Sermon preached for Pentecost Sunday at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church.
When Pentecost Day arrived, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound from heaven like the howling of a fierce wind filled the entire house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak.
There were pious Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. When they heard this sound, a crowd gathered. They were mystified because everyone heard them speaking in their native languages. They were surprised and amazed, saying, “Look, aren’t all the people who are speaking Galileans, every one of them? How then can each of us hear them speaking in our native language? Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; as well as residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the regions of Libya bordering Cyrene; and visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism), Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the mighty works of God in our own languages!” They were all surprised and bewildered. Some asked each other, “What does this mean?” Others jeered at them, saying, “They’re full of new wine!”
Peter stood with the other eleven apostles. He raised his voice and declared, “Judeans and everyone living in Jerusalem! Know this! Listen carefully to my words! These people aren’t drunk, as you suspect; after all, it’s only nine o’clock in the morning! Rather, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy.
Your young will see visions.
Your elders will dream dreams.
Even upon my servants, men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.
I will cause wonders to occur in the heavens above
and signs on the earth below,
blood and fire and a cloud of smoke.
The sun will be changed into darkness,
and the moon will be changed into blood,
before the great and spectacular day of the Lord comes.
And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.
One of my favorite characters from Shakespeare’s canon—and yes, I have a list—is the Lady Beatrice, co-star of Much Ado About Nothing. In a time of fainting maidens and vicious witches, Beatrice is sharp as a tack, huge-hearted, and sassy as all get out. She’s funny and independent and praised for it.
Early in the play, another character suggests she must have been born “in a merry hour.”
But Beatrice responds, “No, sure, my lord, my mother cried, but then there was a star danced, and under that was I born.”
It’s her way of telling this man that she’s more than just a funny girl. She’s a bit wild as well. She was born under a dancing star, and that makes her one, too.
Shakespeare was hardly the first to suggest that how and where and when we’re born somehow shapes who we become. Ancient literature is replete with birth omens, signs and symbols from the day of a hero’s birth that foretell what will happen to him. Heck, the whole concept of astrology—still printed in newspapers worldwide—is based on the idea that your personality is powerfully shaped by the exact position of the universe you are born into.
Even the authors of our scripture knew that birth stories are powerful. Our earliest gospel, Mark, doesn’t say anything about how Jesus was born. Luke and Matthew both set out to fix that oversight, and their stories are so different it’s hard to reconcile them, but they both make the point—Matthew with stars and Luke with angels—that this child is going to grow up to be somebody extraordinary. We can tell from Jesus’ birth that he’s headed for something special.
It’s a powerful idea, one that stretches across cultures and generations. It matters what’s going on when we’re born. It shapes who we’ll be.
And that’s why I love this story of Pentecost.
We call it the church’s birthday, and sometimes we celebrate it with songs and cake and party hats, and there’s nothing wrong with that—I repeat, there is nothing wrong with cake—but that’s not what the church’s day of birth was like. It wasn’t sweet and domestic and festive. It wasn’t birthday candles. It was birth day fire.
Listen again to what happened the day the church was born: “Suddenly a sound from heaven like the howling of a fierce wind filled the entire house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak.”
As far as birth omens go, this is a doozy. A church born of fire and wind? Surely it’s going to turn the world upside down.
I did not grow up in tornado country, and the first time I really encountered a storm of that force was on a mission trip to deep Appalachia. We were just getting ready to start for home when out of nowhere the sky went black. We’d later learn the word for it was derecho—as powerful as a tornado, but with straight-line winds instead of a funnel. We threw ourselves in our cars and made it about two miles before we realized Presbyterians are not dumb people, and we needed to get ourselves inside.
We found a little diner on the side of the road, closed but the owner was there and let us in. The noise of it was incredible, the winds like a freight train. The diner shook and rattled and they lost one window in the back. Trees cracked and snapped all around us and we were lucky none fell on us—or our cars.
There was fire too—flashes of sparks when the trees hit power lines. After the wind was over, and the air was suddenly so still, we could smell the burning. The power had long gone out, and the diner was dark inside, and each flash of fire made us jump even as it helped us see.
It was one of the more terrifying episodes of my life—but I also remember the sheer, pulsing powerof it. Even as terrifying, as dangerous as it was, it was also compelling, to share the universe with something as strong as that. When we stumbled out of the diner into the weird half-twilight, the road a mass of downed trees—I remember feeling like I’d entered a whole different world. And in a way, I had. The storm had thinned forests and rearranged outdoor furniture and splintered homes and gave a whole community a new word.
Now, every time it so much as gets breezy at home, someone starts crying derecho.
I haven’t thought about Pentecost the same way since.
God came as a storm at Pentecost, fierce and unpredictable and powerful. Came to uproot old ways of doing things and tear apart familiar structures. Came to blow the debris of other cultures and languages all over those disciples. Came to clear out any lingering hope they might have had that being God’s church was going to be an easy task.
The church was born in wind and fire. That’s our birth story. That’s the story that ought to shape who we are now. We ought to be as wild and searing and reckless and empowered and gusty and gutsyas our birthright demands.
And yet… well… when was the last time you thought of any of those adjectives when you drove by a church?
As mainline Protestants in North America, we have hidden ourselves from the storm of God’s spirit. Instead we have lifted up manners as our primary virtue and respectability as our ultimate goal. We have devoted ourselves to being decent and in order. We have prided ourselves that we can move invisibly in the world. We have lowered our voices to a whisper and then been surprised to find no one listening.
The Greek word for church is ekklesia, which means called out. Yet we have retreated inward, to our conferences and assemblies and sanctuaries, places where we feel powerful without actually having to face the world in which we are, by its standards, increasingly power-less.
In fact, we have confused our churches with our sanctuaries, and while it is a good and holy thing to have a sanctuary that is safe and quiet and where we can retreat to restore our souls, that is not all a church is meant to be.
Church was meant to be a group of people who go where the Spirit’s wind blows them, and shine bright with the Spirit’s fire, and speak bravely with the language the Spirit gives them. Church was meant to be a game-changer. Church was meant to be disruptive and loud and in the way. It was meant to be as radical as Jesus Christ himself. It was meant to welcome the unwanted and feast with the sinners and call out the hypocrites and bless the very people others wanted out of the way. It was meant to tear down the old temples of elitism and exclusivity and build a new community based on Jesus’ death-defying love.
I know why we shy away from the Spirit. It’s dangerous, and costly, and uncomfortable. Because if we get it wrong, we’re playing for high stakes. We’re putting our faith and our lives and our bodies on the line for what we believe, and very few of us have the energy to do that, day in and day out. So we send the fire away and ask God to send us something more manageable, like a once-a-week Sunday service and a few volunteer hours.
We don’t think we can handle the fire. We’re afraid it will consume us.
But if we remember the stories of our faith, we will remember that God is the fire that does not consume. God is the fire that burns, bright and wild and dancing, but does not destroy what it touches.
My newsfeed has been full of fire this week. Fire falling on Jerusalem and the people of Gaza, fire spewing forth in Hawaii, shots fired—again—in Texas. Everywhere fire burning up and burning out this brittle world, and people are eager for more, more fire to make them feel powerful, more firepower for their side. The world wants power, and it turns to fire, fire that does consume and destroy, and we are choking on the smoke.
And friends, if the church cannot respond with fire of its own, then we have no business pretending we have a mission to this world at all. If we cannot fight the firepower of the world with our own fire power—the Spirit’s fire power—fire that does not consume, that does not destroy, but that burns bright with proof of God’s love—then we might as well scratch the word church off our sign, because, like Esau, we have given up our birthright.
Friends, for years, for years now, God has offered us God’s spirit, offered us truth and wisdom and courage, and we have politely demurred. We have striven to be sweet and polite and inoffensive and unnoticeable and it has worked beautifully—now, almost no one notices us.
But it’s not too late. The Spirit is as pushy and persistent as anything and she is always ready to give you the power you need to lift your voice.
So, on this Pentecost Sunday, get fired up, church. I want you fired up. I want you fired up to tell people about what Jesus did for us. I want you fired up when you see God’s children treated like trash. I want you fired up when our students tell us they’re simply waiting around to be shot. I want you fired up when someone tells you violence is the only language those people understand. I want you fired up when you hear that malarkey in the world. I want you fired up and ready to speak the truth: that we are all vessels of the spirit, men and women, young and old, every color, every creed, that there isa group of people that truly believes love is not just a catchphrase but a way of life, that there is a place that still crackles with God’s presence and that that place is the CHURCH.
Quite simply, we were born for this. We were born to be fire and wind, reckless and wild and transformative. We were born to burn away what is deadly and blow away what is unjust. We were born to be the power of God—the very power of God—here on earth.
You have the fire in you. It is your birthright.
So let it burn.