Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Day of Pentecost – May 27, 2012
May each day hold a greeting from the Spirit of God, each nigh be visited by the dove of peace, and the life of God-within us be full of wisdom, truth, and grace. Amen.
The former dean of Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, once said that “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 has been lost.” Today is a good example of his concern.
It is Pentecost—the day that an explosion occurred in Jerusalem more than two thousand years ago releasing the power of God’s Spirit; wind and fire turned the world of the first believers upside down. They were infused with unprecedented power and they were transformed into confident, charismatic evangelists through whose preaching a large community of faith began to take form.
And as much as this is a day of great joy and excitement for the church, it is for me a reminder of its brokenness. Pentecost has become culturally invisible. There are no Pentecost sales at stores, no heart-warming movies, no red jelly beans or Holy Ghost costumes or jolly elves and candy canes that call our attention to something out of the ordinary.
To boot, our secular calendar in many a year observes Memorial Day Weekend at the same time as this feast—the unofficial beginning of summer and, albeit, a holiday with an important commemoration, it is for many people no more than a time for a three day weekend, a first crack at getting one’s summer tan, and a barbecue, the real intent of the day being lost on recreation. In many churches, Mother’s Day is more likely to be acknowledged than Pentecost—but without the event we remember today, even the miracle of Easter would likely have faded into the woodwork.
Without the power unleashed on Pentecost through the coming of God’s Ruach, God’s own life-giving breath, we would not be gathered here this morning as the church nor would we be sharing the sacred meal that Jesus gave us to remember him.
The first reading today tells us how it all began that day with disciples in the upper room full of the Spirit, but today we often find church people in their meeting rooms squelching, even sabotaging the Spirit. Think about it: the church began in a state of wild revival; now we experience so much of the church in stagnation. Is the church in all its many forms and shapes and denominations the same church of that Pentecost Day?
The Pentecost story begins with holy commotion, great excitement, fire 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 were infused with the holy energy of the Spirit, something they had never before experienced.
That was the beginning of church. And it continued to be that kind of vibrant church as we learn from our reading of the rest of the Book of Acts. How much does the church today resemble the church of Jerusalem in 33 AD? Where is the energy, passion, and a sense of urgency to proclaim the good news to a diverse and broad spectrum of people? How selective is the church about who is welcome, even entitled to be part of it? How complacent and apathetic can the church get when its pews are full?
This week on Facebook, a friend shared a sermon given by a Lutheran Pastor in Denver whose congregation had experienced a big demographic shift. As the Pastor Nadia relates, “Some churches might fear drag queens and homeless folks. But all of the sudden last summer, we had middle aged people driving in from the suburbs. People who wear Dockers and eat at Applebys” and I was terrified that the more edgy, marginalized people who we had always attracted would now come and see a bunch of people who looked like their parents and think well this obviously isn’t for me.”
So she called a church meeting to talk about the growth and demographic changes hoping that if the people who had been around from the beginning just said who they are and what the church has always been about then the new people who really don’t belong there would self-select out realizing it’s really not meant for them. Even while she was planning it, it felt really wrong.
Luckily before she could gather the congregation for the meeting her plan changed. She called her friend Russell whom she expected to sympathize with her about her intended meeting and purpose. But Russell refused to cooperate. Yeah. That sucks, he said. You guys are really good at “welcoming the stranger” when it’s a young transgender person. But Nadia, sometimes “the stranger” looks like your mom and dad.”
“In that moment,” she said, “I could feel actual blood and love pumping through my body for what felt like the first time in weeks. Russell spoke the truth. And the truth set me free and that, my friends, is the work of the Holy Spirit.”
So when the meeting day finally arrived, Nadia knew what really needed to happen. The new folks with the Dockers needed to tell the rest who they were and why they were there, so that the young people with the tattoos who’d been around since the beginning could hear what their church was actually about.
Pastor Nadia sucked it up and told them that horrible thing Russell had said to her about welcoming your parents. Then Asher speaks up and says “As the young transgender kid who was welcomed into this community, I just want to go on the record as saying that I’m really glad there are people at church now who look like my mom and dad. Because I have a relationship with them that I just can’t have right now with my own parents.”
“There we all were, said Nadia”—flawed, smug, confused, embarrassed and embarrassing…in other words the very people to whom God sends the spirit to mess everything up. The very people God loves enough to send that crazed bird with bared talons and a predatory beak to come and snatch out our stony hearts and replace them with the comfort of God’s own.
“Because God hasn’t changed. Just like that first Pentecost God still says yes to all our polite ‘no thank yous.’ God still crashes our parties and invites in the people we are trying to avoid. Because the radical and mysterious and dangerous thing the Spirit does has always been to form us into the Body of Christ. Sometimes despite us, sometimes against us, but always for us. Because it is only the Spirit who can turn us from a ‘they’ into a ‘we’.”
This community has seen enormous growth in the past ten years. In fact, our Sunday attendance has tripled in that time. Never have there been more children in our presence nor so many people under 50. Nary is there a day or evening when there is some activity or worship service or event happening on our campus. It may be a temptation to say, “We’re finished. We’ve done our part for the Episcopal Church. We’re done with our labor pain. We have enjoyed the first fruits of the Spirit. We’ve met our quota. Time to bag radical welcome. We can just sit back and become a nice, complacent, comfortable congregation.”
My guess is that many congregations back in the 1960’s and 70’s may have thought that way even if they never verbalized it. And in that self-satisfaction and loss of passion for doing what God expects of us, inviting everyone to experience God’s love and acceptance, the Holy Spirit was squashed or, at the very least, took a long vacation. And there are far too many congregations that have seen the fruits of that attitude.
The Holy Spirit came to the first believers on this Day of Pentecost 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 will still surprise us— blowing in and out of this place, stirring us up, getting us excited, even disturbing our comfort zone, with a power that continues to speak boldly to us and transform us.
How will we allow—even brazenly invite—the Spirit to continue to reinvent us? What “something” do we as a community need to discover that is new and uncover that has been lost. I don’t have the answer to that question. I suspect it will unfold just as the learnings of the past ten years have unfolded.
What I do know with utter certainty is that, as we travel the journey ahead together, it is only the Spirit who can turn us from a ‘they’ into a ‘we’ and as surely as the run rises every morning, God is not finished with us yet. There’s still more fixin’ to be done.