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Pentecost and new church: Sermon for the unification of Good Shepherd of Lincoln Park & Montville

Bishop Mark Beckwith signs the Unification Document

To use an old Anglican metaphor, it is meet and right that we are celebrating this new congregation – Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, on the Feast of Pentecost – which has long been associated as the birthday of the church. It was on that Pentecost, as recorded in the book of Acts, when incredible sights were seen and dramatic sounds were heard – tongues as of fire on everyone’s head – and the rush of a violent wind – and they spoke in many languages that they could all understand.

There were lots of people there – Parthians, Medes, Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome – both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs…

And – what the heck, people from Towaco and Lincoln Park, and Montville – and parts of Poquannock belonging to Wayne – and on and on and on. They were drawn together, which is what the Holy Spirit does. The Holy Spirit draws people together – out of their differences and divisions, so they can understand one another. So they can live in communion with one another and God. It is a powerful force

The work of the Holy Spirit is about as deep a mystery as we can get. And yes, we are here to celebrate two congregations coming together – but more than that and deeper than that, we are celebrating the work and power and presence – and force of the Holy Spirit. And that the power of the Holy Spirit-- recounted with great drama, if not fantastic drama, in the Book of Acts; has overtaken the force – the very real force, as recounted in as much drama in an older story, the anti-Pentecost Story as recounted in the 11th chapter of Genesis.

The people of earth tried to build a tower to heaven – to become God, or to replace God. It was a tower of pride and arrogance – which God didn’t appreciate. And so God knocked the tower of Babel down – and scattered people to the ends of the earth – separated, divided, unintelligible to the extent that when they spoke to one another all they heard was babble. (which is where that word comes from).

Sixty-six years ago, the architects of apartheid drew on the Tower of Babel story to justify the separation of races. We are meant to be separate from one another, they said; the Bible demands it, they said to the world; but what was really going on was their need to build a more insidious tower – a tower of supremacy. To lord it over the other people of the land – which they did with ruthless efficiency.

We are here to celebrate the power of the Holy Spirit – but we also need to acknowledge the impulse we all have – if not to build towers of supremacy, to create bulwarks of superiority. Or at least places of preference And people of St. Andrews, and people of Church of the Transfiguration – now brought together by the Holy Spirit as the Church of the Good Shepherd – you know all about this tower business.

When you began your journey over seven years ago – you were excited about the prospect of joining ministries – sharing wisdom and property and balancing a budget. But as you got into the work and the discussions – you discovered that you each had secret handshakes – so secret that you didn’t know you had them until you began to explore a deeper relationship with one another. Now I don’t have any direct data on these secret handshakes – but I can guess what they were: “What do you mean we are not going to sing that hymn at Christmas? We always sing that hymn at Christmas.” “And the acolytes always do this at Easter.” “And our budget always includes a donation to a group that one side of the room understands” – and that the other side of the room has never heard of.

And on and on. Towers of convenience or preference – and maybe even of superiority or supremacy. They kept showing up. And you have faced them, confronted them – and dealt with them. And my guess is there were times when some of these issues felt like deal breakers. It was too much work to keep going forward.

But – the Holy Spirit kept bringing you back together. Guiding you through. The Holy Spirit came through – not as a rushing wind or a tongue of fire – but in a word or sentence that somebody said in the middle of some sort of disagreement or confusion – or babble; and it enabled people to shift from a posture of protecting turf – to sharing stories, and faith – and the Gospel.

Now we can all stand back – I can stand back and say, this is all very nice and poetic – but the reason we are here is because of economics and demographics. It is meet and right to be here today – but it is also rational, reasonable and practical. We needed to do this if we were going to survive. . Those aspects were certainly in play – but they did not bring you to this moment. The Holy Spirit did.

The Gospel story is another remarkable – if not fantastic story; meaning that the story itself borders on fantasy. It is Easter afternoon. Jesus has come back to life – but the disciples don’t know that yet. All they know is that Jesus has been captured, tortured and killed. And they figure the authorities are going to come for them next.

And so they lock themselves up in a room. They are scared beyond belief. And Jesus appears among them – now as the risen Christ. How he got into the locked room is yet another of Pentecost’s many mysteries; and says “Peace be with you.” And he breathes on them.

It is an act of incredible intimacy – and mystery – and then he says – receive the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit continues to breathe. There have been moments-- and there will be moments, when you will want to lock yourselves up in a room. To shut yourself off from it all and allow yourself to be held hostage by the killer B’s – buildings, budgets, boilers – and babble.

You won’t understand one another – and you won’t WANT to understand one another.

But Jesus will come into whatever circumstance you have locked yourself in – and the breath of God will be the gift you are invited to receive. No more than that – and no less than that either. It is a life giving breath. It is deep mystery. It will bring you back to God and to your mission. – as it has done already more times than you care to count. Trust it. Celebrate it. Build your new life as a congregation on it. May it be so.

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