Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | May 27, 2012

2012.05.27 “Heard About, Hoped For, Pentecost” – Acts 2: 1 – 21

Central United Methodist Church

Heard About, Hoped For, Pentecost

Pastor David L. Haley

Acts 2: 1 – 21

Pentecost Sunday

May 27th, 2012

 

When the Feast of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Without warning there was a sound like a strong wind, gale force — no one could tell where it came from. It filled the whole building. Then, like a wildfire, the Holy Spirit spread through their ranks, and they started speaking in a number of different languages as the Spirit prompted them.

There were many Jews staying in Jerusalem just then, devout pilgrims from all over the world. When they heard the sound, they came on the run. Then when they heard, one after another, their own mother tongues being spoken, they were thunderstruck. They couldn’t for the life of them figure out what was going on, and kept saying, “Aren’t these all Galileans? How come we’re hearing them talk in our various mother tongues? Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; visitors from Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene; immigrants from Rome, both Jews and proselytes; even Cretans and Arabs! “They’re speaking our languages, describing God’s mighty works!” Their heads were spinning; they couldn’t make head or tail of any of it. They talked back and forth, confused: “What’s going on here?” Others joked, “They’re drunk on cheap wine.” – Acts 2: 1 – 21, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson

 

In every institution or organization, there is an event that is legendary, an event stories are told about for years to come, to every newcomer to the organization.

For example, when I moved to West Chicago in 1990 and became a member of the fire department, the fire everyone talked about was one that happened just a few years before I got there, the Owens Corning Factory fire. Even though I was not there, I can tell you the whole story, because I heard it so many times from so many people. How the Owens Corning Factory had been right across the street from Fire Station 3, how one of the guys looked out the front of the fire station and saw the factory on fire, how they geared up and pulled out and tagged a hydrant and sat up the tower ladder, how the chief was out of town and the Deputy Chief had to run it, how it went to five alarms, and what everybody on the scene saw and did. After hearing the story so many times, I begin to think that maybe I had been there, after all.

It’s the same in every church. An exercise recommended for new pastors is to have a “history” night, where members of the congregation gather, put a timeline on the wall, and recount the history of the church, as they remember it.  Inevitably there is a time or event that was either good or bad, which people associate with a golden age of the church, when wonderful Pastor A came (May his name be blessed), and the church doubled and prospered. Unfortunately they can also tell you about the time when Pastor B ran off with the organist or when the church split or the building burned down. In all five churches I have served, there have been such history-shaping events which old timers can recount in detail, and new timers quickly learn.

In the history of the Christian Church, if there’s one such event that is legendary, which we have talked about and celebrated ever since the beginning of the Church, (which it actually was), it is the Day of Pentecost, which we celebrate today.

Many of us might add that of all the events in the New Testament we would like to have been attended, the Day of Pentecost might be at the top of the list. And we might go further to say that if there is an event we would love to see happen again, or at least the contemporary equivalent of it, it would be what happened on the Day of Pentecost.

Remember what happened?

It occurred after Jesus had ascended back to God in heaven, the event we celebrated last Sunday as Ascension Sunday. Once again without Jesus, what would the disciples do now?  Well, they prayed and attended to some necessary business, which sounds a lot like Methodists.  Other than that, not much happened, which unfortunately also sounds like many Methodists.  In fact, if that’s all that happened, it’s doubtful we would be sitting here today.

On the Feast of Pentecost, 50 days after Easter, they were together in one place, when suddenly there was the sound as of the rush of a mighty wind. We who live out here on the prairie, we know the sound of a mighty wind, and either love it or fear it. I have known some people who go crazy when the clouds roll in and the winds whip up, and others, including me, who love the exhilaration and run outside to feel it.  Maybe I’m just being like the pastor I once heard about who used to get up every morning to go watch the train roar through town, to see something that moved without him having to make it move.

Tongues as of fire, rested on each one. Fire we know also; fire can be frightening or fascinating, our friend or our enemy.  Warming, in a fireplace on a winter’s night; terrifying, when it rips through our house.  Perhaps, in this story, it also was both, both comforting and disturbing.

As the Spirit spread through their midst, they began to speak in tongues, not gibberish, as speaking in tongues often is, but in languages known to people visiting Jerusalem for the festival. At this strange sound, people came running, hearing the praise of God in their own language. Was the miracle in the speaking or the hearing?

Everybody looked around. Someone had to offer an explanation, so Peter did.  Using good speaking form, he began with a joke (these men are not drunk, seeing as how it’s only 9 am in the morning.)  And then he offered a sermon.  Just what you want after wind, fire, and speaking in tongues: a sermon, almost always used in conjunction with the words “as boring as.”  But it worked, and many joined the church that day.

But it raises the question, would it ever have happened without the Spirit’s descent; without the wind, the fire, and God’s praise spoken in many languages?  Or might they just have stayed there praying and voting, in an interminable conference, until they all keeled over.  Motion to adjourn?

According to many astute and not so astute observers, we have again reached such in a time in the life of the church. We are often found praying and conducting business, but nothing exciting is happening.  The church is usually about a decade (and sometimes a century) behind in thinking and practice, society is growing in younger people and people of color; but meanwhile statistically, the church is aging, and far too often monochrome. With the average age of United Methodist exactly mine – 60 – it doesn’t take too much prophetic insight to predict the death tsunami” (as some have called it) that’s coming to the mainline church in the next 30 years, unless we find ways to attract more people, younger people, more people of color.  Do we again need God’s spirit to break us loose?  Come, Spirit, come.

We might ask the same question about our lives: at whatever age we are at, are we happy? Is our life what we would like it to be, at whatever age we are, or is there something missing?  What do we long for, and seek? Do we even know?  Do we feel closer to God, as the result of our years of aging and experience, or farther away? Helpless to answer our own questions, to find the help we seek in the self-help aisle, do we crave God’s fresh breath of the Spirit to blow through our lives? Come, spirit, come.

When we think again about what happened on that Day of Pentecost, there is a certain conclusion and connected moral upon which we all might agree: “Beware: When the Spirit comes, things change.”  Luke the Physician (who wrote Acts) theological drift is clear: this thing is way bigger than we thought.  Or, as the sheriff, played by Roy Scheider in the movie Jaws famously said: “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.” And, of course, that was just the beginning.  If we really say we want the Spirit, we should note that the Spirit’s presence is at least as disrupting as it is comforting. Why? Resurrection is never more of the same, it’s LIFE from DEATH.

So, as much as we revere this Day of Pentecost, as much as we say we hope for it again, we should stop and ask ourselves, “Is this really what we want?” Because even though I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone pray, “Come Holy Spirit that we might remain exactly as we are,” that’s often how we act.  So whatever we might say or pray today on Pentecost, most of the time we resist meaning change in favor of “the way things have always been done, which is to say, “the way I’ve gotten used to them being done.”

I recently read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. In it Steve Jobs said one of the most significant moments of his life was when he realized that “reality” wasn’t a given, but was constructed by a previous generation of folks who – in the end – weren’t any smarter than we were.  Once he realized that, he said, he was willing to poke the “is” to see “what might be.”  What would it be like for us to do the same about many of our church practices, even some of the practices we observe so rigidly in our lives.  Steve Jobs also said this: “The first half of our life, we shape our practices. The second half of our life, our practices shape us.”  It’s like when we lose electricity; I always find it so illuminating, that every time I go down the stairs, even though I know the power is out, I keep hitting that light switch, every time.

A lot of the things we do in the church are just like that light switch. Some of them we do because, once upon a time they worked. But the new reality of our time is that the population for whom these tried and true practices worked is getting smaller, while the population and generation for whom these practices are not working, is getting larger. Which means, with the Spirit’s leading, in a new contemporary Pentecost, it’s past time to start exploring, experimenting, and innovating to figure out what works in this day and age, for those who are coming, for those who haven’t been coming lately, and for those who have never come at all.  As hard as change is, I believe it’s necessity gets clearer when we shift from the “what” (the changes proposed) to the “why” (reaching out to those we love and miss). Because, don’t you agree, if pressed to choose between “the church of our parents” and “a church for our children”, most of us will choose our children, hands down.

Which means, we could use a heavy dose of Holy Spirit to grant us the creativity and courage we need to break things loose, as indeed the Spirit did at Pentecost.  We need creativity to think outside the box, but also courage, not to give in to our own insecurities or to the insistence of those who will say, “But we’ve always done it this way.”

You never know exactly how the Spirit is going to move, or exactly how it’s going to happen. And yet time and again through the history of the Church, it has happened. While I could name numerous examples, here’s one.

Following the death of Pope Pius XII in 1958, the College of Cardinals elected as pope, a man by the name of Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli. Angelo had been born the fourth child in a family of sharecroppers. He became a priest, and in time a bishop, a papal nuncio, and finally, a Cardinal. On October 28, 1958, when he was elected Pope, it was to his great surprise; he had come to the Vatican with a return train ticket to Venice.

What he might not have known at the time was that, after the long pontificate of Pope Pius XII, the cardinals has chosen a man who – because of his advanced age (he was 76 at the time) – would be a short term, stop-gap, caretaker pope. He chose as his papal name the name of John, making him John XXIII. His frequent habit of sneaking out of the Vatican late at night to walk the streets of Rome earned him the name, Johnny Walker.

But who knew? To great excitement, John called a ecumenical council less that 90 years after the last one. Cardinal Montini, who would later become Pope Paul VI, remarked to a friend that “this holy old boy doesn’t realize what a hornet’s nest he’s stirring up.” Even though John would not live to see its completion, the Council – which met from 1962 to 1965) would be called Vatican II, and reshaped the face of the Catholic Church throughout the world.  In calling it, Pope John XXIII, who came to be one of the most beloved popes of modern times, said: “It was time to open the windows of the Church to let in some fresh air.”

Once again, it is time to open the windows of the Church, to let in some fresh air.  It is never easy, but the Holy Spirit we celebrate on Pentecost has a way not only of shaking things up, but of also granting us the vision, the courage, and the gifts we need to see things through. For this reason, perhaps more now than ever before, we pray, “Come, Holy Spirit.”

[I would like to acknowledge and thank David Lose, professor of preaching at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN, for some of the insights in this sermon, in his article Pentecost Chance, posted 5/20/2012 on WorkingPreacher.com]

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