Ministry Under this Roof
Isaiah 44:3-4, John 14:8-16
Roof Dedication, Pentecost
Rev. Doug Van Doren, Plymouth UCC, May 15, 2016
This is the day of Pentecost, known as the birthday of the Church. Usually we start with the Acts version of the giving of the Spirit, a portion of which I will read for you in a minute, but there are many other texts that speak of the Spirit. The text read this morning from Isaiah gives a powerful image of the people of God being like a tree planted beside the waters. Such trees not only have strength - their roots deep in moist soil, but they signal from miles away that there is water, sustenance here. The text read from John is part of Jesus' long farewell address that promises another Advocate. It makes clear that the Spirit enables the disciples to act beyond themselves. It enables them to act like Jesus, to love like Jesus, to be a witness to the love and power of God. It is a promise that the book of Acts shows fulfilled.
Hear the beginning of that text from Acts 2:
"When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each."
In his book, Shepherds and Bathrobes, Tom Long wrote:
"I once taught a confirmation class to a very small group. In fact, there were only three young girls in the class. In one session, I was instructing them about the festivals and seasons of the Christian year, and when we came to the discussion of Pentecost, I asked them if they knew what Pentecost was. Since none of the three knew, I proceeded to inform them that Pentecost was 'when the church was sitting in a group and the Holy Spirit landed on them like tongues of fire on their heads. Then they spoke the gospel in all the languages of the world.' Two of the girls took this information in stride, but the third looked astonished, her eyes wide. Finally she said, 'Gosh, Reverend Long, we must have been absent that Sunday.' The beauty of that moment was not that she misunderstood about Pentecost, but that she understood about the church."
I think what Rev. Long means is that young girl understood it could happen in her little church - it did happen in her little church. That is what allows us, propels us to be a witness, to speak, by word and deed, the Good News of God's love and God's intention that all the people and all creation live in harmony and abundance.
The book of Acts begins with the giving of the Holy Spirit and if you follow the story you see how, under the Holy Spirit, the Church is given the mission to showcase a new way. It was, and unfortunately still is, a counter-cultural way that seeks to listen to and speak the language of others, that shows a way out of the worldly system of cycles of violence, exploitation, and greed, a system that makes people war against one another and the very earth that nurtures and sustains us.
It is fitting that our dedication of the roof is on Pentecost Sunday, the celebration of the birth of the church. Not that the building is the church, we together, are the church, but it does identify and locate us. Many of you have had people say to you, "Oh, you are the church with the Wage Peace sign out front." And increasingly I've had people say, "Oh, you're the church with the solar panels on the roof."
A building and grounds also make a statement about the church. Is it large, ornate, ostentatious? Is it well kept, or doesn't it appear anyone really cares, or notices, or is active in its upkeep? Church architecture is clear that the church building makes a statement. Look at the great cathedrals of Europe. They were usually in the city center and the largest structure around, which spoke of the central importance of God. The huge space, soaring ceilings, and grand artwork were to give the peasants a sense of the glory of heaven that awaited them. (If they did as the church said!)
Our congregational forebears' church buildings also made a theological and ecclesiological statement but a different one. For them, the emphasis was on the people of God. So the communion table was no longer an alter placed against the wall, but brought out into the midst of the people. The church building was the meeting place of the people of God. The building wasn't holy; it was what went on inside the building that made it holy. Thus they, as we, could have community gatherings and secular meetings in the space as well. The more plain architecture was to show the humility of the people and good stewardship of the resources they had been given for ministry.
Plymouth's building is more in line with our Pilgrim forebears, not in New England style of course, but in simplicity, efficiency, and practicality. However, our very high and not terribly efficient use-of-space ceiling, speaks of the soaring nature of the spirit. Our clear windows remind us that we are in the world - outside, not inside the building is the focus of our ministry. Special need housing on church land speaks of ministry and our care for the marginalized. The Wage Peace sign speaks of our identity and witness. Solar panels witness to our care for creation and say that care for the creation is more important than an attractive roof unencumbered by those black panels. And our sign, that says, "Doing really good stuff" speaks the truth, and says, perhaps, that we don't take ourselves too seriously.
Admittedly, a roof is the least glamorous project of a building. It is not like redecorating the interior, or putting on an addition. It is a little like going to the doctor. You don't want to, but have to. If not, everything will deteriorate. The roof is probably the most important part of the structure, however. A building can stand for ages if the roof is kept intact. You see these wonderful old barns in the countryside, if the roof hasn't been maintained, they are falling down.
So today we celebrate the generosity of this congregation for doing what had to be done - providing a roof over our heads, but also for doing what didn't have to be done to keep us out of the rain, but did have to be done to be true to our values and ministry - insulation and solar panels.
The insulation in, and the solar panels on, our roof are no small witness to our values. It is characteristic of this church to put our money where our mouths are - not to just talk the talk, but to walk the walk. But the savings to the planet, and in dollars to us, allowing us to continue our generous support for mission, is also no small thing. The insert says a little of the equivalents just from the solar, in terms of care for the planet, in just the 7 months the panels have been operating - and many of those are the lowest production months.
We have kept nearly 5 tons of CO2 emissions out of the atmosphere. Someone would have had to plant 249 trees to offset that amount of CO2. In addition, we have helped other churches who are interested in solar, done a workshop at a state-wide conference, Melissa Anderson from our committee testified before the legislature, and I hosted a legislative briefing here, where we got two senators reluctant about pushing for renewable energy to get their pictures taken with our solar panels in the background!
It is hard to do year-to-year equivalents given difference in weather and usage, but both our gas bill, due to insulation, and our electric bill, due to solar panels are down significantly.
Really, what does a roof do but shelter and protect what happens underneath. It provides security. We talk about "having a roof over our heads." We have a roof over our ministry. It shelters what takes place under the roof - ministry, the ministry of celebration growth, and service. We see children grow from toddlers, and timid children in the choir to confident young people, from squirmy grade-schoolers to poised Confirmands. We see adults grow through worship under this roof, and through programs, support in tragedy, and opportunities for hands-on ministry. We see them grow through music opportunities, through new friends and different experience. This roof shelters the ministry of the building to the community with 12-step programs, use by a church of new immigrants, use by community groups, and social justice gatherings - all under this roof!
Maybe a lot of what happens under this roof falls under the category of sanctuary. The biggest space under the roof is, of course, the sanctuary. But "sanctuary" is also what we seek to provide under this roof. That is a safe place: a physically safe place for you, for children as well as a spiritually and emotionally safe place; where who you are as God made you, is celebrated; where you are not defined by past mistakes - yours, or another's; where no matter where you are in life's journey you are welcome here; where your needs and gifts are taken seriously, your uniqueness celebrated, and your common humanity recognized and called forth.
So as we dedicate this roof, we rededicate ourselves to that ministry, to Christ's ministry of radical welcome, to the making of peace, to forgiveness of our own and each other's foibles and failings. And through it all, despite it all, and because of it all, we rededicate ourselves to ministry to God's people seeking to build with God the Just and Peaceable realm in this, God's world.
May it be so.