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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Pentecost Is So Weird

2015-05-23 Acts 2:1-21 Pentecost Is So Weird




It's Pentecost. Would you have known that? Before you came to church?


Some church holidays are easier than others. Like, Christmas. Easter. Even atheists get Christmas and Easter.


You know who gets Pentecost? Pentecostals. Dancing, speaking in tongues, setting their hair on fire. That last part's not true. But Pentecost and Presbyterians? That's an odd couple.


The denomination sent a list of helpful hints for celebrating Pentecost. One said to put floor fans around the sanctuary, with strips of red crepe paper taped to them. Then, all at once, switch the fans on, and the congregation will see the flickering flames of faith, and feel the mighty wind of the Holy Spirit. The Pentecostals are laughing at us.


But we try. I think the hardest part is trying to "celebrate" something that can't be recreated, even with floor fans. Pentecost requires no gifts, no greeting cards or new outfits. Not to mention that it comes after school's out, on Memorial Day weekend. Thanks, Holy Spirit.


Am I whining? Whining about Pentecost? In a weird day, it's kind of fitting. Because we DO whine about this stuff. We're always trying to make the Spirit fit us, to make God fit into our clothes. To make God fit our opinions, our bulletins, our worship styles, our doctrine.


We all want to call down the Holy Spirit in our time and on time. We all want, descending from heaven, God-given answers of what to do and when to do it, and to know, by God, that we are right, by God.


And that IS a problem.


[Insert long pause here.]


Why is that a problem? Well, maybe for you it's not. If so, we should trade places because you're way cooler than I am. And by cooler, I don't mean trendy, although that's true. By cooler, I mean you're calmer, I mean you're more peaceful, I mean you're spiritually blissful. You are so cool, it's biblical.


The rest of us, and I include myself, are uncool. We're the opposite of cool. We're sweaty. We're anxious. Because the blessed assurance of the Holy Spirit slips out of our slick little hands. This dis-connection with the Holy Spirit makes us awkward. We read Bible passages like today's and we think, "That's never happened to me. Where's MY Holy Ghost awakening? What's wrong with me?"


And then we have another problem.


Since the miracles of the Holy Spirit are allegedly absent, we assume, like children, it's because we're bad, or because we were bad, in high school, or sometime. Or, our church is inadequate. So now, God's holding back the treat box.


So the first problem is we don't GET the Holy Spirit. And the second problem is, then, we assume we don't DESERVE the Holy Spirit.


So now, you've got two problems more than you came in with. Sorry.


But wait, there's more. Because these problems lead us back to the BIG problem we started with: Which is, this Holy Spirit is awkward. It's frustrating. We're not in charge of it. We're not in charge of when the Spirit arrives, what it does, even if we switch on all the fans at the same time.


So now you have three problems. You're welcome. You don't GET it, you don't DESERVE it, and you can't CONTROL it. Maybe the Pentecostals have all the solutions, but I doubt it.


I doubt it because these problems don't have solutions. Maybe that's why we have the holy day of Pentecost in the first place. God gives us the strange assignment of celebrating that we CAN'T solve everything.  Pentecost is a gift from God that we can't open. I find that very troubling. But in a strange and, I think, biblical way, I find it very relieving.




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.


If we were taking the Bible literally, I'd be preaching this sermon in Chinese, or French, or Arabic. As all Americans know, this means English, just LOUDER AND SLOWER. Or, I'd copy our Christian brothers and sisters who speak in tongues, the universal language of spiritual ecstasy. And I could do it, if I practiced real hard or took the right medications. With enough work and of Google Translate, we could simulate the miracle of Pentecost. But miracles are more than fans and crepe paper. The problem isn't the miracle, it's the literalism.


If we choose to be literalists, and we can, then that means Pentecost is a one-time experience, shared by a handful of men we can't understand, in place faraway. Like NASCAR. I know a lot of people really follow NASCAR, religiously. Forgive me Saint Richard. For me, something gets lost in translation.


The miracle of Pentecost, is that something gets FOUND in translation. By the Holy Spirit, WE are the somethings who get found. We who don't speak the language of Christ, we who just don't GET IT, who don't DESERVE it, and are really uncomfortable not being able to CONTROL it - we who feel so lost, now are found. And found through no achievement of our hands, or minds, or words. That's troubling, but also relieving.


Infinitely brighter than the literalism of language, Pentecost is the shining light of unspeakable hope. Pentecost is the promise that fifty days, or fifty-thousand days after Easter, God still speaks our language. God still speaks to us. Even if we can't say with perfect accuracy what that means. Thankfully, we don't have to, because it's God's gift. The Holy Spirit will open this gift, and use it, when the time is right.




The first Pentecost was a Major Religious Experience. A 4-D thrill ride. Flames, screams, action. Those happened, every now and then, in the Bible.


Last week I read an article, "Ohio Pastor Rides Bulls Inside His Church to Attract New Believers." This is the church with the 52-foot statue of Jesus facing I-75, nicknamed "Hug Me Jesus" because of his open arms. Don't laugh. They have 3000 members.



But there's a difference between manufacturing Major Religious Experiences and living with a sense of religious experience. (Brian McLaren, Naked Spirituality). One is riding the bull, the other is learning to live without it.


Authentic, Pentecostal, Major Religious Experiences are rare and beautiful moments - visions, epiphanies, breathtaking glances of the face of God. People have seen angels, loved ones, even Jesus himself, as real as if they were you or I, sharing a conversation, a room, a dream. Major Religious Experiences tend to be rare, extra-ordinary, holy. That's what makes them so special. And like the first Pentecost, they just happen, without warning, without a place in the bulletin, a surprise present from God.


But then there's everyday religious experience. Religious experience generally has fewer bells and whistles. By comparison, a religious sense of experience is pretty boring.


I have a weekly breakfast with a couple of friends. It's always the same guys, and we've been doing it for years. We don't do Bible study or talk about God, although sometimes we discuss church. There IS a difference. Mainly we shoot the bull about whatever comes up, complain about our unruly children, and compare the size of our phones. We don't say grace over the coffee, and we don't leave an empty seat for Jesus. It is NOT a Major Religious Experience. But I make sure I get to these breakfasts, religiously. They remind me that as much as I might want to find God in a godly place or a holy book, God comes to life in our relationships, often those that have nothing at all to do with God.


She knows how he likes his coffee. He knows her favorite flower. She sees her neighbor pick up his paper, and notices when it's still on the porch. He ties his daughters' bows, not too tight, not too loose. She remembers birthdays of everyone in the office. He learns the rules of soccer by sitting through game after game. She visits her, and lays flowers, every year.


Jesus is not seen, God's name is not spoken. But these habits are the needle and thread that sew the cloth that holds us together, clothing us in the Holy Spirit. We come to learn that if one of these mundane rituals disappeared, we would be less. Over time our eyes adjust to see them for what they are, ties that bind us one to another, normal to weird, natural to supernatural, life both miraculous and monotonous to the God of life.


One day, we look back, and see the Holy Spirit was with us all along. Pentecost.




Today, we celebrate Pentecost. We also celebrate The Lord's Supper. By comparison, it's pretty tame. Much smaller than the lunches most of us will be eating after church.


We have bread. It's CiCi bread and Connie bread, so, there's that. We have grape juice. Sam's Choice, I think. I mean, if you had friends over and served just this at a dinner party, you'd be embarrassed, right? Bread and juice. It's so, plain. It's so, well, something anybody could do.


Those first disciples were just getting together for worship, and, boom, it happened. It's in doing these things, together, that anybody can do, that Pentecost just happens. It just happens. We can't GET it or DESERVE it or CONTROL it. It just is. Whatever it is. Even if we're just sharing a little meal, we can experience the moment, religiously. We can experience it, together. We can sense that, yes, God does know how to speak our language.