From Pastor Kenny's Desk
May 20, 2018
“When the day of Pentecost arrived, they all met in one room. Suddenly they heard what sounded like a violent, rushing wind from heaven; the noise filled the entire house in which they were sitting. Something appeared to them that seemed like tongues of fire; these separated and came to rest on the head of each one. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as she enabled them.
Now there were devout people living in Jerusalem from every nation under heaven, and at this sound they all assembled. But they were bewildered to hear their native languages being spoken. They were amazed and astonished: “Surely all of these people speaking are Galileans! How does it happen that each of us hears these words in our native tongue? We are Parthians, Medes and Elamites, people from Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya around Cyrene, as well as visitors from Rome-all Jews, or converts to Judaism-Cretans and Arabs, too; we hear them preaching, each in our own language, about the marvels of God!”
All were amazed and disturbed. They asked each other, “What does this mean?” But others said mockingly, “They’ve drunk too much new wine.” Then Peter stood up with the Eleven and addressed the crowd: “Women and men of Judea, and all you who live in Jerusalem! Listen to what I have to say! These people are not drunk as you think-it’s only nine o’clock in the morning! No, it’s what Joel the prophet spoke of: ‘In the days to come-it is our God who speaks-I will pour out my Spirit on all humankind. Your daughters and sons will prophesy, your young people will see visions, and your elders will dream dreams. Even on the most insignificant of my people, both women and men, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. And I will display wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below: blood, fire and billowing smoke. The sun will be turned into darkness and the moon will become blood before the coming of the great and sublime day of our God. And all who call upon the name of our God will be saved.’” Acts 2:1-21
What would you say if I suggested that we often misinterpret Pentecost? Actually, not just misinterpret it a little, but generally get Pentecost completely backwards. Intrigued? Curious? Offended?
Honestly, I suspect we've heard the story of the wind and the tongues-of-flame and the dove and the crowds-hearing-the-sermon-in-their-own-languages just enough to believe that the promise of Pentecost is deliverance, celebration, victory, and strength. After all, the signs of Pentecost are mighty. And what is the Holy Spirit if it is not God's own representative … the very Spirit of the resurrected Jesus … now on earth to accompany us with signs of wonder and power.
Except that precisely because the promised Holy Spirit is the presence of the crucified and resurrected Jesus, we should never expect things to be so easy. Through the cross of Jesus, we see God's strength mediated through suffering, God's victory achieved through defeat, and new life pledged and provided through death. The crucified and resurrected God we meet in Jesus is a God of paradox, and so we should look for no less in God's Divine Holy Spirit.
For this reason, I want to offer what I'll describe as two of the paradoxes of Pentecost. First, 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 hear 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 proclaim 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, take note, doesn't solve the disciples' problems, it creates them.
In his article, It’s Not About You, New York Times columnist David Brooks challenged new college graduates to refrain from the American obsession with self-fulfillment and instead find themselves in service to others by making and keeping what he described as sacred commitments and by rising to the challenges they discover all around and outside of them. "Most successful young people," he writes, "don't look inside and then plan a life. They look outside and find a problem, which summons their life.... Most people don't form a self and then lead a life. They are called by a problem, and the self is constructed gradually by their calling."
I believe the same is true for people of faith and faith communities. We, as a congregation, will not fully discover who we are unless we continue to stretch ourselves in making it a priority to discover how we can give ourselves to others. Asking the question: Who and what is God calling us to be and do as individuals and as a congregation? No amount of time spent on developing a mission statement or devising new member campaigns can substitute for looking around our community, our work place, within our families and asking, Who needs us? and What can we (I) do with our (my) resources to share God's love and grace with others … and with the world? And, to know we are called to serve and be … just the way we are!
Paradox #2: The Holy Spirit doesn't prevent failure but invites it. Or, to put it slightly differently, the Holy Spirit invites us to find fulfillment and victory in and through our setbacks and failures. Over the years I have heard many church leaders say failure is not an option … sadly, this kind of mindset is paralyzing to many of people and lots of congregations. In being completely honest, ministry has taught me that failure is not only an option, it is inevitable. The problems this world … in our lives and in our church … face are too great, too complex, and too significant to imagine that we will find the best solution the first time around ... or maybe ever. The truth is, once we've identified a problem or a challenge, we must experiment ... and count on failing, innovate ... and count on failing, invent ... and count on failing again. During my student teaching days my master teacher told me over and over again, I tell my students to make a mistake every day - just not the same mistake! Each mistake, each set back, each false start, each failure is an opportunity to learn something and to grow.
Also, … and living in a success-obsessed world can lead us to forget this … ultimately, it's neither about us nor up to us. God is the Divine Creator, Sustainer and Redeemer of everything that is, and only God can bring the kind of redemption we long for and need. Our job is to partner with God's work wherever we can discern it. If the cross of Jesus teaches us nothing else, it teaches that success will not always look like success, and victory may often come disguised as defeat. The question isn't whether we're successful, but whether we're faithful.
This perspective gives us freedom to throw ourselves into lost causes, to place ourselves on the side of those who are most vulnerable, and to take great risks and dare great ventures. Why? Because we trust that whatever the immediate results of our efforts, both our hopes and our future are secured not by our abilities but by God's good promise. Resurrection … we need to remember … only and always follows crucifixion.
Knowing what God can do, I believe that God can move in our midst and show us a power beyond ourselves. I believe there is much more that God desires to accomplish through MCC Richmond as we gather in expectation of a miracle of the Holy Spirit. I wonder what problems the Holy Spirit is inviting MCC Richmond into … what failures will we entertain … what great ventures will we risk? Will we … can we … allow ourselves to realize the fullness of both the promises and the paradoxes of God's surprising, challenging, and renewing Holy Spirit? My hunch is, as we grow and serve together, we will all experience God’s faithfulness and abundance. And together, in all God’s many names and in everything that is holy, we will give thanks!