A Mighty Wind: Thoughts on how to let the Holy Spirit revive us.

A Mighty Wind

On Pentecost Sunday, I admit I am a bit envious of the disciples sitting in Jerusalem waiting for something to happen.

The Holy Spirit descends, lands on their heads and they begin to preach.

These basically uneducated men from rural Galilee preach to a throng of people who not only hear the words but hear the words in their own languages.

Must have been nice.

That’s not the way it works for me.

When I felt called by God to ministry, I did not think it was a call to become a church pastor.

I believed, and still do, that I was called to teach people what God was trying to tell us through the inspired words of the Bible.

In other words, I thought I was called to lead Bible studies.

I started doing that then and I have been doing it ever since.

Ultimately, I realized my call was to ordained ministry.

Then I became a church pastor, and had to start preaching sermons.

That turned out to be a whole lot different than teaching a Bible study.

Teaching a Bible study is reading the Bible, then reading a few books that explains the meaning and context of what is being studied.

Then you talk about it.

Maybe come to some conclusions about what the passage means.

A sermon is much, much more.

A sermon is what we call the prophetic moment.

Speaking a necessary truth to people who need to hear it.

It takes a good bit of work.

The work starts with prayer.

God’s guidance is requested on what passage is to be preached.

Sometimes it’s obvious.

Sometimes you have to go to the lectionary.

Today I am preaching the Old Testament text from the lectionary, where I believe God sent me.

Then you start the research.

What was the context of the passage?

How did the people of that time hear it?

What did they understand it to mean?

Then you ask God, what do these current folks need to get from this?

What truth do they need to hear in the current circumstance?

Then you ask God, how do you want it proclaimed?

What words should I use that will be true to the context?

Then you start to write.

Then you rewrite … and rewrite … and rewrite.

All the while gaining new insight into the meaning and purpose and application of the passage to the gathered community.

Then you have to preach your well-crafted sermon.

One pastor, Rev. Marcia Sebastian, once described the process of sermon writing and preaching as giving birth to her sermons every week.

When she retired, Marcia told me she was glad to be done with it.

After all that preparation and preaching, it is tempting to ask a random sample from the congregation what they got from the sermon.

What was the message they heard?

It’s best not to do that, really.

Because God often ignores all your work and gives God’s own message to each listener which might be far different from what was preached.

You hear things like when you said such and such, it really spoke to me.

But you know you never said such and such.

And this is a good thing.

Because then you know God was in charge.

What does this have to do with Ezekiel?

Let’s hear what our text has to say.

Ezekiel 37: 1-14

37The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2He led me all round them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. 3He said to me, ‘Mortal, can these bones live?’ I answered, ‘O Lord God, you know.’ 4Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. 5Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 6I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.’

7 So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. 8I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. 9Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.’ 10I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.

11 Then he said to me, ‘Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” 12Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 14I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.’

Wow!

A sermon preached to dry bones in a pile.

A sermon so effective that the bones come back to life.

No preparation.

No research.

No manuscript.

Just God’s guidance.

But pay attention to one thing.

It did not really happen.

It was a vision.

A sermon illustration that was given to Ezekiel so he could give hope to his audience.

Here is some background on Ezekiel, both the book and the prophet.

Who was this guy?

Ezekiel was an upper-class intellectual priest in Judah who was taken away to Babylon when Judah was conquered.

He was called by God in a vision to prophecy to the exiles.

Ezekiel’s words and actions been described as both eccentric and even bizarre.

If you take the time to read the Book of Ezekiel, you will see what I mean.

The book itself is long but does have two main themes.

Ezekiel first responds to the question the Judahites had been asking God since the captivity.

Why have we lost our land, our temple and our nation?

Ezekiel bluntly tells the Judahites that their misery and captivity is entirely their fault.

They have made one bad choice after another and as a result they are suffering the consequences of those bad choices.

The Babylonian captivity, according to Ezekiel, is the judgment Judah deserves.

But then we get to our scripture reading where Ezekiel’s tune changes.

Though Ezekiel has been scolding the Judahites for over 30 chapters, he now offers them hope.

That hope is depicted by that sermon illustration from God.

Ezekiel is taken to a valley of dry bones.

The bones represent the Judahites.

Unburied, unclaimed bones.

To Ezekiel and his people, this is a vision of hell.

These bones represent the people of God.

Judah.

Now dead and gone.

Beyond redemption.

Forgotten.

But not so fast, God says.

God’s people would be revived.

Even though they did not deserve it.

God asks Ezekiel if he believes this can happen.

Ezekiel has no reason to believe so.

He seems to shrug his shoulders and give an evasive answer.

“Only you can answer that one, God.”

So, God says, “Do what I say and watch what happens.”

God orders Ezekiel to speak to these dry bones and to call them back to life.

He does and they do.

The dead people of God are raised, sort of.

When raised, they are – well – zombie like.

They aren’t really alive because they are not breathing.

Then God tells Ezekiel to speak to the wind.

He does and a mighty wind sweeps over the raised people and they begin to breath.

Now they are alive again.

They are restored.

By God.

Not because they deserve it, because they don’t.

God does this to demonstrate God’s power.

God has the power to restore Israel, and intend to do so.

Revival!

So, what might this have to do with Pentecost?

Let’s set the stage for that.

The disciples have been with Jesus from the beginning.

John’s baptism, the healing and teaching, the passion, the resurrection, the commission and the ascension.

Now they are alone.

Their leader and messiah, Jesus, is gone.

They are idle in Jerusalem.

The disciples were similar to the zombie-like revived bones of Ezekiel’s vision.

Directionless and basically spiritually lifeless.

Maybe holding their breath.

Then the Holy Spirit showed up like the mighty wind that had brought the zombie Judahites back to life.

The Holy Spirit descended on the disciples and they became ecstatic – speaking in tongues and preaching to the masses.

These men who were lifeless became life filled.

Their illustration was not from a vision.

It was resting on their heads.

It was in the way their words were heard.

In the mighty wind.

3,000 people joined them.

And the church of Jesus Christ was born.

In 300 years that church would become world wide – well at least European wide.

The dry bones of the world brought back to life.

Revived.

None of this was because anyone deserved it.

No one does.

It happened because God had the power to do it and chose to do it.

And how did this revived people respond?

According to Acts, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”

And their lifestyle spoke to the world.

The dry bones of humanity were given new life.

Not because we deserved it, but because God wants it and has the power to do it.

So, what does that have to do with us here at JMPC?

It might have seemed to many that during the last 14 months, we were becoming a pile of dry bones.

A community of people who had ceased to be a community.

A scattering of people who needed to be revived and restored to that community.

How do we get our communal life back?

With the easing of recommended restrictions and the seeming control of the virus through vaccination, we can start the process of revival.

But we don’t want to be zombie-like without direction or breath.

We want to be Spirit filled.

We need to do what the early church did.

They were devoted to the apostles’ teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.

Here is what that might look like for us.

  1. Devoting ourselves to the apostles’ teaching is pretty easy.

It simply means listening to the sermons offered every Sunday either in person or watch them streamed online at your convenience.

  • Devoting ourselves to the fellowship is pretty easy as well.

Fellowship can be gathering together here at the church on Sundays or in smaller groups for food or drink or games or mission and ministry work.

Fellowship can also be financial support to the community, its mission and ministry much the way we are doing it today with the planting of fruit trees and breaking bread (or pulling pork) as a community.

  • Devoting ourselves to the breaking of bread includes participating in the Lord’s Supper as a reminder of the one who died so we could live.

Celebrating the sacraments together so we can remember and understand all that God has done for us.

  • Devoting ourselves to prayer is easy when the prayers of the people, Lord’s Prayer and Prayer of Confession is offered in worship.

This might be the most important of our devotions.

But it is something that many struggle with on their own.

Here is one place the Holy Spirit works with us.

While we are not preaching, we are praying and we are told that the Holy Spirit does for us what the Holy Spirit did for Ezekiel and the disciples.

The Holy Spirit give us the right words.

That is what Paul talks about in Romans:

Romans 8: 26-27

26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. 27And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

We might not know what to pray, but the Holy Spirit understands our groans and translates them into prayers that the will of God answers.

And when we do these things, we will be God’s people.

People inspired by the Holy Spirit.

People with life.

Revived.

Because God wants it, has the power to do it, and has done it.

Now I don’t know what it is you actually heard, but I hope it is life giving and spirit filled.

And for whatever it was, thanks be to God.

This week at John McMillan Presbyterian Church – Pentecost Sunday!

I like to play golf. I am not a good golfer, but that does not diminish my desire to hit the links whenever I can. There are many movies about golfers but one of them I always enjoy. “The Legend of Bagger Vance”.  The movie is about a young man, Rannulph Junah, who was a golf prodigy until he went to war in WWI. He returned emotionally damaged and stopped playing. Today we would say he had PTSD. He is recruited to play in a fundraising event against Bobby Jones and Walter Hagan.  The plot focuses on the resurrection of Junah and through his return to golf with the guidance of the Supernatural appearance of his caddy, Bagger Vance.  There is one scene I love. Hagan has hooked his drive well off the course and onto a beach. Everyone assumes he is out of the hole.  But he takes his shoes off, rolls up his pants and tells his caddy to have someone on the green tend the pin.  Hagan takes a puff on his cigarette, flings it into the sea and hits the ball. Which lands in the middle of the green. A n impossible shot. The narrator describes the shot as Hagan coming back from the dead.  What does any of this have to do with Pentecost? Junah and Hagan are “dead”. Both are revived. Both are miraculously. And the revival is urged on by the supernatural presence of Bagger Vance. This revival is much like the “revival of the disciples by a supernatural mighty wind that whipped through their lives on Pentecost. Join us and hear about it this Sunday – Pentecost Sunday – at John McMillan Presbyterian Church where we will worship in the parking lot or on Facebook Live where the service will be streamed. We will look forward to your presence!

Returning: Thoughts on the post pandemic church.

Returning

I grew up in Pleasant Hills.

Pleasant Hills is a suburb of Pittsburgh in the norther part of the Mon Valley steel making center.

I was baptized and confirmed at Pleasant Hills Community Presbyterian Church.

Pleasant Hills is part of the West Jefferson Hills School District that includes Pleasant Hills, West Elizabeth and recently renamed Jefferson Hills.

I attended Pleasant Hills Elementary School, Pleasant Hills Middle School and Thomas Jefferson High School, graduating in 1974.

From time to time, I drive around my old neighborhood just to reminisce and see what’s new.

Here are some things I have noticed.

The two houses I lived in look different.

They both have had substantial upgrades.

They are more modern and updated.

My elementary school was replaced by a community elementary school a few miles away.

The new school is way nicer and has a the first school swimming pool ever in the district.

TJ now has a swim team.

The old school was bought by my old church, Pleasant Hills Community Church, torn down and replaced by a gymnasium used by the church for activities and worship.

A significant benefit to the church and community.

Out at the high school they built a new stadium.

That required the construction of what folks there still refer to as “the wall”, a giant retaining wall that allowed the stadium to be expanded.

With that expansion of the stadium, new sports and recreation opportunities became available to the students and community.

And now the high school building is vacant, replaced by a brand-new facility just a mile or so down the road.

The new high school is an eye-popper with more educational amenities than I could ever have imagined.

The educational opportunities for the TJ students have substantially increased.

I could give you an endless list of other changes I notice over there.

Some make me sad.

Some make me smile.

Many are surprising.

Times have changed.

My old neighborhood has changed.

My old school has changed.

And to my view, all for the better.

And the people seem to have prospered.

Our scripture reading today has something to say about how communities adapt and thrive as times change.

Nehemiah 2: 1-6; 17-20

2In the month of Nisan, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was served to him, I carried the wine and gave it to the king. Now, I had never been sad in his presence before. 2So the king said to me, ‘Why is your face sad, since you are not sick? This can only be sadness of the heart.’ Then I was very much afraid. 3I said to the king, ‘May the king live for ever! Why should my face not be sad, when the city, the place of my ancestors’ graves, lies waste, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?’ 4Then the king said to me, ‘What do you request?’ So I prayed to the God of heaven. 5Then I said to the king, ‘If it pleases the king, and if your servant has found favour with you, I ask that you send me to Judah, to the city of my ancestors’ graves, so that I may rebuild it.’ 6The king said to me (the queen also was sitting beside him), ‘How long will you be gone, and when will you return?’ So it pleased the king to send me, and I set him a date.

17 Then I said to them, ‘You see the trouble we are in, how Jerusalem lies in ruins with its gates burnt. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, so that we may no longer suffer disgrace.’ 18I told them that the hand of my God had been gracious upon me, and also the words that the king had spoken to me. Then they said, ‘Let us start building!’ So they committed themselves to the common good. 19But when Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite official, and Geshem the Arab heard of it, they mocked and ridiculed us, saying, ‘What is this that you are doing? Are you rebelling against the king?’ 20Then I replied to them, ‘The God of heaven is the one who will give us success, and we his servants are going to start building; but you have no share or claim or historic right in Jerusalem.’

A little background here.

Nehemiah was a Jew who and a member of the Judahite community that was taken into Babylonian captivity sometime between 597 BCE and 581 BCE.

His job was to be the cup bearer for Artaxerxes I, the ruler of the Persian Empire that had conquered Babylon in 539 BCE [JT1]  when Cyrus the Great was the Persian king.

Cyrus had immediately decreed that all captive peoples in Babylon were to be allowed to return to their ancestral home, rebuild their communities and worship their communal deities.

The Book or Ezra describes this early return of the Judahites in around 537 BCE.

The expectations of what the returning exiles would find on their return to Judah and Jerusalem is unknown,

Their parents had likely regaled them with what it was like in Jerusalem before the exile.

Some might have even remembered it themselves.

A great city with high walls.

A marvelous temple for the worship or the one true God.

The center of Jewish culture and identity.

But here is the problem.

When they got back, that was not what they found.

The walls were rubble.

The city was in ruins.

The temple was … well … gone.

Jerusalem was a small, insignificant and poor town with a non-descript religious shrine where the great temple had once been.

The residents were mostly pagan.

The capital of the province had been moved north many years before.

Kind of disheartening.

Ezra’s job was to rebuild the temple.

He did.

The new temple was nothing like the magnificent old one.

But it was functional.

And it began what we call the Second Temple Period that lasted 600 years.

The next problem was that Jerusalem had no walls and so was always threatened by the surrounding tribes who were irritated that Cyrus had taken what they thought was their land given it to the returning exiles.

That was reported back to the folks back in Babylon and apparently came to the attention of Nehemiah, who had the cup, and the ear, of Artaxerxes, Cyrus’ successor.

Nehemiah asked the king to let him go to Jerusalem to manage the rebuilding of the walls to protect the growing Jewish community in Jerusalem.

Having gotten permission to go, Nehemiah went and took over the project.

As the work went on the walls began, the neighboring tribes made fun of the Jews and threatened them.

“You will fail,” they said.

“Your community is weak.”

“Your people are no more.”

Nehemiah was undeterred and simply said:

‘The God of heaven is the one who will give us success, and we his servants are going to start building …’

Not only did they start building, but they finished.

People returned.

The Jerusalem population grew.

Judah, while still a province of Persia, was self-governing, following its own laws and somewhat independent.

It prospered.

And, while there were many Jews still in exile, Jerusalem was again the center of the Judaism.

Even those who did not or could not return, would look in the direction of Jerusalem in prayer.

What does this have to do with us at JMPC?

While the pandemic has only been with us for 13 months, not the 60 or so years the Judahites were gone, doesn’t it feel like we have been exiled from our community for a very long time?

And, like the Judahites, while we have done our best to maintain our faith and identity as part of the Body of Christ, our inability to gather as a church community has been difficult.

Don’t we feel a bit disconnected?

A bit lost?

Spiritually distant?

We want to return to our building.

And now we will.

We are returning.

June 1.

Our first worship service in the sanctuary will be June 6.

That is good news, no doubt, but what will we find on our returning?

Some interior clean-up will be required but the building is basically the same, though.

But we cannot just walk in and go back the pre-pandemic routine.

We will be returning Judahites, and like them, there will be challenges for us to face.

And opportunities, too.

I read a book that was recommended to me called The Post Quarantine Church, by Thom Ranier.

I recommend it for the entire congregation.

The book lays out 6 challenges and opportunities when we return.

  1. We must gather differently and better.
  2. We must seize the opportunity to reach the digital world.
  3. We must reconnect with the community near JMPC.
  4. We need to take prayer to a new and powerful level.
  5. We need to rethink our facilities for emerging opportunities.
  6. We need to make lasting changes that will make a difference.

Some of these things we are already doing.

  1. We have been and will worship a bit differently.

We will have screens in the sanctuary that will enhance our worship with visuals, announcements, hymn lyrics and visible presentations of our mission and ministry activities.

  • We have been and will be reaching out into the digital community.

Like the exiles of Nehemiah’s time, many will not be returning to Sunday morning worship.

They work or have activities that prevent that.

Distance prevents some, too.

But these people will still be able to look to JMPC as their spiritual home and faith community by streaming our services online, seeing and hearing everything we offer in the sanctuary.

And they can join us in person when they can.

We also have two new staff members whose responsibility is to increase our social media footprint, manage our website and enhance our online worship.

  • Our prayer team has been and will be strong for us.

And we can take that to a new level as well.

When we read the book of Acts, we learn that the early church spent its time doing two things more than anything else.

They listened to the apostles teach and they prayed.

What did they pray for?

That God’s will be done.

Look at how they thrived.

We can do that, too.

  • We have been and will continue to have community connections.

We do that with our SHIM garden and sometime in the future with the orchard.

We have our wildly successful pre-school.

We have all the missions and ministries we have developed over the years.

And we need to reach out into the community more.

What else does the community need?

How can we help provide it?

But what else can we do here in Bethel, Peters, South Park and McMurray?

  • We need to rethink the use of our facilities.

We sure do have a lot of people who use our church for their meetings and activities.

We will invite them back and offer our building for anyone else who needs a space for their groups.

We want our church to be full of people, a community center, not just empty for the majority of the week.

  • Lastly, we will make lasting changes that make a difference for the future.

We need to do what is necessary for us to have a faith community we can pass on to our next generation just like the Judahites did with their rebuilt Jerusalem and temple.

This will be no different than what the returning Judahite exiles experienced.

What did they have to do?

They rebuilt the Temple.

They rebuilt the walls.

They rededicated themselves to their faith.

And that allowed them to prosper for the next 600 years.

We can do all those things, too.

To do that we need people.

People willing to rededicate themselves to our community of faith.

New people willing to join us in our work.

All the while listening to God and praying.

Together, whatever that means in 2021.

When we do these things, we will succeed.

And while some might scoff and say that our efforts won’t work, we will respond the way Nehemiah did.

‘The God of heaven is the one who will give us success, and we his servants are going to start building …’

We really don’t need to do much rebuilding.

We will build on the foundation we already have.

And like my old stomping grounds in Pleasant Hills, what we build will be new, and it will be better.

Because the God of heaven will give us success.


 [JT1]

This week at John McMillan Presbyterian Church; May 9, 2021 – “Returning”

When I was working in downtown Pittsburgh several years back, there was a proposal made by a developer for the removal of basically all the buildings between Smithfield Street and Market Square in what was called the Forbes and Fifth corridor. Most of those buildings were occupied only on the street level. These street level businesses, as I recall, were mostly run down and outdated retail businesses. The buildings were run down and with virtually no real value.  The proposal imagined modern buildings with new office space, restaurants and retail stores that would invite people from the suburbs downtown to shop, eat and work. It was thought that such an endeavor would be like a new renaissance for the downtown. That plan was, surprisingly to me, opposed by folks who thought that the removal of those buildings would destroy “historic properties”. My take on that at the time was that some of the buildings were not as old as I was. How could they be historic? To me they were ugly eyesores. I think that the opposition wanted folks to just move bake into the buildings and be “the way they were in the good old days”. But times had changed. If you walk down to Market Square now, you will see that after many years some changes were made and more people did come downtown for work, entertainment and dining, if not for shopping. We shall see what changes will happen now that occupancy of commercial real estate downtown is at severe risk from the discovery of how easy it is for folks to work remotely. Times do change. What does that have to do with church, mission and ministry? Much. As we emerge from the effects of the pandemic, things will not be like they were before. They will be different. And they will be better. Join us at John McMillan Presbyterian Church at 10am on Sunday, May 9, either in the parking lot or on Facebook Live when we hear about “Returning”. We hope you will join us.