Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Wind and fire at Pentecost...

NOTE: Here are my worship notes for Sunday, May 23, 2010. It is Pentecost - which hardly seems possible - because wasn't Easter just two weeks ago? The year is almost half over and my head is spinning. Nevertheless, we will be celebrating Pentecost with a FEAST of sound, symbol and celebration. Our Sunday School has created a banner of the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit, our worship team has created the liturgy and a team of artists have filled the Sanctuary with new visual art that is stunning. After worship - and a shared organ recital with St. Stephen's next door - I will be taking a week off to visit my brother in San Francisco.

What a day – what a FEAST day – what a celebration day – a day in which we acknowledge that by grace the Lord’s Spirit has saturated the hearts of the faithful and empowered us to live as the body of Christ in the real world. That’s what the scripture says in this morning’s text from Acts.

• Our English translations are way too passive. We read: When the day of Pentecost had come… Arrived – like the mail or the morning paper– or noticed like an afterthought.

• But the BIBLICAL TEXT is dynamic – powerful – pregnant with possibilities saying: when the day of Pentecost had been fulfilled. That is, saturated. Filled full with everything God had intended since before the beginning of time – sumplhrou'sqai – completed and made whole then they were all together in one place.

Do you see the difference? And that’s why we have gone all out this morning: all of the symbols, sights and sounds of Pentecost in the Christian tradition speak of Christ saturating our older understandings of God’s love with grace – not discarding them, to be sure, but filling them full to overflowing – so that we might advance the Lord’s blessings in our generation.

• When speaking to the literalists and rigid rule-keepers of his day, Jesus said: Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; not at all: I have not come to abolish, but to… fulfill – saturate – renew. (Matthew 5: 17)

• And when he went to the wedding feast at Cana of Galilee and the wine ran out – do you recall what happened there? There were six stone water jars used for the Jewish rites of purification – foot and hand washing to be exact –and Jesus asked the servants to fill them full – fulfill them, yes? And when the vessels of the old tradition were poured out and the wine steward tasted the water… what? It had become the best wine of all – completed and saturated with God’s grace – so that the feast and celebration might go on. (John 2: 1-11)

So let us be clear: Pentecost is not about NEW birth, it is about REBIRTH. Renewal – even resurrection – where what was once tired and worn out -- maybe even afraid and confused – is filled with God’s Spirit and power so that the feast may go on. Isn’t that what the story in Acts tells us? That when the Spirit had saturated the day…

All those who had been together IN ONE PLACE heard a sound like an explosion – or violent wind – that filled the whole house. And when the disciples looked around they saw tongues as of fire resting upon each of them – divided but also connected – giving them the ability to speak to others of God’s grace by the Holy Spirit.

Now listen carefully because on this day when we celebrate the saturation of the disciples’ hearts with God’s love, we’re being told to pay attention to two essential symbols or truths: wind and fire.

• Wind – pneuma/ruach – symbol of God’s Spirit and breath that brings order to the chaos at the beginning of time and inspiration to the hearts of God’s people throughout history.

• That’s what the poetry of Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones is trying to convey: when we are open to God’s spirit, dry bones can live – dead hearts can feel – and frightened souls can act with courage and truth.

Because God’s spirit is not a weak breeze gently moving the leaves on a spring afternoon: how does the story put it? This is a “mighty, rushing wind – a wind in a hurry – like a hurricane that smashes through the whole house and fills up not just the pulpit or the preacher” as Clarence Jordan used to say, “put also the pews and all the people, too. Because this wind goes into every nook and cranny… and leaves not one bit of the house unturned.” (“Incarnational Evangelism, Cotton Patch Sermons, p. 22)

And what else does God’s Spirit and Breath symbolize in our Christian story? Do you remember what I told you last week about waiting like Mary? When we are receptive and ready, when we are ready to be saturated, the Spirit of the Lord also impregnates us grace so that we, too, might give birth to Jesus in the world. And not our own personal and privatized, spiritual and safe Jesus: but the historical Jesus who breaks down barriers, challenges injustice and makes God’s compassion essential for living authentically in the kingdom of the Lord.

And that’s just the wind – there’s also the fire – so what do you think that symbolizes?Throughout the Old Testament, fire was one of the key ways that the Lord revealed herself to the people:

• Father Abraham was called into covenant with the Lord through a fire in which he burnt a calf, a goat, a ram, a turtledove and a pigeon. (Genesis 15: 7-10) At another fire, in which young Isaac was almost sacrificed, God spoke to Abraham again saying, “You now have my blessing and it will extend to your offspring like the stars in the heavens or the sand of the sea.” (Genesis 22: 17)

• Or think of Moses and the fire of the burning bush – a vision that inspired a liberation movement – or the pillar of fire by day and the cloud of smoke by night that the children of Israel followed on their march from their oppression in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. (Exodus 3/13)

Are you still with me? Fire speaks of God’s revelation – God’s inspiration – God’s energizing power. So please notice that the fire symbolized in the Pentecost story was a sustained fire: yes, it appeared over the heads of each of the disciples, but it was a fire that didn’t go out. It kept burning… just as Jesus promised it would.

• In the gospel lesson for today, Jesus promised that after his death and resurrection, he would send the Comforter – the Advocate – a source of spiritual inspiration that would always remain within and among God’s people of faith.

• “If you love me… I will ask the Father to send you the Advocate – the Spirit – who is the inspiration of truth… who will abide in you. I will not leave you orphaned and alone… the Spirit will come to be with you always to teach and lead you… so that you may have my peace.” (John 14: 15-27)

So on Pentecost, when the disciples were ready to be filled full, the Spirit of Jesus came upon them and saturated them with inspiration. And as long as they stayed connected to Jesus – plugged into his inspiration – then his Spirit set them on fire. It energized them and gave them some of the same power that had first energized and inspired him. Wind and fire – God’s revelation and inspiration – just as Christ had promised.
And here’s where it all comes together: what happens in the story once the wind and fire take up residence within and among the disciples? They start to act – act like Jesus in their generation – preaching and teaching and healing and challenging injustice with the same fiery intensity as Christ himself. Isn’t that what the story says?

• They started communicating with all kinds of people just like Jesus did – rich and old, male and female, Jew and Gentile, bold and meek, young and old – and race and gender and class just didn’t matter anymore.

• Because they were all together in ONE place – living and acting as ONE body – the Body of Christ.

In this, God has healed the breach described in the story of the Tower of Babel. Then, arrogance and pride ruled the day – we can act like God rather than follow the Living Lord – and what happened when God’s people started acting too big for their britches?

• They were knocked back down to size, their arrogant temple was destroyed and confusion ruled the day. That seems to be one of the ways God works: if you want to live like you know more that the Source of Creation, then God steps back and says, “Go on… have it your way – and we’ll see how it turns out.”

• Last week, as I was reading the NY Times at breakfast, I saw one horrifying example after another of what it looks like when we insist on doing it our way: 1000 American dead in Afghanistan to say nothing of the thousands of Afghani civilians, oil and fear spewing from the Tower of Babel in the Gulf Coast and ideologues of every political hue and stripe exploiting the fear, anger and economic confusion of our time with abandon.

And then, as a tender and quiet alternative, there is the vision of Pentecost: wind and fire empowering God’s people to be on fire with the love and grace of Jesus Christ. Now, every week it is my job to both name and encourage this alternative spirit of Jesus for you so that you might grow in his spirit. But today I want YOU to name the places and the people who are on fire with Christ’s spirit in our church… because today we celebrate Christ’s healing and hope-filled alternative to chaos in you!

• Where, for example, do you see people in this faith community on fire for something Christ-like?

• Where do you see something of Christ’s compassion being made flesh within and among us?

• And where do you see a sign or presence of Christ’s healing and hope here at First Church?
(After everyone shares a sign…)

Let me close our sharing with the words of a wise old soul who sounds a great deal like the Spirit of Jesus in our generation. Sam Hamilton-Poore speaks of Pentecost like this:

Closer to us than our own breath and breathing, the Risen Christ fills us with his own Spirit – quietly, intimately. With this breath, this power, we then go about the everyday, unspectacular, grubby work of forgiveness. Breathe, forgive; breathe, forgive; breathe, forgive. Although we often long for the dazzling or spectacular – dramatic signs of God’s wind and fire – we live in a time and world in need of people who breathe in, regularly, the quiet power and grace of Christ's Spirit – and people who, likewise, breathe out, regularly, the power and grace of forgiveness. Our world – so spectacularly broken and burning – needs people for whom reconciliation is as normal and natural as breathing.

Lord, may it be so within and among us.

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