Sunday, May 15, 2016

On smog, the Spirit, and storytelling: a sermon for Pentecost 2016


John 14:8-17

Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees nor knows the truth. You know it, because it abides with you, and it will be in you.

"I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid."

Acts 2:1-21

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.’"


Click here to listen along.

I was seventeen the first time I visited Chicago.  I was traveling with seven other students from my high school speech team to compete in a national meet.  As we drove into the city limits at around 11pm, the moon hung in the sky just ahead of us, big and full and bright red.

Now I’d read my Bible.  I’d read Joel and Acts and Revelation.  I knew what a blood red moon meant.  Jesus was coming back!  Right now!  And I was spending my time and money driving to Chicago to compete for trophies when I should have been in Africa feeding the hungry!  I knew I was in trouble.

I tried to keep my voice calm as I said to the others in the car, “Hey, y-you g-guys… does anyone else think the moon looks weird?”

The chemistry teacher who was one of our coaches explained that Chicago is surrounded by smog in a way that our hometown of Minneapolis-Saint Paul was not, and at just the right angle of the sun and the moon and the car and the level of haze, the light reflecting off the moon would refract in the clouds and, well, the moon would be red.

I think she used it as a teaching moment about recycling.

It was a key moment in coming to accept that just because I could read something in English didn't mean I fully understood it.

Look at the list that the devout Jews rattle off -- it can be alienating to us, this long list of nationalities.  Even in English, there are words that don’t communicate efficiently, words that send our brains flying off on tangents.

Even though it’s English, the language many of us grew up with, the list of nationalities and the meaning behind Peter’s words is so diverse and strange that two thousand years later it can take us down paths that lead away from the main point.  The point being not that we should panic at the sight of a red moon but that the coming of the Holy Spirit is the ushering in of a new age, a time when the barriers of communication are broken down and suddenly Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female can hear the same message of grace through Jesus.

When the disciples speak and are heard in a multitude of native languages, it isn’t only that they are heard in many languages but that they are understood.  That no matter if they are heard in Arabic or Latin or Greek or Hebrew, the words all communicate the same thing:  God’s deeds of power, God’s magnificence and glory.  Peter will go on in the rest of the story to proclaim that God revealed a man, Jesus of Nazareth, by deeds of power, and wonders, and signs, and that even when he was killed he was freed from death and raised again.  These are the deeds of power that the disciples, their mouths full of words they never learned, can proclaim in languages they’ve never spoken:  Jesus taught and healed and performed miracles, and even when it seemed that all was lost, he defeated even death, and that in just his name there is forgiveness of sins.  And the Spirit gives the disciples power to communicate this so clearly, not only to be heard in other languages but to be understood, that three thousand people are baptized and added to the church that day.


Something about what Peter and the other disciples proclaim goes beyond just being heard in a multitude of languages.  Something is miraculously communicated.  In a time and place where a vast majority of people speak and understand English, what are we communicating?  What would it mean for us to proclaim God's deeds of power so that hipsters, single moms, artists, multigenerational households, the hungry, young adults, those in assisted living, the homeless, trans kids, those who speak Swedish and Spanish and Somali -- that all of Northeast Minneapolis and beyond could hear and understand and be transformed?

I’ll be honest.  I can’t do it.  I don’t believe you can either.  That’s the whole point of the story, after all.

I can’t do it, and you can’t do it, and we can’t do it.  Not alone.  The point of the story is that, after the death and resurrection and ascension of Jesus, the disciples gather together in one place and close the doors.  Maybe they were afraid.  Maybe they were having a strategic planning meeting.  But the end result is not that the disciples lay out a map of Jerusalem and buy a bunch of copies of Rosetta Stone in Latin and Greek and Arabic so they can systematically begin preaching to the city.  No -- it’s not something they can do, to proclaim the good news of Jesus in such a way that three thousand people want to join.  That is not in their toolkit, nor in mine, nor in ours.  It’s the Spirit’s work.  It’s the powerful rush of wind and flame, a fire tornado in their lives that sends them out into the streets to transform the world.

We call Pentecost the birthday of the church, and what’s important to remember is that birthdays are not the only beginning.  The day I was born was the culmination of nine long months of blood, sweat, and tears, of me stretching and growing and being nurtured and loved, of parents learning marvelous and incredible and heartbreaking things about the world.  The disciples have had this same time of growing and nurturing, of wondrous growth and food, of being told stories even if they didn’t understand.  On Pentecost, the disciples don’t just have the sudden rush of the Holy Spirit.  They have at least a year, maybe more, of daily life with Jesus.  Constant journeys from town to town, every day a slew of new questions to ask, new broken people to see and love and heal.  And a barrage of stories.  Jesus loved stories.  His answers to complex questions about money and anxiety and prayer and pain and loss and forgiveness were not reducible to a bumper sticker -- they were stories, stories that made space for imagination and hope and resolution.  The answer to “And who is my neighbor?” was a complex story full of characters and twists.  Jesus filled his disciples with healing powers and radical humility but also the miracle of stories that draw us in.  They were trained for a year or maybe more in how to respond to the world, how to see its pain and brokenness and say, “I think I have something that can help.”  How to extend hands that held power gently, that used power for good, that freed the oppressed and fed the hungry and bound up the brokenhearted.

On the day of Pentecost, the disciples didn’t just have the Spirit.  They had the stories, the miracles, the year-long training with Jesus by their side every day.

I think that might be where we are invited right now.  Grace, we are a people good at a lot of things.  We are good at feeding people -- really good at it -- at our community dinners and our celebrations and our food shelf.  We are good at making crazy dreams happen.  We are good at a lot of things, but we might need some practice in telling our story.  Telling the story not just of how Grace came to be -- how we sold buildings and pulled weeds and gave the community the gift of a center for life -- but also why.  Why we did it, and why each of us was willing to buy in to it.  What were our hopes?  What life experiences led us to this place?  What, in the sum of all your years of life, got you out of bed this morning and into the chair you’re in right now?

I’ve had the chance in my first three weeks to hear just a few of those stories.  And I want to hear more.  I want to hear all of them.  And I want you to hear them, too.  The stories of how we got here are holy stories.  They are stories of God showing up in our lives, in weird and unpredictable and frustrating and transforming ways.  And we are called to tell them, and to hear them.  We are invited to tell our stories, in the same way Peter modeled -- to say Here is where I find myself rooted in scripture, and here is where I find that God is showing up in my life.

Just for the summer, we’re going to practice stories -- what it means to know our own story, how to tell it, and how to listen to the stories of others’.  We have a beautiful lineup of stories from Jesus according to the gospel of Luke:  healings and transformations, new life given where there was despair and death, letting go of what tries to turn our hearts away from hope.  And those stories are going to give us the opportunity to learn and hear and tell our own stories.  Comfort with our stories won’t happen all at once.  It takes time.  It takes the courage to step forward and the trust that Jesus is walking ahead of us.

Today we’ve handed out candles.  It would be easy to say they are birthday candles, and that we can light them and place them on the altar to remember what we’re happy for in the life of Grace Lutheran.  And they are that.  But they are also more.  These too are the lights of Pentecost, the flames of the Spirit, the flickers of courage and power in each of us to trust that we, too, are capable of telling the stories of God’s people.  Our stories.  Our little flickers of light that together, grow into a great flame that can warm the hearts of the world.

As we sing our hymn of the day, let it be a response to the story of Pentecost.  When you are ready, you may take your light and come forward, light it from one of the candles, and set it on the altar.  Come.  Come.  Come, Holy Spirit, come.

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