The pictures from Fort McMurray, Alberta are hellish–at least the stereotypical images of hell–flames, smoke, wrecks of trees and structures, people terrified and crying, their faces smeared with soot; the tongues of fire merciless in their destruction. And then the images from Oklahoma and the south this week, where tornadoes have raged through community after community, their mighty winds hurling houses and trucks and trees like matchsticks. Fire and wind. I imagine that our candle flames and tinkling windchimes resemble those fires and tornado winds about as closely as our Pentecost worship service resembles that first Pentecost experi-ence, which, if you’ve got plans for the rest of the week, is probably a good thing. My guess is the disciples gathered in that upper room could no more have predicted what their lives would be like after Pentecost than the residents of Fort McMurray could have told you a couple weeks ago what their lives would be like. Utterly changed, transformed. Survivors of forest fires and tornadoes can barely cling to a shred of hope. Peter and the others experienced the fire and wind as the holy bearers of a new age, fueled by the power and love of God which they had experienced in Jesus.
“In the last days,” Peter began his sermon, remembering what the prophet Joel had said, “God declares, I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young people shall see visions, and your old people shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit…” He changed Joel’s words a little , or re-interpreted them, for Joel had painted a picture not unlike Fort McMurray–”A day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness…Fire devours in front of them, and behind them a flame burns….Before them peoples are in anguish, all faces grow pale….Then after these things, [God declares], I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy….”
Peter, though, filled with the fire and power of the Holy Spirit, declares “in the last days”– these are the last days of the old era, he says, the beginning of the new, the birth of the new creation, when all flesh shall see visions and dream dreams of what God intends for the earth. This is, of course, not the first time we’ve read about amazing “special effects” in the Bible, from Moses and the burning bush or on the mountaintop, receiving the tablets of the law, or Jesus on that other mountaintop, his face and clothing transfigured into blinding light. But those had been for the insiders, for the few in the inner circle, to witness. The tongues of fire and the wind of Pentecost touched everyone present, both inside the upper room and spilling out into the streets, where they all could hear and understand what these rubes from Galilee were saying in their own languages. No longer was the expectation for only a militant, exclusively Jewish messiah, but rather here was a more universal experience of God.
This is one of the foundational stories of the church, as Michael E. Williams calls it. “You can almost feel the wind pulling the folks together from all corners of the known world, and then propelling them back out to share the good news, like the Spirit breathing life into the young church.” [cited by Kate Matthew, sermonseeds, 5/15/16] But what was the heart of that good news, so powerful, so transforming, that it could birth a church, a mega-church for that matter, because we read that over three thousand people were baptized that day? What could have translated into so many languages, reach people from so many different cultures, so that despite their differences, they wanted to be included?
It was a message of hope and life, that in spite of all the powers of death and destruction, epitomized by the ruthlessness and oppression of the Roman Empire, symbolized by the crosses that lined all the roads leading into and out of Jerusalem, this God who empowered the disciples could bring new life even to the dead. It was a message of community and sharing, as opposed to the class and religious divisions that excluded the poor and powerless, all those “others.” It was a message of love, love embodied in service to one another and willing to lay down one’s life on behalf of the other.
It could be said that the fire and wind that birthed the Church have been doused and calmed over the centuries, largely by forces seeking from the very beginning to squash it, but also by the Church itself. We call on the Spirit to come, like flames, like wind, but do we really mean it? Annie Dillard says we are like children playing with a chemistry set, that we ought to be issued crash helmets and seat belts when we come into worship the God of all creation. What we get is a bulletin and maybe more than the usual number of inserts, and honestly, that’s what makes us feel safe. Give us something to read, to settle down with, to think about. Maybe that’s just a personal confession–that’s what makes me feel safe, which is why I know it’s time for me to step aside and let the Holy Spirit have her way with us.
Preacher and author Brian McLaren writes in his book, Everything Must Change, “A message purported to be the best in the world should be doing better than this.”[p. 34] It must be big enough for the big problems we face in the world, starting right here in our own community. How is who we are, what we do, what we preach, here in Second Congregational Church, UCC, good news to the poor in the greater Bennington area? What “language” do we have to speak so that they can hear, comprehend, absorb it as good news? How is who we are, what we do, what we preach good news to the children and youth in the greater Bennington area? It would appear that we are not close to fluent in that language. How is who we are, what we do, what we preach good news to those in the greater Bennington area who turn to substances like alcohol or opioids or other substances to numb their pain? What languages must we learn–or open ourselves up to the Spirit to teach us?
Mark Nepo reminds us that just as there are over 7000 languages known to humans, so there must be at least 7000 ways to listen. Before we can learn to speak any language, we must learn to listen. The candidates running in this year’s presidential campaign have all talked themselves hoarse, but the ones who have been surprisingly successful in both parties have been the ones who have listened enough to those whose voices have not traditionally had a seat at the table and given voice to their anger, their frustration, their despair, their grief, their sense of abandonment. What they propose to do with what they’ve allegedly “heard” is a whole other matter, but suffice it to say, it’s not enough to talk, we must also listen to understand.
“What is this? How is it that each of us hear in our own native language?” “Listening is an act of love,” says David Isay, the founder of StoryCorps, heard on NPR. You may have heard Krista Tippett’s interview with him this morning on “OnBeing.” He sees the StoryCorps recording both– “A setting where two people ask the questions they’ve always wanted to ask each other”–as sacred space.
Conversations are taking place at my alma mater, Middlebury College, as they are on a number of other college campuses, that seek to help students, faculty, and staff hear one another about their experiences of racism. Although students from traditionally minority populations now make up about 25% of the student population at Middlebury, it is still an overwhelmingly white campus in an overwhelmingly white town and state. The new president, Laurie Patton, has adamantly maintained that these uncomfortable conversations are not only necessary but welcome. Diversity isn’t enough. Inclusivity–where all feel welcome–is the goal. “I’m comfortable knowing that we are learning from our mistakes,” she writes, “and we’re holding each other accountable–to own words, to push us to the next level of inclusive excellence.” [Middlebury magazine, Spring 2016, p. 13] We might want to include that perspective as we seek to go to the “next level” in our congregation.
In New Orleans, LA, and in other communities in the south, a series of conversations is taking place around different experiences of racism. In a program called Welcome Table, citizens have committed to a months-long process of story-telling and listening, hopefully, eventually leading to a group project that will directly address some of the issues. It has been in the commitment to listening, though, as well as speaking honestly, that relationships have been forged and new understandings gained. Steven Kennedy, for example, a real estate agent and advisor who is African American, told about his experience of growing up in the midst of violence, and about being incarcerated for four years for selling narcotics. In that same circle, “college professor Nancy Dixon told about also being arrested for selling drugs–a total of nine times. Unlike Kennedy, though, Dixon is the niece of a state Supreme Court judge and hasn’t spent a single night behind bars. When Dixon and Kennedy shared their stories, the …group together faced ‘a realization that white privilege is a real thing.’” [Mindful Magazine, June 2016, p. 63]
How might we have such conversations–speaking and listening to–our neighbors here in Bennington? Neighbors who may be from a different background than we, who grew up in different circumstances from us, who experience life in this beautiful Vermont town in a very different way than we do? Might we discover any “good news” in the midst of those interactions?
Some in the crowd on that Pentecost day dismissed the disciples as simply being “drunk with new wine.” Jesus had something to say about new wine–it can’t be put into old wineskins, remember? lest it burst them and both the wine and wineskins be lost. We are in the process, I hope, of learning how to be new wineskins. The casks of the empire–of the powers that be–are always being filled up and dished out–here, buy and want some more of this; look here–this will make you beautiful or handsome, this will make you look and feel young forever; listen to me, listen to us, we know what’s best for you; oh, nature has been serving us for thousands of years and she keeps giving us more, don’t worry.
The message that enflamed and empowered the disciples two thousand years ago still has the power to transform not only us but the world, but we must stop giving our energy and allegiance to the other story, to the other powers that have led us, including the church too often, to the drunkenness of power, of accumulation, of the exploitation and poisoning of nature, of over-confidence. We must give up the dream of security, isolation, pleasure, and treasure, as Brian McLaren says, and “live a life dedicated to replacing the suicide machine [as he calls it] with a sacred ecosystem, a beautiful community, an insurgence of healing and peace, a creative global family, an unterror movement of faith, hope, and love,” [op cit., p. 272] So we must pray differently–not asking for our wish list, but for courage and wisdom. We must buy differently– not just because we think we “want” something, but because we need it, and, ideally, from someone who has cared for the earth and fellow workers in the making of this product. We must work and live differently, knowing there is no “other,” we are all in this together.
“Come to us, God Almighty! Send your Spirit!” we called at the beginning of worship. “Ignite the fire in our hearts, feed the flame within. Rushing Wind, blow on us. Grow the sparks and spread them…” Did we know what we were saying? Dare we trust in this God? “Come to us, Spirit of Truth! Consume us with your fire. Let your power shape our world with love and peace and justice. Let your love fill our world with compassion and joy and hope.” So may we speak and listen and live and embody Good News, so that all may hear and understand and experience new life. May it be so, this day, and in the days to come. Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark