Text: Acts 2:1-18
The last several months, I have been in conversation with the young adults of our church talking about the relevance of the church today and seeking their guidance on how Pullen can address the needs of the younger generation while maintaining our commitment to the social gospel, acting in the tradition of the Baptist identity, and staying rooted in the integrity of who we say the church is to be—a place that welcomes and accepts all people. I have found our conversations to be enlightening, inspiring, challenging, and confusing. Yes, confusing. Let me explain.
Repeatedly, I have asked the young adults how we can make our church more visible to other young adults who are looking for a church like Pullen. And repeatedly, they have had one response: social networking. As you might guess, I have needed some explanation about “social networking” – mind you, I understand what the word social means, and I understand what networking is, but taken together, I can’t say that I have a good handle on the concept. So, I’ve asked questions, and the young adults have indulged me in explaining the aspects of social networking. As our conversations have progressed, I have had flashbacks to some of my own experiences of Pentecost: worshiping in Cuba and Tbilisi. People are talking. Something important is being said—I can sense it and feel it. There is even a mysterious understanding. But the words are foreign to me. Foursquare. Hashtag. Blogging. Wiki. Avatar—which I thought was just a movie. Twitter. Tweeting. Actually, I had heard of the last two before meeting with the young adults but wasn’t sure, and I’m still not sure, of their usage. Once I slipped and said that I was considering starting to “twit,” and my youngest almost died from embarrassment. I learned quickly that, for some unknown and unclear reason, one “tweets” on “twitter.”
Language is important. Often, our words are all we have when trying to communicate something important. A good writer can labor for hours to find that one precise word to communicate meaning—that one word that can move the reader from thought to feeling; that can invoke memory and bring to life smell and sound and sight. Often, it is the familiarity or rhythm of a word that can carry us to that special place of feeling and meaning. There is nothing more disorienting than being in a setting where you don’t speak or understand the words and the language being spoken; it can be lonely and frustrating. And lately, in talking with the young adults, I have had glimpses of that feeling without even leaving Wake County.
Generational gaps aren’t the only places, though, where we feel this kind of confusion. I have often had this experience with my own family of origin. There was a time, when I was a child, that I spoke exactly the same language as my family. Here I don’t mean just the words we used, but what we meant by them. I remember the phrases of my family’s faith—that Jesus died for my sins, that I was forgiven, and that Jesus answers prayers—and I remember the comfort those phrases brought. I felt clear about what those words meant, and clear that my family shared that understanding, and that was validating and reassuring.
I cannot say that I feel that same validation and reassurance now. More and more, I find that I use different words and phrases to talk with and about God, and that even when I use the same words and phrases of my youth, I can feel discomforting distance from my family. We have each continued our paths toward God, authentic paths that have allowed us to grow and mature in our faith, but those paths have diverged in significant ways. And so, even in the home in which I grew up, talking with the people I have known my whole life about the God we have all worshiped for as long as I remember, I can feel lost and disoriented. And that kind of distance in the midst of the intimacy of family relationships can be, in some ways, even more disturbing than the kind we feel when faced with foreign languages or technical revolutions.
The story of Pentecost is about people who speak different languages, who use different words to describe their experiences of God, and yet still hear and understand one another. It is a story about what happens when God’s spirit blesses our differences. And it delivers a message that runs counter to that of our culture. Our culture says that differences are to be feared and oneness means sameness. The paradox of the Pentecost story is that while we are busy building our communities and institutions around our sameness, our diversity is an opportunity for God’s gifts and graces to flow through us; that difference is an expression of the divine, not an obstacle.
One theologian captured this paradox this way, “…the Holy Spirit does not come to solve our problems but to create them. Think about it: absent the coming of the Holy Spirit, the disciples could go back to their previous careers as fishermen. I can almost hearing James and John explaining, ‘Sure, it was a wild and crazy three-year-ride, and that Jesus sure was a heck of a guy, but maybe we needed to get that out of our system before we could settle down and take on Dad’s business.’ Once the Spirit comes, however, that return to normalcy is no longer an option. They will now be propelled throughout the ancient world to herald the unlikely message that God has redeemed the world through an itinerant preacher from the backwaters of Palestine who was executed for treason and blasphemy. The Holy Spirit doesn’t solve the disciples’ problems, it creates them.”
Pentecost is historically and symbolically related to the Jewish harvest festival of Shavuot, which commemorates God giving the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai fifty days after the Exodus. Among Christians, Pentecost commemorates the descent of God’s Spirit upon the disciples and other followers of Jesus as described in Acts 2, the text we have read this morning. For this reason, Pentecost is sometimes described as the “Birthday of the Church.” And so, in the spirit of Pentecost being the “birthday of the church,” I offer these birthday wishes for the church in general and for our church specifically.
It is my wish that the church be liberated from all the shoulds, oughts, and musts that have rendered it irrelevant for these times in which we are living. That it be released from old traditions that no longer hold meaning and that it risk creating new traditions that are authentic to the workings of God’s Spirit in the world and in the lives of people today. Our Pullen Constitution states that it is our purpose “to win people to Christ.” At best, that statement is worn-out theology from an old proselytizing tradition. Would it not be better to say, as Cathy Tamsberg recently suggested, that it is our purpose to be “Faithfully Christian and Ardently Interfaith?” The language and words we use to talk about our purpose matters. How is the language of our church fulfilling the promise of these words: “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh…”? I wish for the church liberation and freedom.
It is my wish, for the church in general and for Pullen specifically, that we renew our commitment to doing justice and that we will not let our fear of looking foolish or different or being criticized keep us from doing all we possibly can to help make real God’s love and compassion in the world. That we will, as we have done before, speak out on issues of racial equality, women’s rights, economic and ecological justice, gay rights and other human rights, for the work justice is not done. One only has to look to the decisions of our State legislators this past week as they passed laws that limit a woman’s right to make choices for herself. God is still pouring out God’s spirit upon us and there are new dreams to dream. “…your sons and your daughters shall prophesy…”
It is my wish that our church will continue to have the courage to be a church that practices radical hospitality—a safe place where all are welcome. That we will not fear being called the gay church, or the liberal church, or the church that opens it doors to Muslims on the anniversary of 9/11. “The young shall see visions and the old shall dream dreams.”
It is my birthday wish for the church that we, the church, ask how we can stretch ourselves even more to extend God’s love and compassion outside our walls to those in our community who are hurting and struggling. And that inside our walls we go beyond simply accepting our differences to blessing our differences; and that each time we gather we truly practice hearing one another, even when it seems that we are speaking different languages. “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh…”
These birthday wishes may sound a bit too serious—birthdays, after all, are supposed to be fun and light-hearted. And so my last birthday wish for the church in general and for our church specifically, is that we will discover the joy that comes from belonging to God and to each other, not just those within our family, or those within these walls, but with all of God’s creation, as we seek to be the church on Facebook and Twitter; and, above all, face-to-face.