Short of a gust of wind blowing in and spreading these candle flames to the altar clothes and igniting them, our worship service this morning probably bears very little resemblance to that first Pentecost, in terms of chaos, violence, confusion, and fear. And don’t get me wrong–I’m not advocating that somebody come up here and set the place on fire, although if the Holy Spirit should decide to blow in and shake things up, that’s an entirely different matter!
“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.”
Or what about that other disruptive, unsettling whirlwind of the Holy Spirit, terrifying to see and hear, where the prophet Ezekiel found himself standing in the valley of dry bones. “And there were very many [bones]lying in the valley, and they were very dry.” God tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones, “and so I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them.”
But this coming together of lifeless skin and bones and sinews is only part of the story. These bones and sinews and skin which had come together were speaking no languages; they had no breath in them. They looked like people, but really they were more like zombies. Not really alive. Bruce Maples suggests they were like a “dry drunk”–someone who has stopped consuming their drug of choice, but hasn’t done anything else about their recovery–haven’t looked into the source of their addictive behavior, maybe are still engaged in the same, destructive behaviors, maybe still as mean and nasty as they were when they were drunk. Old wine in old wineskins, as Jesus might have described them. This is not new life.
So God says to Ezekiel, “‘Prophesy to the breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.’ I prophesied as he had commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.” JRR Tolkein’s “Return of the King” and the rising of the army of the damned may have gotten its inspiration here.
We often speak of Pentecost as the birthday of the church, but we shouldn’t be too quick to break out the balloons and birthday cake. Births are always messy and are also perilously close to deaths, there on the threshold of life and death. It was a “violent” or “mighty” wind that swept through the upper room, remember, a sound like a freight train filling the entire place, and then tongues of fire alighted on each one of them. Rudolph Otto wrote of the experience of the Holy as the mysterium tremendum–meaning just as it sounds–”the tremendous mystery,” full of both awe and dread. “The Good News is real change,” as Suzanne Guthrie writes, “and change is dangerous, and often not received well.” [At the Edge of the Enclosure, 5/24/15] We may or may not want to get an invitation to this birthday party.
Surely we are in just such a time in the church today, not only here at Second Congrega-tional, but in the church at large–on the threshold of death, as the Pew Survey reports fewer and fewer people aligning themselves with any religion–but also on the threshold of new birth, a birth into new forms, new ways of communicating, speaking to a new age. Still, as Bruce Maples warns, we need to beware of becoming “dry Christians,” or a “dry church,” similar to a dry drunk. We may spruce up our buildings, come up with new ways and styles of worship, maybe a new target audience, get a new, hip, young pastor, but if we are not filled with the breath of life, filled with God’s Holy Spirit, we are like that valley of dry bones and sinews and skin, without breath or soul. [Bruce Maples, brucewriter.com, 5/18/15]
“All of them [gathered in that upper room] were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?”
Like some kind of universal translator, the Holy Spirit spoke to each one gathered from all over the world, maybe even from different times, as the Medes, which are mentioned in that long list of nationalities, were an ancient Persian people. Despite our relative isolation up here in Vermont, we are connected to no less a dizzying variety of people from all over the world, through the earth’s nervous system which we call the internet, plus images on television screens, even images from space. So many languages, so many cultures, such a variety of colors, shapes, sizes, people just being born, some people as old as 115. How do even begin to imagine speaking to–but more than that–communicating with all those people? What about the rich variety of people right here in our community–natives and flatlanders, little children, teenagers, college students, young adults, families, singles, gay and straight and everywhere else along the continuum of sexuality, newly retired folks, people whose working days are long behind them, people with comfortable lives, people who struggle to get by everyday. How can we possibly communicate the Good News of God’s love for them and all people, unless it is God’s Spirit which indeed works and communicates through us?
Mark Nepo writes in the introduction to his book,
I was having lunch with Olasope Oyelaran, a linguist from Nigeria. As we talked, he brought languages alive like tropical plants and spoke of them as rooted things that sprout and reach in all directions for the light. He marveled that there are seven thousand living languages on Earth. And these are only the ones we know of. The music of his African voice flowed beneath his overtones of English. Listening to him affirmed the things that come before us and which, thankfully, outlast us.
That night, as I settled under the covers, with the lights out, I heard our yellow Lab breathe as the wind announced the stars. There, in the silence that’s never quite silent, I realized that, if there are at least seven thousand ways to speak, there are least seven thousand ways to listen. And just how few we know. [Nepo, Seven Thousand Ways to Listen, p. viii.]
Seven thousand ways to listen. Phyllis Tickle, who came up with the image of the every-, 500-year rummage sale that the church goes through, says that there are important things to learn from the folks who responded to the Pew Survey that they did not consider themselves either spiritual or religious. In an article written shortly after she revealed that at age 81 she has been diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer, Phyllis is still hopeful and curious–
“Christianity isn’t going to die!” she exclaims, almost offended at the suggestion. “It just birthed out a new tributary to the river.”
“Christianity is reconfiguring,” she says. “It’s almost going through another adolescence. And it’s going to come out a better, more mature adult. There’s no question about that.”
For Tickle, the most interesting cohort in the survey is not the usual “spiritual but not religious,” but the “neither spiritual nor religious” who get “lost in the shuffle” but are in fact the key to the future of faith.
“There is an honesty in their conversation and self-understanding that, it seems to me, makes them much more open to conversation and analysis and perhaps, ultimately, to persuasion than is true for other groups…I may be wrong, but I am, as I say, fascinated.” [Religious News Service, May 22, 2015, David Gibson]
We may not be able to speak the language of folks of another nationality or even another generation, but we can listen–there are 7000 ways to listen. “Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?’” Christianity is no longer the native language of our culture, if it ever was.
There are many other languages being spoken. We must learn to listen and let the Spirit give us the ability to speak.
The story of that first Pentecost was not only a story of invitation and inclusion, it was a story of a group of Galileans, “rubes,” country folk, being drawn out of their comfort zone, discovering gifts and strengths that they, in their wildest dreams, never thought they had, and who were expected to dream dreams and prophesy! Recalling the prophet Joel, Peter said to the crowd gathered that day,
“In those days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and you sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young people shall see visions, and your old people shall dream dreams. Even upon slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.”
Into the new world after Jesus had been crucified, out of the valley of dry bones and exile, into the new reality and challenges of our day, God’s Holy Spirit is still blowing, moving, sweeping, setting on fire, enabling us to speak–and listen– in as many ways as there are languages, to touch lives, to warm hearts, to give hope, to bring justice, to care for one another, to find the lost and the lonely, to be Christ’s Body in the world.
May this blessing from UCC pastor Mark Suriano speak to your heart and set our dreams on fire–
“On Pentecost, may you find your heart singing with the Spirit of God, your ears humming with the voice of the Spirit speaking in a language that reaches deep into your soul, and wisdom dawning on your mind so that the shackles that [may] have hardened around your mind may be broken, and God’s voice and language set free. May our church community experience the coming of God’s Spirit, anticipate it with joy and hope, give in to it with love, so that when the day is done, all the world may know the love of God because of you.”
May it be so. Amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark