Sermon preached Pentecost Sunday May 31, 2009
Text: Acts 2:1-21
Today is Pentecost Sunday, and I want to talk about Spirit, about wind, but I don’t intend to be long-winded.
Let’s begin with an experiment. As you are able fold your hands together. Notice which thumb is closest to you. Now fold them the other way. It feels uncomfortable, doesn’t it? It gets harder. Fold your arms if you can. Which arm is on top, which hand tucked. Try to do it the opposite way. It is not easy, is it?
Once upon a time there was a group of people, a group that had been through a difficult time. But they were together when suddenly all heaven broke loose. A sound like a strong, driving wind is heard. Visions of flames appear. People begin to speak out, not in any orderly manner, but all at once, and in different languages. As chaotic as this sounds, a gathering crowd hears it and hears something remarkable – their own language. The crowd is amazed and bewildered. Was there a party going on here? Had this gathered group broken out wine so early in the day? The group makes another claim, this is God’s doing, this is what happens when God’s Spirit shows up – it is like having a winged and wild wind blow through the neighborhood and you can never be sure of all the effects.
How utterly, amazingly strange that the church whose story of origin is found in this text (Pentecost is considered the “birthday of the church”) has come more often to be seen as a place of folded hands rather than of a winged and wild wind, of a raucous party where wine is being shared. Folded hands are more comfortable the way they have always been folded. The church of Jesus Christ and of the Spirit has often been a staid, comfortable place where change is at best tolerated, but only when absolutely necessary. We need to be more a place of the winged and wild wind.
Let me share with you one of my favorite observations about Christian faith. It is offered by Patrick Henry, who, when he wrote this, was executive director of the Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research at St. John’s Abbey and University in Collegeville, Minnesota. Once upon a time the term “Christian” meant wider horizons, a larger heart, minds set free, room to move around. But these days “Christian” sounds pinched, squeezed, narrow. Many people who identify themselves as Christians seemed to have leapfrogged over life, short-circuited the adventure…. Curiosity, imagination, exploration, adventure are not preliminary to Christian identity, a kind of booster rocket to be jettisoned when spiritual orbit is achieved. They are part of the payload. (The Ironic Christian’s Companion, 8-9) Exploration, imagination, curiosity, larger heart, wider horizons, minds set free, adventure – these are words more in tune with a Spirit that is a winged and wild wind.
When God’s Spirit is present there is love as comfort, healing, tender care. Psychoanalyst Michael Eigen has said: There is no trauma-free world, no trauma-free space in real life…. Life is traumatizing. Trauma hits and keeps on hitting. It is part of who we are. Our very personalities have self-traumatizing aspects. (Conversations with Michael Eigen, 116, 131) I am in a privileged position to hear about some of pain people experience in their lives – their own deteriorating health, the deteriorating health of a loved one, loss of a job, relationship turmoil and dissolution, struggles with meaning and purpose, struggles with addictive behavior. I believe God cares deeply about people in pain and experiencing trauma and that the Spirit of God is often a gentle, healing presence.
God’s Spirit is also a winged and wild wind and where the Spirit of God is present there is creativity, change, and things are shaken up. Hear the story. The Spirit arrives and diverse people who may never before have been together are now together. People who have only heard faintly about God’s deeds of power are now hearing clearly in a language they can understand about this God whose Spirit is a winged and wild wind. A man like Peter whose life vacillated between foolish bravado and cowardly denial becomes a courageous spokesperson for the Jesus community.
The Spirit who is like a winged and wild wind shakes things up and we need to be open to that Spirit.
We need to be open to that Spirit in our individual lives. Yes, we need God’s gentle caring and healing presence, but we also need to be shaken up, moved, changed. Eigen says that there are no trauma-free spaces in life, but he also says that parts of our own personalities are self-traumatizing. We do things that hurt ourselves and hurt others. We can get caught in patterns of behavior that are harmful to ourselves and others. Part of our healing can be and often needs to be change, being shaken up a bit. Beyond that, God invites us to an adventure, to exploration, a larger heart, a more open mind, a wider horizon, and if we are going to follow it will require change.
This week I attended the Minnesota Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church. Twenty-five years ago I attended my first annual conference where I was ordained a deacon in The United Methodist Church, became a probationary member of the conference and was appointed pastor of The United Methodist Church in Roseau. Being there this year I couldn’t help but think about my life, and how following the winged and wild wind of God’s Spirit has taken me to unimagined places – this shy, quiet kid from a family that was not steeped in church now the pastor of a large congregation getting up in front of people week after week and at Annual Conference spending time at the microphone explaining legislation that was voted on at General Conference last year. It is amazing to me.
We need to be open to that Spirit in our life together as First United Methodist Church. We will be a place that folds its hands in prayer, but just as much we need to be a place of the Spirit that is a winged and wild wind. We will share hope and healing from the skyline, but we will know that to do that well requires shaking things up sometimes, requires creativity, asks of us imagination and an adventuresome spirit.
We have made some changes in worship and in the coming weeks, following months of discussion and consultation I will be sharing with you our plan for a new fall worship and education format. The change we have introduced in worship to date helps us understand the shape of worship and the shape of our lives. We welcome the Spirit and each other – knowing that God, in grace, has already welcomed us. We focus our attention to listen more deeply to the Spirit in our lives. We respond to God’s Spirit with our lives. That is the pattern not only for worship, but for living as Christians. This will be the basic pattern for worship here, with some wonderful variation within that pattern.
Beyond changes in our worship life I want to begin asking us to reframe how we talk about ministry together using one question – Whose lives are we touching? I’ve made no secret that I would like to see our church grow, but growth in and of itself is not the point – making a difference in people’s lives is. To ask how we are touching lives is a question that shapes our ministry with those already a part of our congregation. Are we helping our members and friends connect more deeply with God and with others? Are we helping them grow in faith so that their faith is a resource for them as they navigate the sometimes difficult and troubling waters of life? Are we helping them connect with God’s work in the world?
But I believe that God’s call for our church is also to reach out and touch other lives – the lives of the poor, the hungry, the lonely, the defeated, the discouraged, the despairing. That happens when a child is mentored. That happens when a meal is served to the hungry. That happens when gifts of music are shared in a nursing home. That happens when a cancer walk is organized. That happens when someone is greeted at a hospital. That happens when someone is invited to worship or another church group. It might happen if we were to hold a community meal in our parking lot some summer day just to help people celebrate life a little. Some of the lives we touch in some of these ways may become a part of our congregation. Many won’t, but a life will be touched, a positive difference will be made, and that’s what matters. How is it that the winged and wild wind of God’s Spirit wants to blow us out of this building to touch the lives of others?
We are a people on an adventuresome journey, inspired by God’s Spirit which is a winged and wild wind. YES!