Sermon May 15, 2016
A woman took a trip to England and went to church on Sunday morning at Westminster Abbey. She came from a Pentecostal background and didn’t expect to find much that spoke to her in the Anglican Church. She was surprised when the rector’s sermon moved her and she couldn’t contain herself. She shouted, “Amen, brother!” Her outburst was quite disturbing; the congregation gasped and the preacher lost his place. He finally regained his composure and continued. Soon she shouted, “Preach it, brother!” At this point an usher tapped her on the shoulder and said, “Madam, you must control yourself. Please be quiet.” She said, “I can’t help it. I’ve got religion.” The usher said, “That’s obvious, and you didn’t get it here.”
We tend to steer away from displays of emotion. We like things to be under control. If that describes you, you may wish you had stayed home today. This day we call Pentecost is the day that God unleashed the Holy Spirit and control is NOT a word we would use to describe that event. The people were still reeling from Jesus’ death. They were lost and in a fog. Pentecost was a festival fifty days after the Passover. Followers were gathered, waiting. I’m guessing if you asked them what they were waiting for, they could not answer your question. They had no idea what to do next.
Maybe that is part of why we gather for worship…to get some direction for the coming week. I have to wonder if there is a part of us that hopes to leave unscathed from worship. Perhaps we don’t even think of the risk involved in showing up. What if this is the week that God cuts loose and sends tongues of fire and a mighty wind to disturb our carefully ordered worship?
Barbara Brown Taylor talks about attending a Full Gospel Tabernacle church in Memphis. This three-hour service included a woman running around the sanctuary, people being slain in the spirit, and a woman falling on the floor in convulsions. Taylor said she made herself very small and perfectly still, praying that lightning would not strike her. She wondered if she had been in the room on that first Pentecost if she would have asked, “Oh God, if you are about to pour out your Spirit and this is what it looks like, would you please skip me?” (Clothed with Power, p. 69)
God is with us whenever we gather, but we forget the power God has to shape us. May 18 marks the 36-year anniversary of the Mt. St. Helens eruption. It was a strong reminder that fire lives within the earth even when we forget it’s there. Forgetting God’s presence doesn’t mean God isn’t at work underneath all that happens. Pentecost reminds us that sometimes we need the wind and flame to stir what has grown cold or complacent in us. At Pentecost, the Spirit breathes new life into us and empowers us for this faith journey we are on together.
This strange story is a reminder that we are called to come together and hear each other new ways. I cannot think of a time that was more needed than it is now. I am astonished at the great divide in our country right now and I wonder how we will find our way through this without greater divisiveness.
Part of what is powerful about the story of Pentecost is that people were gathered from all over. They spoke many languages. When the Spirit blew into the room, they were speaking in all those languages, but they were able to hear and understand one another. This chaos gave way to listening, which gave way to action.
Hmmm…are we listening, Church? If we can listen, we can discern the path to take. Look where listening took these early followers. Suddenly, they were able to do things they had never done before. This is a story of empowerment. Prior to Pentecost, the prophets possessed the vision of the community. Now everyone can speak for God – short order cooks, retired farmers, children – and we can understand each other.
Pentecost is a story of God breathing new life into the church through a mighty wind because nothing less will work. We know about wind in New Mexico. Is God in the wind that blows through our city? The rush of wind in this story broke down the barriers that divided the people. No matter how bitterly divided our world is - our country is - the spirit-swept church persists with wondrous claim that even people who are completely different can understand each other.
In this story, I experience an invitation to intentionally plug into our source. This is a call for us to pray and listen for God as a community.
The 10th Century Roman Church had “Holy Spirit holes” in the ceilings dramatizing the openness of the church to God and the fabulous fact that the Holy Spirit can’t be contained within the church. (Diana Eck, Encountering God, p. 130) I love that! Can we create “Holy Spirit holes” in the ceiling of our hearts and in the ceiling of our sanctuary?
God performed CPR on a room of well-intentioned followers turning them into a force that changed the history of the world. Do we still believe in a God who acts like that? Do we believe that God has the power to transform us? Or do we think God is pretty old and tired by now, someone to whom we can address prayer requests, but not one that we really expect to change our lives?
We gather here each week to allow God to breathe on us and ignite the flame within us. We may not see it happen exactly the way the story today tells it, but God is indeed doing something powerful among us. When you can speak with eloquence you don’t have or offer forgiveness or take risks, you can guess that is the Holy Spirit. You are breathing God in and then back into the world. That is the next part of the story. God blows into the gathering and then pushes the followers out into the world. Note that when the apostles received the Holy Spirit, they didn’t rent the Upper Room and stay there to hold meetings, but went everywhere preaching the gospel.
This story is about a God who can transform the world. There is an incredible inward experience that is then translated into a generous pouring out into the world. That is where it gets hard for some of us. We will take the God pouring into us, but are we really ready to be poured out into the world? That takes some courage.
There is an old story about an African convert who was given a copy of the Bible. He was so excited about this treasure. The missionary who gave it to him, was surprised when a few months later he saw the man with the Bible – worn, torn, battered and pages missing. The missionary said, “I thought you would have taken better care of the Bible I gave you.” The man replied, “It is the finest gift I have ever received. It is such a wonderful gift that I gave a page to my father, and a page to my mother, and then a page to everyone in the village.”
The gift of the Spirit is not something for us to contain right here, but to be poured out in love to the world. When you look at the disciples, you see that they possessed almost every gift except the power to use them. Pentecost gave them the power to use those gifts.
We gather in this room and when we disperse, there will be people making sandwiches in the kitchen to give to our homeless brothers and sisters, there will be people talking about saving our planet in the Green Justice team, there will be people preparing to widen the welcome in the Pride planning meeting, the Preschool committee will be feeding snacks as a sign of God’s generous hand, and people will gather in the parlor to talk about where they can volunteer next year. That’s just another Sunday in this church. God has breathed fire into us and now we are opening our doors to breathe that loving fire into the world.