(a sermon for May 23, 2021, Pentecost Sunday, based on Acts 2:1-21 and John 16:12-16)
These days they are so much a part of our daily lives, it is easy to forget that the celluar phones on which we so greatly depend were not always so… dependable!
Oh, sure… now they’re widely considered to be “smart” phones with cameras, music players, wi-fi, and “apps” that let you play games, watch movies and do your banking, sometimes all at once! You can even record worship services for later use on a pastoral podcast when everything else goes south on the livestream (it’s called “Love to Tell the Story,” by the way)! This rapidly increasing technology and its convenience for our lives is all pretty amazing, I’ll admit; but… let’s not forget that it wasn’t all that long ago when you were lucky to complete a simple phone call without the signal dropping or the voice on the other end basically unintelligible!
Early on – a good 15 years ago now – our family discovered that the place we actually needed our cel phones the most – up at our camp in northern Maine – was pretty much useless as far as a decent signal was concerned! Interestingly enough, there was always a cel phone tower nearby, but our camp was on the wrong side of the hill; so to get any kind of reception at all we either had to stand on one foot at one spot in our driveway, or else lean our bodies out as far as we could off the edge of the dock! To be fair, I should add here that over the years, it has gotten a little better; though last summer we ended up installing a “signal booster” on the porch roof so we no longer were forced to sit out in the deck in the rain in order to make a phone call!
All in all, we were the personification of that commercial you might remember from a few years ago. You know the one: in which the twenty-something with the horned rimmed glasses wanders through various and a sundry locales – shopping malls, the highway, beaches, even a swamp – with an ever-present cel phone pressed against his ear and asking the same question over and over again: “Can you hear me now? Good. Can you hear me now? Good. Can you hear me now? Good.”
The idea of it, of course, is that where your wireless connection is concerned, it is essential to be clearly heard and understood wherever you happen to be making the call! And it’s true: whether the message is of great urgency or just casual in nature, you want it to be heard with great clarity; devoid of interference, static, noise… anything that affects the transmission of the message! I’m sure you know what I’m talking about: there are few things more annoying and frustrating than trying to talk to a friend and family member about something important and the call suddenly drops (usually a couple of minutes before you’ve stopped talking!). So it’s no surprise when we keep on asking, “Can you hear me now?” Because if the answer is yes, then it is very good indeed!
And therein, it seems to me, lies an important parable for our lives!
The fact is, communication is one of the most important facets of our lives and living; because we all want to be heard and understood by those around us, and moreover, each of us wants to hear and to understand with the utmost clarity. As a pastor, friends, I can vouch for the fact that whether you’re talking about a problem in a relationship with a spouse or amongst family members, or dealing with a conflict within any kind of community you can name, communication (or the lack thereof) usually lies at the heart of the issues involved. In other words, for all the talking that goes on in matters such as these, if what’s being said is not being heard with clarity and understanding, then those words, however kind or firm or assertive, end up full of static and interference and end up communicating very little. As William Shakespeare put it, they’re “full of sound and fury, accomplishing nothing.”
And, truthfully, for things like resolution, forgiveness and peace to happen in our lives and in this world, first off we need to hear what’s being said!
In an article that was actually written in the days post 9/11, pastor and author Timothy Merrill made the assertion that in fact the people of this present age “are fed up with static and interference.” And it still applies: Merrill writes that when you live in such difficult and divisive times as these and you’re trying to get by as all the while you’re “trying to develop your personal plotline for life, when you’re desperately looking for a container for your joy, when you’re living with wars and rumors of war, you’d like someone – anyone – to pick up the white courtesy telephone and make a small connection that validates you, affirms you and gives you hope.” To put this another way, each one of us wants and needs to hear – and understand – good news for our lives and living; we want to hear the message that we’re loved, that we belong, that we’re valued beyond measure; we want to hear the word that whatever else lies out there on the unknown horizon of the future, we can rest assured that we have unending hope, enduring power and a relentless love that will transform us and bring us joy. We want to hear and understand what life – and faith in an infinitely loving God – is all about.
And isn’t that after all, friends, ultimately the gift of Pentecost?
What is the Holy Spirit, if not God’s way of speaking to you and to me with the kind of clarity that we yearn for, “the Spirit of truth” that comes guiding us into all the truth? As Jesus himself promised his disciples and us, “All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” It’s what God always does: reaching out and reaching in to us in an act of divine self-communication, doing everything possible that we might hear and receive his Word with utmost clarity, even as “a sound like the rush of a violent wind” on the streets of Jerusalem, so that we might know truly what it is to be loved and to live out of the freedom that love brings.
A few years back I was doing some pre-marital counseling for a couple who were going to be married in the church that I was serving at the time; however, the counseling itself had become next to impossible, not because they were unwilling to meet with me, but because in the weeks and months before their wedding they were actually living on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean! The bride was from Sugar Creek, Ohio and the groom lived in Northern Ireland; and combine that with the fact that at that time nothing like ZOOM existed then and though as I recall they did have cel phones, international plans weren’t really a thing as of yet, the logistics of planning a wedding – to say nothing of meeting with the minister (!) – was pretty much a nightmare! But thanks to frequent flyer miles, they pulled it off, and I remember at the time asking them how they could possibly be managing all of the countless details that come with getting ready for a wedding day – and the groom said, “Let’s put it this way; our phone bill is higher than the cost of our wedding!”
Actually, I would have added to this the fact that this is what people in love do! They always want to be with one another, no matter where they are or what they’re doing, and they find whatever way they can to talk to each other – long hours on the phone, e-mail, texting, whatever – because talking (and listening, too!) by any means that we have at our disposal – is the primary way of sharing who we are with that person we love!
Well, this is how God is with us. William Willimon writes, in fact, that “if the Bible’s testimony is as true as we believe it to be, then our God is a relentlessly, unceasingly self-communicative God. There is something about… God… that loves to address (and be addressed by) humanity. [And we can] call it love.”
At the very heart of it all, this is what happened on the day of Pentecost, that day when God’s own Spirit descended upon a group of ordinary, frail and hesitant people, enabling them to speak “about God’s deeds of power” in languages other than their own and to begin at last to live this life that prophecy had foretold and Jesus himself had promised: a life of visions and dreams set forth by God himself, dreams and visions that would live and grow over time and come to fullness and fruition in the kingdom of heaven. And though some were skeptical of what the ruckus was about on the streets of Jerusalem that morning – certainly, there were some ready to dismiss what was happening as not enough reverence and too much celebrating – there were far more who recognized what was happening for what it really was, yet another way that God was relentlessly speaking out to his people, asking again and again and again, “Can you hear me now? Good. Can you hear me now? Good!”
That’s an important truth for us to recognize. Too often, I think, you and I end up talking about about our search for God, about our attempts through prayer, meditation and spiritual discipline to get close to God, as though God is merely someone to be found or wholly something to be achieved. Don’t get me wrong, there is great value in, as Isaiah says it, our “seek[ing] the Lord while he may be found,” [55:6] but the good news of scripture (indeed, the good news of our Christian faith!) is that God, through Jesus and now by his gift of his Holy Spirit, is relentless in seeking us out and is utterly determined to get closer to us, no matter what! It’s a determination to communicate that is sometimes so strong that it can scare us to death by its intensity; but oftentimes so gentle as to be almost imperceptible, yet palpable, in the way it moves us along a pathway we didn’t even consider being possible before.
Actually, the Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor, in her book Bread of Angels, says this beautifully in describing what it is to receive the Holy Spirit. “Breathe,” she says. “Deeply. Receive your life as a gift invisible as air, and prepare to be astonished by all the forms that breath can take. Under the power of the Holy Spirit, shy people have been known to step up onto platforms and say audacious things. Cautious people have become daredevils, frugal people have become philanthropists and people who used to be as sour as dill pickles have become rich with friends. There is no limit to what the Holy Spirit can do… some people call it intuition. Others call it inspiration. Forever and ever, the church has called it Holy Spirit.”
It is a gift of God, beloved, the blessing God bestows upon us by being so communicative, so talkative and so self-revealing that our lives can never be the same. It’s fitting, I think, that the day of Pentecost is also thought of as “the birthday of the church,” for when we are truly sensitive to God’s Spirit and God’s Word and vision for us and for our life and times, we are indeed the church together working to tell the good news of Christ “as the Spirit [gives us] ability,” and doing the work of the kingdom “before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.” And I do believe with all my heart that whatever other struggles, difficulties and divisions we face individually and collectively, when we are listening for the clear, pristine and unalloyed voice of the Lord’s Spirit (and follow where that Spirit leads), we will be enabled and empower to speak words, live lives and do ministry in ways fuller and more beautifully than anything we can think, ask or imagine.
And that’s crucial, you know, because even now, God’s Holy Spirit is moving in and through our very lives and living – warming our hearts and asking the same question of us again and again:
“Can you hear me now?”
“Can you hear me now?”
“Can you hear me now?”
Thanks be to God for the gift of His Spirit.
AMEN and AMEN.
© 2021 Rev. Michael W. Lowry. All Rights Reserved.