Text: Acts 2:1-21
In the early summer of 1992, we began a relationship. I was 28 and you were 118. I was inexperienced and naively idealistic. You were seasoned with a wisdom and courage that only comes with having been refined by the Spirit’s fire. I’m not sure what I contributed to the relationship in those early years, you would need to say that, but I can tell you what I learned from you.
You showed me what it means to live a life of faith authentically. You taught me that asking good, hard questions of life is more important than knowing the answers. From you, I came to understand failure as a holy sacrament; grace, forgiveness, and justice-love as the real trinity, and community and shared dreams as the joy of our faith.
As with any twenty-five year relationship, ours has seen its highs and lows. There have been disappointments and celebrations. We have comforted each other in times of distress and despair; and we have challenged one another when we became complacent in the work before us. Together, we have valued a core ethic handed down by previous generations of Pullenites and their pastors: we have agreed to disagree.
Early in our relationship, within the first six months or so, one among you taught me in a painful moment the valuable lesson that this church is a lay led church and that the pastor and ministers support the work of the people. I was both embarrassed and humbled as I was reminded, after presenting to the Board of Christian Education what needed to be done in order to have a proper adult education ministry because I knew best, that that wasn’t my place. With a literal slap on the hand, I was ever so firmly and gently reminded that the Board would decide what the church needed. My voice was one among many. As the sting settled on my hand from Bob’s justified slap that evening—a slap just hard enough to let me know he was serious and gentle enough to say stay in it with us—I knew I was in a relationship based on equality, accountability, forgiveness, justice-love, and shared vision. Early on, I got the message that the ministers and pastors are called to lead. AND, that the final word always belongs to the collective wisdom of the community. It does seem, however, that every five years or so there comes a moment when I get out of my lane and you have to remind me of that early lesson. So, thank you. Thank you for holding me accountable to that cherished Baptist principle that all are equal in God’s commonwealth and that we serve as priests to each other.
As we have engaged in the work of this church together for two and a half decades, some things stand out to me. From our early years, who remembers:
- The Foundations for Faith Classes: a two-year, hour and a half Sunday morning curriculum that covered first year seminary material with all classes being taught by Pullen members who had seminary training. Over 100 Pullenites from all walks of life who had a sincere hunger for sound theological study from a open-minded biblical perspective gathered every Sunday morning from 9:00-10:30 to study scripture, ethics, church history, and theology. As a young minister I was amazed and astonished by your desire and commitment to study the Bible and theology.
- Wednesday Nights crammed in old Finlator Hall where we gathered around tables for a simple meal, fellowshipped with old friends, met new friends, prayed together, built community, and explored our faith together.
- Worship, Sunday after Sunday, being comforted and challenged by Mahan Siler’s sermons, Pullenites sharing their faith at work stories, the music and rituals, and waiting for that moment in the sermon when Mahan would struggle to pronounce a name of some movie character and someone would shout out the name and help him. Sometimes, even when delivering a sermon, it takes a village.
- And then, the days and weeks and months after the Holy Union Vote. Our relationship began four months after you voted to be a welcoming and affirming congregation and to bless same-gender covenants. When I arrived, you were still reeling from that decision. Some members were still discerning what their relationship with Pullen would be. As one who came “after” the vote, I did a lot of listening as people were still sorting out their feelings. Those conversations placed me in a deeply pastoral role early in my ministry with you. Being a place to hold those feelings was a place of holy privilege. Again, I was amazed and astonished at your integrity and authenticity when dealing with such significant moral and spiritual issues.
- The picketing of the pig picking.
Those were our early years together. As time passed, our relationship changed and I became your pastor. Like those early Christians on the day of Pentecost, I stand amazed and astonished with how, through God’s outpouring of Spirit, you have continued to say “yes” to our relationship. You have let me be me in this relationship and I hope I have let you be you. In times of disappointment, you have continued to extend forgiveness. I hope I have done the same. In times of challenge, our support has been mutual. At no time have you asked me to live small. And I hope you know that my desire for you as a congregation has always been to live big into those places where the Spirit is calling.
This week in lectionary we talked about the Spirit that rested on God’s people that first Pentecost. We shared our stories of Pentecost moments in our own lives—those moments when you can feel in your gut that something important is happening. That moment when there is an orientation or reorientation to how you see yourself and the world around you. When you recalculate your priorities with fresh eyes and ears. That is what happened on that first Pentecost. They heard differently. They saw more clearly. They listened more carefully. They responded more fully. Pentecost moments are those moments when we hear differently, see more clearly, listen more carefully, respond more fully, and allow God’s untamed Spirit to wash over us. And when God’s wild and freeing spirit rests upon us, we are never the same again.
This week, I have allowed myself to visit some Pentecost Moments that we have shared most recently in our ministry together. I ask for your patience as I name a few.
- The Service of Unity on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 when here in this Christian church, Muslims read from the Quran and prayed their prayers
- The Pentecost moments as two different Imams have preached from this pulpit representing that this Christian church we will not bow down to Islamophobia
- Partnering with the Rev. William Barber, the Moral Monday Movement, and the Repairers of the Breach to give witness that this Christian church will not worship at the altar of institutional racism
- The night after the Pulse Nightclub Massacre holding a vigil in this Christian church to denounce the violence against our LGBTQ brothers and sisters
- Standing with our LGBTQ sisters and brothers and saying that as a Christian church we will not allow any marriage license to be signed in our church building until marriage equality is the law of the land
- Welcoming a Catholic nun who was traveling the country with her message of economic justice to preach from this pulpit and then sharing communion with her and the sisters who accompanied her here at this table where all are welcome
- Knowing that a small group of men from this church who go to the local Mosque each week to share prayers with our Muslim brothers—Pentecost Moments
- Looking up at the choir this past Easter and seeing a Muslim who worships with us regularly singing the Hallelujah chorus as loudly as everyone else
- Those Pentecost moments when we have sat together in my office and cried tears of pain and disappointment, celebrated life’s joyful transitions, and listened to one another in the uncertain times
- Pentecost moments gathered around the hospital bed; or standing holding one another at the graveside; pronouncing you husband and husband, wife and wife, or husband and wife; laughing with you after one of our famous or rather infamous congregational meetings; walking your children up and down these aisles and now for the past two years walking your children’s children up and down these aisles for a blessing.
Today, we are a church and a people full of Pentecost moments. But here’s my message to you as we look back over our 25 years together. Pentecost moments have been happening to Pullenites and their pastors for generations. Our heritage comes from a Pentecost people—a people, lay and clergy, who for 133 years have been trusting in God’s wild and freeing Spirit, dreaming dreams and seeing visions of God’s radical and inclusive justice-love and then taking the risk to put their dreams and visions into practice. And their heritage came from generations of Baptists who dared to follow God’s wild and freeing Spirit putting their dreams and visions into action. And their heritage came from generations of men and women and prophets of old who followed God’s wild and freeing Spirit putting their dreams and visions of God’s justice and love into action. Each Sunday I look out at you and I see God’s people who are not afraid of those tongues of fire or those violent winds. I see God’s spirit people who take risks every day to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly. I see people who live in this world by the commandments to love God and neighbor and to walk not in fear.
It helps, now and then, to step back and take the long view: to remember that our Pentecost moments are rooted in Pentecost moments past and will become the soil for Pentecost moments yet to come. What was handed down to me and to you and to our relationship as pastor and congregation is bigger than us. And what we pass along at some future time, is bigger than us. What will be as our relationship continues is not our own. I still have dreams and visions and hopes for our relationship. And yet, I know whatever days are left for us together, they will be defined by a mutual relationship that we choose. Whatever present or future Pentecost moments come, they will emerge from the roots of generations past, watered by the present moment, and unfolded by the prophets of future Pullenites. It is our heritage and our hope.
And so I leave you with this poem by the Liberation theologian Archbishop Oscar Romero. The title of the poem is A Future Not Our Own.
A Future Not Our Own
A poem by Archbishop Oscar Romero
(murdered, 24 March 1980)
It helps, now and then, to step back
and take the long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of
the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete,
which is another way of saying
that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about:
We plant seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything
and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for God’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results,
but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders,
ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.
For all that has been, thanks be to God. For all that is, thanks be to God. For all that will be, thanks be to God.