Today's Pentecost story opens in a little apartment in Jerusalem. All the disciples are there, bound-up in one place. They are bound-up in prayer; bound-up in fear, and bound-up wondering what will happen next. It was almost like they are trapped between heaven and earth. Jesus has died, risen, walked among them, and then ascended into heaven. As he was headed into the clouds, he told them to wait for the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, who would be coming to show them the way forward. But ten days have passed. Nothing has happened. They are still waiting. They are bound-up . . .
Just so they never wonder again what the Holy Spirit looks like, feels like, and sounds like, there is without warning, a powerful sound, like a gale force wind that shakes the whole building. It fills the entire building. Then, like wild fire, the Holy Spirit spreads through their ranks and they start speaking a number of different languages! They are blown out the doors and into the streets filled with the wind of the Holy Spirit. Those who were bound-up are now wound-up!
Everyone in the crowd is mystified (and more than a little bit prejudiced). After all these are Galileans - simple country folk. As the large crowds of city folk hear the Galileans speaking in many different tongues, but with distinctive Galilean accents, they immediately dismiss them with their deductive comments: "Country folk can't speak foreign languages, so they must be drunk." This is how it begins? The Holy Spirit ventures out into the world and all the world can say is, "These country folk can't speak foreign languages. They must be drunk."
Let's be honest. For those of us in the predominant culture of the United States of America, we tend to gloss right over this comment about drunken Galileans. But, for those who have been dismissed as undignified and uneducated because of their accents or ways of speaking, this particular section of the Pentecost story cries out for attention. Friends, here is the truth: Holy Spirit language is spoken in the idioms of particular human groups. God speaks through real people - with deep roots, unique understandings and personal stories to tell.
This language barrier reminds me of Fr. Aidan Kavanagh, one of my Yale professors, who hailed from west Texas. Periodically, this erudite Roman Catholic scholar would read Greek in his west Texas accent and end with some parochial saying from back home. Some of us would say, "What?" But, those who understood him were rolling in the aisles with laughter. You see, when the people of faith get all wound-up and the Holy Spirit is unleashed it resembles something more akin to the swearing in ceremony for thousands of new American citizens, where hundreds of languages are spoken with an English accent of love, then a Classics class at Harvard or Yale, or Hebrew lessons taught by First Century rabbis at the Temple in Jerusalem.
We, at First Church and we in the United Church of Christ, have a story to tell. And we have a particular accent. We speak in a particular idiom, with a particular identity in the Church Universal. We have a pivotal role to play in the future of Christ's church. We must speak out - true to our roots, true to ourselves, and true to our understanding of the Holy Spirit alive and well us.
God's gift of the Holy Spirit to the United Church of Christ and this congregation is gift that cries out for truth-telling and justice. It is a gift in which honesty and forthright talk are more a blessing than certain niceties and politeness. The Holy Spirit has gifted us to stand with people with whom no one else will stand. The Holy Spirit has gifted us to be open, affirming, and loving of ALL God's children (That's Capital "A" - "L" - "L"). The Holy Spirit has gifted us with Faith and Reason. We have deep, abiding faith in this church coupled with minds which seek the best way forward for the world in which we live. We are not afraid of new science and new frontiers. We believe God is at work in new science and on new frontiers of learning.
If I have learned anything from the national church's "GOD IS STILL SPEAKING" ad-campaign, it is that we have no time to waste. We don't have the luxury of being bound-up anymore. We must be wound-up and the Spirit must use our voices, our church, these times to speak and go out into a world desperately in need of hope and faith.
When Peter, the Galilean fisherman, finally got wound-up enough to speak out loud on Pentecost, he cried out, "Fellow Jews, all of you who are visiting Jerusalem, listen carefully and get this story straight. These people aren't drunk, as some of you suspect. They haven't had time to get drunk, it is only 9:00am . . . " I have always loved this part... Peter who has been running, hiding, struggling in existential crisis since denials and betrayals of Jesus 53 days earlier stands and speaks his first words, "We are not drunk." The rock upon which the church has been built has finally spoken. Now he stands in the crowds, in the light of day proclaiming Christ and calling people to faith in him!
Quoting the prophet Joel, Peter declares that God's spirit has been poured out on every kind of people. He says, "Your sons and your daughters will prophecy. Your young men will see visions. Your old men will dream dreams." Miracles will happen. Lives will be changed. The world will be turned upside down.
The Holy Spirit is loose in this church! I have seen the Spirit's miraculous evidence. The first person to step forward after our congregational meeting to meet this church's deficit was a four-year-old boy! The Spirit is loose. Following that, a young couple stepped forward to offer a challenge grant to meet this congregation's budget deficit. These folks aren't wealthy beyond measure! They believe this place and they believe in God! The choir has stepped up and answered this challenge, too. They believe in you! They believe in God! Then the youth mission trip silent auction was tremendously successful, raising all the money needed to aid disaster relief efforts in Florida. They believe in the power of God! These are only financial movements of the Holy Spirit! We have witnessed others as well.
We have trained almost 75 men, women, and youth to listen to your heartfelt beliefs, and concerns, and hopes, and dreams, and visions for this congregation. Tom Stewart stepped forward to chair the long range planning process. He started with nothing and believed in this church. Together with his committee of 10, they stepped forward in faith. Because of them, we now have a long range planning process beginning, blessed by the Holy Spirit and centered in the belief that we, who were bound-up, are now wound-up and have a bright future on Broad Street.
Each week, I receive e-mails from all across Central Ohio. Men and women who have been feeling real hopeless about the church universal. They write to see if what we say about welcoming others is true. One woman wrote, "Are you really the church you say you are?" I told her what I everyone. Quoting scripture, I told her the story of John the Baptist. While in prison, awaiting his beheading, John sends his disciples to Jesus. They ask Jesus, "Are you the one we have been waiting for or shall we look for another?" Jesus told them, "Go tell John what you see. The blind see. The lame walk. The prisoners are set free." I tell folks, seeing is believing. If we are not right for you, you will know it.
That woman represents a growing multitude which has given up on narrow-minded, highly-packaged, sound and light show that Christianity is becoming. In many places, it is not a Christianity which represents Jesus Christ well. More and more people are giving up on Christianity, while desperately trying to hang onto Jesus! But, slowly they are beginning to return to faith community. The Spirit is Loose!
May 1-3, I was in Cleveland for a meeting with pastors from all over the United Church of Christ. In three days I heard several great preachers who had come to us from other denominations - some by choice, others cast out because they were Christians who are lesbian or gay. Can you imagine, they were pastoring somewhere in a denomination which recognized that the Holy Spirit had gifted them for ministry. They either came "out" or were "outed" by someone, and all of the sudden, the church said, "they weren't worthy to serve Jesus anymore?" Do you get it? I don't get it! It is just wrong. I have always said that our denomination doesn't ordain gay people. We ordain those called by Jesus Christ to serve His church, no matter what their race, gender or sexual orientation.
There in Amistad Chapel, a place built to commemorate the courageous free African men, women, and children from Sierra Leone who battled slave-dealers for their freedom in 1839, there I felt the power of the Holy Spirit moving among us. The Spirit was telling us to stand up, speak out, and go forth to declare good news of God's love for ALL people! The Spirit was telling us to use faith and reason and to live in love!
"God is Still Speaking!" The Holy Spirit is at it once again - hovering over the United Church of Christ - prodding us, igniting us, liberating us to run with abandon into God's future. If our Pentecost faith means anything, it means that we will change. We must change! The Spirit changes us - so that we may change the world. Like the disciples long ago, we are being transformed from a frightened bound-up band of believers to a wound-up movement of forward thinking and acting Christians who are fools for Christ, and who will, given time, change the world once again. Amen.
Copyright 2005, The First Congregational Church