Monday, June 01, 2009

Sermon for Pentecost Sunday B

(Sermon 5/31/09, Acts 2:1-21, John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15)

Pentecost

As you may know, I recently had a bit of a significant birthday: I turned 30. Of course, turning 30 is probably not actually any more significant than 29 or 31 or any other age, but there’s something about a mile-marker age like that that causes one to stop and think about life – where’ve I been so far, what have I accomplished, and what’s been left undone that I’ve been meaning to do? What do I want to do in the year ahead? What do I want to accomplish? What are my hopes and dreams for the year ahead? This year, I decided to actually write some of my thoughts out, and posted some of them on my blog. I’ve been working on a list of 30 things I want to do in the year that I’m thirty. I’m only about ½ way through even making up the list, but I’m taking my time with it because I want to carefully think about what I want to accomplish, what’s within reason, and what I really have been putting off doing. The list includes things like getting back on a plane again in the next year – many of you know I have quite a fear of flying, but I’m trying to challenge myself to keep trying to conquer that fear. Another thing on my list is to try to gather together a large group of young people to attend an event for United Methodists interested in exploring a call into ordained ministry, because encouraging young people in leadership development, and particularly in responding to God’s call on their lives, is something I feel meant to do. Yet another item is to make sure I find some place to be in hands-on mission work once I move back to Central New York that stirs my spirit as much as I feel moved and compelled by the work we all share in at CUMAC in Paterson. These are just a few of the things I have in mind for the year ahead of me. Maybe I won’t check off every item on my list. But I want to be intentional, I want to have goals and a vision, and I want to be serious and thoughtful, always, about what God is leading me to do, how God can help me claim the abundant life Jesus promises in the verse from John I so love.

Today we celebrate another birthday – and this one is for all of us. In the Christian Church we celebrate Pentecost Day as the birthday of the church universal. And even if this church birthday isn’t a mile-marker year, it’s still pretty significant, because Pentecost is the biggest birthday celebration I can think of, next to that birthday we celebrate on December 25th. Today is the birthday of the Church. Not just our local church, not even our denomination, and not even Protestantism – today, we celebrate Pentecost, which is a day we’ve labeled as the birthday of the whole Christian Church. Today, we read about the disciples receiving the Holy Spirit. Today we read about that strange experience where the sound of a mighty rushing wind broke into the house where the followers of Jesus were celebrating Pentecost. Today, we read about the beginnings of Church as we know it – where Peter steps up and finally does what Jesus had been preparing him and the others to do all along: he shares the gospel – tells the Good News about God’s grace to anyone and everyone he can get to listen. Today indeed is a day of celebration, this day of Pentecost.

Our text from Acts opens with the disciples already gathered together. They are gathered together for the celebration of Pentecost, a Jewish festival set out in the Torah, the law books for the Jews, which make the first five books of our Bible today. Pentecost was a celebration taking place fifty days after Passover, and was called also “the feast of weeks” or Shavuot. The festival celebrated the “first fruits” of the early harvest in spring. So the disciples were gathered together for this traditional celebration. Suddenly, we read, a sound like the rush of a violent wind came, and filled their gathering place, and they were filled with the Holy Spirit, which seemed to them like divided tongues of fire. And they began to speak the gospel message to all who were gathered in such a way that everyone in the city could understand them. Many people from many places were gathered in Jerusalem for the Feast of Weeks, and it seemed that everyone could understand the disciples. Some were amazed at this, but others were a bit cynical, and accused the disciples of being drunk. Peter stands and raises his voice to the crowds: We’re not drunk – we are speaking as the prophets spoke – and he goes on to speak to them of visions and power that will come to all – young and old, men and women, slaves and free.

Today, when we celebrate Pentecost, our focus is on not on the feast originally celebrated, but on this event we read of in Acts – the giving of the Holy Spirit. This is the gift that Jesus has promised the disciples they would receive, the thing that would be their Advocate, their Comforter, helping them to make the transition from followers of Jesus to those who would be leading and guiding and sharing with others. The Holy Spirit is the gift that helps them with all their other gifts, in a way. It’s the foundation for their work, the source of their confidence in their abilities. After all, being filled with the Holy Spirit is being filled up with God’s own self, right inside of you. God dwelling in you certainly should inspire you with confidence! On Pentecost, the Holy Spirit is the gift that is available to each one of us.

But what do we do with this gift? What do we do with this Holy Spirit thing? Jesus promises the Holy Spirit as a helper, but how does it help us? The description of the coming of the Spirit in Acts is so strange, so unusual, how can we relate? Personally, after reading the text from Acts, about this very significant birthday, I wonder what we would find so appealing about this Advocate from Jesus: the wind described has a violet sound, “tongues as of fire” rest on each of the disciples, and though the artwork I find of this is event is beautiful, I still can’t think quite what that means, and the disciples start speaking out of their own control. What do we do with this unpredictable gift of the Holy Spirit? It’s a question Christians have been wondering over since this first church birthday, and you can even see it reflected still in books like the popular The Shack, where the narrator confesses the Holy Spirit has always been confusing, and the author has a Holy Spirit that can’t quite be pinned down. And so it’s to imagery used in children’s sermons that I find a little bit of understanding, although I chose a different, more tasty approach to children’s time today. The Holy Spirit is like wind in a sailboat – you can’t see it, but you certainly need it to make your boat go. It’s like batteries in your flashlight, or the electricity running through anything you need to plug in. It’s what gives you that juice you need to keep going, the energy that helps you sprint to finish a race, the midnight oil that helps you complete a task. With these metaphors, we dance around it, and get a sense of this Holy Spirit thing, even if we can’t completely define it.

It’s something we see usually see in the effects it has on something, rather than seeing God’s Holy Spirit itself. It’s what makes an unlikely group of uneducated disciples able to handle the loss, even back to God, of their teacher, and to go about changing the world and making disciples of others in a way that results in Christianity spreading beyond numbers they could scarcely even imagine. It’s the Spirit that enables a congregation like this one to pick up the pieces after a fire burnt down a sanctuary so many years ago, and to literally build a new place of worship stone by precious stone. It’s the Spirit that I’m certain you’ll feel at work next Sunday in the lives of four young people as they make their confirmation, even though you can hardly imagine how they became old enough to be making such a significant decision in their faith journeys, and the Spirit we’ll know for sure is present when we baptize baby Bradley in two weeks, even though he can’t speak for himself yet in a language we can understand! We start to understand the Spirit when we see the impact of the Spirit at work.

So how is the Spirit at work here today? When I think about my birthday list, I can tell you that if I can complete what I’ve set out to do, it will be with God’s help, with the movement of the Spirit in my life and in the life of those I’m working with, that will close the gap between what would be a reasonable list and what’s an ambitious, a bit extravagant list I’ve got going. My list isn’t full of things I know I can certainly complete with ease, but a list made up of things that, if completed, will give me one very full and rewarding year indeed. Maybe I’d feel better knowing that I would certainly end up checking off every item on my to-do list for the year. But I think I’ve been reasonable in my goals for too long. This year, I’m looking for ambitious. Extravagant. Maybe even inspired – a word that means literally “taking in breath,” which also then means, “taking in the Spirit.” Don’t we want to be inspired? That means to be infused with spirit – God’s Holy Spirit. This year, I’m hoping for inspired.

So how is the Spirit at work here today? How do we want it to be at work? How are we asking God for the Spirit to work at in-spiring us, filling us with God’s Holy Breath? We can set out to complete some tasks that make a reasonable list of expectations for ourselves. After all, we’re in transition, Pastor Juel is soon to arrive as I am soon to leave, the economy creates a sort of shaky environment, and we don’t know what to expect. So we can reasonably try to play it safe. But I hope that instead, we’re seeking after being inspired, spirit-filled. I hope we try to fill up on that abundant life Jesus offers. I hope we take the help we can’t even quite describe to be ambitious, a little bit extravagant in our plans for this congregation, this year, this ministry that we share in together, whether we’re working side-by-side or across the miles in the same one body of Christ.

This Tuesday night, from 6:30-8:30, members of the Administrative Council will meet for a process called Asset Mapping, a process that I hope will help us dream some extravagant dreams for the church, be inspired by some God-led movement in the congregation. I invite you to join us, if you feel ready to witness the Holy Spirit at work in a new way in your midst.

May it be for us as the prophet Joel spoke, and as the disciple Peter claimed for a new church, and as we can claim for today’s church: “God declares that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, and your young shall see visions, and your old shall dream dreams.” Amen.

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