May 27, 2012

Sermon, Pentecost Sunday 2012                                   Fr. Scott Homer
In the Name of God almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, amen.

Isa 44:  “Fear not…my servant…my chosen, for I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground…I will pour my spirit upon your offspring and my blessing on your descendants…they will spring up among the grass like willows by flowing streams

As you drive West out of San Antonio you move into an increasingly desert area, and you cannot help but notice that the trees by the side of the road keep getting shorter and shorter.  By the time you get to the town of Uvalde there are no trees, just scrubby bushes and low-lying plant life barely eking out an existence.  The problem is…no water.  No water, therefore, no trees.  Occasionally though you will be surprised by a sudden outcropping of trees rising up from the otherwise barren landscape.  And when you see those trees you know immediately that there is a source of water nearby; a spring, or a stream or something supplying those trees with the water they need to exist.  Water allows trees to grow strong so that they can reach out and up into the environment around them.  Those trees provide shade and coolness that allows all sorts of other plant and animal life to flourish and grow, Trees provide places of rest and refreshment to other desert dwellers struggling in the desert.  We call a cooler, wetter place in the desert where the trees grow green and tall and where you will surely find water an “oasis.”  In the desert they are few and far between but they provide a vital support for desert life.  The oasis provide opportunities for life, for growth and for refreshment.

If we take a historical look at the spiritual climate in America over the last 50 years or so we have to conclude that it has become increasingly arid.  It started in 1960s, and as we move forward in time from there we see fewer and fewer healthy churches, more and more unchurched people.  In our tradition, Episcopal church attendance dropped to less than half of what it was in the sixties and it continues to plummet.  All over the Western world mainstream denominations are experiencing sharp declines t in average Sunday attendance, in per capita giving, and in outreach initiatives.  The US Government which used to be sympathetic to Christian causes has become increasingly hostile to Christianity.  It is safe to say that the spiritual climate in America today is a “desert” climate and that churches are suffering.  Churches are either hunkering down, or closing their doors.  The problem is…no presence of the Holy Spirit.  There does not seem to be any life in theses churches.  Trees need water.  Churches need Holy Spirit power.  Without the active presence of the Holy Spirit churches turn inwards, they focus more and more of their resources on their own needs—less and less on the mission to the least, the last and lost.  And parishes that turn inward on themselves become mean spirited, kind of like the mean girls club in high school, they end up driving newcomers away and those churches eventually just shrivel up and die. 
No water, no trees, no oasis.  No Holy Spirit, no churches, no spiritual oasis: nowhere for the lost to find new hope; nowhere for the lonely to find companionship; nowhere for the sinful to find forgiveness; nowhere for the weak to be strengthened; nowhere for the damned to find salvation; no room for growth, or life, or hope.  And with no oasis, the desert becomes a hostile and deadly place for all of us.  America is becoming a dead zone.  We need the Holy Spirit and only the Church can bring him.            

There is no substitute.  Did you notice what God said in the Isaiah passage this morning?  “I am the first, and I am the last; besides me there is no god:” No Plan B, no way forward apart from him, no secret formula, no dynamic personality to inspire and transform.  There is one God.  He was before the beginning, he is in the middle, and he will be after it all comes to an end.  No Holy Spirit, no churches, but even more profoundly, no creation, no world, no people, nothing.  I ran across an interesting quote from G K Chesterton the other day.  He said, “If there is no God there are no atheists.”  We need the Holy Spirit active and working in our lives and it is the job of church members, did you hear that?  It is the JOB of church members to receive the Holy Spirit power and to redistribute it to the world around them.  Like tree’s branches, churches are to reach out and up, to provide rest for the weary, comfort for the afflicted, nourishment for the hungry, to be an oasis to all the weary travelers who must dwell day by day in this spiritual wasteland. And we are only doing our JOB when we are taking the message of Jesus Christ out to people who are not like us, to people who speak a different language than we speak, to people foreign to us. The Holy Spirit gives us power to do our JOBS but we must tap into that power and we must trust in that power and we must be about the work that God has given us to do.

Like trees in the desert, the church must reach upwards to receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit.  That reaching upwards is called Prayer and Supplication.    Prayer being the asking for God’s wisdom and God’s gifts.  Jesus said, “If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.”  We need to ask him for the power of the Spirit and the power to spread the gospel. (I am asking everyone of you to pray this morning for the Holy spirit to come on this community.)  Supplication being our willingness to receive those gifts and to exercise the ministry God is calling us to exercise.  Supplication also means being submitted to the Holy Spirit’s authority. (I am asking each of you this morning to submit to the power of the Spirit and to engage in the work the Lord has prepared for you.)

Like trees in the desert, the Church must reach outwards.  That reaching outwards is called Evangelism and Outreach.  Evangelism means telling others about this loving God who has sacrificed everything to save us from the certain death that awaits us in the desert.  And outreach means showing them that this God means what he says.  He is not just saying, “He saves them.”  God is not just blowing smoke.  God is actually introducing himself and his power into the lives of broken people and healing them.   Through Evangelism—speaking the message of God’s salvation through Jesus Christ, and then through Outreach—intervening in people’s lives to restore the good life and renew hope for the future.  In this way,  God is actually shows himself to be the One who saves.  And God does this vital work through his people, people like you and me, who pray for his power and submit to his plan.  Those people are God’s Church—the spiritual oasis in this fallen world.  God will return and he will restore his creation to its former glory.  In the meantime he provides his Holy Spirit power to us, both for our strengthening and comfort, and also so that we may provide strength and comfort to the rest of the desert dwellers: all those who have been unable or unwilling to tap into that Holy Spirit power on their own.

So, here’s the thing about this spiritual oasis—this thing called the effective church.  That spiritual oasis does not just point the way to Christ.  It becomes Christ.  It behaves like Christ.  It speaks the truth like Christ.  It heals and casts out demons and serves the needy just like Christ.  The church becomes a living and breathing example of Christ on the Cross:  God providing hope and a future to an otherwise hopeless, dead-end world.  Jesus died, not just so that I could live but so that you can live also; not just so that you can live but so that all of them out there can live too…and on this day of Pentecost He gives us the one ingredient necessary for his whole scheme to work: the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Empowered by the Holy Spirit we can go forth into the world and we can witness to God’s grace and glory to everyone we meet—not in grand speeches, not in major events but in the small, intimate details of our lives, by helping, serving, caring, hoping and sharing with the people who have not received the Spirit.

“As we pass through the desert valleys we make them springs of refreshment.”  When we walk through the desert valleys we do not walk alone, we walk with the Holy Spirit who resides within us.  And that means we become streams in the desert—places of access--sources of the Holy Spirit power.  We provide moments of truth where people can experience God’s grace and know genuine hope.  We provide moments of refreshment and people can once again dream.  Brenda showed me this little piece about a hard working monk who lived on the desert road between Jerusalem and Jericho back in the third century.          

“There was a monk," (see In the Steps of Jesus, Walker)

So even in the desert, even when there is just one humble servant there, the Cross is never far away.

The author of this book has another observation about the desert.  Just after Jesus’ baptism he was driven outwards into a desert place (interesting), a place where he was tempted by the devil.  Of course, we know that those temptations failed and Jesus was victorious over evil, right there in the desert the evil one gave up and left.  And, in this sense the desert becomes the unexpected place where the great victory is accomplished.  This “desert campaign” proves decisive in the war.  The desert thereby becomes, paradoxically, not a place of death and fatality, but rather the place of life and seedbed of hope.  Jesus goes down deep enough to transform the dry and dusty desert into a place of utmost beauty.  And this is something that his followers can treasure when they face their own, smaller but still frightening deserts.  For, following Jesus’ lead, [we] may be able to fulfill the picture in Psalm 84.5-6:  “Blessed are those whose strength is in the Lord…As they pass through the desert valley, they make it a place of springs.”

Pray with me:  “Come Holy Spirit.  Fill us with your life-giving power.  Grant us wisdom and strength and lead us into the wilderness round about us.  Show us how our Lord Jesus would respond to the needs that we see before us.  Teach us how to show love and compassion to each and every person we meet.  Inspire us to offer a word of encouragement.  Strengthen us to give ourselves for the benefit of others, and we pray that with your aide we may become streams of living water in a barren and dusty desert.  We want to reach upwards towards you.  We want to reach outwards with you.  Come Holy Spirit, amen.