Pentecost – the day of the big surprise, the day that the disciples, gathered in one place, received a surprising gift. A violent wind entered the room where they were and flames of fire and tongues were distributed.
At first, stunned and speechless – the disciples didn’t know what to do – they weren’t quite expecting this- but soon words began to flow and the momentum built, and the community was formed anew in light of the Holy Spirit. And this commotion agitated just about everyone. The disciples started speaking in foreign tongues and those watching were heard to say, “They’re speaking our language!”
Observers were “amazed and astonished.” Some were enthusiastic, some were perplexed, others cynical, saying, “They’re drunk, filled with new wine.”
But Peter said, “No, it is not wine, it is the spirit. God has poured out the spirit on your sons and daughters, on the slave and free, on old and young alike. And anyone who just reaches for it, just opens themselves up to it, will dream dreams and see visions, and take risks for the Kingdom.”
Of course, things may get a little out of hand and everything will be a bit topsy-turvy. That’s the way it is with the Spirit. But God takes more pleasure in risk and potential failure than in the status quo and safety. Think about that. God takes more pleasure in risk and potential failure than in the status quo and safety.
And today we as the Church – although I think Forest Hill is much better than many churches – but today the Church just seems like such a place of protection, and safety, and status quo. And here we have this story of Pentecost, which is anything but that!
God celebrates creativity and diversity more than routine, unanimity and making sure it is done the same way. God delights in the precocious over the predictable. Always has, always will! Just read the Bible to see the characters who shape our narrative – not the ones who behaved, but the ones who were bold enough and bad enough to sense another direction.
Pentecost was God’s “Big Give” and the disciple’s “Big Receive” and from that day, nothing has ever been the same.
On Sunday, March 29 at the 11:00 a.m. service right here, we were all in one place; devoting ourselves to prayer and worship. Doing what we always do. And right in the middle of the sermon, the ushers started passing out Pentecost red envelopes to all who were in the pew at that moment.
I will never forget the audible intake of breath when you were told to open your envelopes and see what was inside. It was like a rush of wind filling this sanctuary. And there they were: $50 bills! With instructions to do whatever you want with it to make more. Return the original $50 on Pentecost Sunday, May 31 along with whatever else you made and all will be given to Mission. Remember, your Ministry of Justice and Mission fronted the $15,000.
There was some nervous laughter and a wee bit of grinding and gnashing of teeth in some quarters, along with: “What am I going to do with this?” And the initial responses were mixed. After the service, one member announced, “If I were younger, I would sell my body!”
A young man told his mother; “Hey Mom, let’s go to lunch, we have some cash now!”
“I’m going to Vegas” was heard. Some folks rolled their eyes and were skeptical.
The next day, I received an email from someone who loved what had happened. “Edgy and risky,” he called it. But this person was worried that there might be some in the congregation that would “take the money and run.” He looked behind him and saw a young couple in jeans, looking a little disheveled, carrying their coffee cups with them. And he said, “I don’t know, John, I think you might have lost a hundred bucks with that couple.”
And I said, “No, I know that couple, they’re fine, they’re good.” It was the family of five who I’d never seen before who walked out of here with $250! And I remember when Clover and I walked into the sanctuary that Sunday and saw the pews filled with visitors, faces we didn’t recognize, we thought “Who ARE all these people!?!?” I didn’t recognize half of you! (And it had seemed like such a good idea when Joanne Shaner and I were walking around Ghost Ranch, talking about it and saying “Yeah! Let’s give everyone $50 for a Big Give thing!”) But it was too late – the Big Give had begun.
And we know: Some of the $50 was not used. And some of the $50 got lost. And sadly some of the $50 got stolen. But, that’s the way it goes. I want to be very clear today: there is to be no guilt, or worry if you didn’t do a thing, or lost it or spent it on food for a week… it is all good. Because just as you can’t control the Spirit, you can’t control what happens. And that was my biggest agitation. Nobody was checking in. That was part of the angst and the glory – just letting go, letting go.
We won’t know until later this week and perhaps beyond what the actual return was, whether this was a “success” or not. But what is “success?” Even if we don’t recoup the original $15,000 – so what? And I mean it. We risked community and we formed community. And the word has gotten out – into a culture shaped by scarcity, we celebrated abundance and said, “Why not?”
And whether a dime is returned, I will never forget that moment in Fellowship Hall three weeks ago, during the Festival Sale, when the voice of Diana Ross filled the space and many of us danced, and most of us swayed and moved – and got into the rhythm – and if that’s not a Pentecost moment, then I don’t know what is.
The Plain Dealer and the Sun Press wrote articles. TV stations in Cincinnati, Columbus and Ft. Wayne, Indiana gave reports on this crazy Presbyterian Church outside of Cleveland. And I bet at least 100 non-members called, wrote, walked up to me and said: “That’s your church?” “Hey! I read about Forest Hill.” “Great article.” “What a cool idea.” Who knows what the long term benefits of such good energy radiating from this community will be – but I suspect it will be positive!
I even received a call from a law professor who lives in New York City. He is Jewish and he laughed and said: “THAT would never happen in my Synagogue!”
Now, no one asked me if I was, or we were, drunk that day on new wine. Although the PD article begins: “At first, the congregation thought Pastor John had gone bonkers. Here he was passing out money rather than passing the collection plate.” But it certainly got the attention of those on the outside looking in.
And the response from you, the disciples, was overwhelming. Chessie and Diana, who won the Ohio St. v. Michigan blanket sale?
[From the audience: “It was a tie!”]
“I earned this money by giving bridge lessons!” reported one person.
Deanne made more money in one hour giving chair massages than I got in four hours of selling my junk.
From what I heard Jason and the group that invested in a big screen TV and raffled it off, more than doubled their money. They pooled around $1,000 and will return that plus $1,300!
There was one couple who, as they left our Fellowship Hall two weekends ago after our Festival Flea Market and Craft Sale said, “We were so impressed by what your church is doing that we paid more than the asking price for everything we bought today!”
Another man, a stranger, came in and said to me, “I didn’t see anything I wanted but here’s a gift for the good work.” And he handed me a $20 bill.
And there were some who didn’t receive any money and still did things. I know of a couple who turned in $150 after starting with nothing! You can’t calculate that percentage.
We received this note from Bruce Reinhold, Jean’s father:
Dear Forest Hill Church, I was on vacation with Jean on the Sunday of the Big Give, so she did not get her $50. But we did get to hear the sermon and ceremony via the internet in my motel room. Then, with the $50 dollars she did not have, she took me out to lunch to tell me about what she knew about the Big Give. What a great idea! Still do not know if she got $50 to invest. Whatever, here is a return on the time and money she invested in telling me about the program over lunch!
And I received this note from someone calling him or herself Anon E. Moss:
Accounting of funds as entrusted to me by H.R.M. Good King John II Ruler of Scotland and the Known World in the year of our blessed Lord 2009.
1) Funds entrusted to me $50 balance $50
2) INVESTMENT –
Five $2 tickets to Win on Kentucky Derby $10 balance $40
3) RETURN on investment
Kentucky Derby Winner paid 50-1 $100 balance $140
4) INVESTMENT –
30 books for Boulevard School at 3 for $1 $10 balance $130
5) Return on investment – We will never know, hopefully priceless
6) NET RETURN ON INVESTMENT $80 on $50 = 160%
Robyn Hales wrote:
God is wise and all knowing. A couple of days before you announced the Big Give, I went to an event for Alcorn State University. I met a woman, Carmen, who was selling beautiful jewelry, scarves and blouses. I bought a scarf with earrings, took her card and promised to visit her shop. After the challenge, I went to her shop, showed her the postcard and explained the Big Give. I offered her the $50 as payment for a few things, with the promise to come back, buy more after I sold those things and sell more… She said, “I won’t take your money – but we can split the profit from whatever you sell.” She didn’t even know me and here she stepped out on faith that I could sell her things and bring the money back. These few weeks later, staying in close prayer, Jordan and I have sold a lot of items, enough to pay Carmen’s shop rent for a month. Carmen is meeting with two other co-workers and they may do something similar in their churches…
And Verna Bidleman, lying in the hospital intensive care, recovering from a stroke, laughed out loud when I told her that I saw someone walking out of church with a six-pack of her fudge sauce.
And there are so many more. I just received something this morning in an email that was just beautiful. And I hope that in the hours, days and weeks ahead good stories will be shared. Please, if you would, let me know how you invested so I can get them to Peg Weissbrod for the website and to Lynda Bernays for the Tower.
The Big Give and the Big Receive – it’s all about risking, investing, having some fun, sharing the good news, dedicated to mission and service, justice and hope – I mean, this is Pentecost, this is the Kingdom of God type stuff. It isn’t heavy. And it isn’t rocket science.
It’s a day of receiving and giving thanks, just like today:
Receiving Morag’s delicious food.
Receiving the smiles and joy of each other.
Receiving the spiritual food – bread and cup – reminding us that we are received and loved and blessed.
Our cup runneth over with abundance, with joy, with community, with power, with the energy to be and do much for the kingdom, with compassion for the hungry and the naked and the marginalized, with hospitality for all.
Just by receiving and using the gifts, using your gifts. Just by using your voice, just by using your substance for the kingdom – people notice, they see, and they hear.
And although Abundance Acres our little community garden is not officially part of the Big Give, it too is about receiving and giving joy, and spreading the good news in this neighborhood. Even the neighbor who didn’t like the thought of a vegetable garden at first, is now kind of coming around.
This is the way of God. Daily! It is the way of the Spirit. It is the way of holy community. Abundant spirit, abundantly given, abundantly received, abundantly returned. And so I ask you now, if you are able, to come forward, almost as a re-dedication of yourself, to come and return whatever you have brought to the table. With thanksgiving, offer your gifts. And if you have no gift and you just want to offer your own life to the work of the Lord, Halleluia! That is wonderful. God bless you, thank you, and Amen!