I have no idea if you've ever been to church on Pentecost Sunday. Maybe you came across this program by accident. Pentecost may be a word you never use. Is it anything like the Pentagon? Well, not exactly. But there's a clue in that first part. Pentagon - a five-sided military building in Washington. Pentecost - five times 10, that is, 50 days after Easter. But that's really the end of the similarity. If you've never been to church on Pentecost or if you've been lots of times, I invite you to imagine what it might be like.
We'll sit up here in the balcony, which is where most of the high school kids are sitting. Look around. You'll see lots of red today. There are red cloths on the altar; the preacher is wearing a red stole. Even some of the members are wearing red. There's a woman in a red dress and some with red scarves around their necks. There's a little girl with red shoes and a boy with red suspenders, and several of the men are wearing red ties.
All this red reminding people of the flames of fire that appeared over the disciples' heads in the Book of Acts. Now, everybody is standing up to sing the opening song. Stay with me now, even though we can't hear the music. When it's time to read the Scripture lesson, several people get up. The minister has asked them to read in their own languages. A man from the Dominican Republic reads in Spanish. A woman who came from Tanzania a few years ago reads in Swahili. An elderly man reads from his own German Bible. A new member from Haiti reads in French-well, you get the picture.
In some churches, people will be so moved by the Spirit that they'll begin to speak in tongues that no one can understand. That's a great mystery, but it's not really what was happening in this story. On that first Pentecost, the disciples were given the power to speak in actual languages so that everyone who had come to Jerusalem could understand. Once, I heard a preacher talk about it this way. People from all over the world who had come to Jerusalem for the festival were surprised to hear someone speaking their own language so far from home. Parthinians stuck their heads through the door of the house expecting to see other Parthinians, and Libyans looked around for other Libyans. But what they saw instead were a bunch of Galileans, rural types from northern Israel dressed in the equivalent of first-century overalls, all of them going on and on about God's mighty acts like a bunch of PhDs in Middle-Eastern languages. Well, that's what it was like that day in Jerusalem.
Now let's listen in to a different preacher as we look down from the balcony. We'll just imagine what the preacher might be saying. Lifting up the words of the prophet Joel, "In those days I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh. Your sons and your daughters will prophesy."
"Did you hear that?" the preacher asks. "Do we ever ask our sons and our daughters to prophesy here in this church, or do we only expect them to listen to us?" Well, this gets the attention of the high school kids who are sitting up here in the balcony with us. "That's not the end of it," says the preacher. "Your elders will see visions, and your youth will dream dreams."
The man with the German Bible lifts up his head and sits up a bit taller in the pew. Some of the high school kids start giggling, not sure they want to tell anybody about their dreams. "There's still more," says the preacher. "Even on my slaves, both women and men, I will pour out my Spirit and they shall prophesy." The preacher pauses and looks around the church. "I think I know what you're thinking," he says. "We don't have any slaves, but we sure do have our ways of looking down at people, don't we? Who cares for our toddlers when we go off to work? Who tends to our elderly parents in nursing homes? Who washes the dishes when we've spent more than we imagined at a fancy restaurant?"
Well, by the time the sermon has ended, people are thinking about that, thinking about people they never listen to, people they never think could be prophets. After the sermon everybody stands up and sings, "Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me." They're still singing as people begin to get up from their seats and move toward two large baskets at the front of the church. Several have bought in their stock portfolios signed over to the church. Others have sold their homes. They're putting the checks in the baskets. The high school kids get up, pull up their jeans, and walk down from the balcony. One has his graduation money. He really wanted a new iPod but brought the money here instead. Another sold the car her parents gave her. She figured she could use her old bike. And, well, you get the picture. The people sold their possessions and brought them to the church. Later on, the deacons will consider the needs of everyone in the congregation and the neediest folks in the community. Then, they'll divide up the proceeds until there's not a needy person among them.
Wait a minute, preacher! You are making this up. No. I've seen everything I've just described except the last part. I've seen people dressed in red. I've heard Bible readings in lots of languages and songs about the Spirit. I've heard powerful preaching. I've seen all of that. But I've never seen the last part, the part about selling possessions. Oh, I've seen people give offerings. I've given some myself, but I've never sold all my possessions to share with the community. No, I made that part up. Well, that's not quite true. I didn't make it up. The part about selling possessions comes at the very end of the Pentecost story. We usually stop reading before we get to that part. Come down from the balcony with me and listen to how this chapter of Acts ends.
"All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous heartsÃ¯Â¿Â½." Now, these aren't the verses people are likely to quote when they talk about taking the Bible literally. We usually read these verses in Acts with lots of qualifications. "Those people lived at a much simpler time," we say. Or "That was a very small community, probably a house church and sharing possessions wasn't so hard." Or "Who could ever trust the deacons or the church board to be fair in the distribution?" These verses about sharing possessions are often dismissed as nostalgia. Or perhaps their communal sharing came from the exuberance of Pentecost day. They didn't quite know what they were doing. But if we keep reading, we'll hear almost the same verses two chapters later.
"Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul. And no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common." "There was not a needy person among them, and as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold."
Pentecost often ends too soon. The first part of the story is thrilling. The sound of a mighty wind. The tongues of fire. People from all over the Roman Empire hearing their own languages spoken by ordinary Galileans. The promise of the Spirit poured out on young and old, including slaves, both women and men. Pentecost means all of that. As the story goes on, Peter stands up to preach, and he preaches such a powerful sermon that over 3,000 people are baptized. Pentecost means all of that too. But Pentecost ends too soon if it has nothing to do with possessions, with wealth and poverty, with what we call economics. Economics is from the Greek word oikos, which means household. How do we live together in God's household? Well, I know economics is a subject so complicated that our eyes glaze over at the mention of the word. But God is very interested in economics, about what we do with our possessions and portfolios.
* A Pentecost church will reach out to people of every language and tongue.
* A Pentecost church will call young and old, women and men to prophesy.
* A Pentecost church will preach and baptize, but the story always ends too soon if a Pentecost church isn't concerned about economics.
A few years ago I talked with a friend of mine who's a pastor in New England. "How's your building program going?" I asked. "Oh, we ran out of money before we got to the worship space," she said. I thought to myself, "What could be more important than the worship space?" But I kept my thoughts to myself. "We renovated the basement," she said. "You know, we have a shelter there for homeless men. We put in new showers and renovated the old kitchen. The basement was so drab, and the showers-well, there was only one shower and it was lousy. On the Sunday before the shelter opened, the worship service began as usual in the sanctuary. When it came time for communion, the people carried the bread and the cup downstairs to the basement. The whole congregation gathered around the empty beds. They passed the bread and the cup around the circle. The body of Christ given for you. That night the shelter beds were full, and the worship space still needed a lot of work." The church calendar still said it was the first Sunday of Advent. But people in that congregation knew that Pentecost wasn't over. Pentecost shaped their life together, and it had everything to do with economics.
Whether you're hearing about Pentecost for the first time or the fiftieth, don't miss the last part of the story. Let's make sure that Pentecost doesn't end too soon.
Let us pray.
Come, Holy Spirit. Come as mighty wind or gentle breath. Blow on the embers of our faith. Empower us to speak and to act so that there might come a day when there is not a needy person among us. Amen.