May 23, Pentecost Sunday, Year C
All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”
Ask your average mainline Christian what Pentecost is all about, and you’re likely to hear answers like these:
“It’s the day we celebrate the birthday of the church.”
“I don’t know.”
“Uh, it has something to do with wearing red and geraniums.”
“We usually have confirmation on Pentecost Sunday.”
“Wasn’t that when the Holy Spirit descended on folks with wind and fire, and everyone started talking in different languages?”
“Hmmm, I don’t know. Does it have to do with the Tower of Babel?”
“We have to switch the paraments to red, don’t we?”
The list could go on and on detailing, memories, events of the day, and simply not knowing or understanding what Pentecost is really all about and what it means to the church today. So whether you’re charged this Sunday with preaching in the assembly, delivering a children’s sermon or facilitating children’s church, reading the lessons, directing the choir, or providing Christian education, it might be useful to spend some serious time thinking about this topic and about how you will communicate this amazing story and audacious hope to a congregation or a class or a choir.
My hunch is that most folks won’t come expecting anything out of the ordinary. They will come from their usual contexts–duty, hope, need, desire, pain, boredom, (you name it, it’ll be there)–to be fed a morsel of hope and bread and to gulp a little wine and courage. Individual and corporate history will figure into the mix, too. If it does happen to be Confirmation Sunday, folks will come with cameras, cards, relatives, and expectations–along with the itchy foot to get on with family celebrations.
So how do we talk about that day when the Spirit breathed into a gathered group new hope, new life, and new understanding? How might we ignite verbal tongues of flame for the Great Commission into the jaded and fearful minds of a people living in tumultuous times? What hope do we have of inspiring that spirit of commonality and understanding that marked the infant church on Pentecost?
Our challenge as leaders and co-workers in the in-breaking reign of God is to allow the Holy Spirit room to work. We must avoid at all costs “boxing” the Spirit into a neat, convenient 10 minute homily or 20 minute sermon. God will not be contained, and part of our task is to point to that holy mystery, Spirit-filled wildness, and sacred ordinariness that marks life in the Spirit.
To that end, I leave you with three thoughts/images to begin your prayerful discernment and preparation: breath, community, and a goose.
I’ve always been fascinated with the Hebrew word for the Spirit (ruach) which generally means wind, breath, mind, Spirit. I like the sound of the word–guttural, breathy, and earthy–and its relationship to creativity, redemption, and empowerment. If you’ve ever been beneath a flock of birds in flight, then perhaps you know the feel of “ruach.” I don’t envision it as a delicate, airy beat of the hummingbird, although I’m sure the Spirit can work like that, but rather as the powerful, unsettling rush of an entire flock of large birds right above one’s head. How is the work of the Spirit both like our unconscious respirations and the powerful beating of a wild wing?
What of community? We tend to take this image and make it a glib one or at least a cleverly packaged one. How do we make “community” inclusive? Look at the description of the vastness of the community in Acts 2. Most of our Sunday morning gatherings do not reflect that sort of diverse community. Is it possible to envision community as expansive as the circles of disruption after a stone has been thrown into water? Through the Spirit, might we understand one another and hear each other’s language, seeing visions and dreaming dreams of God’s reign for everyone?
Finally, I commend to you a goose. No, I’m not going to leave you with some dainty, white dove delicately descending with gentleness and peace. I leave you with a wild, honking, somewhat obnoxious, long-necked goose, uncontrollable goose in the spirit of Celtic Christianity. It seems that those early Christians from the British Isles had a pretty good grip on the Spirit of God with the image of the goose. If you’ve ever been chased by a goose or dive-bombed by one, then you have some idea about what I’m speaking. I hope that if you find yourself singing that lovely hymn “Spirit, Spirit of Gentleness” this Sunday, you’ll find yourself both inspired by the words and left with the wry, delightful image of the goose honking right along with your song.
Remember, on that first Pentecost the skeptics and the cynics accused the believers of being drunk on new wine, so it must have been quite a sight. Others were amazed and filled with wonder. Whatever the response it wasn’t boredom! The question is the same: “What does this mean?” Go now and seek answers; fan some flames and make way for the Spirit of God to do something amazing with you, through you, and in you. Let the church say “Amen.”