Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
It’s the Day of Pentecost—the birthday of the Church, the day when a small band of frightened followers of Jesus caught the Spirit and were empowered to go out and testify to the powerful and mighty deeds of God. I shared that humorous story about the rector because I want us to think about this: Have the custodians of the church through the ages left the church the way they found it? The way we received it?
Have we been faithful to the commission we were given on that day of Pentecost to preach boldly and testify? Have we kept the message of Pentecost in tact and continued to proclaim it? Has the church kept the fire burning and the Spirit moving—is it alive with the passion, the heat of that incredible day described so clearly for us in the reading from the Acts of the Apostles? It depends, I guess, where we look and about what church we are speaking.
The first reading today tells us how it all began with disciples in the upper room full of the Spirit, but today we often find church people in their meeting room squelching, even sabotaging the Spirit. The church began in a state of wild revival; now we may find corners of the church in a state of stagnation. It began with fervor for growth; now too many congregations are seeing smaller numbers and remain complacent about that. The first leaders of the church were people of passion who held no theological degrees; today church leaders have lots of degrees, but often have little passion. The big question is: Have we left the church the way we found it? Is it the same church of that Pentecost Day?
Just listen to the tone of the story we read today about a violent wind and fiery tongues. It all begins with holy commotion, great excitement, heat and velocity—all of which leads this small gaggle of people to boldly proclaim the powerful works of God with a sense of urgency and conviction. They caught the Spirit and discovered a conduit of energy they had never before experienced.
What a scene that must have been! That was the beginning of church. And it continued to be that kind of church as we learn from our reading of the rest of the Book of Acts. What has happened since? How much do we resemble that church in 2009? When most people think about church do they equate the experience with excitement, energy, passion, and a sense of urgency to proclaim the good news? What do those on the outside looking in think about the experience of church? That is, after all, the audience to which the first disciples preached and that is the audience that God has asked us to reach in the Great Commission Jesus left with us.
Allen Jones, Dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, speaks to the mediocrity and dullness of religious life in his book Reimagining Christianity. “It’s not hard to see,” he writes, “why people are turned off. Religion is broken, and something needs to be done to fix it. It needs to be reinvented, meaning we need to discover something new and uncover something that was already there. We need to embrace the new and recover what has been lost.”
That is the challenge that Pentecost presents to us. Theologian and author, Peter Leithart, says that “Pentecost is culturally invisible. There are no Whitsunday sales at department stores, no jolly elves, heart-warming movies, bunnies or jelly beans. We dress our kids up as shepherds but I’ve never seen a kid with a flaming head or speaking in tongues in a Sunday School play. Mother’s Day is more likely to be acknowledged in many churches than Pentecost—but without Pentecost, Christmas and Good Friday and Easter don’t mean much.”
You and I are here today because more than 2000 years ago the Holy Spirit came in a mighty wind and in tongues of fire, led the first believers into new truth, and bestowed on them unprecedented power. Without that incredible event we would not be gathered here today nor would we stand around the table to share holy food and drink transformed for us by the power of the Spirit. And that same Spirit still comes to us and opens us up to the possibility of doing a new thing, embracing the new and recovering what has been lost.
Sara Miles knows what that is like. She grew up in a family with no religion and was raised as an atheist. Then one day she walked into a church—an Episcopal church in California. In her book, Take this Bread: A Radical Conversion, she describes her introduction to church. “Holy Communion,” she writes,” knocked me upside down and forced me to deal with the impossible reality of God.
“Then, as conversion continued, relentlessly challenging my assumptions about religion and politics and meaning, God forced me to deal with all kinds of other people…It may seem crazy, at this point in history, to assert that any religion—much less Christianity, the religion of the contemporary empire, of the powerful and intolerant—can be a force for connection, for healing, for love.
“It may seem deluded to assert that people can still be fed with this ordinary yet mystical bread, so besmirched and exhausted and poisoned by centuries of religious practice, in ways that will change our own real lives, not to mention the world, for the better. But this is my belief: at the heart of Christianity is a power that continues to speak and to transform us. And I found to my alarm that it could speak even to me. Faith, for me, isn’t an argument, a catechism, a philosophical ‘proof.’ It is instead a lens, a way of experiencing life, and a willingness to act.”
Clearly Sara made that discovery in a church that was alive with excitement, passion, energy, a sense of urgency, and a little holy commotion. I think people make that discovery here as well and that is why we must honor this wonderful feast and claim the power of the Holy Spirit working in our midst, and in and through each one of us—and never, never let the flame go out.
The main effect of God’s holy wind and fiery tongues on that Pentecost Day is that things are brought to speech. By the grace of God, we are all prophets sent forth to proclaim the mighty works of God. Luke did not say a word about any qualifications of the believers gathered on that first Pentecost. He doesn’t say that the Spirit descended on the brightest and best.
He says that the Spirit descended on all of them — all of you. It doesn’t matter whether you are young or old, whether you are ordained or not, whether you have studied theology or not. It doesn’t matter what color God made you in, what your gender is or your sexual orientation, your marital status or your financial status. God’s Spirit has been poured out on all of you. You have been anointed to bring good news to the poor and to proclaim release to the captives and recovery to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. You are the great holy commotion the church needs today, called forth to go out and testify boldly to the mighty works of God.
There is no question that the church has been given unprecedented power in the continuing, abiding, ever-present energy of the Spirit and that God’s Holy wind still brings us to speech. The question is “what does the church have to say?” We know the answer—at least here in this church we do because we have a lot to say. We proclaim that the hungry will be fed and that those who have been cast down will be raised up and that all things will be made new.
And, in the words of Sara Miles, “we don’t’ promise to erase suffering but to transform it, pledging that, by loving one another, even through pain, we will find more life. And that by opening ourselves to strangers, we will see more and more of the holy, since without exception, all people are one body: God’s” And, if we keep doing that, with great excitement, passion, energy, a sense of urgency, and a healthy dash of holy commotion, we’ll leave the church the way it was left to us—full of the power of God to change our own real lives, not to mention the world, for the better.
The Holy Spirit came to the first believers as the great surprise of God—kind of like a little old lady who wades into a barroom brawl, shooting her six-guns into the air. And She still surprises us— blowing in and out of this place, stirring us up, even rattling our cages a bit, with a power that continues to speak and to transform us. That promised day is now. Come, Holy Spirit, come!