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  • Writer's pictureRev. Liz Goodman

A Note about Pentecost Sunday 2024

Pentecost is the “birthday of the church,” the day remembered and celebrated as when the Holy Spirit came down, following Jesus having gone up, and empowering the disciples to become apostles, sent out for the building up of the church--the Holy Spirit which is often imaged as a bird, a dove.

This year Pentecost was the Sunday after we learned that our church building, on the market since January, was now “under contract.” The Parish Council, as authorized by the membership, had received and agreed to an offer to the buy the building from us. Now in a month-long period of “due diligence” for the proposed Buyers, when inspections will determine whether we’ll close the deal, together as a church we move into an unknown.

We don’t know if this sale will go through, and there will be much to find relief in if it does, and much to be thankful for, not least to the Buyers.

We don’t know whether we’ll continue to have a place here following the sale, whether for worship or for special services like Christmas Eve or funerals.

We don’t know how quickly we’d need to vacate the building of our belongings and ask our partners in ministry to do the same—the food pantry, the supper club, Eric’s violin lessons, the coffee club.

We don’t know what of those belongings we’ll choose to keep, and how and where we'll keep what we decide to keep—the piano, the pulpit, the cross, the communion silver and hymnals and Godly Play materials and Mary’s memorial creche. We don’t know whether others will want to take ownership of what’s in there that we won’t need—the tableware from Monterey’s long-past golf course clubhouse, the folding tables, the stacking chairs.

We don’t know where we’ll meet for worship the Sunday after.

Pentecost was the Sunday after all these questions came to dawn.

I got to church earlier than usual that day. I hadn't slept much. I went into the bathroom to fill my water bottle and I heard through the vent the sound of chirping, though whether bats or baby birds I couldn’t discern, and whether in the vent or just above the vent I also couldn’t discern. I went outside to check whether there was anything I could see and found that the gutter was filled with spring’s detritus and a bird was busy in the air around it.

Maybe there was a nest of baby birds there, just above where the vent likely had its outlet.

I went back inside, making noisy footsteps and hearing once again the rise of chirping. That was it: a nest of baby birds, crying out when they heard a scary sound.

Back in the sanctuary, I put my water bottle in the pulpit and would begin putting the hymn numbers on the hymn board. Then a scurrying from inside the pipe organ caught my attention. I crossed the altar to it and stomped my foot. This will sometimes quiet down the mice in the wall behind the cross when in winter they don’t seem to know they’re not alone the building. This quieted down this scurrying too, though it was much louder scurrying than anything mice make. Maybe a squirrel?

I went outside and around back to see whether the door into the organ had been opened or eaten into and through. Trying to figure how this what I was now convinced was a squirrel might have gotten into the organ, I found no sign of entry, this door that, once opened, is hard to close.

I went back inside.

People began to arrive. First Bev and Steve. Then Steve and Sally, and John and eventually Sean and Donna and Wayne, Mel and Travis, Nathan, Linnea, Joann, Steve Snyder. We made it through the Call to Worship, and the first hymn, the Prayer of Invocation and the scripture readings, hearing of when the Holy Spirit came down and unleashed a whole world of new possibilities.

Soon into the sermon the scurrying began again, and I said to those gathered, “Oh, right, there’s something in the organ.” I think I said I figured it was a squirrel and I stomped my foot in its direction. Steve Snyder said, to put us all to ease, that he’d stay after worship and work to get it out of the building.  

Meanwhile, it had quieted down again.

It stayed quiet until I’d finished the sermon, but when I sat down for our time of silence, it started up. This time, though, it sounded more like scratching that scurrying.

Nathan said, “Something’s poking through,” and so it was, a tuft poking through the air hole in one of the larger center pipes, called the mouth of the pipe.

The tail of a bird, a trapped bird.

Silence being no longer an option, I moved to announce the next hymn. But then I realized this was the sound of suffering we were hearing and there was no way to worship when suffering is taking place, and so close, and so desperately in need of help. “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,” says the Lord.

“Here’s what I propose,” I said from the pulpit, sure that this proposal needed hardly to be said, not in this congregation, not with these people. “Let’s finish our worship outside.” I could see from the back pew where Steve always sits that he’d stay to free this trapped bird while the church found a better place for worship.

Which we did, with not even the slightest hesitation.

On the front steps, on the front lawn, praying for what news had begun to bloom in our imaginations for all its possibilities and its many unknowns, praying for ourselves that we had made this decision wisely, faithfully, and well, praying that the gift of Pentecost as it seemed to have arrived that morning might be true: the bird trapped in the pipe of the organ in the sanctuary could well be the Holy Spirit likewise trapped were we to insist upon keeping this beloved building no matter what.

We as a gathering congregation have rightly loved, since 1848, this standing witness in the center of town, our witness together that God is real and Christ beckons, “Come and see,” and the Holy Spirit inspires us to be faithful and hopeful, generous and kind. But we’d wrongly love it if we thought without it we weren’t the church.

One day early in my ministry here, I was futzing around the sanctuary, studying in my office upstairs. I’d opened the windows for a cross-breeze, and while I busied myself a bird flew in, swooped high to the ceiling, low to the top of the pews. It sat itself on the sill of the window opposite where it had flown in. It stayed long enough for me to feel its strange presence and for it to seem to consider me.

Then it flew out.

Months later, I wrote about it for the Monterey News, in the column I used to write, and always figure I might again, “From the Meetinghouse," though reading its title now has me see it as one more thing we have to let go. Which is fine. It's a column I always agonized to write. I just never knew what to say. I always figured if anyone wanted to hear from me, they’d come to church. Otherwise, it was either apologetics, the doing of which I have little interest in and still less spirit for, or it was something “nice” for people to find “nice,” which I often heard they did, which was enough for a while.

Of the article about the bird coming in for a strange encounter, the only response I ever received was from someone in the Coffee Club who found it funny that our building was one so easily given over to the unexpected. “You gotta get screens for those windows,” or something like. I felt his amusement as either pity or mockery, but also as evidence that he and I see things differently. The bird coming in and just as freely going out had felt to me like God’s blessing, reason to hope for what was possible in this quiet place.  

This more recent bird was trapped, was trying to get out.

Not to ascribe the obvious to God, I trust now following this most recent Pentecost Sunday our letting this building go. I trust that to cling to it would be a trap for the Holy Spirit who longs to be free, who longs indeed to free, to let loose those who are ensnared, whether in religious trappings of previous dispensations, or in systems of injustice or exploitation, or in anxiety regarding a changing world that demands we change as well.

Truly, the Holy Spirit wills for freedom and joy in the Lord, this (the Lord) and no other.

For nearly two centuries we’ve found joy in the Lord in this building. It’s time to seek it elsewhere, gathered simply as two or more in His name. Here, in the gathering, wherever it takes place, we will find it.

Just as He said.

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