SERMON 5/19/13 Day of Pentecost, Christ Episcopal Church, Bradenton
Can you think of one of your very best birthday parties! I imagine there was a cake right, with your name on it, and possibly there were some really cool party favors (with possibly your name on them), and there were fabulous gifts your friends brought you and yes, they had your name on them, and then, everyone sang a song that (had your name in it). This was a day that had your name written all over it. It was your birthday and your friends we were honoring you. They were showing you some amazing love. It was all about you!
Now, imagine for a moment it’s your birthday party again, but this time the focus is not on you, but it is on everyone else who shows up at the party. Each of your guests names are written on the cake, each person receives a personalized gift from you, and when the song is sung, everyone’s name is included and everyone is singing the same song. The one who on this day, came into the world, is actually serving the guests, caring for them, honoring them, loving them. This crazy party sounds pretty unconventional, somewhat counter-cultural, outlandish and unappealing doesn’t it. That does not sound like any birthday party I have ever attended in my life, but it is that kind of celebration, of which we are reminded, when we consider the Pentecost experience those first disciples had in Jerusalem over 2000 years ago. This was a pivotal day when the Spirit came upon them, and sent them AND US, out to serve the world.
One of my favorite preachers and authors is Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal priest and lecturer, and she once wrote, “Surely somewhere in the mix there is the vague recollection that Pentecost is not as much about what God has done for us, as what God wants us to do in the world which, isn’t nearly as attractive to most of us.”3 I think Barbara is saying, the Pentecost experience may seem like its about us, but it is really about ALL of us. Barbara is helping us wrestle with the fact that being sent out on a mission is unsettling, it takes us out of our comfort zone, it sets us on a path unlike the one which we had traveled before. Pentecost is really less like a birthday party, and more like a call to action, a sending out into mission, and an invitation to follow Jesus. The best part of the Pentecost experience is, we are given a gift of power, which we are asked not to hold onto for merely ourselves, but to give it away. The gift to which I am speaking, is the gift of the Holy Spirit.
In today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we learn that “The disciples, including women like Mary, were all tucked away, apart from the chaos of the streets, cloistered together so they might safely and systematically discern where God was calling them. They were not disturbing their neighbors. No one from the outside could interrupt their time of prayer and worship. The barriers were all in place, nice and neat, keeping the chaos out and the control in. No need to be vulnerable on that day.”2 Then something amazing took place. The disciples found themselves overcome by God’s action, God’s power, God’s Spirit. Jesus had already ascended and left the ministry, his work, God’s mission of love to a ragtag bunch of followers. For a time, rather than go and carry on the work, they gathered behind closed doors, in relative safety, away from the challenges that beset a mission of love.
Like a mighty wind though, a rushing tumult, “the Spirit completely unsettled their planning. And, much to their surprise, and later, to their delight, all of those in the room began speaking in different languages. They simply could not help themselves. God’s Spirit caused them to burst forth into unfamiliar languages to proclaim to all the amazing things God had done in Jesus Christ.”2 From their space of quiet safety, God gave them the gift by which they could share the Good News with all the world. The many tongues, the multiple languages they were able to speak, represented the whole world, a sort of geographic universality that this new movement would represent. Good News of reconciling love would not be contained by closed doors or closed mouths. The Spirit would jump start the church, God’s mission would continue, and love would prevail.
So what is this mission on which God sends us into the world? What does that look like Eric? Do you recall the story of Jesus in the synagogue, the inauguration day of his ministry in the world? He sat amongst the people, picked up the scroll and read, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
See the mission of Jesus was Spirit empowered, so he did not go it alone. The mission of Jesus is for the poor, and we must know that poverty takes on many forms (economic, emotional, spiritual, relational). The mission of Jesus proclaims freedom for all prisoners, and we must know that there are all kinds of prisons in this life (economic, spiritual, relational). The mission of Jesus brings sight to those who cannot seem to see the plight of their sisters and brothers, who cannot seem to see, that the way of reconciliation, is the way of peace. The mission of Jesus brings freedom to those oppressed with guilt, doubt, uncertainty, and fear. This is God’s mission in the world, this is Jesus’ mission, and my friends, this is the mission of the church, a Pentecost church; a church that traces its roots to that group of ragtag Jesus followers over 2000 years ago.
“A Pentecost church is one that is willing to take risks and engage people who may look or sound different or act differently from the usual person sitting next to us in the pew. A Pentecost church is one that does not expect that unity in Christ must equal uniformity, or that diversity must bring division. On the contrary, a Pentecost church manages to hold enough trust in God’s wild Spirit to believe that God is at work in the unfamiliar, in the chaos, outside the boundaries we impose, bringing new life and new hope to a world that sorely needs it. A Pentecost church believes God knows how to be God and rejoices that we get to be God’s partner in spreading the word of grace and embrace and reconciliation that we know in Jesus Christ into all the world.”2
We are a counter-cultural lot, the Church. “Love your enemies,” “pray for those who persecute you,” “feed the hungry,” “give drink to the thirsty,” “welcome the stranger,” “clothe the naked,” “care for the sick,” “be with those in bondage.” The church is sent out on this mission, to be as vulnerable in the world, as her Lord was on the Cross, as vulnerable as her Lord was as he met the least likely social characters on his journey, as vulnerable as her Lord was when he risked persecution to dine with outcasts. This mission of love and reconciliation requires a vulnerability to be irrational in the eyes of the world. The mission of God, the church’s mission, for our culture, seems outlandish, beyond imagine, illogical, unreasonable, foolish, ridiculous and out of bounds. This is difficult work because at times, the world may be amazed and perplexed just like those early witnesses to Pentecost, and at other times, the world may sneer at what we do.
We are the bearers of Good News and by the power of God’s Spirit, we declare Irrational Love into the dark places of creation. The mission we are on is difficult, but we do not do it alone. The Holy Spirit is God at work in the world and the church today. “ God gives us the strength and power to bear witness, to love irrationally, to do for others what God has done for us and to continue Christ’s work today. This mission we are on, is not for us alone, it is God’s mission for the world.
Barbara Brown Taylor once preached a sermon in which, she referred to those folks trying to understand the work of the Holy Spirit today. Taylor remarked, “they may not know where the wind comes from or where it is going, they do know whom to thank, which is why God gave the church to the world: not to possess the Spirit but to serve the Spirit, wherever in the world the Spirit may be found.”3 This outrageous mission of radical love we are on began that Day of Pentecost, 2000 + years ago, the so-called “birthday of the Church.” That event should stand as a reminder to us, that we are more than just guests at our own party, we are more than gatherers for our own benefit, we are Apostolic, we are ambassadors and emissaries of God’s mission. On this day, the anniversary of the inauguration of the community of God’s people, maybe our birthday wish should be this, “Lord, send us out, to proclaim good news to the poor, to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor?”
1 Brinkman, J A. “Literary Background Of The “Catalogue Of The Nations” (Acts 2:9-11).” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 25.4 (1963): 418-427. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 12 May 2013.
2 Kershner, Shannon Johnson. “Outside The Walls.” Journal For Preachers 29.4 (2006): 53-55. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 12 May 2013.
3 Taylor, Barbara Brown. “God’s Breath.” Journal For Preachers 26.4 (2003): 37-40. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 12 May 2013.