with an idea we don't like, or people we don't like. Imagine that!
Wait, you don't have to imagine that. You're a part of the United Church of Christ. You live that.
We heard in scripture this morning that many were speaking in different languages. Parthians, Medes and Elamites were examples. Well, we speak in different languages too. The young and the old here—this is obvious—they don't always speak the same language. A trustee at Council doesn't speak to or see a situation like a Willing Work does. It's location. A deacon doesn't use the same words as someone from Stewardship. So, we go home? We stay apart? We remain in nice, neat little boxes and work together with minimal interaction and care? Yeah, that is not us.
Oh, I've heard arguments. A council member left a winter meeting in 2016 in a huff. We bump and we grind and we say stupid sometimes toxic things to ourselves, and if we stayed in this place you know none of us would have a place to worship here in Harford because we'd be closed.
How do we stay open? How have we enjoyed as a church a long life? How is it that we don't sink or go away angry at the institution of church? We've got that wind. We've got that roar. It may be low, it may be quiet sometimes, but it's there.
How do we stay open? How have we enjoyed as a church enjoyed a long life? We listen to God. We wait for God. We respond to God. We praise God. That is how we've been present and open for 217 years. We may not have a TV news reporter pop a microphone in our face next week as we celebrate our anniversary, but we do have the answer to how we, as a church, have had a long life. There is a sweet, sweet Spirit here. We listen to—and we love—our God.