Saturday, June 7, 2014

Storm Cellars and the Burning of Reason: A Half-Baked Pentecost Sermon

 Acts 2:1-21
1When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
5Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes 11Cretans and Arabs — in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
14But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
17  ‘In the last days it will be,God declares,
     that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
          and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
     and your young men shall see visions,
          and your old men shall dream dreams.
18  Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
          in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
               and they shall prophesy.
19  And I will show portents in the heaven above
          and signs on the earth below,
               blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
20  The sun shall be turned to darkness
          and the moon to blood,
               before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
21  Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’”

Lately, my four and a half year old son, Jonah, has been fascinated by tornadoes. He wants to read all about them. He wants to watch all the YouTube videos. He wants to know what to do when one comes, and he’s checked out all the picture books from the library. He’s trying to wrap his head around this concept of tornadoes. The destruction. The rushing wind. The swirling rain. The thunder and lightning. Where do they happen? When? Why? ALWAYS THE "WHY?"

Now, I have always had a deathly fear of tornadoes. I grew up in the heart of Indiana, after all, and the tornado siren went off every Friday at noon to test the system and make sure everything was working properly. We’d have tornado drills every quarter in school. The warning buzz would go off right in the middle of the recitation of our multiplication tables or our spelling bees and we’d push our chairs into our desks, line up at the door, and walk single fire down to the basement, where we’d breathe in the layers of floor wax and the mildew of  the concrete walls while we tucked our heads into our knees and wrapped our hands around our necks, waiting for the all-clear. Every time it rained, I’d turn on the weather channel and watch the dial travel around the radar, meticulously mapping every shade of green and yellow and red as it travelled across the screen.
I was terrified of tornadoes.

I had every scenario planned. I cleared out paths to the basement. I knew what to do if we were in the grocery store. What to do if we were in the car. Where to go if we were at the park and what to do if we were in a school gym.

But my worst fear -- now, imagine this coming from a seven-year-old brain -- what if there was a tornado coming, and the house caught on fire? Do we go outside? Do we go down into the basement? What would we do? Where would we go?

So maybe this is why I’m struggling so much to write this sermon on this Pentecost weekend. We’ve got both -- the rushing wind and the fire. What should we do? Where should we go?

It’s wild and swirling, and I don’t know if I should run outside away from the heat and call the fire department or grab my transistor radio and take cover in the basement.

Like our disciple friends in this passage who are hunkered down and waiting in fear, I’d like to just crawl in a ditch and wait for the trauma to pass by.

But like our disciple friends, I don’t think I can hide from the Holy Spirit any more than they can. They are gathered together in the upper room, reeling, once again, from the curve ball that Jesus has thrown at them.

Think about it. Jesus has come. He’s preached and loved and healed and reprimanded and loved some more. Then he’s gone and pissed some people off and gotten himself killed. Then, whiplash! He’s back again. Raised from the dead. 

But almost as quickly as he has returned, he is gone yet again, sucked up into the sky like the rooftops during a tornado.
But he has promised to send The Holy Spirit, The Comforter, to come and give them power and enable them to witness to the whole world about him.
Well, gee. Thanks, Jesus. No offense, Jesus, but this sounds a bit like a consolation prize. “I’m gonna be gone -- The one you’ve grown to know and trust and believe and love. But don’t worry! I’ll send this spirit-thing and that will comfort you!” Well, Jesus, frankly, I’d rather have you around, not some ethereal, intangible spirit-wind-business that will supposedly make me feel better that you’re not here.

So I don’t blame the disciples for being hunkered down together in their safety bunker, trying to stop the vertigo from their experiences of the last three years.

They are trying to wrap their heads around some kind of conclusion. Certainly this is the end of something. They are waiting for the Comforter, but they are in this kind of in-between space - Jesus is gone, but the Comforter hasn’t yet arrived.

And frankly, the Comforter’s arrival isn’t all that comforting.

There’s the rushing wind. The tongues of fire. The speaking all at once in languages they didn’t even know. A sound so loud that all the Jews gathered for the Festival of Weeks come together in one place to see what the heck is going on.

This is my worst nightmare. Tornadic winds. Fire. Crowds of people I don’t know saying things I don’t understand. All in one place.

What’s the right escape plan for this? Where’s the storm cellar I can run to? How do I get out of this unscathed?

Well. I don’t think we can.

At least, not with our reason completely in tact.

When I asked my son, “Jonah, why are you so interested in tornadoes? Are you scared of them? Do they make you worried?”
And he just said, “no, I’m not scared. I’m just insterested in them.” (That’s how he says “interested”)

He wants to learn everything he can about them so that he can understand them. He wants to know enough about them so that it makes sense, so that it fits neatly inside his little brain.

But there is just so much we can’t understand about this whirlwind of Spirit forcing its way through the disciples’ upper room and forcing them out into the world.

So much in this text makes little sense.

Jesus is gone and the disciples are back in hiding. Well, that makes sense to me.

But, rationally, reasonably, what should happen next is the entrance of “still, small voice” that came to Elijah, or maybe an orderly council meeting, or a diplomatic system of voting about what the disciples should do next. Maybe there should be a methodical, single-file departure of the disciples down into the square, ready to defend the story of Jesus with rational arguments and well developed precepts.

But here comes the Spirit, meant to comfort, meant to console, meant to encourage, but it comes not in the form of a gentle breeze, a flickering candle, a warm blanket or a hot meal, but in the form of a violent wind and tongues of fire.
And suddenly they all start speaking. All at once. All in different languages.
And nobody gets it. They are “amazed” and “perplexed.”  “What does this mean?” they all ask.
“They’re all drunk” they say.

And ready to defend himself and his friends, Peter attempts to make their defense. And in probably one of the greatest non sequiturs ever used, he says, “we’re not drunk, for it’s only nine o’clock in the morning!” As if that proves something.

Maybe it just shows too much about who it is that I spend my time with, but I have known plenty of people who have been drunk at 9 o’clock in the morning.

So even when this text is trying make sense, it doesn’t make sense.
This text is all whirlwind and flame and wildness and chaos.

And this is the birth of the church.

The Spirit flows. It is poured out.
And the Spirit fills. It is in every nook and cranny of that house, and then it spills out into the streets.
And the Spirit lands upon our heads in the form of a flame, burning through our reason, burning through our rationality, burning through our need to make things tidy and safe and reasonable. Burning through our desire for escape plans and storm cellars and bomb bunkers and fallout shelters.

Now I’m not saying that we should reject reason altogether. The earth is round, and it revolves around the sun, and it is most certainly more than 6,000 years old. There is an important place for science and reason and rationality.

But on Pentecost, these flames dance above our heads, into our minds, and leave us completely perplexed. Leave us a little fearful. A lot bewildered. Unsure of everything except one thing: we are forever changed. We can’t go back to the upper room, or to the basement, to the storm shelter or the simplicity of knowing and understanding it all.

The comfort of things making sense has been replaced with The Comforter, the one who tells us, “no, I’m not going to keep you safe, at least not safe like you know it, not safe in a basement curled in a ball waiting for the storm to pass. No. You are the wind. You are the one whirling and swirling and changing things. You are the ones bringing comfort to the lost, hope to the hopeless, overturning the tables of injustice and entering into the chaos of community and food and difference and prophesies.  You are the hands and feet of Christ. You are the Church. The Very Body of Christ.

This is the birth of the church. The body of Christ here on earth.

I work with a lot of homeless folks and people living on the margins at The Table, our community meal that’s served twice a week at Hot Metal Bridge Faith Community.
One day, one of my favorites, we'll call him Bill, came up to me, and with his soil and tobacco stained hands, gives me a still-crisp, carefully folded 20 dollar bill. 

Bill is homeless. Bill gets a shower once every two weeks and lives under a bridge and travels from church, to soup kitchen, to food bank to get one meal a day.

Bill does not have 20 dollars to give.

This is a dumb idea. This is not a fiscally sound thing for him to do. This may be one of the reasons that he’s sleeping under a bridge tonight.
And I tried not to take it.
I handed it back to him and told him that he didn’t need to do this. That we love him and we knew he needed to use this on himself, for the things he needed. But he insisted.  

He needed to be able to give something back. He needed to have something to offer us. He needed to tell us how grateful he is that we’re around.

This is the birth of the Church, the Body of Christ, here on earth. Not the reason and the rationality, the councils and the meetings, the committees and the bake sales and the capital campaigns and safety of the upper room. But the tired homeless man with PTSD and days of dirt caked under his fingernails handing over twenty bucks that he really doesn't have.

When he did that, the church was born all over again.

 And this birth happens every time we do things that don’t make sense, every time we enter the storm in the name of love, every time we sacrifice something for the sake of Christ’s body.

We can’t get a grip on it, it doesn’t make any sense, and it’s completely terrifying. We will worry what Rich will eat tonight. We will worry about whether or not these buildings will stand. We will hire "hospice pastors" and sell off church property and argue about the quickly dwindling endowments. We will want escape strategies and understanding and contingency plans.

But then the Comforter will come rushing in, crushing our expectations, leaving us wondering “What does this mean?” and burning through our stiff-necked, hard-headed need for reason. The Comforter will come and unite us, shake us up, tell us that even when we think we have been abandoned, we are not alone. This same Comforter who tells us to enter in to the whirlwind and the rain storm and the crowd of foreigners - even to give away our last 20 dollar bill, or to accept that 20 dollar bill, teaches us that this is the way to proclaim that God is alive, that God is love, that God is here. 

This Comforter will not leave us abandoned. Changed, yes. Challenged, absolutely. Tired and sore and drenched from the rain, for sure. With weak minds that fail to comprehend and fully understand, full of questions and doubt and "What does this all mean?" definitely. 
But never alone.

Thanks be to the Spirit.


  1. Thanks Jennifer. The gift of the Holy Spirit in "Bill's" widow's mite. Come Holy Spirit, come.

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