Year A, Pentecost
Typically, I write my main sermon, and then I consider how I can take something from it and make it accessible to children. For this Pentecost Sunday, I came up with the children’s sermon first and that informed my main sermon. The reason I was thinking so much about my children’s sermon was because I was worrying about how people would handle singing Hot, Hot, Hot. If you loved it, it was my idea. If you hated it, it was still my idea. I realize that some people might find it a little weird for church. Pentecost is one of the three major feasts of the church year. It’s bigger than Christmas in terms of theological significance. Because it is such a sacred day, we should take worship seriously. We should be solemn and stoic like good Episcopalians. But then I kept coming back to this reading from Acts. I kept thinking about what a ridiculous and wild scene this must have been.
The disciples were all in one place—they heard and saw the same thing. They were somewhat prepared for this event. Jesus had told them that after he left, the Holy Spirit would come to them. However, the huge crowd gathered outside of the disciple’s small enclave were not prepared in the same way. They were prepared to some extent as they were there for their own holy feast, the Jewish feast of Pentecost. In the Jewish faith, Pentecost marks the end of the spring harvest. It was when people gathered together to present their first fruits of the harvest. It was a time to praise God and show gratitude for all God had given. They were there for a spiritual experience, but the same one they had every year, not something they did not recognize.
However, something got their attention. They heard a loud noise and felt the strong wind. They heard the disciples speaking in their own language, even though there were people from many places with many different languages. Thus all the people in the crowd knew something was happening. But they all discerned what was happening in different ways.
Some people asked, “What does this mean?” They were astonished and amazed. They wanted to understand. They wanted to believe. Others heard the same thing, but they sneered and accused the disciples of being drunk. Different people had different experiences with the Holy Spirit. Those who were open to the newness of it all ended up being baptized that day. 3,000 people were baptized–which is remarkable. But not everyone was. Some left thinking that these people were idiots or charlatans. They were faking this holy experience to get attention or power.
Peter knew what they were thinking. He took this opportunity to preach a sermon. He started by saying that they were not drunk as it was 9am (apparently had it been 5pm, it would have been a different story—yet it was 9am). He then quoted the prophet Joel. It’s an odd choice for a happy and spirit filled moment. Joel was a prophet who had lived about 500 years before and spent a lot of time telling the people of Israel to repent as the Day of the Lord was near and the Day of the Lord was full of destruction and judgment. It was not a day to look forward to. For Joel, it was almost as if the presence of the Holy Spirit was a bad thing.
Peter was taking this text and reframing it. Peter was telling people that the Holy Spirit was not just providing salvation from something bad, but new life through the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. Jesus had brought something new to the earth. Instead of taking it back with him when he ascended to heaven, he left the Holy Spirit with the people of God. It was up to the people of God to decide how they were going to respond to the Spirit and this new life, this changed life. Would they scoff because it was different and incomprehensible? Or would they open themselves to this new experience of God’s wonder?
Please do not misunderstand me. I am not comparing Hot, Hot, Hot, with the flames of Pentecost. I am not saying that if you did not feel the presence of the Spirit, you were clearly not open to it. What I am saying, is that we all experience the Spirit in different ways. We even experience this Spirit in different ways as we age and go through the phases of our lives. Sometimes it is in moments of utter misery—a small light of hope in the darkness. Sometimes it is a moment of silliness and joy. Sometimes it just comes out of nowhere. When I was working on this sermon, I wrote down my spiritual experiences. It is hard to describe what I mean when I say spiritual experience. For me, it is a moment when I can feel the presence of God in a very tangible way.
It is an interesting exercise and I commend it to you all. In about 10 minutes, I came up with 16 experiences. Some of these moments were sad and even embarrassing. Others were light and joyful. Most I could not really put my finger on what the emotion was, it was just a moment of fullness. It was like a small light inside me burst through. Yet there was one theme that kept popping up. Of all those moments, only two happened when I was alone. Some were with small groups of 2 or 3. The majority were with crowds, crowds of people worshipping God.
We often associate the Holy Spirit with mystical and contemplative times. Some people might even think that they have not experienced the Spirit because they are not a mystical or contemplative type of person. That is what is so amazing about the Holy Spirit–it comes to all people, at all different times, in all different places. While this unpredictability can be lovely, it can also be frustrating as sometimes we crave that experience and we don’t know how to find it. In looking for the mountain top experience of transcendence and nearness to God, we think that we have to literally climb a mountain. If you can, then absolutely, go for it. But perhaps… you can also have that mountain top experience here at sea level worshipping God with other people who are sharing that joy or that sorrow…or just the pew. You might be thinking, well this is the 3rd time I have been this year and I have not felt it once. You have to give the Holy Spirit more opportunities to work in you and around you. The Holy Spirit does not appear on command.
When we had our youth pilgrimage in Ireland, we hiked to the top of a small mountain in the middle of the sea. The view was breathtaking. If you were to have a mountain top experience, it would have been there. We had communion at the top where monks had worshipped and lived for centuries. I knew it would be this amazing experience. Yet there were seagulls trying to get the bread, bugs in the wine, and tourists walking in and out of our sacred moment. Plus, I was pretty sure we were not supposed to be having communion there. It did not feel holy or Spirit filled. When we were walking down, I said to one of our leaders, “That was not really the sacred moment I expected.” He replied, “I bet the Last Supper was kind of like that, people interrupting Jesus, a bunch of people not really paying attention. It probably did not seem so holy at the time.” That resonated with me. The Holy Spirit (the presence of God) rarely looks the way we expect it to look. I am sure that the scene we heard about in Acts was absolute chaos. Many people walked away thinking, “Those people are fools. God could not possibly be present in such foolishness.” Perhaps even the disciples, upon whom the spirit had descended thought, “This can’t be what Jesus was telling us about. We need something more real, more permanent.” When we are stuck in our own expectations, we miss the fresh expressions of the Spirit. We miss opportunities for transformation. I was not there on that spirit filled Pentecost 2000 years ago. I think if I was, I would have been pretty annoyed. I like order and predictability. But I hope that I would have at least tried to be open to the crazy beauty that surrounded me. I hope that you will all strive for that openness as well. I love our liturgy and music in the Episcopal Church. But the Holy Spirit is far too big and unwieldly to be confined by our expectations. Thank God for that.