Pentecost, Sunday, May 28, 2023
First Congregational Church of Cheshire
© the Rev. Dr. James Campbell
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’
The Holy Spirit is the most ignored, misunderstood, mysterious and some might say superfluous member of the Holy Trinity. Just what is she, he, it? Well, many of us are not sure and since we’re not sure, a whole day dedicated to the Holy Spirit can make us a little uncomfortable.
Besides that, it’s a strange event we commemorate today. Pentecost is a story full of wind and fire and speaking in tongues. And so we try to tame it a bit by speaking of it as the birthday of the church. We wear red to symbolize those divine flames. We sing songs of the Spirit. But what happened on that first Pentecost was not tame at all.
The early Christians had gathered for the Jewish holiday called Pentecost or the Feast of Weeks. Originally, this was a harvest festival that was observed 50 days after Passover. But over time, this observance morphed into a celebration of Moses receiving the Law on Mount Sinai. Now, it’s interesting to note that when God gave the Law to Moses, legend has it that a divine flame came down from heaven and divided into tongues of fire – just like on the Day of Pentecost.
The friends of Jesus had gathered for the holiday in an Upper Room. Suddenly, that room was filled with the sound of a violent wind. Then those divine tongues of fire descended upon everyone’s head. Then people began to speak in languages they had never learned before, telling God’s glory to anyone who would listen on those cosmopolitan streets of Jerusalem.
So, this is a strange story. But if you dig a little deeper, it’s also a disturbing story. Because the coming of God’s Spirit, which we think of as peaceful, was announced by destructive elements and things we shouldn’t mess with - wind and fire.
Someone should have reminded me of that before I came up with that exceedingly ill-conceived children’s sermon. I was a very young pastor in my first church. And I decided that the best way to demonstrate the drama of Pentecost was to try to recreate it. And so, I gathered the children around and told them the story we commemorate today. I told them that God really wanted to get everyone’s attention and so God sent wind and fire. I then produced a large metal bowl that I had filled with wads of paper. I struck a match and dropped it into the bowl. Suddenly, the whole thing went up in flames! The children were delighted! The parents, not so much.
But I wasn’t done. I then took an electric fan to blow in the faces of the children, but instead that wind hit the bowl of burning paper. As soon as that happened, the flames leapt higher. And then large pieces of burning ash and acrid smoke started to waft through the Gothic sanctuary. -- Mercifully, I did not burn the church down that day, but I suspect the Trustees had a very lively discussion soon thereafter.
That children’s sermon ended well, by the grace of God. But it could have done what wind and fire often do. Together, they have the potential to remake an entire landscape; to provide a completely blank canvas. And when that happens, then you have to rebuild. You have to make something new.
Some years ago, Marcos and I went to Ohio to try to help an old friend of mine who was losing her house to bankruptcy. She was surrounded by a lifetime of possessions that she had no idea how to deal with. And all those beautiful objects were her captors. She was paralyzed as she tried to prepare for the inevitable. More than once I heard her say that sometimes she just wished it would all burn down so that she could start over; so that she could make something new.
My friend was simply giving voice to what we all sometimes feel: that our lives or circumstances or sometimes even our form of faith have hemmed us in and trapped us and we don’t know how to escape. We could use some holy wind and fire to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.
And that is part of what happened on that first Pentecost – space was being made for something new. The Jesus people had gathered for one kind of observance and ended up with a brand-new paradigm. They were even given new languages to talk about it. It was a brand-new day.
Now this where most folks stop telling the story - except that it’s not the end. After the wind and fire, this unpredictable Spirit of God seemed to pick up the whole building where the faithful had gathered and shook the people out. We’re not told exactly how that happened, but in the very next moment, the believers were in the streets telling the glory of God. They went from the comfort of a room full of like-minded people to the streets where full of all kinds of people. And that was the whole point.
COVID was a great wind and fire, that remade the whole world. And even though this congregation has amazingly good bones; and even though we are doing far better than most, we fool ourselves if we think we have not been changed. I see it every day. Doing things together that used to be so easy are now difficult. People we used to see all the time; we don’t see much at all anymore. Programs and ideas that were time-tested just don’t work anymore. And if we’re honest, we might wonder what the future of our beloved church will be. And if we’re honest, we might be waiting for the Holy Spirit to make us what we used to be. But the old has passed away and everything is new. And traditions and comfort and walls have a way of walling us in. And so the Spirit pushes us out into the world, so that we will learn the lesson again that church doesn’t primarily happen in this room. Church happens in the streets. Church happens in the world.
And church is about to happen in our world. On Saturday, June 3, at 1 pm the town has organized an LGBTQ Pride Gathering on the Green, with the unanimous approval of the Church Council. The Council approved it because they see it as a natural extension of our Open and Affirming Covenant – a covenant that we reference in every worship service in this room. But now, we have a chance to say it in the streets! Exciting stuff!
But what if it wasn’t just me and some Council members who showed up at that event? What if you all showed up, and wearing your First Church t-shirts? And what if people who could never imagine being welcomed at church looked around and saw you? That feels a little bit like Pentecost!
Now, we can play it safe, stay with the old ways, and simply continue to gather behind these sturdy walls. We can continue to tell ourselves that if people want to come to church, well, they know where to find us. God will still love us. Or we could pray for some Pentecostal fire. We could ride the wave of the spirit. Love could blow us out into the world. We could have our hearts set on fire. We could learn to speak the language of the people! We could be the church… in the world. Wind and Fire!