Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | June 8, 2014

2014.06.08 “Pentecost: Our Favorite Church Festival?” – Acts 2: 1 – 21

Central United Methodist Church

Pentecost: Our Favorite Church Festival?

Pastor David L. Haley

Acts 2: 1 – 21

Pentecost Sunday

June 8, 2014


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.

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.’ (Acts 1: 1 – 21, the New Revised Standard Version

Do you ever find yourself envious of other people’s religions? While remaining committed to our own, there are many things to like about other people’s religions.

WhirlingdervishesFor example, Muslim Sufi dancing. You may have heard it referred to as “whirling dervishes.” Sufi dance is a form of mystical meditation, as they whirl around the floor, lost in the dance, sometimes for hours on time. How come we don’t have anything like this in Christianity? Maybe we did in the dance Shakers used to do, but unfortunately, while the Shakers believed in dancing, they didn’t believe in sex, so they died out. (Unlike other Christians, who believe in sex but don’t believe in dancing).  Ever since Footloose, they are less in number also.

2G-HOLIAnother religious festival of which I’m especially envious is the Hindu Holi festival, a spring festival also known as the festival of colors. Holi celebrates the victory of good over evil, the end of winter and the arrival of spring, and is a festive day to meet others, play and laugh, forget and forgive.  But what I really like about it is how it is celebrated: by a free-for-all carnival of colors, where participants play, chase each other through the streets and throw colored powder and water at each other. Anyone and everyone is fair game: friend or stranger, rich or poor, man or woman, children and elders. I really think we need a Christian Holi festival: who would want to miss church on that day?

In the Christian Church, the closest thing we have to the sights and sounds of the Holi festival, is the Day of Pentecost, which we celebrate today.

Just a few minutes ago, you heard the story: Fifty days after Passover, on the Jewish Feast of Pentecost, the disciples of Jesus were gathered together. Suddenly, there came a sound as the rush of a mighty wind. Suddenly, tongues as of fire, rested on each one (it’s a good thing fire extinguisher weren’t invented.) Everyone was filled with the Spirit, and began to speak in other languages, the languages of those gathered in Jerusalem for the festival, who came running to see what was happening.

Last summer when we were in Jerusalem, we had a lot of fun exploring. We were on Mt. Zion, the oldest part of the old city, near the Zion Gate, looking for a certain church. As we wandered around trying to find it, we stood looking into the Valley of Hinnon – Gehenna in the New Testament – in Jesus’ day the city garbage dump, which we now know as “hell.” We found the cemetery in which Oscar Schindler, of the movie Schindler’s List, is buried. We found a building called the Tomb of David (not really), full of orthodox Jews singing in Hebrew.  On the way out, we wound up in the middle of another group of people singing, which we first thought was a wedding, but turned out to be a Bar Mitzvah. Yes, since they were speaking in tongues (their tongue), we were drawn into it.

IMG_2322That evening, after we went back to our hotel, I was reading the guidebook and discovered that where we were is also where the Upper Room is, known as the Cenaculum, traditionally the place where Jesus gathered with his disciples for the Last Supper and also where Pentecost was supposed to have happened. Which for us meant that, later in the week, we had to trek all the way back there to see it.  (I was not impressed; and, at any rate, historically speaking, there’s almost no chance it is authentic.) I don’t know what I was expecting, maybe smoke marks on the ceiling.

Personally, because of the vivid symbols, Pentecost has always been one of my favorite days in the church.  For one thing, while we do not get to throw wild colors at each other, at least the color of Pentecost is red, my favorite color. (The color of fire trucks, except for those green and yellow ones, which are not ripe yet.) The symbols of Pentecost are wind and especially fire, which I know something about, having been a firefighter and Fire Chaplain for 24 years. They spoke in different languages, and I have always been fascinated by language. There are few better means to make strangers face’s light up than when you speak to them in their own language, even if poorly.

If you read in the newsletter about our proposed ministry to Middle Eastern peoples, our Superintendent, Rev. Dr. Zaki Zaki, shared that one of the reasons he has such a passionate call to such a ministry is because the Sunday he was here, while serving communion, he spoke to one of our regular worshipers (who speaks only Arabic) in Arabic, and her face lit up. It did; I was a witness.

So no wonder, when on Pentecost, when people heard the praise of God in their own language, they came running. In a town like Skokie, where people speak some 75+ languages, our work is cut out for us. If ONLY the Spirit would still give us the ability to speak other languages without studying them, that would certainly save us a lot of time and trouble. I know bits and pieces of several languages, but none well (other than English), and there are days when I don’t do so good with that. (Especially when I revert to my Kentucky accent.)

All this brings us to the problem with Pentecost, which is that – as far as we know – it only happened once.  So the big question facing us today is, “How can we celebrate Pentecost not only this Sunday, but everyday; and not only in church, but in our lives?

I would say we do that by opening our lives to God’s Spirit, each day.

Why? Because there two forces in every religion: there is a static force, that comforts us and makes us seek orthodoxy and solemnity and to hold Board Meetings and wear black suits with white shirts and black ties. Pushing in the other direction, there is an ecstatic force – in Christianity the work of the Spirit – that challenges us, that pushes us outside ourselves, that makes us want to dance and speak in tongues and wear riotous clothing like this African shirt I am wearing today. No wonder that after the cold grey breath of European Catholicism and Protestantism, the white heat of Pentecostalism is one of the fastest growing religious movements in the world today, especially in Latin America.

In the church, historically what has often happened is that the Spirit moves, and new movements arise. Out of Pentecost, the Church was born as a movement, and quickly become an institution. In the third century, after the Emperor Constantine made Christianity official, people sought God in solitude and in community, and the monastic orders were born.  In the middle ages, St. Francis and St Claire became wandering preachers, and the Franciscans were born. In England, John Wesley was banned from the pulpit, but was led to preach in fields and streets, and Methodism was born.

But, always over time, everything solidifies, as Bishop Robert Schnase puts it, into a “giant hairball” of denominations and discipline and rules, and soon, everything is cold and gray again.  At such times is when the Wind of the Spirit blows, even bypassing the Church if need be. I believe today is such a time when the Wind of the Spirit is blowing, and the question for us becomes, are we going to fill our sails with the wind of the Spirit, and be led where the Spirit leads, or will we seek shelter from the storm, remaining in the comfort zones that worked so well for so long, but no longer.  To remain vital, the church must always be open to the new winds of the Spirit.

In her 1993 book Encountering God, the scholar Diana Eck claims that Pentecost was one of the most creatively celebrated days on the medieval church’s calendar. In 10th century Rome, she claims, the church knew how to throw a party, especially its own birthday party, the feast of Pentecost. To make Pentecost a dramatic, dynamic event for congregations, leaders involved architecture, not just anthems. Such that, while the domed and vaulted ceilings of cathedrals inspired the faithful with heavenly scenes, they also contained trap doors.

During the Pentecost service, servants would clamber up on the roof, and during the appropriate moment during the liturgy, they would release live doves through these holes. From out of the painted skies and clouds on the cathedral ceiling would come swooping, diving symbols of the Holy Spirit, descending upon the people below. At the same moment, choirboys would break into the whooshing and drumming sound of a windstorm. Finally, as the doves were flying and the winds were rushing, the ceiling holes would again be utilized — and bushels upon bushels of rose petals showered down upon the congregation, symbolizing tongues of flame falling upon all who worshiped below. Do you know what those openings in the ceiling of medieval churches were called? “Holy Spirit holes.”  Where are the “Holy Spirit holes” in our church, where can the Holy Spirit still get in?  As Diana Eck says: “We need these Holy Spirit holes. Our churches need these skyward openings to the wind rush of God.”

As for each of us personally, opening ourselves to the Spirit of God each day, takes a time and a place, even a posture.  That posture would be more like this, in an embrace or welcome, (arms in an embrace), than like this, (arms crossed), as – in reality – our lives so often are.

mychaljudgeI can think of few better examples of such an attitude than one of my favorite prayers, attributed to Father Mychal Judge, a Franciscan priest, the former Chaplain to the Fire Department of New York.  Father Judge was the first member of the FDNY to die on 9/11/2001, and a documentary has been made about him, called Saint of 9/11.  But long before he became a hero and a saint, Father Judge was loved and respected by the men and women of the FDNY, partially – I expect – because of this prayer he prayed:

“Lord, take me where you want me to go,

Let me meet who you want me to meet,

Tell me what you want me to say,

And keep me out of your way.”

May this be our Pentecostal prayer, that by keeping ourselves open to the Spirit, we might experience a new Pentecost not just today but every day; and not just in church, but everywhere.  Even if, we do not get to throw red paint at one another.  Next year?




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