The Pentecost sermon I preached at the Festival of Homiletics

The Pentecost sermon I preached at the Festival of Homiletics May 25, 2012

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
5Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes,11Cretans and Arabs — in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
14But 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. 15Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning.

-Acts 2

A few years ago a local Lutheran church gifted House for All Sinners and Saints a full set of used paraments.  My church is like every other church’s little sister so we get a lot of hand me downs.  As a group of us went through these beautiful altar cloths we came finally to the red set and found one with an image of a descending dove with completely crazy eyes and claws that looked like talons. Yep.   It was as though the Holy Spirit was a raptor.  “Man, someone said. We can’t use this one it makes The Holy Spirit look dangerous.” That was some completely sound advise.

I hear people describe Pentecost as the birthday of the church…which has always kind of smacked of oversentimentality to me.  Because it’s not exactly a quaint story.  It’s a dangerous one. The story opens with that small group of believers isolating themselves as the text says, all together in one place.   They were perhaps afraid of outsiders so they all stayed together. Had they actually known better they would have been afraid of not dispersing because what was about to happen would have freaked out even the bravest amongst us. They were in danger but not from outsiders – the danger they were in, as they sat all together in one place, was from a God who is about to crash the party and bring in everyone they were trying to avoid.

Things got crazy then with the wind and voices and languages and fire and all that. It can feel like all the crazy stuff that happened that Pentecost day in first century Palestine bares little resemblance to what the church has become in  21st century America.  There were no organs or committees or vacation bible school.  At the so-called birth of the church there were no ushers handing the Parthians a bulletin.   The Medes didn’t have a bake sale after the service.   It can be hard to see any resemblance at all from how we started to what we have become.  ….Well, unless we look at the people.  In which case there is honestly no difference what so ever.

See, we still have fear and isolation in the church. It’s called sectarianism.  So nothing’s changed there.  And those people who did the whole speaking in tongues thing …well, obviously they are the Pentecostals. And that long list of how many different nationalities showed up must have been added by the first UCC’er bragging about their multiculturalism.  Nothing’s changed there.  Then there were those who witnessed this powerful act of God…this Pente-chaos and, in an attempt at intellectualizing it, all they said was “well what does this mean?” So they were like, the first Lutherans.

And the ones who said  “Those people are drunk” were perhaps some Evangelicals focused on the personal morality of others. So that’s not changed a whole lot.   Then finally there’s the nice but completely naive guy who says “O my gosh, there’s no way they can be drunk…it’s only 9 o clock in the morning”  So there we have what we like to call the Methodists.

Nothing’s changed much.  People are people. There are the emotional ones, the judgemental one, the naïve ones, and of course the ones like myself who insist on categorizing and naming everyone as though people can be reduced to a label.  Honestly.

So there we all are even from the beginning.  Flawed, smug, confused, embarrassed and embarrassing…in other words the very people to whom God sends the spirit.

Because see, God hasn’t changed either. Just like that first Pentecost, God still crashes are parties and invites in the people we are trying to avoid. God still says yes to all our polite no thank yous.  This is what is actually so dangerous about the whole thing.  In which case, that red parament with the crazy taloned raptor dove is actually more apt of an image for the Holy Spirit than some soft focus hallmark card dove gently flying in a water color sky. Obviously when speaking of the Holy Spirit we have to revert to all these metaphors of comforter and dove and wind but the thing to remember is that the Holy Spirit….is not a metaphor.  Because she will mess you up.  Metaphors can’t do that.

Because the Spirit, while called the comforter does not bring the warm chocolate chip cookies and a night-night story kind of comfort.  The Spirit brings the comfort of the truth – and if you’ve had any experience of the truth whatsoever you can testify that it’s not exactly cozy.

It sure didn’t feel cozy to me last Summer when my congregation experienced a big demographic shift. Some churches might fear drag queens and homeless folks.  But All of the sudden last Summer, at House for All Sinners and Saints, we had middle aged people driving in from the suburbs.  People who wear Dockers and eat at Applebys. We were a special, DIY kind of church; we made art and sang a capella and we sat in the round.

I started to resent that my precious little indie boutique of a church was turning into a 7-11 and I was terrified that the more edgy, marginalized people who we had always attracted would now come and see a bunch of people who looked like their parents and think wellthis obviously isn’t for me.

So I called a church meeting for us to talk about the growth and demographic changes at House with the hopes that if the people who had been around House from the beginning just said who they are and what the church has always been about then the new people who really don’t belong there would self-select out realizing it’s really not meant for them.  And even while I was planning it, it felt really wrong. Exhibit C:  It’s painful to be a pastor when you’re really not that good of a Christian.

Luckily before we were able to be “all together in one place” for that stupid idea of a meeting, the plan changed.  The plan changed because I underwent what I can only describe as a heart transplant.  This is what the prophet Ezekiel describes when God said to him; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.

It didn’t feel like a removal though.  Removal is far too pleasant a word. My heart was ripped out.  When my own heart starts to feel bitter and judgy and hard, God says enough. And without anesthesia or a sterile environment God reaches in and rips out my heart of stone and replaces it (yet again) with a heart of flesh.  You’d think that with as often as this particular procedure happens to me I’d have, like a zip-lock or something installed in my chest for easier access but  apparently that’s not how it works.

See, the heart transplant happened when I called my friend Russell who I expected to sympathize with me.  But Russell refused to cooperate.  Yeah. That sucks, he said. You guys are really good at “welcoming the stranger” when it’s a young transgender person.  But Nadia, sometimes “the stranger” looks like your mom and dad. I wanted to hold the phone out in front of me and yell You’re supposed to be my friend! before hanging up.

But I couldn’t.  Because in that moment I could feel actual blood and love pumping through my body for what felt like the first time in weeks.  Russell spoke the truth.    And the truth set me free and that, my friends, is the work of the Holy Spirit.   And I’m here to tell you, it didn’t feel like a chocolate chip cookie or a night night story.

See, if we as preachers really believe that the truth enters our ears as the preached Word…then we simply have to put ourselves in the position of having Truth spoken to us too because that’s how the Holy Spirit works.

So when the meeting day finally arrived, I knew what really needed to happen. The new folks with the Dockers needed to tell us who they were and why they were there, so that the young people with the tattoos who’d been around since the beginning could hear what this church was actually about.

I sucked it up and I told them that horrible thing Russell had said to me about welcoming your parents.

Then Asher speaks up and says As the young transgender kid who was welcomed into this community, I just want to go on the record as saying that I’m really glad there are people at church now who look like my mom and dad.  Because I have a relationship with them that I just can’t with my own parents.

There we all were: flawed, smug, confused, embarrassed and embarrassing…in other words the very people to whom God sends the spirit to mess everything up. The very people God loves enough to send that crazed bird with bared talons and a predatory beak to come and snatch out our stony hearts and replace them with the comfort of God’s own.

Because God hasn’t changed. Just like that first Pentecost God still says yes to all our polite no thank yous.  God still crashes our parties and invites in the people we are trying to avoid. That’s the thing about the Pentecost Spirit of truth: it feels like the truth might crush us. And that is right.  The truth crushes us, but the instant it crushes us it put us back together into something real.  Perhaps for the first time.

Because the radical and mysterious and dangerous thing the Spirit does has always been to form us into the Body of Christ. Sometimes despite us, sometimes against us, but always for us. Because it is only the Spirit who can turn us from a “they” into a “we”.



Post Script:

We are stronger now as a church.  Now you can look around on any given Sunday and think I am unclear what all these people have in common. Because in one corner of your eye is a homeless guy serving communion to a corporate lawyer and out of the corner of the other is a teenage girl with pink hair holding the baby of a suburban soccer mom.  And there I was a year ago fearing that the weirdness of our church was going to be diluted.

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