“The Spirit’s Gifts”
Acts 2 (selected verses)
Pentecost Sunday, May 31, 2020
Have you heard that thousands of people are moving out of New York City and other large cities?
I am sure that you are aware that countless persons have been working from home,
and that many of them have been told that they may not ever be returning to their offices,
ever returning to life as it was before this great worldwide pandemic.
There will be many long term ramifications of this pandemic that we cannot yet see –
and some of them will be life-transforming.
For the Speed family, the pandemic has caused some good and hopeful news –
our eldest son is moving home from the west coast!
The large company where he works decided that they will work remotely until at least January,
and maybe longer, so Hall packed up his belongings and is headed this way, headed home to Atlanta!
Both he and the large company where he works are “in transition” –
between what was before the pandemic and what will be after the dust settles.
Several months ago, I purchased a new book by Susan Beaumont.
Susan is a bright corporate consultant who dedicated her career
to consulting for churches and writing for pastors.
The title of her recent book is How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going.
And the subtitle is Leading in a Liminal Season.
I bought the book months before major changes were forced upon the Church and everyone else.
Her book caught my attention not only because of the title,
but also because of the image on the cover.
The image on her cover is the same as the prevailing image from our Elder Retreat of January 2019.
The image is of a bridge covered with fog viewed from the perspective of someone
who is walking across this strong, stable bridge, but who can only see the next several steps ahead.
Because of the fog, the image does not reveal where the bridge is leading.
For a number of years, we have been aware that the Church and the world have been adapting
to this new epoch, this new age – the age of technology.
The advent of the internet and the cellphone is having an even greater impact upon the world
that did the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press in the fifteenth century.
In response, not only the Church, but our whole society, has been undergoing a 500 year shift –
a shift in structures, in processes, in technologies, in communications.
One year ago, we had no idea what was coming in 2020.
If you had told me a year ago that the Church buildings would be closed for months on end,
that airports would be empty, that most everyone would be wearing a mask in public,
that there would be no spring baseball games,
that there would be no Atlanta United soccer games at the Benz,
I would have asked you what strange sci-fi books you had been reading
or what off-base conspiracy theories you had been hearing.
Yet, here we are, in what has become a truly liminal season, not just for the Church, but for everyone.
Nearly every family I know, nearly every business, and certainly every institution
has entered a liminal season in which one foot is still grounded in what was,
but the other foot has begun to enter what will be.
The word limen in Latin, from which we get the word “liminal”, means “threshold”,
referring to that bottom part of a doorway that must be crossed when entering a building.
Limen was “the flat stone placed that physically had to be mounted to cross from one space into another.” (Beaumont, p. 5)
When someone or some entity enters a liminal season, the past is past, and the future is not yet known.
This liminal season can last for months, years, or even decades.
This liminal season describes an evolving state of an individual, place, organization or institution” –
when one is stuck in the neutral space between an ending and a new beginning.
Many have written that human civilization is in the midst of a liminal season right now.
Certainly,” Susan Beaumont claims, the Church of North America is in a liminal season,
between what was and what is yet to be.
Those months in Jerusalem following Jesus’ resurrection were a threshold moment, a liminal season,
if there ever was one, and those early disciples,
by the power and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, responded.
They adapted to new realities, and with those new realities, they faced new challenges.
In the days following Pentecost, Luke writes, awe came upon everyone,
because many wonders and signs being done by the apostles.
Though Jesus was no longer physically present, the Holy Spirit had been poured out upon them,
and they spoke to the crowds in the street. They testified to what they had seen and heard.
The physician Luke reported that all who believed were together and had all things in common.
They would sell possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.
They would spend much time together in the temple.
They would break bread from house to house, sharing dinners with one another.
They ate their meals with glad and generous hearts,
praising God and having the goodwill of all the people
and day by day the Lord added to their number.
By the power and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the Church has always adapted to new realities.
Decatur Presbyterian Church has adapted many times over its 195 years.
During the Civil War, Decatur Presbyterian did not meet in its building for several years.
During what could seem like a crisis of empty church buildings, the ministry is still very much alive.
Every church I know has been using Zoom or other online platforms.
Nearly every church in America is now providing various kinds of online services.
As someone has said, we don’t have a nation full of churches that have closed;
we have a nation full of churches that have opened in countless homes across the country,
reaching more people than we were before the shutdown.
In the 1997 book by William Strauss, titled The Fourth Turning,
the author claims that about every 80 years, about the length of a human life,
our nation faces a great crisis in modern history.
The crisis requires that we come together to battle a great “enemy”,
some great enemy that affects everyone’s lives.
The crisis ultimately impacts the characteristics of the generation that fights the battle
as culture takes a turn and new ways of relating and new ways of being begin to emerge.
Straus’ book describes the results of first great crisis for our nation,
the fight for independence in the late 1770’s and early 1780’s.
That war that changed the course of political history not only for our new nation, but for the world.
About 80 years later, in the 1860’s, the Civil War tore our nation apart.
A generation of young men died on the battlefield.
While the scars of that war still remain, slavery in North America was finally ended.
80 years after that, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and we entered World War II.
Our whole nation came together to defeat Hitler and the Nazi party,
and to repel the advance of Japan in the west.
Those years evoked the stories of the Greatest Generation,
stories that would eventually be told by their children, the Baby Boomers.
80 years later, here we are, in 2020.
We have entered what is likely our next great national crisis, our next great battle –
something which is requiring all of us to sacrifice for the good of the whole,
something that is fundamentally altering our society
something that is affecting our economy for the long term in ways we cannot yet see.
In 1997, when I first read the book, I realized that my sons would then be in their 20’s
when the next great crisis was predicted to arrive.
I wondered with some concern what the crisis would be.
Would it be, as the author wondered, another World War, or perhaps an environmental crisis,
or some global financial collapse.
Not many would have guessed that it would be sparked by a worldwide pandemic,
a virus so threatening that it would involve the shuttering of churches and schools and businesses
for months on end.
Several articles I have read describe “the blizzard, the long winter, and the little ice age.”
Perhaps you have heard these terms as they relate to what we’re going through.
When we first shut down, we thought it was just going to be like a blizzard,
that it would all be over in relatively short period of time.
This church and many others thrived through the blizzard.
We came together to collaborate creatively for the sake of online worship.
We figured out how to meet online and study the Bible online and have online fellowship time.
But the blizzard is over and now a long winter has set in,
and I confess that the long months are beginning to wear upon us.
Many of us would just like things to get back to “normal”.
We would just like to get back to how things were, to how things “should” be.
But alas, it seems as if “a little ice age” has begun.
We have a long way to go before we can experience anything like a “normal” service of worship,
without abnormal masks and spatial distancing and temperature checking.
We have a long way to go before our community can resume anything like a “normal” sports schedule
or a “normal” concert season.
Though the news changes at least weekly, right now it looks as though the best case scenario
is that a vaccine and a cure that is 95% effective will not be available until at least January,
Those frightened disciples hiding out in Jerusalem did not know what was going to happen.
They waited on a sign from God, waited on the Holy Spirit,
and 50 days after the resurrection, the Spirit showed up with great power and inspiration.
There a rush of violent wind.
Something like tongues of fire rested upon each of them.
The Holy Spirit filled them, and enabled them to speak the Word of God in other languages.
Thousands of Jewish faithful who had come to Jerusalem from all over the Mediterranean
for the harvest festival heard the disciples speaking in their own languages.
And on that day, thousands were added to their number.
From that day forward, the followers of Jesus devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and fellowship,
to the breaking of bread and prayers.
In every age, the Church has continued to devote itself to those four things.
Whatever challenges they faced, whatever world crisis was raging,
the followers of Jesus continued to devote themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship,
to the breaking of bread and prayers.
Do you realize that it has been 78 days since we held our first worship service online?
This is our 12th Sunday to worship together in this format!, nearly a quarter of a year!
Whatever changes we may face in the coming years,
whatever adaptations may be necessary,
we can trust that the power and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, once again, will guide us.
God has not abandoned the Church or its people. Quite the opposite!
God has provided for us through the rushing wind of the internet,
through this amazing ability to share good news with one another
through a different form of communication.
Julian of Norwich, a spiritual counselor of the 14th century, became known as “an intelligent,
sensitive and down-to-earth woman who maintained her trust in God’s goodness
while addressing (real) doubts, fears, and deep theological questions.” (juliancentre.org)
She once wrote, God did not say “’Thou shalt not be tempested,
thou shalt not be travailed, thou shalt not be dis-eased’;
but (God did say), ‘Thou shalt not be overcome.” (from Revelations of Divine Love)
“If there is anywhere on earth a lover of God who is always kept safe,” she wrote,
“I know nothing of it, for it was not shown to me.
But” she continues, “this was shown:
that in falling and rising again we are always kept in that same precious love.”
“The greatest honor we can give Almighty God is to live gladly
because of the knowledge of (God’s) love.”
The greatest honor we can give to God during this liminal season,
as we step across a threshold from what was to what will be, is to live gladly
because we know through Jesus Christ that God loves us,
and we know that God is with us through the Holy Spirit,
and we know that God will guide us through this crisis, just as God has done so many times before.
I will end with what is perhaps the most famous quote of Julian of Norwich:
“All shall be well. And all shall be well. And all manner of things shall be well.”
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church