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I don't know if you've ever had the slightly embarrassing experience of having someone give you a gift, only to find out when you opened it, you did not have the foggiest idea what it was or what it was for. I mean, there you are: you're at the company Christmas party, or at a wedding shower, or at your birthday party, and someone hands you a gaily wrapped package. As you pull off the ribbon and the wrapping paper, all the eyes in the circle are on you. You open the box and there it is....
But is it a pencil sharpener or a coffee grinder?
...a scarf or a bread napkin?
... earrings or fishing lures?
Of course, the person who gave you the gift is looking at you with eager anticipation, as if to say, "Well, do you like it?" And finally, out of courtesy, you have to say something, so you say, "Oh, how could you have known? Thank you so much. I can really use a tire pressure gauge." Only to have a wounded voice say, "Tire gauge?! That's a meat thermometer!"
There is something of the same uncertainty and perplexity, in a much deeper sense, about Pentecost. You heard the story--the leaders of the early church all gathered in one place when suddenly there was the sound of rushing wind like a tornado, then tongues of fire appeared resting on every head, and each one of them began speaking the gospel in other languages. Here on Pentecost, in dramatic fashion, something has been given to the church, a gift from God. But when we open it up, what exactly is this gift? What is it for?
The gift is the Holy Spirit, of course. On Pentecost, God gave the church the gift of the Holy Spirit. And to be a part of the church is to say, "We have received the gift of the Holy Spirit." But when you take the wrapping paper off, what exactly is this gift of the Holy Spirit? Is it a pencil sharpener or a coffee grinder? Is it a tire gauge or a meat thermometer?
Some people are fascinated by the drama of this story. The power of the wind moving like a freight train through the congregation, of tongues of fire resting on people's heads. And they say, "Ah, I know what the gift is! The gift of Pentecost is the gift of energy and excitement in the church." Pentecost is God's way of shaking the moss off the church, blowing the cobwebs out of the sanctuary, and allowing electricity and excitement to energize the church.
Well, if that's the gift, God knows we need it. Some energy and some excitement in the church! I never will forget the Pentecost Sunday years ago when my family and I were at worship. My children were very small then; and on this particular Pentecost Sunday, the minister had decided to infuse a little drama into the reading of the Pentecost story in the Book of Acts. When he got to that part of the story about the wind blowing with a great sound, that was the secret cue for someone in the choir loft to turn on a tape recorder at top volume with the sound of a hurricane wind. My children were already a little bored by that point in the service, lazily coloring on their bulletins with crayons, but when the loud sound of that wind kicked up, they snapped to attention and began looking around the sanctuary.
When the minister read that part of the story about tongues of fire landing on people's heads, there were people planted in the congregation who had hidden in their purses and coat pockets little red, flashy pom-poms, which they now pulled out and started waving above their heads. When the minister got to the part about the apostles speaking in other languages some people in the congregation, some of them from Europe, some from Asia, some from Africa, stood up and began to speak in their own native tongues. At this point, of course, my children were practically standing on the pew and looking around. When the minister finished reading the passage, the choir began to lead us in a gentle rendition of "Breathe on me, Breath of God, fill me with life anew." And then we settled in (or so we thought) to hear the sermon, when suddenly a man stood up in the balcony and laughed rudely and raucously at the congregation, saying, "They must be drunk on new wine!" My children, now far from being bored, were beside themselves with excitement. When we left worship that day, my son David, who was just a little boy then, turned to me and said, "Wow, Dad! That was really church!"
Well, maybe so. If it's energy and excitement that we get as a gift on Pentecost, God knows we need it. Years ago, I was invited to a church to lead a workshop. Afterwards, I was being taken to the airport by one of the officers of the congregation. As we drove up the highway, he confided in me what he could not tell his own minister, that some Sundays he snuck away to a different church, a church where they sing scripture songs and speak in tongues and pray waving their hands over their heads. He told it to me sheepishly. "I shouldn't do it," he said. "After all, I'm an officer in my own church. But there's something about my church that strikes me as so boring."
Well, I understand. There is something weighty and heavy in the life of the church. I mean, if we're not talking about the stewardship program and how to balance the budget in these perilous economic times, we're talking about paving the parking lot, or settling an argument about guitars and drums in worship. And when we aren't bound up in those little disputes, we're trying to face staggering problems in the world like war and poverty and human sexuality. And it begins to weigh us down. Wouldn't it be nice to be lifted up and to have the life of the church flying like a flag, snapping in the powerful wind of the Spirit, with energy and excitement? Maybe that is the gift of Pentecost!
But wait a minute. Have you ever noticed where this story of Pentecost is positioned in the book of Acts? It's sandwiched in between two other stories. On one side is the story of the selection of an apostle to replace Judas. And on the other side is a story about the early church breaking bread, attending to the teachings of the apostles and trying to take care of the poor among their midst. In other words, the story of Pentecost is positioned right between the election of officers and struggling over programs of Christian education, worship, and service. Right between institution and mission. And whatever it is that we're given on Pentecost, it doesn't lift us out and up over these earthbound realities. It drives us more deeply in.
Well some other people have suggested that maybe the gift we receive on Pentecost today is the gift of power. After all, Jesus did say to the disciples, "When the Holy Spirit comes upon you, you shall receive power." And if it's power we receive this day, then God knows we need that, too. There used to be a time, you know, when the church had a certain kind of clout in the world, when it was viewed with respect and prestige. But gradually, it is being pushed to the margins. As one parent said, "There once was a time when the school wouldn't dream of having soccer practice on Sunday mornings. But that's gone."
Some years ago, the Wall Street Journal carried a story about a California congregation that went to the local zoning commission with plans for a new church building, only to be shocked to find in the meeting dozens of their neighbors protesting against the church's plans. As one of them said, "A new church building will just generate traffic and noise." Another said, "I don't want to get up in the morning and look out of my window and see a church. I want to see the mountains, not a cross." So they reached a compromise. The congregation redesigned their church so that it looked like a split-level house, like all the other houses on the street. And they placed a tiny cross discreetly over the doorway so that no one will be bothered by the church.
So maybe, just maybe, the gift we get at Pentecost is the gift of power, and God knows we need it. But wait a minute. Pentecost may give us power, but it's not ordinary power, not clout like the world's power. If there is power at Pentecost, it's more like the power of Jesus because it looks like weakness and vulnerability. Did you notice what the world did when the church manifested its Pentecostal gift? They poked each other in the ribs and said, "I don't know about you, but they look like they're drunk to me." That's strange power!
No, when all is said and done, the gift that we get on Pentecost is not the superficial gift of energy and excitement, an injection of artificial adrenaline. And it's not the kind of power that the world thinks of as power. The gift we get on Pentecost is the one gift we most desperately need and the world needs. Strangely enough, the gift of Pentecost is the gift of something to say, a Word to speak in the brokenness and tragedy of the world that is unlike any other word. Did you notice what happened to the church when the Spirit was given? It stood up and it spoke. It moved from silence to language. It talked and the whole world heard the good news in its own languages. As the prophet Joel said, "In the latter days, I will pour out my Spirit on all of humanity. And your sons and your daughters will prophesy." Your sons and your daughters will have a Word to speak, that life is stronger than death, that hope is deeper than despair, that every tear will be dried, and that in the power of Christ's resurrection, death and pain will be no more. That Word is our gift to speak.
When Dr. Elizabeth Kubler Ross was writing her famous book on death and dying, part of her research involved interviewing dying patients in the hospital, trying to find out how they felt and thought as they faced death. As she went from room to room in the hospital, she began to notice a remarkable pattern. Sometimes she would go into a dying person's room and the person would be calm, at peace, and tranquil. She also began to notice that often this was after the patient's room had been cleaned by a certain hospital orderly. One day, Dr. Ross happened to run into this orderly in the hospital corridor, and she said to her, "What are you doing with my patients?"
The orderly thought she was being reprimanded by the doctor, and she said, "I'm not doing anything with your patients."
"No, no," responded Dr. Ross. "It's a good thing. After you go into their rooms, they seem at peace. What are you doing with my patients?"
"I just talk to them," the orderly said. "You know, I've had two babies of my own die on my lap. But God never abandoned me. I tell them that. I tell them that they aren't alone, that God is with them, and that they don't have to be afraid."
There's the gift at Pentecost: a Word to speak in the brokenness and tragedy of the world, a word of good news and hope that is unlike any other word.
Many years ago, when I was the brand new pastor of a small church, I announced to my congregation one Sunday, "Next Sunday morning at ten o'clock, I'm going to start a pastor's church school class on the basics of the Christian faith. If you are new to the faith, or if you would like a refresher course in the faith, I invite you to join me next Sunday at ten."
The next week, I went to my classroom expecting to greet a throng, and I was immediately disappointed. There were only three elementary school children, three little girls, waiting on me for the class. I tried to hide my disappointment and over the next few weeks to do the best I could to teach them about the Christian faith. The week before Pentecost Sunday, I said to them, "Do you girls know what Pentecost is?"
They didn't. So, I said, "Well, Pentecost was when the church was seated in a circle and tongues of fire came down from heaven and landed on their heads and they spoke the gospel in all the languages of the world."
Two of the little girls took that rather calmly, but one of them got her eyes as big as saucers. And when she could finally speak, she said, "Reverend Long, we must have been absent that Sunday!"
The beautiful thing about that is not that she misunderstood. The beautiful thing is that she thought it could have happened in our church, that God's Spirit could have come even to our little congregation and given us a word to speak that the world desperately needs to hear.
Let us pray. O God our creator, the earth has many languages, but your gospel proclaims your love to all nations in one heavenly tongue. Make us messengers of this good news. Give us the gift of the Holy Spirit so that when we speak to our children and to those we love, and when we speak to our neighbors and to all the world, we will have something to say that brings hope and faith. In Jesus' name we pray, Amen.
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