Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Day of Pentecost – May 19, 2013
It’s the only so-called drunken escapade ever mentioned in Scripture where there wasn’t a hangover. Nobody passed out. Nobody failed a DUI test. Nobody said things they later regretted or woke up in the wrong bed. There were no kegs of beer in Jerusalem that morning, no empty wine vats—nothing distilled by human hands to lift one’s spirits.
This wasn’t a Saturday afternoon at the Yale Bowl. This wasn’t a few of the naughty frat boys cooked to a crisp. It wasn’t the wild all night post-graduation party on the parent’s yacht.
Quite the contrary. This was an early morning experience where sober folk were gathering to say their morning prayers. What a day it was! It’s a funny, wild story that calls us together today: the unbridled twister of a wind and fiery flames that entered the secluded room where the friends of Jesus had gathered in compliance with his parting instructions.
Confidence replaced fear. Boldness replaced timidity. Forceful, articulate preaching replaced weak, bumbling yacking. People from all over the Greco-Roman world were in the courtyard and understood every word the disciples spoke even though they were not speaking in their many different languages. Thousands turned their life to the Way of the Gospel Good News they had received from Jesus. Yet their jubilation had already been marred by accusations of their insobriety and drunken carousing.
we would not be here today talking about that glorious day some two thousand years later, if it had not been for the gift of the Holy Spirit. The wind calmed down and the tongues of fire were extinguished but the indwelling of that sacred power and holy energy of God’s Spirit did not. This is the life that has been freely given to us and that allows us to continue doing God’s work in the world sometimes, even, in spite of the church!
We usually associate violent winds and flaming fire with destruction. How many of us have lost a tree on our property because of gusts over fifty miles per hour. The sight of a charred, burned out home is haunting and we have seen many of these on the news. We hear warnings about high winds or brush fires and we think “trouble.” But we also know these elements in another context as a blessing. A gentle breeze cools and refreshes us. The fire in the hearth takes the chill out of the air. On that Pentecost morning wind and fire were neither destructive, nor a source of comfort. God used wind and fire in a new way. God used wind and fire to infuse life and large dose of hutzpah into a community that was on the verge of giving up.
What the Holy Spirit caused that day in Jerusalem may have at first felt like destruction but it was actually the pangs of a new world, the birth of a new community where people who are generally not listened to will speak up and tell the world of the Good News to be found in Jesus. As author Fredrich Buechner once said “we become something new by ceasing to be something old.” That was true for the disciples two thousand years ago and it is still true today for each of us and for the church of this time and place.
Let’s not miss the important but brief section of the letter that Paul wrote to the early community in Rome. “All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.”
The old way they knew was a way of exclusivity, of strict rules, uncompromising judgment, and oppression of the marginalized. The new way born of the Spirit would be a way of inclusivity, of honoring diversity, of celebrating God’s unconditional love, and of proclaiming freedom for those living on the margins. This was the Good News the disciples preached that morning in Jerusalem. It is the Good News we bring to the world today.
The crowd suggested that they were drunk—touched in the head and, indeed, they had been touched by the power of God working in them as it does in us. The Spirit would help the early Christians to discern and understand, to have honest conversation about issues that affected their lives, and to come to consensus based on the truth of the Gospel. Our issues are sometimes similar—like articles of faith, division in the church over change and the care of the poor; and sometimes very different—
like gun violence, immigration reform, and abortion.
Yet in both those first days of the church’s life, and our faith community today, the Spirit of God is the same, a Spirit who speaks to everyone without partiality and wants us to recognize that our wonderful diversity includes a multiplicity of ideas and opinions on those thorny issues, the conversation about them happening most productively when we invite God’s Spirit to help us navigate them within the faith community, not in isolation or only within opposite camps, even if that conversation leads to a decision to agree to disagree in love and patience.
Can we embrace the unique parts of creation fully, honor and respect all people regardless of culture, education, race, sexual orientation, gender, and age? Are there ways in which we can come together in love without forcing everyone to be the same and speak a common language? Is that maybe what the Kingdom of God looks like? (For that is at the heart of the baptismal promises we will make with Caroline, Sebastian, and Maxton.)
Maybe the best way to describe the effects of the Pentecost Moment and provoke us to claim our Pentecost power is found in the wisdom of Henry Cadbury, onetime Professor of Divinity at Harvard. “There are two kinds of people in the world,” Cadbury said. The therefore people and the however people.
Therefore people say, ‘People are going hungry in our city, therefore I am going to find ways to feed them. However people start with the same statement but follow with: ‘However…there is nothing I can do about it.’ Therefore people say, ‘I made promises in my baptism to live into the life of a faith community…therefore I am going to be faithful to those promises and be part of this church, worshiping regularly.” However people start with the same language but end up with ‘I’m just too busy with other things in life to get involved in my faith community now—maybe some day.’
Therefore people see injustice in the world and use their voice, energy, and resources to effect change. However people see the same injustice and decide to leave it all up to the policymakers and legislators.
However people are cautious and rational, never feeling the joy of acting as a therefore person, a radical co-creator with God striving for human well-being. Therefore people are awake to the power of God and willing to act on it, even to risk, relying on the promise that it is a power that supersedes anything we can ask for or imagine.
Call it the “Cadbury test.” Where do we land? Therefore…or however? It can be a disturbing question. It can shake us up a bit—and that’s what the Holy Spirit did on Pentecost—and still does today. Yet it is an important question to consider, for the answer will determine our future as the church.