Anniversaries commemorate events of the past. Some anniversaries, like the seventy-fifth anniversary of D-Day, are solemn occasions. Other anniversaries, like the ones we observe today, are celebrations. We’re celebrating them on Pentecost Sunday, which is one of the three most sacred days in the church year. While anniversaries look back, Pentecost speaks to the future by looking back to the birth of the church and its mission in the world.
One anniversary we celebrate today is personal to me. Thirty-four years ago today I was ordained to the ministry at Temple City Christian Church. When hands were laid upon me that day, I had no idea of what the future held. I had plans for the future, but you never how things will turn out. You might even end up in Michigan of all places!
Then there’s the congregation’s anniversary, which we celebrate today. Forty years ago, on July 16, 1979, Central Woodward Christian Church began its life here in this building in this community. This was a momentous and difficult move, shepherded by its new pastor Bob Boyte. What we call today the “old church” was filled with memories of baptisms, weddings, and multiples of services and events. But the move was made, and here we stand forty years later.
We also stand some ninety-nine years from the day when Edgar DeWitt Jones answered the call to become the pastor of Central Christian Church, which in 1926 became Central Woodward Christian Church. We trace our roots back through that moment to 1841 when a gathering of families led to the establishment of a Disciples congregation in Detroit. From there, we can continue back through time until we arrive at the day when the Spirit fell on a gathering of Jesus’ followers in an upper room in Jerusalem during the feast of Pentecost.
A lot has happened over the past One-hundred-seventy-eight years, the past ninety-nine years, the past forty years, and for me, the past thirty-four years. Remembering the past is important because those memories helped form us as a congregation and as individuals. While the past informs the present and the future, we’re not captive to it.
If I asked you to think back forty years, where might you have been on June 9, 1979? When I ask that question, I recognize that not everyone gathered in this room was alive in 1979! As for me, I was completing my junior year of college. Keeping with the theme of the anniversary, I know some of you were preparing to move into the new building with anticipation and perhaps a bit of sadness. That’s because moving forward meant letting go of what was, so you could embrace the new opportunity.
Pentecost Sunday offers us an opportunity to remember and celebrate the past. We carry with us legacies that go back decades, centuries, and millennia. All of this informs the next steps we take as a community of faith.
This movement from the past to the present and to the future can be messy. It can be filled with twists and turns. The good news is that we don’t take this journey alone. Throughout time, we have the promise of the Spirit who abides with us as we make our way through life as individuals and as communities.
This confluence of anniversaries and celebrations gave me the opportunity to reflect on how we look at the future. Some people believe the future is predetermined, but I’m of the opinion that the future is open. I believe God has a sense of where the future is going, but we get to participate in creating that future, and so the future remains open.
Think about what happens when you use a GPS to get to your destination. You know where you’re going, but if you zig when the GPS suggests you should zag, the GPS recalculates the directions. Every time you change directions, the GPS will recalculate the pathway. If you decide to change your plans and go somewhere else, it will calculate those directions, and on we go. So it is with our walk with God. The path to the future is constantly being recalculated as we zig rather than zag.
Accompanying us on this journey is the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus promised to provide to the disciples as he spoke to them during his final meal. He told them that even though he would be leaving them, God would send the Paraclete—the Advocate—who is the Spirit of Truth, who would be with them forever.
Our reading from John 14 ends with this promise: “You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.” That word “abide” is an important one. It’s a bit old-fashioned. It’s not a word I normally use, but it seems appropriate here. As we move from the past through the present and into the future, there might be continuity over time, but there will also be change as we move forward into a future that is still open. Nevertheless, we go forward in the presence and the power of the Spirit of Truth.
When Central Woodward Christian Church moved into this building on July 16, 1979, with Bob Boyte as pastor, no one could have envisioned what exists here today. As for me, I had no clue in 1979 that someday, forty years later, I would be the pastor of this congregation. I wasn’t on your radar and you weren’t on mine, but here we are—to quote Philip Clayton’s book title—having engaged in “Adventures in the Spirit.”
Down through the years we’ve been zigging and zagging, but we’ve been doing this with the Spirit always there abiding with us, empowering us to proclaim in word and deed the good news of Jesus Christ. If, as I believe, the future is open, there are lots of “Adventures in the Spirit” left for us to participate in. With that in mind, I will add in the closing sentences of Philip Clayton’s book: “Let us be avant-garde, think new thoughts, dream new dreams, and imagine a future that no one has imagined before. For this, I believe, is our particular vocation and our distinctive contribution” [Adventure in the Spirit, p. 267]. Now Clayton didn’t have our situation in mind when he wrote those words, but I think they fit. So, let us think new thoughts, dream new dreams, and imagine a future that has yet to be imagined. There will be continuity between what emerges in the future and what has transpired, but let’s not be confined by what has already happened. We might to zag instead of zig!
With that as our vocation, we can take hold of God’s lead in this adventure. The second verse of the hymn “God of Our Life” speaks to this promise: “God of the past, our times are in your hand; with us abide. Lead us by faith to hope’s true promised land; be now our guide.” [Chalice Hymnal, 713].
Each week we gather at the Lord’s Table to celebrate the Eucharist. This meal calls us to remember the meal at which Jesus shared this promise to provide the Spirit of Truth. It also calls to mind other meals Jesus shared, like when he broke bread with the disciples on the road to Emmaus or when he fed 5000 with a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish. We remember, but we don’t stay there. Instead, we move forward toward that heavenly meal, when all creation will sit down in the presence of God with joy on our hearts. We live in between these two meals, so as we gather today at the Table in our diversity, may this be a day of new beginnings. May we celebrate the possibilities that lie before us as we abide in the Spirit and as the Spirit abides in us.
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
June 9, 2019