(a sermon for June 4, 2017, Pentecost Sunday, based on Acts 2:1-21)
The story goes that in a small village located along a South American border there lived a little boy whose name was Angelo. And it seems that every morning Angelo crossed the border to the neighboring country and that later on that day, just as regularly, crossed back; but this time always carrying a wheelbarrow full of sand.
Now, Angelo was never questioned as to why he always crossed over in the morning; but as you might imagine, upon his return there was always some level of suspicion on the part of the customs inspector. “Young man, what are you smuggling in that sand?” he’d always ask, and Angelo’s answer was always the same: “Nothing… it’s just sand.” But the inspector was never convinced; so every evening, all of the sand would be poured out of the wheelbarrow and sifted through a screen before Angelo was permitted to go on.
Believe it or not, this went on, pretty much day in and day out, for the better part of five years (!); every time the same: the customs inspector interrogating young Angelo before sifting through the sand in his wheelbarrow. And they never, ever found anything! But the inspector would always explain himself by saying, “I know that someday if we’re careless, that’s when he’ll smuggle something across.” And that’s how it went; every day Angelo appearing at the border crossing with a wheelbarrow full of sand and every day the customs people pouring and sifting through the sand before letting him pass… until finally, one day it just stopped.
Well, as the story goes, years later the inspector, now long since retired, met Angelo – now long since grown up – on the street. Angelo was now well known in the village as one who had prospered; he’d opened a thriving business and bought a big home in the tiny village. And so of course, the inspector was still more than a little suspicious; and so he asked him point blank: “Look, I have to know; how could you have possibly become so wealthy when you spent so much of your time as a youth hauling worthless sand across the border?” Angelo just smiled and replied, “You see, my friend, during all those times when you paying so much attention to the sand, I was smuggling 1,593 wheelbarrows into the country!”
Now, I’ve heard that story told in a variety of ways so I can’t vouch for the veracity of it; but I do know that as a parable it points up an important truth of human life: namely, that we are often so accustomed to seeing things in a certain way that we fail to see what’s really there before us! The fact is, life is full of easy misconceptions and surprising revelations; it’s only as we go along – or at least hopefully so (!) – that we are apt to discover that there are a whole lot of things in this life that are much more than what they seem!
How many of us, for instance, have encountered someone in our lives who we more or less “wrote off” as being somehow less than what they eventually turned out to be? I’ve been thinking about this lately as the 40th anniversary of my high school graduation approaches: thanks to the miracle of social media and the planning of a class reunion, I’ve been getting little bits and pieces of what’s become of some of my classmates, and it’s been fascinating; in the sense that all these people that back then we (myself included!) so blithely pigeon-holed as perennial athletes and cheerleaders, popular and outcast, winners and losers (!) have gone on to have these full, rich and meaningful lives that tell stories that I couldn’t even have imagined back in the day! It’s been interesting (and a bit humbling!) finding these things out, and a wonderful reminder of how if we get beyond all of our surface impressions of one another, we might just discover something far deeper and greater that we could ever have possibly seen before. The point is by only seeing people, things or events in a limited way we end up missing the whole, glorious picture!
And isn’t it true that this is so often how we approach God as well?
Ask a child, for instance, to draw a picture of God sometime and odds are good that he or she will create some kind of image of a saintly Santa Claus without the red trim or the reindeer; a long white beard to match a long white robe. And even as adults, in what I pray is a more inclusive time, when we think about God we still tend to fall back on those familiar images of “the man upstairs,” of a father in heaven with the face of, depending on our generation, a Charlton Heston, George Burns or Morgan Freeman! Ours is the God of the booming voice, the roaring thunder and crashing sea; ours is the God of star-filled skies and dew-drenched mornings; God for us is what’s out there and what’s inside here… all of which is true, but none of which tells the whole story. There’s always more to God, you see, than what there seems!
The truth is that we grow so accustomed to thinking of God in a certain way or to looking for God in a certain form that we risk being caught off guard when God in all of God’s creativity and power is revealed! And this is what lay at the heart of this day of Pentecost: the proclamation that God is ever and always “doing a new thing;” that God will come to us unexpectedly and in ways that may not always be recognized as coming from God!
One of the first things that’s clear from our text this morning is that as the disciples were gathered together “in one place” on that morning of Pentecost they still had no idea that God was coming to them in the way that God did. Certainly, they knew something was going to happen; after all, as we’ve been talking about here over the past couple of weeks, Jesus himself had promised them a Spirit to guide them: an Advocate to teach them, bring them comfort and to empower them for the way ahead. But you see, like all of us they too had their preconceptions; ways of relating to God that were familiar and patterned (which is actually pretty amazing when you think about it, especially given all they’d been through with Jesus!).
So even now there was no way for their being fully prepared for the Spirit’s coming to be “like the rush of a mighty wind [that] filled the house where they were sitting,” nor could they have anticipated “tongues, as of fire,” appearing among them and resting on each one of them; indeed, in their wildest imagination they could not have possibly conceived the idea that everyone on the streets of Jerusalem would be hearing good news of “God’s deeds of power” each in their own language. Understand that these were people for whom dreams and visions were little more than the faded, hopeful memories of generations long past; and yet now, here was Peter speaking boldly the words of the prophet Joel: “I will pour out my Spirit on 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 some 2,000 years later, we who are the church still wrestle with the wonder and the mystery of what happened that day on the streets of Jerusalem. But whatever else we still can’t comprehend, one thing is for certain: this was not the act of a predictable, categorical God, but rather a surprising God who refuses to be limited by the human mind and heart.
In the words of John Macintyre, the day of Pentecost is “the wholehearted expression of the almost unlimited imagination of God.” Isn’t that great? Today, as the church we celebrate no less than the triumph of God’s Holy Spirit over all the vast differences of language, race, gender, class and culture that exist in our world, but moreover the triumph over all the limitations that we of this world have placed on who God is and who we are in relationship to God. Our God is the God who speaks all the languages of the human heart; who comes to us in the midst of the pains of life as well as its pleasures; who exists in the mighty winds that occasionally rush through our lives and living, but who also is palpable in the gentle breezes that whisper in and through each day. The miracle of Pentecost is that when God’s Spirit moves, each one of us will hear God speak in our own language, be that language one of love and joy and laughter, or one that offers comfort in the midst of grief and pain.
And it’s a miracle that continues to be revealed… as God’s Spirit is still poured out on us in unique and powerful ways; we are, by definition and by the grace of God, a “spirited people,” a covenant community of faith. This is one reason that the day of Pentecost is often referred to as the “birthday” of the church, because we are the recipients of God’s Spirit, and as such the carriers of God’s good news, as well as the purveyors of dreams and visions for a world in need of both. As the church, we are literally and spiritually “moved” to participate in the promised kingdom that’s to come, working in love, faith and stewardship unto the ever-widening purposes of God in our life and living.
I guess the question before us today is whether or not we truly believe that.
I suppose our answer to that question comes down to whether dreaming dreams and having visions is something that for us was “once upon a time” when our idealism matched up with our hope, but which has now faded away with age and the disillusionment that life sometimes brings; or whether we can still say today that what we’re doing for ourselves, our families, our communities and our world is what we know in faith God will someday bring in fullness, just as He has promised. The answer comes down to whether we set ourselves forth as a church that is wholly “spirited,” enthusiastically alive and well, serving people and being witnesses to the risen Christ in everything we say and do, truly living out of our prayer, “Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matt. 6:10)
Do we believe this, friends? Are we ready to embrace a surprising, unpredictable and limitless God for our own lives and living? Are we ready to dream dreams and have visions for the future; for God’s future?
If we are, then we should also know that we have placed ourselves in the midst of a life where amazing things can and do happen in and through our lives and the life of the church in which we are gathered together! Of course, such a life tends to be unpredictable, shaking up regular routines and more than occasionally challenging valued traditions along the way; but then again, that’s also the incredible wonder and the transformative power of the Holy Spirit; and why wouldn’t we want to be a part of that?
After all, what is it that Ralph Waldo Emerson said? “The power of the Gulf Stream will flow through a straw if the straw be placed parallel to the Gulf Stream.” Such is the power that works through us as we open ourselves to God’s own leading.
Oh, come Holy Spirit, come! Come and blow your mighty winds through us today.
Amen and AMEN!
c. 2017 Rev. Michael W. Lowry