A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor – Copyright 2016 – All Rights Reserved
Pentecost Sunday • May 15, 2016
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
[William B. Yeats / The Second Coming]
It would be easy to imagine Yeats writing those words today instead of 1919. He captured the feeling of a culture so shattered there was no where to turn. So many feel that way today. One reaction is to fortify old values. Fundamentalists, whether Christian or Muslim or Jewish have this in common: they’re building castles to defend the past by preventing change. Of course, all castle walls can eventually be breached. So a better solution is to go back and find among the jumble of our past those things that truly made life vibrant and rich. I think that’s what Luke was doing when he wrote his gospel and the book we call Acts. He wrote fifty years or so after the events. Christians were in conflict in many places, some with local authorities, many with Jewish friends and family. Their world was changing. In the midst of change, Luke wanted to remind them how they started, where they started, why they started.
Birth stories can do that. It’s customary in our family to tell the story of your birth on your birthday. On our anniversary, Jacquelyn and I get out our wedding pictures and our wedding service and talk about it and laugh. So Luke tells this story about the moment the church got up and got going: Pentecost—POW!
Remember the story? The Christians are met in a room. Suddenly there a rushing, wind sound. Suddenly there are tongues of fire. Suddenly—there is the Holy Spirit and they’re full, full to the brim, with the Spirit and they begin to do something almost unimaginable: they talk to outsiders. I want to congratulate our liturgist today because this is the reading liturgists hate to get, the one with all those hard names.
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.
Who are all these people? They’re everyone: everyone Luke can think of, every sort of everyone and these first Christians are talking to all of them and the Christians are talking their language. POW! Surprise: isn’t it always a surprise when someone speaks yours language, really gets you, and you get them?
There’s a lot to learn here about taking a church from a little group meeting in a room to the crowds outside. The first thing, maybe the most important thing, is that it starts with waiting, not doing. Before Pentecost, before Christ’s Ascension, Jesus tells his friends to wait until the Spirit comes. There’s an old Supremes song that says, “You can’t hurry love, you just have to wait” [The Supremes/1966] Moses didn’t immediately lead the Exodus after running away from Egypt; he had to wait until the Spirit came to him. Isaiah and Jeremiah both tell stories of an experience that called them out as prophets, they didn’t start out that way. So the first thing to learn about what creates a vibrant church life is to wait: wait, prayerfully, expectantly, for the Spirit to move.
But waiting isn’t napping. Jesus says in many places we are meant to wait expectantly. Have you ever counted down to something? Have you ever had to deal with someone counting down? Maybe it was a special day: Christmas or your wedding or a birthday; maybe it was the birth of a child. I remember a friend who was hugely pregnant and ready to deliver once getting impatient. Holding her belly after church one day, she looked down and said, “Out! It’s time to come out!” We’re meant to wait like a runner at the start line: ready to explode into action. We’re meant to wait like a kid waiting for the parents on Christmas morning: certain something wonderful is just about to happen. We’re meant to wait like a traveler coming home, smiling already anticipating the hugs of home.
If the first lesson of the Pentecost story is Wait, the second is—Wake up! Wake up to God’s call, wake up to Christ’s command to go to all nations, all people, wake up to the Spirit blowing through your life.
That group in the room? They’ve been waiting. This is the moment they wake up and they walk out. That’s the third lesson here: Wait, Wake up, Walk out.
We were never meant to sit inside sanctuaries repeating Jesus’ words to ourselves. That’s not what he does, what he does is go, what he does is walk out into the world. Before Christians were called Christians, they called their new faith “The Way”. Now ‘way’ meant not a way of doing things, it meant a road, a path, a journey forward, onward. The Pentecost story moves from a little room where Jesus’ people are huddled together out into the market place where there are all kinds of people and these Christians, these first Christians, talk to them in their own language. That means they have to translate, they have to help them understand with things they already know, that God is not up there on the judgement seat but walking with them like a parent holding onto a kid doing their first bike ride, wanting them to learn, trying to prevent the worst falls, ready to bandage up skinned knees.
Wait – Wake – Walk
This story of Pentecost is a Children’s Time story. It’s a reminder in a few words, a few symbols, of the fire at the heart of Christian life. You can’t kindle it on your own: you have to wait for the Spirit to do that. It calls us to wake up and then to walk out in the world. That takes some courage; doesn’t every good thing? Today, we’re meeting in a room, just like them. Today, we’re sharing communion, just like them. Today, we’re waiting for the Spirit to kindle us, just like them. And the sign of that kindling will be when we begin to walk out and talk to people about the love of God and the immeasurable value of knowing Jesus Christ and invite them to come worship with you, right here. Wait for the Spirit: wake up to God’s call. Walk out there into your world and share God’s love this week. It’s children’s time and you and I are the children of God.