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Spirited People, Surprising God

(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

 
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Posted by on June 4, 2017 in Church, Holy Spirit, Pentecost, Sermon

 

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Inspiration/Perspiration

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(a sermon for May 19, 2013, Pentecost Sunday, based on Acts 2:1-21 and Romans 8:14-17)

What exactly is the Day of Pentecost? Well, biblically and historically speaking it is the “Feast of Weeks,” or Shavuot, a Jewish festival of the summer harvest that was traditionally held 50 days after Passover.  On the Christian calendar, however, it is a commemoration of one such festival long ago, when on the streets of Jerusalem the world experienced the presence of God’s Holy Spirit in a new and powerful, strikingly vivid way; so for Christianity, the Day of Pentecost became a pivotal point of human history!

You might say, in fact, that for us, Pentecost represents the end of the beginning and the beginning of the end!  Think about this with me: years of waiting for the Messiah had finally come to an end, for Jesus had come; and more than this, Jesus, who had been crucified at the hands of a sinful humanity, had risen from the dead, the “first fruits of those who have died,” (1 Cor. 15:20) the opening up of the gates of eternity!  But now, with Jesus’ ascension into heaven and his disciples left to carry on, a new time of waiting was just beginning: waiting for the Messiah to return in glory, ushering in the kingdom of heaven.  In the meantime, however, there’s much work to be done!

So Pentecost, in truth of fact, is really where the whole thing begins again!  And with the rush of a mighty wind, God gave the gift of God’s own Spirit – in Hebrew, ruach, meaning the “breath of God” – to get it all moving. This was a gift that gave the church its very mission; and moreover, its empowerment in the work of God’s kingdom until that kingdom comes in its fullness.  So in a very real sense, it is true that it’s the birthday of the church we celebrate here today, because here is where the church as we know it begins; but it’s also about our on-going vocation as ministers in Christ’s name, and the continuing movement of God’s Spirit in the midst of this and every generation.

It’s big and it’s glorious and, I’ll admit, almost indescribable for the utter scope of it; but, if I might coin a phrase from Thomas Edison, the one about genius being “one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration,” it seems to me that at the very heart of it this “Day of Pentecost” ends up being all about our movement as believers from inspiration… to perspiration!

We actually see this very clearly in the disciples; who as we pick up our reading from Acts this morning, are huddled together in a secluded room, not at all sure what to do next, given they’ve been given this “great commission” which they’re supposed to fulfill now without the presence of their leader and teacher.  There’s most definitely a sense of their being at a loss, yet you know what happens; the Spirit’s wind fills up their room and suddenly these same disciples are out on the crowded streets of Jerusalem, boldly telling their story and inviting others into the household of their faith.

It’s an amazing transition, friends; and you know this didn’t happen in a staid, well-considered, and dare I say, “church-like” fashion!  No; this was immediate and life-changing; and though Acts doesn’t exactly spell this out for us, what happened was far beyond anything those disciples could ever have imagined!  Remember that there’s a festival going on, with streets filled with people from all over, speaking a multitude of different languages! There’s no way that this tiny group of believers could possibly make an impact on this massive crowd, and yet, here’s Peter and the others running through the streets fairly well shouting this good news, and everybody’s hearing it and, even more amazingly, understanding it in their own language!  It was the kind of thing that just doesn’t happen every day – or at all! That’s why there were those in the crowd very quick to dismiss the whole thing as drunken behavior; how else would you explain that kind of all-encompassing, totally enveloping and utterly overwhelming revelry?

They didn’t understand; but now the disciples did.  Because at the very moment that Spirit came and, as The Messsage translates it, “like a wildfire… spread through their ranks,” they were inspired! Enthused! Jazzed, stoked and fired up (!); moved in a way unlike anything they’d ever experienced or felt or believed before! They could not do anything else at that moment but jump up and run out there amongst the people; and tell this amazing good news of last days, of sons and daughters giving prophecies, of young men with visions and old men with dreams; of the Spirit poured out on many, and the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. 

Yes: this Day of Pentecost reminds us of the difference between what the disciples were – hesitant, confused, uncertain, and even fearful – and what they would become; bold witnesses of the risen Christ, ready to say and do all for the sake of the kingdom of God. And it was the Spirit that did it, moving them from fear to courage, from reluctance to commitment, from philosophy, as it were, to practice.

What we celebrate today is God’s own “inspiring” Spirit, how it was manifest in the first disciples, how it spread first in and through all the crowds of people on the streets of Jerusalem, and then across cities and nations and generations; and how it still, to this very day, continues to inspire people – people like you and me – to lives attuned to the unpredictable movement of the Spirit and to the all-encompassing and occasionally daunting, yet ever-fulfilling work of God’s Kingdom; truly moving us each and every day from inspiration to… perspiration!

And as odd as that might sound to a skeptical world, I know that there are many who know just what that means; many of us right here, in fact, who really do understand that though it’s indeed often in “mysterious ways,” God is working, and that there have been moments when we’ve been calmed, strengthened and empowered in ways both unexpected and unimagined.  From the personal crises we’ve somehow endured, through the moral and ethical dilemmas that ultimately ended up defining the depths of our character, to those wonderfully nagging little “nudges” that hit us out of nowhere but lead us to take some kind of action we couldn’t possibly have considered before: reach out your hand; tell that person you love them; follow that dream, answer that call, go to seminaryorwhatever!

The point is that there are moments when God, for the sake of his vision for us and his Kingdom, wants to stir things up for us, and that, friends, is what the Holy Spirit is for! Sometimes that Spirit comes as it did for those disciples, with “a sound like a strong wind, gale force,” (The Message, again), coming at us and enveloping us all at once. And yes, often it’ll come gently; and as naturally as a wisp of cool air on a hot summer day, as life-giving as a deep breath taken into the lungs.  Either way, however, it comes to inspire us; that we might grow, become, and serve the Lord in a multitude of ways with a variety of gifts.

It comes to move us: from philosophical thinking to passionate living, from quiet belief to inspired witness; empowering us as Christ’s disciples in active anticipation of his return in glory. From the inspiration of the soul to the perspiration of lives wholly devoted to the service of love – that’s what this Day of Pentecost is all about. And that’s also our challenge, friends, both as persons and as God’s people!

Because “Spirited” or no, the amazing things that can happen only happen when you and I are willing to let our guard down for a bit and follow the Spirit where it leads.

I’m remembering a moment when I was at Bangor Seminary – my first few days on the campus, in fact – a group of us living in the dorm were gathered in the social room for one of those wonderful “Getting to Know Each Other” sessions. And I’m not sure I remember how or why this happened, but suddenly one of our group suggests we all get in a circle and do “Father Abraham.”  Now, you probably know this; it’s a camp song, and kind of a “ring-around-the-rosy” thing, and there’s this song that goes with it: “Father Abraham had many sons, and many sons had father Abraham, I am one of them and so are you, so let’s just praise the Lord!”   And you sing it over and over again, adding a different body motion with each verse: right arm, left arm, right foot and so on.

Now, I know you will find this hard to believe, given my stellar performance of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” last Sunday, but I really didn’t want to do this “Father Abraham” thing!  Truthfully, I was a lot more reserved in those days, and more than a little bit shy about my new surroundings and somewhat intimidated by all these new people I didn’t know; moreover, I already knew I was a lousy dancer with two left feet, so I wasn’t about to make a fool of myself doing this; and besides, this was seminary (!), and shouldn’t seminarians carry themselves with just at least a modicum of dignity and godliness?

But, peer pressure being what it is (!), I did it anyway… and do you know what? I enjoyed it! It didn’t matter that I lacked the proper coordination; come to find out, so did they!  It was just fun; but more than this, it turned out to be a watershed moment for our little group.  Our different ages – which ranged from 22 to70 – our geographical, ethnic and social backgrounds, to say nothing of our denominational and theological particularities were melting away; we were becoming a community, this odd little family of faith, gathered by the hand and with the joy of a loving God, each of us in our own way seeking to follow the inspiration of the Spirit to do God’s work in the world – and in all honesty, it was this unexpected, foolish little game that got me to see that.  It was, in its own unique way, a high and holy moment, one that not only obviously served to unleash my “inner fool for Christ,” but also one I’ve been blessed to witness and share in congregations over the years and amongst a good many faithful people of my acquaintance.

So, how about you?  The Spirit is indeed moving, and God is doing amazing things; but the question is – the question always is – are you willing to accept and celebrate the high and holy moments that that Spirit is even now bringing into your lives? It’s a question of letting the divine inspiration of God become the perspiration of our lives; it’s being open to letting God’s purposes for our lives and living start to shape what it is we say, and what we do today, tomorrow, and for the whole of life.

And it makes a difference. After all, as Paul said to the Romans in our Epistle today, “When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that that very Spirit bearing witness with your spirit that we are children of God.”  When we “are led by the Spirit of God;” that is, when we trust God’s movement in our lives and let it move us, like the disciples of old we are telling a story of good news by our very lives, and acknowledging with every word and deed that we are, truly, God’s children.

And so, in the words of an ancient prayer be ours this day:

“Come, O Holy Spirit, come! 
Come as holy fire and burn in us,
come as holy wind and cleanse us,
come as holy light and lead us,
come as holy truth and teach us,
come as holy forgiveness and free us,
come as holy love and enfold us,
come as holy power and enable us,
come as holy life and dwell in us.
“Convict us, covert us, consecrate us,
until we are wholly thine for thy using,
through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
 – prayer adapted by Charles Francis Whiston

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2013  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on May 19, 2013 in Holy Spirit, Pentecost, Sermon

 

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