June 9, 2019
The Same Spirit
Before my oldest, Ben, leaves for 2 plus years as a peace corp volunteer to Cambodia, Paul and I took the kids and my 11 year old niece to Harry Potter world – That is, Universal Studios – Anyone been to the theme parks? Disney, Epcot, Universal Studios – or even Hershey Park or Six Flags? You step into a totally different world, where time is just different – An hour standing in line to go through the Harry Potter bank, Gringotts? No problem! Stand in line for an hour to buy groceries, or at the MVA? Definitely a problem.Time passes in a very very different way. In ordinary life, we’re used to chronos time – Chronological time, linear, moving in one direction at a steady consistent pace.
But Church time is different from other time – Faith time runs on “kairos” time, which means an opportune time, the “right time” or a season of time. Kairos time happens next to the bedside of someone dying, or that time of waiting for a child to be born. There’s a very different sense – almost like no sense - of time passing. Today’s church celebration, Pentecost, the Birthday of the Church, takes us into that sort of time, where we connect now, with those first followers of Jesus, listening to Peter connecting them with their scriptures from the prophet Joel, going deeper yet to the folk Joel was speaking to, all the way back to Genesis, when God created people; and now, God creates church; God creates us. We’re never very far from our roots, and our roots go back to Jesus, whose own roots go back to the Jewish faith and scriptures.
You know that time between say Thanksgiving and Christmas? And there’s a sense that the “holiday season” begins at Thanksgiving? You know how that feels? It’s different from ordinary time. Or maybe think about the week between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day, how those days feel - That’s what this time was like for the disciples. These 50 days between Passover and Pentecost, the Festival of Weeks, a holy day of thanksgiving. Except, for Jesus’ followers, it was one of the worst holiday seasons ever.
Fifty days ago, Jesus was celebrating Passover with his friends, and since then, he has been killed, buried, the women can’t find his body, then he shows up in the garden, in the room, on the roadside, at the beach. It’s only been 50 days, it’s been 50 days of confusion and disorientation and an eternity for his friends and followers.
On top of that, it’s not a pleasant time in Rome; it’s not like they got rid of this rebel Jesus and everything settled down. The future his followers had imagined was blown to bits, and they are walking into each day without their friend, without their guide, and without hope. So this celebration called Pentecost, the Feast of Weeks, when they are supposed to be giving thanks to God, well – There didn’t seem much to be thankful for. But 120 of them gather for this Feast Day, and cling to ritual and tradition – That scaffolding that gets us through the hardest times. Life feels over; life goes on. And then, this:
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. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?”
Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and prosyletites, Cretans and Arabs in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.
All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
One hundred and twenty or so of Jesus followers gathered for their version of Thanksgiving – Called “Pentecost.” Maybe your thanksgiving gatherings aren’t quite so large, but these are the people who have bonded over Jesus’ teachings, loss, and resurrection. Imagine your house filled with family and friends, a cloud of grief and confusion hanging over everything, when all the doors and windows are blown open and a wind blows through the house. Wait, what was that?! And as you all scramble to close everything again, turn on the Weather Channel and check your phones for alerts and warnings – Light fills the house, and then it’s as if a nimbus or halo or flame surrounds each person. And it seems like everyone talking at once in the language and accent of their childhood. And all the neighbors leave their own Thanksgiving tables and come running to see what is going on at your house. “Huh,” some of your neighbors might comment to each other, “They certainly hit the bottle early, didn’t they.” But others catch the sound of voices speaking in their childhood accents and languages, and everyone, everyone wants to know what the heck is going on!
And that’s when Peter reminds them of their own religious tradition, quoting a famous prophet, Joel, whose words remind them even in what seems like the last days, the end of life, even there, God is at work.
But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say.
Indeed these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
And Peter goes on with the first sermon ever preached to people who would later be known as Christians, preaching just like we know, using scripture to remind people of the power of God, the love of Christ, and the gift of the Holy, God’s very own, Spirit. Peter named what was going on – The Spirit of God was moving in their midst.
As a young seminarian, learning about Pentecost and the Holy Spirit, I knowingly said to my professor, dean of the seminary, that there wasn’t much sign of the Holy Spirit in my home church. After all, First Presbyterian Church of Charleston, WV, was everything you imagine by the name. Old. Stodgy. Big. Traditional. A full pipe organ AND a harpsichord. Large staff – Two associates, a Christian Educator, a Youth minister. Choirs and committees and programs and two worship services every Sunday. People dressed up for church. Yes, it was the mid-1980’s, so a different time. But as far as I could see, there wasn’t a whole lot of spirit happening in that place.
Ah, but then Lou Weeks, my professor, pointed this out: I had heard a call to ministry out of the congregation, and so did one of my fellow students, from the same congregation. “That,” he said, “was the Spirit at work.” And as if to emphasize his point, just a year later another young person from that church went into ministry.
I’ve never forgotten that interaction, and Lou’s observation, because I had one fixed and specific idea of what the Spirit looked like when she showed up – And yes, in the early Christian Church, the Holy Spirit was often thought to carry the female pronoun.
In my limited imagination, the Holy Spirit’s presence was marked by palpable excitement, and energy, and enthusiasm – A feeling, like a mountain-top experience. It never would have occurred to me that the Spirit could also be a still small voice, a hand on a shoulder, a collective intake of breath at the news of a beloved friend’s death or news of a tragedy. A comforting text at just the right time. I thought of the Spirit as the top of a rollercoaster and the rush of wind as you flew down the hill; not the steady heartbeat of a people coming together week after week after week in good times and bad.
I was sitting in the hospital waiting room with my cousin-in-law’s husband Bill – So my husband Paul’s cousin Joy who was here a few weeks ago for surgery for a rare gynecological cancer – Surgery which was successful, by the way, but now she and her family will be leaving the tiny town in Peru where they serve as missionaries to spend a year in Chicago with his family as she receives the immunotherapy she needs – So Bill, who knows lots of pastors, asks me, as we are waiting, how things are going at church – Meaning, how are things here, at LPC.
And I answer that by the world’s metrics, not so great. The world would measure us by worship attendance – Which, in case you haven’t noticed – Is dropping. By the way, thank you all for being here this morning! And by the number of babies, and how many new members have joined, and how much the budget going up. So, by those measurements, not so great.
But I didn’t end there, because I said, “But by the measurements of the Holy Spirit, it is really amazing.” And I pointed out how faith has deepened here, as we’ve walked bravely with one another through life and death. How people are longing to connect and finding ways to do so – How young women in the church asked me to gather them occasionally to talk about faithful life as parents, spouses, workers. How women in mid-life are exploring ways of coming together, to connect and deepen their faith. How our leadership ranges from high school to folk well into retirement. How individuals are involved in the community; in mission; in contributing what we can to help launch a mother and her daughter into independent living. How we’re getting ready to welcome another family into our transitional shelter. How we quietly and consistently lift our voices and our hearts to God. How new things are happening in our midst, like us gathering next week to worship and fellowship with folk from Iglesia de Dios de Laurel.
How we’ll rely on the Spirit to help us connect with brothers and sisters who don’t share a language, a worship custom, a homeland. We tend to be on the quiet, contained side; they on the louder, exuberant side. We’re white bread Protestants; they are spicy tortilla Pentecostals. Yet, as their pastor said to me this week as we were planning the service for next Sunday, “We’ll all be in heaven together, so let’s get to know each other now.” Well, I’m pretty sure that’s a close translation? Because he said it in Spanish, which means I miss some of the nuances. But even if awkwardly, Pastor Jorge and I did connect, and even if we didn’t understand each other’s words perfectly, we shared our faith that God would see us through and bring us together.
We have assumptions about how and when and where and why the Spirit should and will and needs to show up. Instead, we get the God of our ancestors – Who shows up in prophets and burning bushes, tongues of fire, and still small voices, and silence; and maybe even a sermon every now and then, but definitely in one another. Who doesn’t give answers, but who gives reassuring love, in this precarious life of endings and beginnings we don’t choose.
Richard Rohr says this, “It is so simple that it is hard to teach, yet we all know love when we see it. After all, there is not a Native, Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, Islamic, or Christian way of loving. There is not a Methodist, Lutheran, or Orthodox way of running a soup kitchen. There is not a gay or straight way of being faithful, nor a Black or Caucasian way of hoping. We all know positive flow (love) when we see it, and we all recognize resistance and coldness when we feel it. When we … truly love, we move out of our small, individual selves to unite with another, in (faithful) companionship”
And that is the gift of the Holy Spirit. How we look out for each other, how we inspire one another to care for the people in this world, how we challenge one another to care for this world and all its creatures. You know the Holy Spirit as you are loved and held, and as you hold and love others. That is the gift that makes us a church, and what we celebrate this day of Pentecost. Thanks be to God.