I’m very excited to be here – but to be honest, I’m also a little scared. You see, I was taught from a very early age that it was more important to think about what I want to say than say it; it was more valuable to listen than to speak. No wonder I spend my day in a hospital listening. No wonder figuring out what I want to say has been a struggle.
Oh, I have something to say on a one-to-one, in response to you, or to a common stimulus. But I do not have much to say on my own. Things do not bubble up in me that must get out. That is why it is so hard to do this. In some ways, old as I am, I’m just beginning to find my voice.
Furthermore, I’m more comfortable talking about and calling on the Holy Spirit as Comforter. All day long at Seidman Cancer Center where I am the chaplain, I am grateful to have the Comforter as Companion as I minister to people struggling with emotional and mental chaos as treatments cease to work and the end of life’s horizon appears closer and closer. I call on the Holy Spirit who in the beginning brooded over the murmuring deep, to bring order and peace.
But today’s story shows a different side of the Holy Spirit whose power shakes things up, and to be honest, that may be what scared me when John asked me to preach. But here I am, here we are. Let’s find out what the Spirit has to say to us.
Please pray with me… Come, Holy Spirit, come. Blow over and through us, with your refreshing, life giving energy, with your fierce truth telling power. May my words, gracious God, and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable and useful in your sight, our Rock, our Breath and our Redeemer.
So, is there anyone here this morning who has not heard this story?
My sense is that this story is so well known that it blends with all the stories we hear each year, that we love to hear, and runs the risk of becoming part of a background soundtrack of the Bible’s greatest hits, that we don’t really hear anymore.
For years I have tucked Pentecost in a category: the birthday of the church. But, in preparing this week I’ve realized that calling it the church’s birthday puts it in the distant past. Something that happened long ago and that we celebrate with another candle in the cake. But sticking it in the past does the Spirit, us and the world, a huge disservice. Another way I’d think about it is as the day the Holy Spirit showed up – which does the same thing. And gets it wrong. The Holy Spirit was showing up all throughout the millennia before the 12 apostles gathered for the Feast of Pentecost the year that Jesus died. And the Holy Spirit is still showing up. As the United Church of Christ is fond of proclaiming, God is still speaking! And that’s the point!
Pentecost was a Jewish Harvest festival celebrated 50 days after Passover, and so a multitude of Jews were gathered from all over the Mideast, including the apostles. Suddenly, with the rush of a mighty wind that shook the house to its foundations, the Holy Spirit came down on the apostles who started to speak in all sorts of foreign languages – of those who’d gathered in Jerusalem.
A crowd gathered, wondering what in the world is going on? Maybe these Galileans are just drunk? But they are speaking my language–how can it be? What does this mean?
So Peter got up and preached his first sermon — Peter, who the night Jesus was detained had lost his voice, and could not find any words to say to the maid in that courtyard, who denied Jesus 3 times.
Something happened that gave Peter – the coward – his voice. He stood up and begins, “We are not drunk, it’s only 9 in the morning” (which makes you wonder what he’d have said if this had happened in the evening), “not drunk, this is what the prophet Joel foretold.”
“…it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh….your sons and daughters…. and your young men… and your old men…Even upon my slaves, both men and women, I will pour out my spirit and they shall prophesy.”
According to scripture, up till that Pentecost day, God’s Spirit descended on just a few individuals, the prophets, who’d tell the world the truth about God. Prophets like Amos, Jeremiah, Isaiah. And we heard today in our Hebrew Bible lesson that in the wilderness, God helped Moses out by pouring out the Spirit onto 72 men in Moses’ camp ‘way before there were prophets. The same Spirit fell upon Jesus and anointed him to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and to let the oppressed go free.
But the prophet Joel foretold the day, this Pentecost day, when God’s spirit would pour over all flesh, Everybody, not just the prophets, everybody, not just the men, everybody, not just the theologically educated and the spiritually enlightened, everybody, not just the people in charge and the rule followers, everybody, not just the straight people, everybody – everybody will get to preach, to tell the good news of who God is, and what God is up to.
And that good news spread around the Mediterranean world and out from there, to the ends of the earth. And nothing was the same. The outpouring of the HS on that day, the realization of Joel’s prophecy, is still going on today….
Author and activist Rev. Derek Penwell puts it,
“Every time you see someone standing up for the vulnerable and victims of injustice – you’ve seen the Holy Spirit.” (Hello, GCC! Y-Haven! Frontline Service!)
Every time we hear a voice raised in opposition to oppression and violence, we’ve heard the Spirit of truth.
Every time you’ve felt the hand of someone on your back holding you up against the wave of dehumanization that threatens to overwhelm you, you’ve felt the Advocate.” (Hello, Camp Lilac!)
I would add, every time a child or person of any age comes out and tells their truth, whether it’s they’re gay or trans or in love with someone from a different clan, whatever it is, we are hearing the Holy Spirit of truth.
And there’s more:
When you feel an inner urge to be kind, constructive, forgiving or compassionate, the Spirit is working in your heart.
When you settle down to pray, the Spirit is bringing you into God’s presence.
When you take up a demanding task because you feel it is the right thing for you to do, that’s the Spirit.
When you stand up for yourself in the face of a silencing bully, that’s the Spirit.
When you’re searching with others for the best thing to do in a difficult situation, that’s the Spirit at work.
When you find yourself watching out for the needy, that’s the Spirit.
When you experience deep-seated joy without any special reason, that’s the Spirit.
We need to be ready to attend to the Spirit moving in us, to name it. The next time the HS prompts you to speak or act, it may be loud and dramatic like Pentecost was but, it will more likely be an act born of a subtle, practically imperceptible nudging on the inside.
Are you ready? Do you notice the prompting, the nudge, the still small voice? Isn’t it hard to discern, from among all the various voices pulling, pushing, demanding, holding you? If you were urged to act on the Spirit’s prompting today, would you be able?
We need to be ready to open ourselves up to the Spirit’s power, just as the apostles were ready. And they were ready because they had a period of preparation. The husband of one of our patients brought this to my attention.
Remember that on the night of the resurrection, according to John’s gospel, the risen Jesus appeared to the disciples, who were locked with fear in that Upper Room, and Christ breathed on them… “receive the Holy Spirit.” So, they were given the Holy Spirit – right when they needed it, having lost everything – their Lord, their purpose, their sense of reality –
And we didn’t hear from the Spirit until 50 days later, when the Spirit’s power was revealed. Why the wait?
I believe the disciples needed time to get prepared to act on the Holy Spirit’s prompting. To get to know the Spirit intimately, to grow in trust, to let go of their fears. No doubt the preparation involved prayer – we heard last week that the apostles “constantly devoted themselves to prayer” after Christ ascended to Heaven, having instructed them to be his witnesses once they had received the HS power.
I believe that in prayer, over time, in community, the disciples embraced their vulnerability, sought God’s healing power and perspective, perhaps faced and even embraced that they were not in control… All conditions necessary for welcoming the Spirit’s power. As is written in 2 Corinthians 12:9: “my power is made perfect in weakness.”
Let’s learn from them – like the disciples, we need to spend time being prepared — whether it’s 50 days or 10 months, as Forest Hill Church’s Discernment Committee spent, or years of spiritual direction, or Faith Leaders or Women’s Spirituality Group or Bible & Bagels, we need to prepare so as to be ready when the Spirit nudges. Prepare through private and collective prayer, prepare ourselves in community through sharing our Holy Spirit experiences. Get used to the truth that we are not in control.
Because I think we all have stories of the Spirit in our lives, some dramatic, others subtle. Some communal, others private. We need to hear each other’s stories, and share our own because sharing makes it real, and without confirmation we might think we’re going crazy. I mean, even though I am the Spiritual Care Coordinator, I cannot go around telling the medical team that the Spirit told me to go in a certain room. But I can tell you:
Late one Friday afternoon in the fall, I had an urge to stop by a Jewish patient’s room to see if he needed sabbath candles. It turned out Moshe had his own, but was agitated, being on the phone with his wife who was on her way from parking her car with their sabbath meal, only he was being moved to another floor, and where should she go? And get everything set up before sundown at 5:09? It was 4:55. I happened to have seen where he was going to be moved to, and told him the new location which he told her. I then met her at the room, which was not yet clean so she wasn’t permitted to set things up there, so I brought her to the family lounge on that floor, and helped her plug things in, informed staff what was going on. At 5:09 the candles were lit and she was praying. When I circled back to Moshe, he exclaimed, “We are witness to a miracle! You appeared out of the blue like an angel from heaven to save our Shabbos.” In the time since, Moshe has told me he’s spread this story of the Sabbath miracle to many.
That urge to check in on him was so faint – I didn’t know where it would lead, didn’t know it was Holy. Thank God, I just did it. It makes me want to keep preparing!
And here’s a recent story, this one of a Holy Spirit sighting:
Last week, I was called to the bedside of a woman who was dying; her daughter was at her bedside, struggling to accept the speed of the decline, openly grieving, telling me about this wise and beloved woman whom she couldn’t imagine life without. Soon, her own daughter and granddaughter arrived; granddaughter – patient’s great granddaughter – was five years old, sat quietly on the couch watching her mom and grandma grieve. She had such poise. I engaged her and she told me she was known as ‘little chick’ by the patient whom she called Gaga. As all 5-year-olds do, her thoughts were stream of conscious, punctuated by a return to the present, “Gaga is having trouble breathing” and “Grandma is crying.” She then mentioned a song she sang to Gaga that helped make her arm feel better last time she was in the hospital. So I asked if she’d like to sing to Gaga now. Yes, she did, climbing on to her grandma’s lap. Her little voice sang in a whisper a tune I didn’t recognize, and then I caught the phrase “Gaga is dying” and realized she was making the song up! She just sang what was coming up…There was not a dry eye in the room. When finished she sang “the end,” and climbed down from her grandma’s lap. Several hours later Gaga died. That little girl heeded the Spirit’s prompting with a voice and a confidence I pray to have and hope she will never lose!
These were on the subtle side. Let me tell you a more Pentecostal experience I heard about.
After a music festival in Chicago, my husband and son were on a train that was jammed with revelers, a diverse group of folks of all ages. Suddenly, a bunch of bullies began beating up a seated man, kicking him and just whaling on him. The air in the train went still, and for a moment no one did anything. But then Ed stood up and bellowed in a voice that came from the depths of his being, “Stop! Stop it right now!’ The youth stopped and turned around to see who was speaking. “Get out, get out right now!” Ed thundered. And in single file, they left the train, posturing their threat, but not laying a hand on him.
Ed’s story has a happy ending. Not so for Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche and Ricky John Best. These men on the train in Portland were no doubt Spirit-led to protect the young women of color being threatened by an unhinged bully – and their acts of bravery led to their deaths. Following the Spirit’s promptings will move you out of your safety zone. But remember Taliesin’s last words: “Tell everyone on the train I love them.” The fruits of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. As one of my patients with insight and a big raunchy mouth put it, “the Holy Spirit tells me to shut up.”
What would it be like to know and trust the Holy Spirit within you so that you rely on it completely? How can we be more attuned to its subtle and not so subtle urgings? How can we be ready for new Pentecosts? By telling each other our Holy Spirit stories, by helping each other recognize the Spirit when we see it, feel, act on it, by praying for ever increasing sensitivity to the Holy Spirit’s nudges, by inviting God to help us trust what rises from within us, and then keep inviting the Holy Spirit for more. God knows our world needs it!