Out of the Mess

Carla J. Bailey, June 4, 2017

Scripture Acts 2:1–21

Those of you who were born after 1978, or after 1988, or especially after 1998, will not appreciate what a miracle Microsoft’s Excel program is. Budgets and balance sheets were all done by hand, or they may have been typed. But before Excel, there was no way to have any columns automatically add themselves together. But then in 1978, Harvard Business School student Dan Bricklin developed a program called VisiCalc. It was a relatively small program with only a few capabilities. It could only calculate data in 5 columns and 20 rows. To make VisiCalc more powerful, Bricklin hired Bob Frankston. Frankston made the program fast and with better arithmetic. VisiCalc was an instant success and the duo were able to sell around 1 million copies of the program. The capabilities grew from there. Versions of Excel up to 7.0 had a limitation in the size of their data sets of 16K, or 384 rows. Versions 8.0 through 11.0 could handle 64K—65,536 rows and 256 columns. Version 12.0 can handle 1,048,576 rows, and 16,384 columns. We will not be presenting a budget for your consideration at the congregational meeting this morning that requires anything close to that amount of data. Even so, since I was born before 1978, I find even our modest Excel calculations miraculous. Hundreds of little cells line up in order, many of them the result of formulas we entered. Cells 8 through 58, for example—what do they total? And if we change the number in cell 106, what will that do to the number in cell 87? I am maybe about 1 percent knowledgeable about what all Excel can do. You’ll be glad to know that Ray Martin, who helped prepare our proposed budget, has significantly more knowledge and expertise.

What amazes me about Excel is that it makes order out of chaos. And that it accomplishes that order in mere seconds. I’m guessing most of you don’t think that is miraculous, but I’m easily impressed, especially when preparing a church budget that is clear and transparent and easily understood.

When it comes to church budgets, I like the quick and easily digested organization of chaos. When it comes to the Christian Church itself, I prefer chaos.

In his book Mainline Christianity (New York University Press, 2012), historian and sociologist Jason Lantzer painted an interesting picture of American Christianity. Since the Revolutionary War, mainline Christianity was comprised of the Seven Sisters of American Protestantism—Congregationalists, Episcopalians, Evangelical Lutherans, Presbyterians, United Methodists, American Baptists and the Disciples of Christ. At their side stood Roman Catholicism. These denominations were the dominant cultural representations of the Christian Church. Today, however, there are more—in the neighborhood of 33,000 Christian denominations. That is worldwide, not just in North America, but still, that’s quite a bit of chaos in Christendom. Think of these 33,000 denominations across the top of an Excel spreadsheet. They are the columns. Below them are the cells, the individual congregations that make up this mighty cloud of witnesses. It’s a heady thought, even knowing, as we do, that most of these denominations—at least the mainline ones—peaked in membership in the 1950s and have declined steadily in the last half-century. When you put those two pieces of information together, it means that the members of the eight mainline denominations spread themselves out dramatically. When you add the rapidly increasing number of people who do not practice any religion, well, it’s a messy, interesting picture.

And still, we have gathered to worship today, to celebrate Pentecost, the birthday of the Christian Church, which I’ve always thought was a bit strange—not that we have gathered for worship, but that that strange story Jeff read a few moments ago is the one we read to remember how the Church began. The disciples were all gathered for the Feast of Weeks, a somewhat ordinary Jewish festival held 50 days after Passover. It was a feast day, a gathering of Jews, but something happened to Jesus’ disciples that seemed to those who witnessed it, strange, if not suspicious. A strong wind blew and flames of fire appeared. The disciples began to speak wildly in foreign languages and some of them in a language no one could understand. They must be drunk, some of the witnesses claimed. Or was this a miracle of God? The signs of the Spirit were everywhere: fire and wind, tongues and blood and vapors of smoke. Peter seized that moment to preach, which I am absolutely certain I would not have done. But he began to interpret the signs of the Spirit and to capture the authority of the Hebrew prophet Joel. These men are not drunk—it’s only 9 in the morning! The words of the prophets are being fulfilled. Jesus is now the Way. Your young shall see visions, your old shall dream dreams.

For years after that first Pentecost, cynics attributed the wild event to weariness or too much wine or a kind of psychological hysteria. Most thought it was just a parlor trick to win converts to this new, extremely controversial and idealistic religion—Christianity. Now, centuries later, we read the story on this Sunday, Pentecost. Don’t you think it’s odd that of all the stories we have in the New Testament—stories of healing and courageous witness against exploitation and injustice, stories about how the disciples experienced the mysterious presence of Jesus, even after his death—this would be the one to which we attribute the beginning of the Church? A story about frenzied men who appeared to be drunk?

It is so counter-intuitive, this Christian enterprise—counter-intuitive and countercultural and unlikely. Then and now, doubters think we’re hopelessly idealistic. Eliminate homelessness in the city of Minneapolis? Relinquish our entitlement? Our racial privilege? Support the dismantling of a newly erected art scaffold and bear witness to listening to the quiet voices of the disinherited? Honor the gift of love between human—any human? And then there’s our gathering on Sunday mornings, not to be entertained in worship but to pray, not to hear a lecture but to sing, not to withhold food from anyone, but to call bits of bread and thimbles full of juice a feast! And the clear mandate from the One whose ways we choose to follow? Totally counter-intuitive! Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the realm of heaven itself. Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you [falsely] because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven, for that is how they persecuted the prophets who were before you. You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, “You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.” But I say to you, whoever is angry with a brother or sister will be liable to judgment.

No wonder the people who were gathered for a garden variety Feast of Fifty Days thought the disciples were drunk. Everything we believe and commit ourselves to doing is impractical. It creates chaos. It demands passion and commitment and trust that what we are attempting to do is the will of God.

This past Wednesday I received the heart-breaking news that one of my former parishioners in New Hampshire committed suicide. I was especially fond of his mother. She was conservative and a traditionalist. She was always the first to show up with food when someone needed it or to clean the houses of those who were hospitalized. She was generous to a fault. In a most unlikely partnering, my former colleague had asked her to be a confirmation mentor this year, a role she took so seriously, she put the other mentors on their tiptoes. This morning those young people are being confirmed, and the mentors figure prominently in the service. My colleague did everything he could think of to encourage this woman to skip this morning’s ceremony, inasmuch as the funeral for her son will be this afternoon. She would not budge from her determination to lay her hands on her confirmand’s head, to stand with her confirmand’s parents as her confirmand promises to honor the covenant beneath which she now stands.

There’s something a little crazy and compelling about the meaning of this day for my former parishioner. There is nothing logical about her commitment to the ministry of her church. She understands that the Church to which she has dedicated her life is capable of holding together in one moment joy and sorrow, celebration and mourning. She is the living embodiment of the mess out of which the church was born. A joyful, messy Pentecost to you all. Amen.