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Blown Away

Sermon | Comments Off on Blown Away

May 20, 2018

Pentecost Sunday

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ (Acts 2:1-11)

“Come Holy Spirit!”, that is our prayer today on this day of Pentecost. “Come Holy Spirit!” But what is it that we are praying for? What does the Holy Spirit do?

Across time and space comes to us a story that is very strange. A story of a violent rushing wind, of a great noise, tongues of fire, of the speaking in many languages. What kind of a story is this? Is it a parable? Is it a vision? Is it the account of an actual historic event? Did something like this really happen? What kind of a story is this?

The story of Pentecost is a story that wants to bless us with astonishment and amazement, with dreams and vision, with mystery and imagination. This story wants to stir up something in us and to push us out of the safe nest, out of old certainties, into a wide world full of wonder and possibilities.

There are two sides to our relationship with God: one side is the side of safety, where God is the shelter in the storm, our comfort in affliction, our rock, our salvation, our sword and shield, our haven in times of trouble, our refuge and mighty fortress. But this safety is not the place where faith can grow and spread its wings. And so, we need to be transported into a wider world. That is exactly what the Spirit does: the Spirit comes as a storm and sweeps us up, and sets us down in new and surprising places.

It is like what happened to Dorothy and Toto in the story of the Wizard of Oz. In the Wizard of Oz a tornado strikes in the middle of Kansas, and then the storm picks up Dorothy and Toto, and their whole house, and sends them spinning in the air, and crashes them down in Munchkin land. Dorothy looks around and says: “Toto, I have a feeling we are not in Kansas anymore.”

When the Holy Spirit blows, and picks up our spiritual house, our church, we, too, might discover that we are not in Kansas anymore. And then the Holy Spirit drops us down in astonishing places, and we rub our eyes and look around full of wonder.

The Book of Acts is full of stories in which the believers suddenly find themselves in new places, with new people, and cultures very different from their own. Philip, for example, was picked up by the Holy Spirit and transported into the desert where he meets a Eunuch traveling back home to Ethiopia. Peter is summoned to the palace of Cornelius, a Roman military officer in Caesarea. Can you imagine Peter, a simple fisherman from Galilee, suddenly surrounded by the splendor of a Roman Villa, and face to face with a powerful representative of the occupation force? That’s what the Holy Spirit does!

The Holy Spirit drags us into places and circumstances where people do not necessarily look like us, or think like us, or eat like us, or dress like us, or believe what we believe. If the Holy Spirit puts a Galilean fisherman in the home of a Roman occupier, what else might the Holy Spirit do?

These activities of the Holy Spirit are not meant to frighten us, but to open our eyes, to enlarge our vision, to give us a technicolor version of what our faith could be. The Holy Spirit drops us down in all kinds of new and surprising places and says: Here you go! Look, around! Isn’t this exciting?

We find ourselves in this beautiful city of San Francisco, among people of many faiths and no faith at all – Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Atheists, Humanitarians, and skeptics. We find ourselves among people of many stripes and many walks of life – venture capitalists, artists, chiropractors, musicians, athletes, activists, homeless, seekers, healers, visionaries, innovators. Those are the modern-day version, if you will, of Parthians and Medes and Elamites, residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, Libya, and visitors from Rome.

And now that we find ourselves amidst all these colors and flavors and stripes, what do we do? This is the big question. Sometimes we get anxious. I see this happening often during gathering of pastors. We begin to worry about the future of the church when there are so many options and alternatives. Sometimes we Christians worry vaguely whether we should somehow speak of our faith, but how? We want to respect the faith of others. We don’t wish to offend, and so we say nothing.

Perhaps we are making it more complicated than it needs to be. Perhaps a good first step would simply be to explore this world beyond Kansas, to reach out to the modern-day version of the Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, make friends, watch and listen, wonder and observe. And then we might discover that in the midst of all this diversity we speak a common language, a human language. We might discover that people whose life is very different from our own, share with us a hunger for justice, a longing for community, a dream of peace.

Faith leaders often lament that we live in an increasingly secular age. But I find that this so-called ‘secular age’ is full of people who live thoughtful and compassionate lives, people who care deeply for their neighbors and for the earth. There are people in 12 step programs committed to the hard and deeply spiritual work of recovery; people in community gardens who care for the environment, people who volunteer in soup kitchens; people who pick up trash at the beach. In this secular city we can find many people who are generous and kind, who act from a place of compassion, who reach out in love and seek to heal what is broken.

When I walk in my neighborhood in Oakland I see many signs in store windows and in front yards that say things like:

We love all our neighbors.

Refugees and immigrants welcome here!

No matter where you are from, we are glad you are our neighbor.

People who place these signs may be people of faith or not, they may be rich or poor, but across these divides we have a common language that says: life is sacred; compassion matters; neighbors are loved.

It is as if the Holy Spirit is saying: Open your eyes, look around, see what God is doing in the world! You may find that the work of God is done in many languages, in many way, in many forms, in many traditions. God is far greater than any one tradition. God is greater and more astonishing than we imagine.

And instead of asking the Holy Spirit to come into our church, perhaps we will discover that the Holy Spirit is calling us out of the church and into a beautiful technicolor world, a world swirling with possibilities. The Holy Spirit is calling us to reach out, hand to hand with our neighbors, and join the dance.