Sunday, May 19, 2013

"Filled"


Sermon Text – Acts 2: 1-21

It’s Pentecost. I usually get really excited about Pentecost. I grew up in a church where most people wore red to church on this particular Sunday and I always thought that was fun. We celebrated it as “the birthday of the Church” and who doesn’t love a good birthday party? I’ve always been a big fan of the Holy Spirit. I love the wild and wacky and wonderful story of the early followers of Jesus speaking in tongues. And I almost always giggle at that line in the story about the folks not being drunk because it was too early in the morning. Pentecost is an “up” kind of day and it comes at the end of the great season of Easter, my favorite season of the church year.

But I really struggled this week to get my head into the Pentecost game. I even wrote to my colleagues in an online UCC clergy group that I’m a part of, asking them what it is they love about Pentecost. I got some good answers, like this one from a colleague in Ohio: “The beautiful Divine chaos and power that comes through the Holy Spirit. Plus, it's the biggest church holiday that's not commercialized. For those of us who like to dream big, this is the day that gives us energy.”

My friends’ answers helped me remember what I love about Pentecost, at least on an intellectual level. But something still felt off.

The thing is, I don’t feel like partying right now. And I kind of dreaded coming to church this morning because I’m just not in the mood for a party. Do you ever get like that? Where your feelings just don’t match up with the occasion?

About a month ago, I attended a day long conference at the Earlham School of Religion with world-renowned theologian Peter Rollins. Jamie and Joe from our congregation went to the event, too. After one of Rollins’ sessions, I said to Jamie and Joe, “So, as far as I can tell, his entire theology can be summed up like this: everything is really really terrible, and that’s okay.”

Rollins would argue that we, in the Church, have historically done a poor job of allowing people to bring the fullness of themselves to our sanctuaries, classrooms, and fellowship halls. Rollins says that we need to acknowledge the brokenness inherent in the human condition and, instead of trying to fix it, just sit with it and honor it as a vital part of what it means to be human.

My three-year-old was looking at his picture Bible this week and said to me, “Mama, why is there a picture of someone throwing stones at someone else in the Bible? That’s bad! That shouldn’t be in the Bible.” And so I explained to him that there are lots of bad things in the Bible. He wanted to know why, of course, so I told him it’s because the Bible tries to capture the whole realm of human experience and that includes happiness and sadness, niceness and meanness, brokenness and wholeness. He then asked me to tell him about “more bad stuff” so he could understand everything about being human. Somehow these little theological pep talks with my kid never go the direction I’m hoping they will go.

But I think he understands, on a deep level, what Rollins understands. Namely, that we don’t all feel like partying all the time. And instead of shoving another drink in our hand, turning up the music, and encouraging us to get out on the floor and dance, the Church should really consider honoring the full realm of human experience: happy and sad, nice and mean, broken and whole. I am convinced that God can see us and sit with us when we are all of these things. And if God can do it, then the Church is called to do it, too.

Let’s look at the actual text for a minute. Despite the party-like atmosphere of Pentecost in many contemporary churches, it’s not as if all the followers of Jesus were gathered together for a party when the original Pentecost story happened. So far in the book of Acts, two things have happened. First, Jesus has left the building. After popping in and out for forty days after his execution and resurrection, he has finally ascended into heaven, leaving the disciples with the heavy lifting in his absence. When they take a moment to gaze up at the sky, likely feeling shocked, bereft, and shaky, two heavenly beings command them to stop lollygagging around. Second, the disciples have taken care of a piece of administrative business. Judas, the one who betrayed Jesus, has died in a freak accident and the disciples needed to elect someone to replace him.

Immediately after Matthias is elected to join the group, we learn that the day of Pentecost has come and that they were all together in one place in Jerusalem. Out of nowhere, a rush of a violent wind comes and fills the home where they are sitting. The Greek gets pretty funky here and it seems to be impossible for the author of Acts to convey what exactly took place, but somehow everyone present is filled with the Holy Spirit and begins to speak in various languages. As the roar of their voices grows louder and louder, they command the attention of their neighbors. Jews from all over the known Earth come to the house because they are so surprised to hear their own languages being spoken. They are astounded and scoff at the followers of Jesus, supposing them to be filled with new wine.

But they aren’t filled with new wine at all. This isn’t really a party atmosphere. What we have here is a group of grieving, lost people. They have lost their friend and leader twice now. Once to death on a cross and a second time to a heavenly ascension. They are left behind, quite literally, and trying to figure out what to do next. You could describe them as broken, empty, confused, unsure.

And then, suddenly, with no warning whatsoever, the Holy Spirit shows up. And just like that, they are filled. The house is filled with a rush of wind. The disciples are filled with the Spirit. They are filled to overflowing and, finally, Peter can no longer contain himself. He raises his voice and speaks out, borrowing his sermon extensively from the book of Joel. Peter asserts that this gift of the Spirit has been poured out upon them so that they can see visions, dream dreams, and prophesy. Peter believed that this is a sign that the Lord’s great and glorious day is coming soon and that all who have need will be made whole.

In spite of their emptiness, brokenness, fear, uncertainty, grief, and sadness the disciples are visited by the Holy Spirit. In fact, I think it may be because of their emptiness, brokenness, fear, uncertainly, grief, and sadness that they are especially good candidates for being filled with the Spirit and called forth into a new way of being.

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul writes that the fruit of the spirit is love, peace, forbearance, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These things may all be true, but the Holy Spirit is a multifaceted old girl and I tend to think that in this particular passage she shows up as the Sustainer.

When we’ve hit rock bottom and we’re not sure how to get back up, the Holy Spirit is there filling in the empty places and propping us up so we can continue to stand. When the phone call comes and the voice on the other end says the dreaded word “cancer,” the Holy Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. When depression sets in; when the argument with someone we love feels too big to heal; when we have no idea where our life is headed; when the one we can’t possibly live without has ascended to heaven; when our hatred of ourselves seems too real to overcome….the Holy Spirit is there, quietly and mightily sustaining us.

There is a balm in Gilead, to make the wounded whole.
There is a balm in Gilead, to heal the sin-sick soul.
Sometimes I feel discouraged and think my work’s in vain,
But then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again.

Pentecost is the advent of the Spirit in our midst. And Pentecost is not a one-time event. Preaching professor David Lose reminds us that Pentecost – that outpouring of the Holy Spirit – happens several times in the Book of Acts alone. Just remember Philip’s baptism of the man from Ethiopia; or Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus; or Peter’s encounter with Cornelius that we read a few weeks ago, when he discovered God had much wider plans for the followers of Christ than anyone had previously imagined.

In all of these cases, the Spirit comes along and breaks things wide open. The Spirit comes to places of great emptiness and longing and brokenness and rushes in like a mighty wind. And the gift of the Spirit is one of sustenance. The Spirit is a not a “fixer” – wielding his power to deftly wipe away any and all problems. The Spirit’s method is, at once, wild and gentle. The Holy Spirit comes like a straight-line wind in a big field at the beginning of the storm, knocking us off our feet with surprise. But the Holy One also comes in a spirit of gentleness. There is a great hymn about that, “Spirit, spirit, spirit of gentleness, blow through the wilderness, calling and free.”

The Holy Spirit somehow manages to fill up our empty places while still honoring our brokenness. She says to us, “I can see how hard this is for you right now. I will accompany you in your pain. I will fill you and together we will find a way to move forward.”

In the Pentecost story in Acts 2 the Holy Spirit does an astounding thing. It comes to this despairing group of people, who are totally caught up in their own grief and loss. And instead of taking away their grief or throwing a party, the Spirit moves within them and opens them up to the wide world around them. The Spirit gives them words that the world needs to hear. The Spirit brings a new community to them and enables them to converse freely with people who had previously been strangers. In short, the Holy Spirit enables them to meet their neighbors right where they are and speak a word of Good News to them.

This is astounding! These people, who have lost so much, are the ones called upon and equipped to share the Gospel with strangers. They are called out of themselves into a place of deep unity with the world around them. Folks, if this is what Pentecost means, then sign me up for a big ol’ slice of it because I need something that can call me out of my own despair from time to time. I need something that can fill me up and make me forget my troubles. I need something that can empower me to go out on a limb and forge new relationships with people I previously had not noticed.

And this is what the Church needs, too. If the Church is to continue to do what Jesus charged us with in the beginning of Acts – to be his witnesses to the ends of the Earth – then we need the Holy Spirit to sustain us, fill us, equip us, and embolden us to be bearers of Jesus Christ to our neighbors. Not in spite of our emptiness and brokenness but because of it. I believe God has a gift for with brokenness. God has a way of moving into the cracks and fissures left behind when life has beaten us down. With Pentecost, we hear the promise that the Spirit has come, is coming, and will always come to fill us. In times of joy and – perhaps most especially – in times of deepest despair, the Spirit comes to sustain us. This is the Gospel of Pentecost.