Scripture: Acts 2:1-21; Pentecost
“Tom Long tells the story of a young girl about five years old who came to church on Pentecost with her parents. She was all dressed up for the occasion. When she came forward for ‘The Time with Children,’ her parents were sitting on the second row. The pastor told the story of Pentecost with the fire, the speaking in tongues, the earthquake—it was dramatic. As the pastor was in the middle of this dramatic story, the young girl stood up, looking toward her parents, put her hands on her hips, and in a loud whisper said, ‘I don’t believe a word of it!’” (quoted by Joseph S. Harvard III, Journal for Preachers, Pentecost 2019, p. 8).
I suspect we get where she’s coming from. Luke’s telling of the coming of the Holy Spirit stretches credulity, doesn’t it. It’s odd. Its images are so bizarre. But while you and I may get hung up on questions of historical likelihood, for Luke and the early church, those questions were next to irrelevant. They knew what we sometimes forget, that stories carry their own truths, truths that often lie beneath the surface.
As an inveterate reader of scripture myself, I have learned over the years that it’s not the facts or the history or the science that matters. That’s not what scripture is about. What matters is that God speaks to us in stories. When I was a child, and then later when Mary and I had our own children, one of my favorite books was Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat Comes Back. Some of you will remember the ridiculous scenes of a pink stain spreading from the bathtub to a dress to shoes to the snow and into all corners of the children’s lives as The Cat tries unsuccessfully to undo the mayhem he’s brought about. Could that scene really, literally, have happened? Of course not. But did it express something about the messes we make and the difficulties of righting our wrongs? And did it illuminate something of the delight that sometimes lurks in the depths of those messes we cause? Oh, did it ever!
Biblical stories work in somewhat the same way, only usually about situations and issues that are even more profound and crucial. Luke, who also wrote the gospel that bears his name, writes a subsequent volume in which he recounts the beginnings of the church that formed around the Spirit of the risen Christ. In the book of Acts, he tells story after story about the spread of this awareness of the presence of God. And, on a literal level, several of these stories aren’t really believable. At a deeper level, though, they tell us something that’s steeped in truth.
The story of Pentecost is likely the most well-known passage in the book of Acts. And for most of Christian history, the day of Pentecost has been acknowledged as probably the third most important day of the Christian year, following Easter and Christmas (or, in earlier times, Epiphany). The gift of the Spirit is that important. It’s like the yeast in the dough. It’s what makes us rise. It’s what gives us joy. It’s the vitality that lives within us and call us to serve in Christ’s name.
One of the looming questions, though, is: if that Spirit is so palpable, so present, why is there such division, such discord, even such hatred, almost wherever we turn? Where’s the Spirit in contemporary politics, for example—hard to see its presence when Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer are in the same room? What about between the U.S. and China or Iran? Maybe your brother-in-law just sets your teeth on edge, or you feel totally disrespected by your daughter, or your neighbor’s loud and distasteful music at odd hours just frosts you; is the Spirit present there? ’Cause it’s sure not obvious.
Nor is church immune, of course. We’re human beings, and we have different priorities sometimes, competing interests, conflicting views about what we need. We can be divided and disparate. Life together is not easy. And we have to figure out ways to traverse the gulfs between us.
So I imagine God creating human life, and saying to us essentially, ‘OK, listen up. Here’s both the challenge and the glory of human life. As human beings, I’ve made you incredibly diverse. You will have different colors and fears and languages and challenges and desires and religions and backgrounds. I’m going to put you all together in one pot, and you’re going to find a way to live together. And when you have challenges that may seem insurmountable, remember this: I’m giving you a Spirit that connects you to me and also to each other. Let that Spirit heal you and reconcile you. Let it be your connecting force.’
Our problem, so often, is that we fail to notice what sometimes seems to be the shy Spirit as it oh-so-subtly insinuates itself into our lives. Pentecost reminds us, though, that even in the midst of what separates us and tears us apart, there are whispers of the Spirit blowing in our midst. Our job is to notice its tendrils and to live in the Spirit-way.
One of the ways the Spirit makes itself known is through the innocuous-sounding first verse of the story. “When the day of Pentecost had come,” says Luke, “they were all together in one place” (Acts 2:1). “All together in one place.” In a world of proliferating electronic communication, it’s easy to forget the power of being in the same room. We can fire off blog posts and tweet storms and email blasts and do little or nothing to build any sense of unity. Being in the same space, though? Then there’s a chance for connection. There’s a chance to hear each other and to learn from each other and to grow together.
Sometimes being all together in one place happens figuratively. Just this week, for example, Ajit Pai, head of the Federal Communications Commission, said, “There is one thing in our country today that unites Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, socialists and libertarians, vegetarians and carnivores, Ohio State and Michigan fans: it is that they are sick and tired of being bombarded by unwanted robocalls” (http://plaindealer.oh.newsmemory.com/?publink=30c3b8d3a). Can I get an amen! In criticizing these incessant, disruptive, sometimes deceptive and dangerous calls, and in developing a new set of rules to block such calls, another FCC commissioner said, “We cannot [any longer] differentiate between unwanted robocalls and those that are from our doctor or kids’ school or pastor. We have broken the phone service in this country.” True, that! All together in one figurative space! Spirit!
Or this: David Von Drehle, a columnist for the Washington Post, wrote a piece this week in which he reflected on the role of the United States immediately following the Second World War. “In 1945, the United States, home to roughly 7 percent of the world’s population, produced more than one-third of the global economy.” Which, from one angle, sounds fabulous: what a dominating position to have! President Harry Truman, though, recognized what an inherently unstable situation that was. He and his advisors determined that it would be more productive to aid Germany and Japan in their rebuilding. The U.S. actually lost market share in the process, while its prosperity, counterintuitively, increased. Truman had concluded that “the best use of America’s extraordinary advantage was to rebuild European and Asian economies as quickly as possible, even though that would mean shrinking the U.S. share of global output.” Astonishingly, Germany and Japan grew to greater economic heights after the war than they had ever had before. And while the U.S. now had a smaller slice of the pie, the pie was now so much bigger that the U.S. economy boomed. The conviction of American leadership in those post-war years was that “a rising tide [would lift] all boats” (http://plaindealer.oh.newsmemory.com/?publink=4ba696455). All together in one global space. Spirit!
And interpersonally, the Spirit makes itself known, sometimes in the unlikeliest of situations, when we gather together in one place. Peggy Wehmeyer is a writer and TV commentator who once had an early morning job on an ABC affiliate in Dallas. She had to get up at 2:30 every morning to get to work, so she went to bed every night at 8:00. Her problem was her next-door neighbor. The neighbor had an irritatingly noisy Yorkshire terrier who ran free every night, and barked to its heart’s content—right outside Wehmeyer’s window.
“I asked my neighbor to please take her dog inside for the night. She ignored my request. . . . My resentment boiled like hot lava. . . . I lay in bed at night listening to the dog’s shrill bark and imagined all the ways I could silence it. It wasn’t pretty. . . . This woman who sang in church on Sundays, and on Mondays dreamed up ways to hurt her neighbor’s pet.
“Instead of silencing the Yorkie, my husband and I filed a noise complaint with the city. The court set a hearing date for Dec. 24. My neighbor, in retaliation, baited a trap on her property with cat food, lured my tabby over the fence and sent him to the pound.
“By the time my husband’s parents arrived for their Christmastime visit, I was obsessed. My in-laws were my heroes and spiritual mentors, so I asked them what they would do about the dog. ‘If you’re going to be a follower of Jesus,’ my father-in-law said, ‘you’ll love your enemy, not sue her.’
“[So finally, at the end of my rope, and hard as it was to do,] I walked reluctantly across the driveway dividing our houses, climbed the front steps and knocked on her door.
“My neighbor faced me with a steely grimace.
“‘What do you want?’ she asked.
“‘I came to apologize,’ I said. ‘I’m sorry I’ve ramped up this conflict by taking you to court on Christmas Eve. I don’t want to fight anymore. If there’s anything I can do to be a better neighbor, I hope you’ll let me know.’
“To surrender my peaceful night’s sleep left me feeling powerless, even humiliated. But as I watched the surprise register on my neighbor’s face, something else happened in me. I felt lighter, freer, released from an ugly burden. As our brief exchange ended, I glanced past her shoulder into her cluttered living room where a toddler sat coloring. My rage inexplicably gave way to compassion.
“A few weeks later, [my neighbor] Laura . . . crossed the driveway to knock on my door this time.
“‘You said you wanted to be a good neighbor,’ she said, looking at the floor. ‘I’ve run out of grocery money for the week, and I’m wondering if you could lend me enough to buy milk for my daughter. I can pay you back in a few days.’ . . .
“It wasn’t long before Laura and I began talking over the fence about our neighborhood and her little girl, . . . Kassie. She repaid the milk money, the dog stopped barking, and I came to know Laura as a bright and kind woman with a warm smile. Over time I learned she had been deeply wounded and that she struggled with mental illness, much like my own mother. She told me she had one friend, and it was me.
“When her brother died of AIDS, Laura came to my house on the day of his funeral and asked if I would listen to his favorite song with her. She didn’t want to do it alone.
“When the music ended, I was unsure of what to say. I reached for her hand and asked if I could pray for her. She nodded, teary-eyed.
“[Eventually we both moved from the neighborhood. Then two weeks ago, I learned she was in the hospital and close to death.] I rushed to the hospital. [She] had attempted suicide. I leaned over the bed, my face close to Laura’s.
“‘Laura, it’s Peggy, your friend, and I’m here,’ I whispered. ‘You’re not alone. I love you. God loves you.’
“[I read a psalm to her:] ‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.’ [I’ll never really know if she knew I was there.]
“What I do know is that as she died, Laura handed me a bittersweet gift. Years before we met, my mother, who also battled depression, had taken her life in the same way. She lived across the country. I couldn’t get to her in time to say goodbye. I never got to stroke my mother’s hair or remind her that she was loved.
“Now, a woman I once called my enemy was freeing me from that long-held regret and sorrow.
“Laura died that night. I’ll never forget her, nor the friendship that taught me that it’s likely to take much more than a better political candidate, cable news show or party platform to reverse the tide of hatred and revenge that is tearing this country apart. Maybe it will have to start with us, walking across the driveways that divide us and knocking on a door” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/religion/2019/05/31/i-hated-my-neighbor-then-one-lesson-led-life-changing-friendship/?utm_term=.31ed58d4231b).
As new members join us today, and as we honor our long-time members, we celebrate that the Spirit does indeed come. It blows where it wills (John 3:8), and it makes new, and it connects. And it happens, more often that we know, when we’re all together, in one place, listening for its sound and embodying its love. May it always be so.