Pentecost Sunday-May 31, 2020

Call to Worship/Psalm 104:24-34 (NRSV)

O Lord, how manifold are your works!

In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.

Yonder is the sea, great and wide, creeping things innumerable are there, living things both small and great.

There go the ships, and Leviathan that you formed to sport in it.

These all look to you to give them their food in due season; when you give to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.

When you hide your face, they are dismayed; when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust.

When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the ground.

May the glory of the Lord endure forever; may the Lord rejoice in his works—who looks on the earth and it trembles, who touches the mountains and they smoke.

I will sing to the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praise to my God while I have being.

May my meditation be pleasing to him, for I rejoice in the Lord.

Invocation

Holy Spirit, Creator, in the beginning you moved over the waters. From your breath all creation drew life. Without you, life turns to dust.

Holy Spirit, Counselor, by your inspiration, the prophets spoke and acted in faith.
You clothed them in power to be bearers of your Word.

Holy Spirit, Power, you came as fire to the disciples; you gave them voice before the rulers of this world.

Holy Spirit, Sanctifier, you created us children of God; you make us the living temple of your presence; you intercede within us with sighs too deep for words.

Holy Spirit, Giver of life, you guide and make holy the church you create; you give gifts: the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and fortitude, the spirit of knowledge and piety, the spirit of the fear of the Lord, that the whole creation may become what you want it to be.

True and only Light, from whom comes every good gift—send your Spirit into our lives with the power of a mighty wind. Open the horizons of our minds by the flame of your wisdom.
Loosen our tongues to show your praise, for only in your Spirit can we voice your words of peace and acclaim Jesus as Lord.  Amen.

Scripture Reading/Acts 2:1-21 (NRSV)

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 proselytes, 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.”

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 heaven 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.’

Message/The Rush of a Violent Wind

In 1983 Australia threatened to take the America’s Cup from the United States.  The United States had retained the coveted cup of yacht racing for years, but that year Australia mounted a serious challenge.  Australia and the United States were tied with one race to go.  The day came for the final race. Scores of people came to watch the race.  Television cameras from all over the world were there.  The boats were ready.  The crews were ready.  The yachts pulled into place at the starting line.  All was ready, but there was no race!  Why?  There was no wind.  In yachting, no wind means no race.

It takes wind to fill the awaiting canvas of the sail in order to propel the boat forward.  And it takes the wind of the Spirit to birth the church and cast it out into the world as a sailboat takes its course on the blue green waters of the ocean.  As the creation story in Genesis tells us, the Spirit hovered over the dark waters at the very beginning, the very power of God ready and able to bring forth order out of the primordial chaos.  Nothing happens without air.  Air is essential for life.  Lungs must have air to oxygenate our blood supply.  Gills draw oxygen out of the water for fish to maintain life.  Plants and trees need air in order for the essential processes of photosynthesis to take place.  Air is what enables us to hear the sounds around us, birds singing, the expressions of our pets, and the voices of our loved ones.  It is air that enables us to speak and to sing and to worship.  Life is impossible without it.

So, it seems highly appropriate that the nascent church needed, as our text says, “the rush of a violent wind” in order for it to come into being.  Like a doctor clearing the airway of a newborn baby to make sure that she is breathing properly, the Church, too, had to find its first breath.  One thing that is important to remember is that in both the Hebrew and the Greek, ruach and pneuma respectively, imply “air,” “breath,” “wind,” and “spirit.”  It is from the Greek that we derive our term pneumatic, like a tire that is filled with air, and the word pneumonia, a bacterial or viral infection of the lungs, that often interferes with our ability to breathe.

I love the way that Luke paints his picture of the first Pentecost in Acts.  It is filled with noise, commotion, drama.  The symbol Luke uses isn’t a cooing, gentle dove hovering on a gentle breeze but rather a violent wind, sweeping through the room.  And if the wind isn’t dramatic enough, tongues of flame are alighting on the heads of those gathered there.  Wind and fire are images that are biblically associated with apocalyptic, earth shattering events.  This doesn’t seem to be that “sweet, sweet Spirit” that is often portrayed in our praise songs, this is the dynamic, life-giving, unpredictable Spirit of God who disrupts the status quo, who forces us to expand our boundaries, who sends us into places where we never thought we would ever go, who gives us new understandings that we had never before considered.  Pentecost was neither quiet nor peaceful.  But let’s face it, the process of birth is neither easy nor painless…just ask any mother who has spent hour after hour in labor or any father who had to be there with them.  I was with Marcie for both of her c-sections.  I distinctly remember the doctor who delivered Matthew singing show tunes, and Marcie, there on the operating table, saying something to the extent, “how can he sing at a time like this!”  While giving birth is beautiful in its own way, birth is almost always a messy and painful thing.

At the first Pentecost there was no angelic visitation in a white robe offering words of comfort-“fear not” before giving special instructions to the recipient of the visit.  This was the rush of a violent wind, something that we cannot directly see, but we can feel and see its effects.  The great preacher Fred Craddock reminds us of what Jesus told Nicodemus in the third chapter of John’s Gospel.  He writes, “I cannot describe the Holy Spirit.  I cannot explain the Spirit of God.  Jesus said it is like a mystery, like the wind.  You don’t see the wind, and yet you know when it comes and when it goes.”

Another clue to the dramatic entrance of the Spirit comes from the reason that those first apostles gathered in that upper room and the reason why there were so many nationalities represented there in the city of Jerusalem in the first place.  Pilgrims had come from all over the Mediterranean basin to the city to worship at the Temple, celebrating the Jewish holiday, Shavuot.  Pentecost is the anglicized name.  Shavuot is celebrated on the fiftieth day after the Passover and is one of three annual Jewish festivals including Sukkot, Passover, celebrated in our time.  Whereas Passover celebrates freedom from bondage found in the Exodus event, Shavuot celebrates the freedom for devotion that was given through God’s gift of the Torah, the giving of the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai.  In that story, we find God appearing on top of a mountain, shrouded in cloud and smoke.  There was thunder and lightning and the earth shook.  So, in Acts, the Spirit of God arrives in “a sound like the rush of a violent wind,” and fire appears, not on the top of a holy mountain, but on the top of each believer’s head.

Jesus’ friends had spent the fifty days between Passover and Shavuot in shock and mourning.  Still reeling from the trauma of his execution and inexplicable post-death sightings, they have gathered to comfort one another, open the sacred texts and attempt to make sense of their world.  As they begin, the story moves off the page; flames dance, wind blows, and language transcends. What had been familiar and comforting, is at once both mystical and terrifying.  Yet it is precisely because the promised Holy Spirit is the presence of the crucified and resurrected Christ, that we should never expect things to be easy.  In the cross of Christ, we see God’s strength mediated through suffering, God’s victory achieved through defeat, and new life pledged and provided through death.  The crucified and resurrected God we meet in Jesus is a God of paradox, and we should look for no less in God’s Holy Spirit.

All of these events, the noise, the wind, the tongues of flame attracted a bewildered crowd, amazed and astonished that simple, backwards and uneducated Galileans are able to be understood in languages that they have never been spoken before.  There’s so much commotion going on that some wonder if they’re all drunk.  It takes Peter to stand up and remind announce that something new was happening in that very moment and that they were not intoxicated by distilled spirits but rather by The Spirit.  He begins by quoting from the Old Testament prophet Joel who spoke about 800 years before, describing the events of the Day of the Lord—a day when the Spirit of God would be poured out on all people and would provoke visions and dreams and prophetic speech among the young and the old.  An eerie and ominous day in which the sun would be darkened and the moon turned blood red.  A day of judgment and fear and confusion.  So, let’s face it, the Pentecost story isn’t a quaint, feel-good kind of story; rather, it’s a dangerous one.

Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Lutheran Pastor and one of my favorite Christian bloggers (she calls her blog The Sarcastic Lutheran!), shared about a set of altar paraments her church had received from another church.  She recalls “as a group of us went through these beautiful altar cloths, we came finally to the red set and found one with an image of a descending dove with completely crazy eyes and claws that looked like talons.  Yep.  It was as though the Holy Spirit was a raptor.  ‘Man,’ someone said.  ‘We can’t use this one it makes the Holy Spirit look dangerous.’”

Eberhard Arnold strongly asserts that the birth of the first community of Christ in Jerusalem is too seldom taken seriously.  “Maybe,” suggests Arnold, “the miraculous account of the disciples speaking in tongues is too strange for most of us.”  And because we look at these events with great skepticism “it is often impossible to portray this most important experience except in watered-down terms and concepts.”

It seems that all the crazy stuff that happened that Pentecost day in first century Palestine bears little resemblance to what the church has become in 21st century America.  There were no pipe organs or praise bands or committees or vacation bible school.  At the so-called birth of the church there were no ushers handing the Parthians a bulletin.  The Medes didn’t have a bake sale after the service.  It can be hard to see any resemblance at all from how we started to what we have become.

But yet, it seems to me the more things change, the more things stay the same.  Even though we think things are very different in our time from the first Pentecost, there are many things that are really the same.  And that gives me great hope for the Church today.  Let’s not forget that the story opens in the small upper room in Jerusalem.  That small group of believers isolating themselves as the text says, all together in one place.  Not unlike the risen Jesus miraculously appearing to the disciples through the locked doors, here we find the Spirit intruding into their lives.  Here they were, gathered and separated from the public.  Perhaps they were afraid of outsiders or those who might bring them harm.  But had they actually known better, they would have been afraid of not dispersing, because what was about to happen would have freaked out even the bravest amongst us.  They were in danger alright, but not from outsiders—the danger they were in, as they sat all together in one place, was from a God who is about to crash the party and bring in everyone they were trying to avoid.

See, we still have fear and isolation in the church.  We like our cozy and comfortable place here.  We are hesitant to allow others to come and share their gifts and graces among us.  We wonder if they’ll shake things up and bring about change and upset the apple cart.  So, nothing has really changed there.

And what about those who did the whole speaking in tongues thing…well, obviously they are the Pentecostals.  And talk about multiculturalism at its best, just read through that long list of different nationalities that showed up, amazed and astonished at what was going on.  It was truly a “We Are the World” moment.  Then there were those who witnessed this powerful act of God…this “Pente-chaos” and, in an attempt to intellectualize it, questioning, “well what does this mean?”  And what about the moralists who said, “Those people are drunk.”  Then finally there’s the nice, but completely naive guy who says, “O my gosh, there’s no way they can be drunk…it’s only 9 o clock in the morning.”  You see, nothing really has changed.  People are people.  There are the emotional ones, the judgmental one, the naïve ones, and of course the ones like me who insist on categorizing and naming everyone as though people can be reduced to a label.

So, there we all are even from the beginning.  Flawed, smug, confused, embarrassed and embarrassing…in other words the very people to whom God sends the Spirit.   Because, you see, God hasn’t changed either.  Just like that first Pentecost, God still crashes our parties and invites in the people we are trying to avoid.  God still says “yes” to all our polite “no thank yous.”  This is what is so dangerous about the whole thing.  In which case, that red altar parament with the crazy-taloned raptor dove is actually more apt of an image for the Holy Spirit than some soft-focus hallmark card dove gently flying in a water-color sky.  Obviously when speaking of the Holy Spirit we have to revert to all these metaphors of comforter and dove and wind but the thing to remember is that the Holy Spirit isn’t a metaphor.  Metaphors can only point to change; but the Spirit is one who has the power to transform the world.

Because the Spirit, while called the comforter, doesn’t bring the warm chocolate chip cookies and a night-night story kind of comfort.  The Spirit brings the comfort of the truth—and if you’ve had any experience of the truth whatsoever, you can testify that it’s not exactly cozy.

Pastoral Prayer

Come, Holy Spirit, and fill us with your love. Open our eyes to see the presence of God all around us, in the joys and celebrations of our lives, in the tragedies and struggles that break our hearts.

Come, Holy Spirit, and comfort those who grieve. Grant them the peace that only you can bring. Stir within us a trust in life beyond death, as we ponder the mysteries of Christ’s resurrection and the hope we have in new and everlasting life.

Come, Holy Spirit, and bring wholeness to the sick. Strengthen those who are weak; heal the wounded and broken; give rest to the weary.

Come, Holy Spirit, and inspire our warring world to seek peace, to genuinely seek compassion for our enemies, to have the courage to put down our weapons, to be cleansed from all the insidious “isms” that dehumanize and separate us from those whom you also created in your image.

Come, Holy Spirit, and ignite a fire in our bones, a passion for justice that cannot be quenched until all of your children learn that they are loved, until no one is marginalized or oppressed, until everyone has the opportunity to thrive, until the world is transformed and renewed.

Come, Holy Spirit, and revive your church. Liberate us from complacency and apathy; inspire us with Christ’s vision for a world reborn; help us to recognize our gifts for ministry and to use them in the service of others; transform our hearts and our minds; fill us with love that overflows; remind us that there is no greater calling than to love you with all that we are and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Gracious God, give us a glimpse of your kingdom emerging around us and drawing us into the new things you are doing in the world. It is for your kingdom that we now pray, filled with your Spirit, using the words Jesus taught us…

The Lord’s Prayer                                                                          

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever.  Amen.

 Closing Thought & Benediction

Scholar and Author N.T. Wright—“Those in whom the Spirit comes to live are God’s new Temple.  They are, individually and corporately, places where heaven and earth meet.”

So go out into the world,
and labor to bring forth new life.
Dream dreams, pursue visions
and speak of God’s goodness
in the words of those who would hear.

And may the God who breathed life into creation be your delight.
May Christ Jesus give hope to your dreaming,
and may the Holy Spirit, your advocate and encourager,
set your hearts ablaze with a passion for peace.

Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.  Amen.