June 9, 2019

“Streams of Living Water”

John 7:37-39; 14:25-27; 20:19-23

 

Today is the day we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit, or as you will see if and when you stick around for our fellowship time and birthday celebration, the birthday of the church. These three passages from John have a different emphasis than the scripture typically read on this Sunday from Acts chapter 2. The passages read today are about Jesus giving the Holy Spirit to the disciples, rather than the Spirit coming down from above. First, we have this saying from Jesus in chapter 7, a somewhat mysterious saying about “streams of living water”, which John later explains himself in verse 39-By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given since Jesus had not yet been glorified.” (That is he had not yet died, risen and ascended to be with God.)

 

Next comes a section later in John where Jesus promises that the disciples will not be left alone when he leaves them. “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit whom God will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all the things that I have said to you.” This gift of the Spirit will give the disciples direction and peace.

 

Finally comes the scene in chapter 20, which occurs after Jesus has risen and appeared to Mary Magdalene. The disciples are locked in the upper room in the dark, huddled together, awaiting either the sound of Roman soldiers or angry Pharisees bursting through the door to drag them away. Jesus appears in the room, saying, “Peace be with you.” Then Jesus shows the disciples the wounds in his hands and side. They are overjoyed to see their Risen Rabbi standing there in front of them. He once again offers his blessing of peace, and then says, “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.” Jesus breathes upon them and gives them the gift of the Holy Spirit. The translation in the Message version of this passage says, “Then he took a deep breath and breathed into them.” I love the imagery of that- Jesus taking a deep breath and then blowing the Holy Spirit upon each of the disciples. It is very up close and personal.

 

At the end of this section, there is an interesting saying that has to do with their mission out in the world-“If you forgive sins, they are forgiven. If you retain them, they are retained.” Jesus, through his gift of the Holy Spirit, gives the disciples the power to forgive, which up until this time had only been something that God could do. And if the disciples did not forgive, but instead retained someone’s sins, those sins would be a burden to carry until they did forgive. Choosing to hold onto someone’s sin against you can be so burdensome. We talked about this at our Back Porch Bible study this past Wednesday. You feel it in your body- your stomach in knots, that feeling of uncomfortableness. It is a heavy burden to retain indeed.

 

But our focus on this Pentecost Sunday is the gift of the Holy Spirit, and what it means for us modern-day disciples.

 

The word for Spirit in Greek is pneuma, which we still use in the Modern English language in the words pneumatic, meaning “filled with air” and pneumonia, which we all know as “a chronic disease in the lungs”. Both of these words have to do with air and breath in some way. The Hebrew word for God’s Spirit is Ruach, the sound of which mimics the exhale of a breath.

 

In the Old Testament, God breathes life into Adam, who at that point is neither male nor female, through Adam’s nostrils. It is a warm intimate scene of the Creator breathing life into a human being and parallels the scene in the upper room. I imagine that Jesus stands in front of each individual disciple and breathes his life-giving divine Ruach to them, one after another until all have received the Spirit, this stream of living water.

 

What does the gift of the breath of God mean for us today? How can we rely upon this stream of living water? We also talked about this idea of the Spirit of God and streams of living water in our Back Porch Bible study last Wednesday. There was a lively discussion about times of finding water when in desperate need for it-stories of having to find water on rocks while hiking in the Grand Canyon; stopping at a waterfall on the side of the road when the water sources in the area weren’t available; stories of stopping while hiking up a mountain and getting fresh, cold clear water off a melting glacier or drinking from a flowing stream. Two things came from that discussion.

 

  1. Our souls NEED refreshment. Just as life-giving water can sustain and renew us, so to can the Spirit. There are times when we yearn for that connection to the Spirit of God.
  2. The Spirit of God does renew, restore, and refresh us. There have been times in my life when I have felt the Spirit of God renew me-through the words of someone else; through a wonderful hymn or piece of music; through a time of retreat. The spirit of God can be such a gift to us in that way.

I also find that the Spirit is connected to my conscience. This notion in part comes to me from the Westminster Confession of 1647, which states, “God alone is Lord of the conscience.” There are moments when that voice inside me prods me to act-to call someone I need to speak with; to forgive someone and reconcile; to help someone in need. God’s breath within us prods us to do things for others; to use our hands, our hearts, our voices, and be a blessing to others. As Jesus said in John 16:13, “The Spirit shows us what is true and will come and guide you into the full truth. The Spirit does not speak on his own. He will tell you only what he has heard from me, and he will declare to you the things that need to happen.” Or, as theologian Tim Downs wrote, “Watches, cars, and Christians can all look chromed and shiny. But watches don’t tick, cars don’t go, and Christians don’t make a difference without insides. For a Christian, that’s the Holy Spirit.” So that small inner voice from our insides, that feeling to do something for someone is the prodding, the direction of God at work in us through the power of the Spirit, the divine Ruach of God. By paying attention to it and heeding its wishes, we become instruments of God’s desires for the world. By ignoring it, we delay God’s purposes for creation.

 

This brings me to an example of the Holy Spirit at work in my life. I had planned on a full in-depth discussion of these three scenes of Jesus and the disciples, and further explanations of the work of the Holy Spirit in today’s sermon. After all, it is Pentecost Sunday, and it seems more than appropriate. However, when I began to construct this sermon, I prayed about what to preach, and the Spirit led me in a different direction. I got a sense from God’s Spirit that I needed to preach a bit regarding our congregation, and what God’s Spirit may be up to in a rather challenging time.

 

In 2006, this church had 287 members on the books. We had children and families and fit the facility we were in. Fast forward to 2019. We have 120 members, and right now the only somewhat regular youth attender (Although she is now a legal adult) is Abigail. We are older and smaller. Fortunately, the folks we have in this church are active, dynamic and mission oriented. For the size and age of our church, we are really doing well, kind of like Mel Brooks or Betty White! But they won’t be around forever, and neither will we in our current state. According to Presbytery, if we keep on doing what we are doing, we’ll be down to under 100 members within the next 10 years. We hope to attract new members and had seven join in 2018, but had seven die as well. Visitors come on a regular basis, and some of them stick, for which we are grateful. That being said, we need to find ways to attract more people to our church and new ways of being God’s church in the world.

We recently had the entire campus appraised for building repairs and needs. Two of the roofs are in question and may soon be in need of repair. We have wood rot outside on the sanctuary window trim. The sanctuary and admin building will soon need paint. Two stained glass windows are bending outward in the narthex. We have a lot of HVAC work to do underneath the admin building as well. So, do we sink a lot of money into all of those needs? Do we hope that by renting out the facility more, we can generate more income, sell or lease a portion of the campus to generate funds to fix and renew the rest, have a big building campaign, sell the whole piece of property and downsize, or do we sit here and do nothing, hoping for the best?

 

Last year, hopefully, you remember we had an all-church retreat. We had a good attendance as two pastors from Renewal Ministries NW came and led us. If you recall, at the end of that weekend retreat, we were given a “charism,” that is a gift of the Holy Spirit confirmed by pastoral leaders. The following charism came after much scripture study and prayer, and was mailed out to everyone last fall:

Our Charism-We are an inclusive Christian community that serves “the least of these” with our hearts and our facilities here in Ashland and around the world.

This is the question that was asked of God during the retreat, with answers received in prayer by members of the congregation. - Lord, what are you saying to us about using our hearts and facilities to serve others, including the “least of these”?

 

Three themes emerged

1. Listen for God’s guidance as we seek renewal.

2. Reach out with love to embrace and be of service in a meaningful way to others in our community.

3. Explore options for the physical campus for us and for the community.

Followed by an Action plan

 

1. Listen for God’s guidance as we seek renewal.

  • Communicate with the congregation. Listen to feedback. (We will be doing this again after worship this morning.
  • Pastor Dan will ask a local spiritual director to meet with the Lon- Range Planning Team to continue the work of discernment. (We did that in December of 2018)
  • Given our human and financial resources, the Long-Range Planning Team will prioritize what we are already doing and determine our future area(s) of focus.
  • Be faithful to God and to each other. Be guided by love.

2. Reach out with love to embrace and be of service in a meaningful way to others in our community.

  • ACT.
  • Train congregation in listening skills. Wrap the whole endeavor in prayer.
  • Survey target groups in the community (with special emphasis on our immediate neighbors but not forgetting our own congregation).
  • Interview people and really listen to their needs. (Have been doing this for a while in the church, need to find ways to reach out to neighbors next.)
  • Find out what is holding them back from participating in the life of our church.
  • FOCUS on one or a few areas. Prioritize immediate needs, including what is right in front of us.
  •  

 

3. Explore options for the physical campus for us and for the community.

  • Support and listen to each other.
  • Research and seek guidance from experts.
  • Be open to new possibilities, as we look at how our buildings and grounds can best be used or changed to support the mission of the church.
  •  

 

That gift of the Spirit, that charism is what we will be guiding us as your church leaders go to retreat this coming September. After that retreat, we will have an action plan a way forward for us as a congregation, as guided by the Holy Spirit.

 

We are clearly in a difficult time as a congregation right now. In a book I first read back in 2014 The Great Emergence, by Phyllis Tickle, she says the church in America is in the midst of a big rummage sale, trying to decide what things we put up for sale and what things are cherished and we need to hold onto. It is an unsettling time, to say the least. How do we deal with an aging congregation with no young families in a city that is for the most part not interested in organized religion; one that is certainly “spiritual, but not religious”? How do we attract new people to church in a population that has little to no interest in organized religion?

 

C.S Lewis, in his book, Mere Christianity, wrote, “I find I must borrow yet another parable from George MacDonald. Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what God is doing. God is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on: you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently God starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make sense. What on earth is God up to? The explanation is that God is building quite a different house from the one you thought of—throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage: but instead, you are getting a palace.” Now this quote has much more to do with our own lives individually, and how God rebuilds us in God’s image. But as I read it this past week, I heard it in another way and believe it applies to our church as well. I believe God is trying to do some reconstruction of the First Presbyterian Church of Ashland, and that we may be in that phase where God is knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make sense. I’ve been part of several reconstruction builds in disaster relief missions, tearing out walls and floors and roofs. Initial deconstruction is unsettling and it is hard to visualize how things will appear when all is put back together. I believe God is at hand deconstructing and reconstructing the Christian church in the world, and that includes our little church here in the Rogue Valley. In times such as these, we need to rely on the gift of the Holy Spirit to guide us, to help us as we try new things, and as we try not to impede upon God’s reconstruction work. By paying attention to the Spirit and heeding its wishes, we become instruments of God’s desires for the world. By ignoring the Spirit, we delay God’s purposes for creation.

 

God says in scripture, “Do not remember the former things or consider the old ways. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:18-19) Let the wild, untamed divine breath, the Ruach of God stir us to new ways of being! And give thanks, for we are not alone in this time of the rummage sale or of God’s reconstruction. We have this amazing gift of the Holy Spirit to help us on the way forward. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. Thanks be to God on this Pentecost Sunday, as we give thanks for the gift of the Spirit! Alleluia! Amen.

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