The sermon for week May 27, 2012
A funny thing happened to Kate and me when we were searching for a church back in 2004. Let me back up and get a running start at this.
We had moved to the DC area in the winter of 2004 our wedding. My company had a location in Vienna, Virginia, and I passed this little church with a funky modern 1960s style building countless of times. I always noticed the sign. It had messages that were funny… relevant… memorable. Saying strange things like “God is still speaking” and “Never place a period where God has placed a comma” But I never stopped in.
It was Kate who had the idea to start going to church. I was content just reading about the various world religions and learning how to sell stuff--emphasis on the “sell.” I really wanted nothing to do with church because we all know that Christians are crazy. I didn’t want anything to do with Catholicism anymore as I’d been burned there. I wasn’t so sure about those Protestants either. I thought they were all crazy Pentecostal types, all about cheap emotional thrills and rolling around on the ground with snakes trying to replicate the experience of the first Pentecost. Yet I trudged along checking out various churches--you name it, we tried it. I knew deep-down that we needed a community. A local community to volunteer with and make friends in, and to help us get to know the area better. None of these churches seemed right; something was off at each one.
We attended a mega-church where they raised their hands during the rock music before the sermon, and then during the sermon they hooted and hollered and clapped about all the blood in the Passion of the Christ. We tried the Christian Scientists where the best I could figure out they read from the Bible and then read from a woman’s book written at the turn of the last century where she claimed there was no such thing as matter. I left angry, Kate left bored out of her skull. Every church we visited, it was as if they were speaking some other language. That there was a holy prerequisite knowledge we simply didn’t have or some mindset that we didn’t fit. Something was missing at every one, if there was a good sermon they lacked outreach and social justice.
I was somewhat relieved at this as it confirmed what I thought I knew about church. Yet Kate is persistent.
Then we visited that little church with the funky building I’d driven past every day on my way to work. We visited on children's Sunday, and they did a great job with the parable of the sower; really mining the depths and many meanings. “If this is the youth Sunday sermon,” I thought to myself, “I wonder what the other sermons are like?”
After the service, we got ice cream sandwiches. The people weren't too pushy and seemed happy to have us. Like in every other church we had gone to, on our way out the door an older gentleman stopped us to presumably press for membership. I read his name tag, Skip Wolfe. Skip asked how we liked the children's play and said that not all Sundays were like this. We thanked him for the ice cream sandwiches and said we'd enjoyed ourselves, and then we braced for the part where Skip would guilt us into returning or put us in charge of something so we would have to come back. Skip said simply, "We hope you come back. Finding a church is like a relationship, you'll just know when it's right." Then he walked away. We were floored. In the car on the way home Kate said, "That's exactly what my church would say." And we joined Emmaus United Church Christ in the summer of 2004. We've been hooked ever since.
At that moment, Skip unknowingly set off a minor Pentecost for Kate and me. He transformed us into church members. Then the community of Emmaus, over the course of the next 3 years transformed what it means to be Christian. It was a complete and radical change, so much so that because of that Pentecost, I stand before you today.
There was no rushing of wind. There were no tongues of fire resting on our heads. We did not return to our condo and start preaching to our diverse neighbors in their native tongues. We may have called our parents and told them excitedly what we had found and they might have wondered if we were drunk, but that detail escapes my memory. Here’s what I know: The Spirit came to us that day, and spoke the words that we could hear, and we were amazed and perplexed and we said to one another, “What does this mean?” And we still ask ourselves that on our journeys of faith quite often.
Theologian Kristin Saldine states that “the miraculous gifting of the Spirit to the church in Acts can be a dispiriting passage to read about year after year. The contemporary church does not much resemble the early church. Even the most faithful Christian will occasional express a nagging feeling that the church is a sorry shell of its awe-inspiring birth, that somehow the church has lost its thunder, that it no longer acts with conviction, that schisms and infighting have stripped it of its unity and vitality” (Saldine 2).
We read time and time again of the closing of churches, of the end of Christendom, and the ever-increasing secularization of culture. Even the most encouraging signs of spiritual growth, church renewal, and evangelism seem lukewarm/halfhearted compared to Pentecost’s infectious energy. How can we ever measure up?
I don’t believe we are called to. Let me back up and take a running start at this.
Scholars largely agree that the same author who wrote Luke also wrote the Acts of the Apostles. This author’s style is quiet and artistic. In contrast, the author of Mark is to the point. The writing is short and presents a very human Jesus with the apostles never quite getting it. We could call them the “D’oh-ciples.” The Gospel of Matthew is all about doors slamming, gnashing of teeth, screaming, fires never going out, the gavel coming down in the last court. Matthew is loud and boisterous. The Gospel of John is poetic and somewhat confusing with all the “I am in the Father, and you are in me and thus you are in the Father because I’m in the Father as I am the vine, living water, good shepherd, and these things I can do you can do.” But Luke, he weaves things into the fabric of his story. He is a literary artist that has just woven elements in there, and if you don’t pay attention you’ll miss them.
He starts with a child being born to a peasant girl in Nazareth. The mother starts singing. Shepherds, those low-life drunks who are out in the fields doing God-knows-what come and see this child and they start singing. Then Zachariah and Anna start singing. Something is being kindled here. There’s excitement that’s starting to build. Jesus calls his disciples, and they don’t quite understand. It seems everyone else is changed by Jesus: Zacchaeus the tax collector, lepers, prostitutes and gentiles, but the disciples are largely the same. They don’t get what all the fuss is about but they are excited to be on the journey with Jesus.
The disciples, like the Pharisees who always show up to argue with Jesus and try to stop all this singing and fuss over him,, can’t quite make the switch from their theology of the messiah, which states “Where the Messiah is there is no misery” to “Where there is misery, there is the Messiah.” Let me state that again because it’s the core of Luke’s gospel. Jesus’ opponents and his own followers can’t make the switch from “Where the Messiah is there is no misery” to “Where there is misery, there is the Messiah.”
And then here comes Easter. Many believe that Easter is the climax of the Christian year, but it’s not. Pentecost is. Easter means goodbye. Camelot is over. And the author of John understood this as well as Luke. John devotes 9 chapters and from Chapter 13 on its “Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.” What’s the matter with those disciples? It’s like they’re children sitting on the floor playing with their toys, and they look up and see dad putting on his coat and hat. And they ask “Where are you going? Can we go with you? Who is going to stay with us?” And Jesus answers each question but they still don’t get it.
Easter happens. The disciples have lost their leader. They are floundering, they didn’t expect him to die! They expected him to win! To overthrow the Romans, to re-establish the Davidic Kingdom. To WIN!
Instead they saw him lose. They abandoned their leader: Judas through treachery, Peter through denial, the rest by running away. They hear some strange things from the women followers of Jesus, and they check these things out. Turns out it’s true! Jesus is back! He has been raised from the dead. They meet with Jesus and tell stories and that’s where the Gospel of Luke ends. The Book of Acts comes in on Jesus still being with them and then in the first chapter, he ascends into heaven. And as David stated last week, “Hesitantly, remorsefully, their eyes turn from the skies back to the earth. They descend the hill, and quietly they begin the journey back to Jerusalem, about a day’s journey. This time they walk alone… not even the Holy Spirit to guide them.”
Yet the book of Acts states that 40 days after Easter, here comes the Holy Spirit rushing in, and the Disciples finally understand what Jesus was telling them all along, and they run out and cause a commotion. Such a commotion that people ask, “Who the heck are these guys? Aren’t these guys those blue-collar Galilean nobodies? They must have gotten into the wine again.”
But here’s the thing to look at with Luke’s way of telling the story. 40 days does not mean 40 actual days. In ancient Hebrew numerology, 40 represented a lot of something, and thus it is a literary device that means “a long time.”
A 40-something time period, whether days, months, or years is ALWAYS a period of testing, trial, and ends with a period of restoration, revival or renewal.
This literary fact has led historical scholars like John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg to hypothesize that Pentecost happened not in a matter of days, but in a matter of years. It might have been 3 to 6 years before the disciples got their act together and reclaimed their identity as disciples of Jesus. 3 to 6 years!
It took the disciples 3 to 6 years to find their hope again. It took them a long time to believe in the madness Jesus talked about of creating a better world. 3 to 6 years to find what Reinhold Niebuhr calls a necessary illusion and what David calls a Divine Hope, a holy madness. It took Kate and me 3 years to find it too and we found it in a small UCC church in Vienna, VA. It took me 3 years, too, before I left Emmaus United Church of Christ to go to seminary.
What happened? What changed for us? What changed for those disciples? How does any of this impact us today?
Kwok Pui Lan is professor of Christian theology and spirituality at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She lifts up the metaphor of the “bazaar mind” and the “cathedral mind.”
She states that the bazaar mind is the networked society. A bazaar is a marketplace where you shop from place to place. You have no obligation to stay and no commitment to buy. You are constantly on the go. This seems to describe the disciples’ mind in their culture and our current culture.
The disciples were constantly moving with Jesus. They were in front of all types of people with differing philosophies, lifestyles, and worldviews. And Jesus is saying he’s the Messiah, but not like any Messiah they have ever heard or had come to think about. They needed time to make sense of all of that.
We are constantly moving and connected. We surf the web and check email and Facebook and Tweet about things while we do them. Some do it on a desktop, some do it with a laptop and others may be doing it right now on a smartphone. “This sermon is way too long… OMG Pastor Luke is a windbag LOL.” The sheer volume of information we face affects the way our brains function.
Professor Lan lifts up the cathedral mind as the opposite of the bazaar mind. The cathedral mind takes patience, learning, concentration, years of training. This mindset recognizes the mind and human society as being complex, multilayered and with immense depth. The bazaar mind is untrained and can wander around living only in the moment, from status update to status update and throw back half-formed opinions on some deep and weighty stuff. But the cathedral mind takes the long-view, looks for connections that aren’t immediately apparent and cultivates a holistic way of life.
For years I thought the disciples had the bazaar mind and ran out and immediately kicked off the church. Now, I see that the time would be much longer before they formed the church. The results weren’t immediate. They prayed, they reflected, they grieved their lost leader, they told stories about him, and they prayed and reflected some more. They found a room and stayed there together, and together they tried to make sense of their experiences. And that takes time.
It’s like building a fire. Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas states “I have cast fire upon the world, and see, I am guarding it until it blazes.” (#10) This is not a gas fireplace, this is a camp fire. Jesus started it, and at Pentecost, we see the fire catch and flame up.
Kate and I often reflect on our own private Pentecost and the journey it has lead us on. Our fires were started by our upbringing in our home churches. Kate in the United Methodist denomination and my own in the Roman Catholic. The spark never went out, it was well placed. And we both caught fire in the UCC. This would have never happened had we stayed in the bazaar and not sought refuge in the sanctuary of Emmaus UCC.
That is what church can provide for you. God is still speaking and has a calling on each of our lives. The Spirit will speak in a way that you will hear in your own native language, whether that language is Egyptian, Greek, Hebrew, Median, Arabic, American or the Queen’s English, the language of the mind or of the heart. The Spirit will speak to you in joyful and optimistic tones or brooding and heavy ones. The Spirit will speak to your humor, sarcasm, irony, through art, and pop-culture, and movies and especially through community.
Take time to hear the Spirit. It takes time for that fire to catch. So when you enter church over the summer, leave your cell phones and iPods and things in your car or at home. After service, linger a bit and pass the peace just a little bit longer. Slow down. Know that here you are being empowered by the Spirit through this community. You will see visions, prophesy and dream. You are anointed, and you may realize this suddenly in a rush of wind and fire or it may take years and when you look back one day you’ll realize how far you’ve come.
The church is the keeper of this fire. We are to tend to it until it blazes up in ourselves and then we are to set the world on fire with the radical love of God and the love of our neighbors as ourselves. That is something worth singing about. Amen.
Andersen, David. GUEST SUNDAY, John 17:20-24, Acts 1:6-14.
Craddock, Fred. Craddock on the Craft of Preaching. 43-45.
Lindon, Luke. Signs on the Journey.
Lan, Kwok Pui. Intever view in Reflections; Yale Divinity School, Fall 2011 page 12.
Saldine, Kristen Emery. Pastoral Perspective on Acts 2:1-21, Feasting on the Word Year B, Volume 3.