I get the same disturbing thought every year. Maybe it’s a crisis you can relate to, maybe not. It gets to be close to Pentecost and I have this thought: how am I going to preach about Pentecost in a way that’s different from what I said last year… and the year before that, and the year before that. It’s a similar existential crisis to the ones I get before Christmas and Easter, but worse. At Christmas and Easter, there are at least other versions of those stories to choose from. We have four gospels to choose from when we want to retell the Easter story; when it comes to Pentecost, Acts chapter two is all we’ve got.
Within certain boundaries, sermon-writing is a creative process. When you’re involved in creating something—especially if it’s for someone else—you want it to be new, you want it to be continually creative. You might make a great potato salad, but you’ll want to change it up from time to time, know what I mean? I want to create something from this story that’s new, but this is the Pentecost story. We know this story. What could I possibly tell you about this story that I haven’t already told you over the past nine years? We know about the sound of wind. We know about sight of flame. We know about the voices raised in unknown languages, giving praise to the power of God. And we know about the scoffers who thought they were just drunk. What could I possibly find in this story that we don’t already know?
And then I remember: this is a story about the Holy Spirit. Surprises is what the Holy Spirit is all about! This story is all about God’s Spirit breaking out into our world in surprising ways! Do you think I’m going to find something surprising in this well-worn story? Of course I am! Buckle up, folks; we’re talking about the Holy Spirit today! There is never a dull moment when it comes to the Spirit.
The thing that surprises me most about this story (at least this time through, anyways), is the scoffers; those who sneered and said, “They’re drunk with new wine.” First, I’m surprised by how they see all this and still don’t believe. That in itself is surprising, but what surprises me more is that it’s never surprised me before. Over the decades of reading and studying and preaching this story, how is it that I’ve never noticed how weird it is that they just assume that this is just drunken behavior?
I will say, in all fairness, that this is Pentecost. Before it was the celebration of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, Pentecost was a Jewish celebration. And as Jewish celebrations go, it was a party. It was scheduled to follow fifty days after (hence the name) the more-somber celebration of Passover. Whereas Passover celebrated the mighty and violent deliverance of the people out of the land of Egypt, Pentecost celebrated the providence of God through the fruit of the land. So although it was clearly frowned upon to be drunk at nine in the morning (or maybe it’s “still drunk at nine in the morning”), it may not have been terribly unusual.
Still, how do you witness all of the things that Luke describes—with the wind and the flames—and not see God’s hand in it? Well, what I surprisingly realized was that they probably didn’t. What probably happened was that they came in late to this party. They didn’t hear the sudden sound like the rush of a violent wind. They didn’t see divided tongues, as of fire, come and rest on the gathered disciples. All they witnessed was talk; and as we know, talk is cheap.
There are layers of irony that follow: they scoff because, to them, these are just strange words spoken by strange Galileans; but then Peter, one of those strange Galileans, gets up to convince them otherwise by speaking to them. Even more ironic: his proof is that these babbling Galileans are actually the embodiment of something the prophet Joel… said. So what they witnessed wasn’t just words, but they never would have known that unless someone spoke that Truth to them. Speaking words, as it turns out, is sometimes the action that is necessary.
I got into an argument with a guy the other day over a quote; and yes, it did get a little heated. He was attributing the saying “Preach Jesus, and if necessary, use words” to Francis of Assisi. I pointed out that the saying is not found in anything that Francis wrote and he did not appreciate being interrupted. The truth is, Francis did say a couple of things like it and I probably should have just minded my own business; but the truth also is that I like what he did say better. What Francis did say was: "Yes, the true servant unceasingly rebukes the wicked, but he does it most of all by his conduct." Yes, the Spirit empowers us to speak the Word of God, but that Word has weight because the Spirit also empowers us to live out the Word of God. We proclaim the Promises of God, while at the same time, by the power of the Spirit, we are the fulfillment of the Promises of God.
I was visiting with a saint of God that I hadn’t seen for a while the other day. She’s been a bit homebound recently, so we needed to catch up for a while. I really enjoyed our time together and it was good to see that she’s doing better. She remains the gracious and brilliant woman I know her to be.
We talked a bit about getting older and about all of the things she has survived (her word) over the past few years. She said, “Well I guess God is keeping me around for something.” And the thing is, when you talk to her, it’s obvious. She was telling me about the relationships she has with the people there and the care she shows them intentionally and in Jesus’ name. I told her, “You find a ministry everywhere you go.” She may not be as active as she used to be, but she is aware of God’s working through her—in word and in deed—in every circumstance she finds herself. And although I find her to be inspirational, I also know that this is how God works in all of us.
In the Pentecost story, as the Spirit of God is poured out into the followers of Jesus, notice what happens: they speak the one message of God’s power, but they say it in different voices. Notice that, like light through a stained glass window, the same light comes through differently through different panes of glass. Of course the Spirit is going to inspire different ministries in each of us, we’re different people; but we recognize that it is the same Spirit.
I’m starting a new tradition today. I’ve put new Time and Talent Surveys in the boxes. Historically, we’ve put them out toward the fall, at the same time we ask for financial pledges; but we decided to ask those questions separately and I decided that the question about time and talent really ought to be asked on Pentecost. My thinking is: we’re not asking you to take a job and fill a need, we’re asking you to hear a calling. The surveys are simply our list of needs as they apply to the operation of the church. Because that’s how life in the Spirit works: you see a need, you know your ability to meet that need, and then the Spirit calls you to meet that need. Peter sees a need: he sees confusion in the crowd; he probably knows better than anyone that he has never been shy to speak right up, and he knows the answer to their confusion; and so he meets that need as he stands up, by the power of the Spirit to speak. The Spirit works something different in each one of us, but that’s how the Spirit works; both in us individually and through all of us as a church. We see the needs around us in this world, we assess our abilities to meet those needs, and then we find our calling to speak and to do.
I saw a need just out in front of this church the other day that just broke my heart. I was running the bouncy house at the block party on Thursday. By the way, that is another talent I didn’t know I had. I’m really good at it. If you need someone to run the bouncy house at your birthday or whatever, give me a call. What broke my heart came toward the end of the event when we were starting to clean up. One of the kids, about nine or ten, that I had been talking to at the bouncy house was standing about ten feet away from me with his mother and another woman. The other woman discreetly slipped something into the hand of my new friend’s mom and I heard him say, “Mom, that’s illegal!”
I don’t know exactly what transpired there, but I know it shouldn’t have. She should not have been given whatever she was given and it certainly shouldn’t have happened in front of a son who somehow knew better than his mother. My heart broke for this boy and I’ve been praying for him and his family ever since. I pray for whatever demons plague that poor woman and I pray for wholeness and healing for them all. But I do have hope: you see, I know that kid got invited to vacation Bible school. Carolyn on Thursday was proclaiming the love of Jesus in a language that children can understand: she was handing out free toys. I know that kid got one of those toys and I know he got the flier that went with it.
I pray I see that boy here every day of VBS and then on after. I pray he hears words about the unfailing love of God through the stories we tell him and the songs we sing. But more than that, I pray he sees it when we’re out back playing tag. I pray he sees those words proven true through a church that doesn’t just talk. The world around us is right to doubt the words we speak; but the love we show will prove those words true. Let us speak the Truth, but then let us act.