Good morning, Riverside community. It’s such an honor to be with you this morning, and after these weeks of getting to know each other in various expressions, it means even more to me to have the honor of standing here in your pulpit this morning.
So, here we find ourselves, called together today to the work of worship in one of the most beautiful and historic church edifices in the United States, on Pentecost Sunday of all days, a day we like to call the birthday of the church.
You heard the reading earlier in worship from the book of Acts, where Luke begins his story of the first church with a recounting of the events of that day in Jerusalem. Fire, wind, a cacophony of languages, overflowing crowds—the reach of God’s Spirit gathering disparate folks from many different walks of life into an unlikely assembly, and setting them to the task of being something together: something so powerful they could break out of the fear that held them captive; something so powerful they could allow God’s Spirit to heal them; something so powerful they could begin to see their differences as enlivening rather than enslaving; something so powerful that together they imagined they might…change the world.
Some of you know that I traveled last week from Washington, DC to Hawaii. That’s a long trip! While I appreciate the gift and expediency of air travel, nobody who does it regularly can deny that spending many long hours sitting closer to strangers than you usually ever sit next to people you love is…awkward at best.
I’m notorious for waiting until the last minute to get a seat assignment, so, naturally, last week I found myself wedged in the middle of a three-person row, trying to act like every time I moved I wasn’t invading the personal space of a total stranger.
One of the things I find so curious about this situation is how we sit next to each other on a plane trying to pretend that we’re oblivious, all the while unable to NOT notice what the person next to us is doing. Those of you who are religious professionals will know that this is particularly tricky if you are, say, studying for a sermon you happen to be preaching soon at The Riverside Church in New York City, because once one of your neighbors notices what you do for a living…well, let’s just say that five hours can seem rather interminable.
So on my recent leg to LA, the busy work of the neighbor to my right caught my eye. He was making notes on a document with headings like, Scene 1, Act 3. And even with my limited theatre experience of one run as stage manager of The Music Man in high school, I guessed he was working on some sort of script. I could see he was using a heavy black felt tip marker, making notations in the margins, like: “loud crashing noises” and “crowd rushes in from the side” and “flashing police lights.”
Frankly, curious and also desperate to stop questions directed at me from the seat on my left—questions like, “I’ve always wondered: since your job is to preach on Sunday, what do you do for the rest of the week?,” I broke the cardinal rule of airplane seatmates and asked my neighbor on the right what he was doing.
“Special effects,” he said. “I’m noting all the special effects for the production.” He said, “There are a lot of elements beyond dialogue that you need in order to tell a story well.”
That conversation made me think of Luke, the writer of the book of Acts, who certainly knew this truth of story telling. The story we heard today from the second chapter of the book of Acts is full of all kinds of special effects. This was not just another day in the life of the first Jesus followers; something astounding and earth changing was happening, and Luke tells this story in such a way that we’re sure to know it.
The story begins in a somber, locked room. We know about those disciples and locked rooms, right? The disciples had spent days—fifty days since resurrection, come to think of it—hiding in a locked room, scared, so scared of the future.
Remember, they’d lived through Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion, their own denial and grief, they’d spent these last weeks trying desperately to get their minds around resurrection and appearances of Jesus, whom they’d thought dead…then he’d gone and ascended into heaven, and there they were: locked in a room, paralyzed by fear, clinging desperately to what they knew…even though they could see even from behind a locked door. And they knew that things were changing.
These ordinary people—maybe people like you and me—were crippled by doubt and fear. The locked rooms in which they gathered were symbols of the locked hearts they kept shielded and locked lives they were living. They were unsure of what their experience with Jesus meant for the future, if anything at all.
And it was onto this canvas of containment, a canvas desperate and fear-filled disciples locked away from the possibility and promise of resurrection, that Luke begins to paint a story with all kinds of symbolism and special effects, the unforgettable story…of Pentecost: the coming of the Spirit, the birthday of the church, the day that God blew in and unlocked their doors and their hearts and their lives and set them loose in the world to be the church together.
How interesting that Luke tells the story of Pentecost with such flare (Oh, Luke, you should have been a scriptwriter)!
That first Pentecost happened to be Shavuot, the Jewish Festival of Weeks. The Festival of Weeks is one of three Pilgrimage Festivals, a Jewish holiday on which the faithful were encouraged to travel to the temple in Jerusalem to remember the giving of the Torah to Moses on Mt. Sinai. You’ll recall that that story from Exodus 19 is full of special effects, too: fire and smoke and an earthquake and the sound of a loud horn blowing.
Luke ties the events together when the special effects begin. You heard them. As the disciples huddled, in fear-filled lockdown, the Spirit of God showed up. There was the rush of a mighty wind, tongues of fire, languages—all kinds of languages—connecting people who never knew they were connected.
In other words, in very dramatic fashion, the door to those disciples’ locked room was blown open. The fear that was keeping them separated from each other and from the world around them was exposed and dismantled. The Spirit of God showed up, and the disciples found themselves rubbing their eyes in disbelief, summoning whatever courage they could muster, and stepping up into the great call of being the church of Jesus Christ.
Some people might tell you they don’t read the Bible because it’s boring, but Luke’s version of the birthday of the church is pretty funny. Imagine the disciples, the invitation of the Spirit there, right in front of them. So they get up, and they go out into the crowds. The wind was blowing and flames of fire were everywhere they looked and they began to speak in different languages.
In an instant they had been transformed from a closed, fear-filled special interest club into a community of transformed and transforming Jesus followers, boldly inviting anybody—anybody—who’d like to join them, to come on.
And folks thought they were drunk. Crazy!
Because who has the courage to face big fears like theirs? Who can summon the faith to step into a future they cannot see? Who can imagine what God can accomplish through flawed and failed human efforts?
People who are drunk…or people whose hearts and lives and exclusive meeting rooms have been soundly and miraculously unlocked by the Spirit of God, a lively Presence who will not stand by idle when there is work to be done in the world, but who will rush in and blow the doors open, and enliven a people just about to give up.
Unlocked. That’s what happens when God’s Spirit arrives.
This past week our world lost the wise and honest and lyrical voice of Maya Angelou. I know that you, The Riverside Church community, had the honor of knowing her and welcoming her to this very place many times. And perhaps like me, your life has been impacted by the legacy of this woman, who had the courage to name the pain of her life—of all of our lives—and refuse to stay locked in the chains of oppression, racism, violence, abuse, silence.
For several years after the worst childhood abuse, Maya Angelou just did not speak. She could not talk. The gifts she had to share with the world were locked inside, unable to make their way out.
It was the beauty and power of words that opened her heart, that gave her the courage to speak again. Her words:
“But a bird that stalks down his narrow cage can seldom see through his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied so he opens his throat to sing.
The caged bird sings with fearful trill of the things unknown but longed for still
and his tune is heard on the distant hill, for the caged bird sings of freedom.”
We, the Church of Jesus Christ, look back on the first Day of Pentecost and it’s easy to want to want to run right back into our little, exclusive rooms, shut the doors, and lock them tight. We are often very much like that caged bird, with clipped wings and tied feet.
Because we live in a society where the institutional church is becoming increasingly irrelevant.
Because those of us who have spent any time in the inner workings of the institutional church can quickly lean toward despair.
Because the history of the Church Universal has been marked by many shame-filled failures.
First animated by the Spirit of God, unlocked from the fear that kept the first Christians paralyzed, two thousand years have seen us often ineffectual and sometimes downright wrong. We have not been an instrument of God’s grace and mercy and loving welcome in this world as often as we could have been.
How can we possibly summon the courage to step out again, to try to live into the promise of all God envisioned when she showed up on Pentecost and blew open the locks?
We can start by remembering those moments when we’ve summoned the courage to throw off chains of fear and run after God’s Spirit. When we’ve managed to serve as an agent of healing and mercy and grace and radical welcome in this world, when we’ve gathered together to love each other, to do justice together, to model for the world the radical gospel of Jesus Christ that unlocks even the most tightly constrained hearts and minds and lives, and brings forth new life.
It’s been too long that we have struggled, locked away in fear and exclusion, forgetting the great mandate to which we have have been called. As people of God, we claim again the words of 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…
Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
So today, on the Day of Pentecost, we gather here, God’s people called to life together. We’re not here to celebrate ourselves, to pat ourselves on the back for what a good job we’ve done. No, we’re here to collectively summon the courage to believe: that God is here, and that God’s church can be a place where we are healed, where we heal each other, where together we heal the world.
Here’s how we begin:
We allow God’s Spirit to blow right in and unlock the doors to the rooms that have kept us apart.
We offer our hearts, open to those who walk beside us.
We offer our hands, unclenched joining others desperate to be the hands of God in this world.
We offer our lives—together—as agents of truth and wholeness and light in a broken world.
Happy birthday, Church of God. God’s Spirit has unlocked the chains that have held you shackled to fear. You are unleashed in the world again today.
Go and be who God has called you to be, for this hurting world needs the hope that you can offer:
No more locked rooms.
No more locked lives.
No more locked hearts.
God’s Spirit is here, and has unlocked everything that has held us captive. We go boldly now, into the world, to be the church, together!
 “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” Maya Angelou.