Sermon for Pentecost May 24, 2015

Verlee A. Copeland

Texts: John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

Perhaps no author has spoken more eloquently about our experience of the holy on this Pentecost Sunday, than poet Gerard Manley Hopkins who wrote these brilliant words: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God, it will flame out shining, like shook foil.” Or in the words of the prophet Isaiah, “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of God’s glory.”

            God’s glory exploded into the world on Pentecost, the Jewish holiday also called Shavuot, which came fifty days after Passover. At this annual festival, faithful Jews from every nation, including the disciples, gathered in Jerusalem as they did every year to commemorate the reception of the Ten Commandments on Mr. Sinai. As Sinai was shrouded with fire and smoke, now the house where the disciples gathered appeared to fill with wind and fire. This incident, recorded in the New Testament book of Acts, tells the events that followed Jesus’ resurrection, describing the festival called Pentecost like this.

            “When the day of Pentecost had come, (the first followers of Jesus) were all together in one place” (2:1). All of a sudden, a sound came from heaven, like a strong wind, filling the house where the people had gathered. Something like tongues of fire rested on their heads. “And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit gave them the ability to speak”. Many who heard these messages in their own languages were amazed, though others thought the Christians were just drunk (2:12).

For early followers of the way, the day of Pentecost shocked them witless. It’s not that they weren’t expecting something to happen; they just didn’t know what it would be like or when it would come. Long before, the prophet Joel in what we call the Old Testament, foretold that the day would come when God would pour out God’s own Spirit on all flesh, empowering diverse people to exercise divine power. This would be a sign of the coming “day of the Lord” or the Kingdom of God on earth as in heaven (Acts 2:16-21; Joel 2:28-32).

This God power unleashed in the world is as hard for us to understand as it was for the first disciples. Fortunately, we don’t have to figure it our or understand it. The point of Pentecost is to trust God and open our lives to receive it.

We may wonder at God’s power and our own rapidly beating hearts when the Spirit moves us. When we’re open to it, we experience something not unlike both exhilaration and fear. Jesus tried to explain what the Spirit would be like to the disciples so that when it came upon them, they would not be afraid. He spoke to them patiently, consistently, as a mother tries to reassure her child.

In yesterday’s on-line devotional from the United Church of Christ, Pastor/Writer Jennifer Garrison Brownell tells a story about her young son’s struggle to make sense of this Jesus who is both dead, and alive and with us. She wrote that her son’s voice wavered urgently in her ear, "Mommy, there's a monster under my bed… and Jesus is in my closet!"  She describes how she meant well when she talked to her three-year-old about Jesus being always near, but like many of her good intentions in those early days of parenting, their little pre-bedtime chat did not have quite the effect she had hoped it would.  Now instead of a Friend to guide and comfort him, her son had a Nightmare in his closet.  They got rid of the monsters with a broom, sweeping them out from under the bed and then out the door, her little one shouting in his high, sweet voice, "Get out!  Get out and don't come back!"  What to do with Jesus-in-the-closet was trickier.  After all, unlike the monsters under the bed, Jesus is not just in the closet, but out of the closet, too. Jesus is everywhere!

            On Pentecost we celebrate the scary, awesome, shocking experience of Jesus everywhere, not only out of the closet of this young boy’s imagination, but also out of tomb, sprung from the cemetery, loosed both from the world, and into it.

            The Spirit didn’t come quietly to each Disciple in the night as they slept, gently stirring their hearts to faith. Rather imagine gathering in a basketball gym to hear Archbishop Desmond Tutu. As you stand side by side with Christians from every nation the roof begins to shake as the winds rattle with what feels like a tornado or microburst. Then your hair seems to stand on end, as flames of fire appear to dance upon the heads of those gathered, and you hear and understand a multiplicity of native languages: Chinese, Spanish, Greek, from every gathered nation.

            Jesus prepared and equipped the disciples for this though they did not know it: to proclaim God’s plans for the world and invite all people into alignment with God’s intention for humankind. The legacy of God’s Spirit loosed in the world empowers all believers together. Then God scatters us as seeds of hope upon winds of love, planting God’s spirit everywhere. If the disciples had only known that after three short years of study with Jesus they would be called upon to lead the class, they might have paid more attention.

            Fortunately, figuring out what God wants does not depend on our getting it right. The power of all that was, is, or ever shall be that we call God, works in and through all things as a healing, reconciling, creating force for good, despite our persistent human efforts to mess things up. Once the wind of God’s spirit rocks our world, we begin to experience this miraculous power for good already at work even as the world appears to unravel.

For example, a Midwest news story from this past week joined the mounting racial unrest of this past year in our nation. A young, white female police office had just returned from maternity leave and was in the process of issuing an arrest warrant for a young African American accused of involvement in a shooting this past September. He started running with the officer in pursuit. Soon, he turned and shot her. Before she died, she fired back, killing him in return. A mother lost her son; a premature baby just home from the hospital lost her mother. A community grieves.

            At the close of the week, the front-page story featured a half-page photo of black and white Americans standing shoulder to shoulder, holding hands in prayer. The small Midwestern city of Omaha refused to participate in the reactive violence that has wracked our nation, choosing instead a common path of lament for lost youth and brave servants, for victims of the drug culture, for victims of the gun culture, and for victims of racism.

            Across town in Omaha, there sits a United Church of Christ Church, Countryside Community Church, pastored by my friend and colleague Eric Elnes. His church, historically called the country club church, was at one time known primarily for white pearls and golf. In recent months, Countryside Church, empowered by the Holy Spirit that makes all things possible, voted to sell their church and build anew on a multi-acre triangle of land where the first interfaith community in this country is being created for mutual dialogue and prayer, hosting a Mosque, a Synagogue and this UCC church. The members of Countryside still wear pearls and they still play golf, while mutually engaged in faith with neighbors they did not previously know or understand. The Holy Spirit at Pentecost made improbable God things possible.

At some point that day of Pentecost, Peter, one of the leading followers of Jesus, stood up and preached his first sermon. Peter explained that Jesus had been raised and had poured out the Spirit in fulfillment of God’s promise through Joel (2:32-33). When the crowd asked what they should do, Peter urged them to turn their lives around and be baptized in the name of Jesus. Then they would be forgiven and would receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (2:37-39). Acts reports that about 3,000 people were added to the church that day (2:41). Not a bad response to Peter’s first sermon!

Sometimes the result of the movement of God’s Spirit is the explosive growth of the church as it did through Peter. Other times the Holy Spirit forges a new way into a wilderness as did Paul, who more often than not ended up in prison than as a televangelist captivating the crowds. We do not control the movement of the Spirit, but we trust that this Spirit of Truth will empower us as it did them for our mission this side of heaven.

Imagine that this day was like the moment when the lawyer finally shares the will after the funeral is over and your favorite Aunt Lorene has gone to God. Aunt Lorene always promised that after she died, she would not leave you empty-handed. She promised that she left something special for you in her safe deposit box, something you need in order to fulfill your purpose in life.

Jesus’ words to the disciples were like that. On different occasions, Jesus told the disciples that he would not leave them as orphans. He promised to send to them the Advocate, the Comforter, the Guide, the Spirit of Truth. To comfort them in their protest and sorrow, he assured them that if he didn’t go the God, then the Spirit would not be able to come. The coming of the Spirit was the next part of God’s plan, as the baton we talked about last week passed now from Jesus to the Holy Spirit, from the Holy Spirit to the disciples, from the disciples to generations of faithful followers before us, and from our forebears in faith onward to you and to me. Jesus said to the disciples in his last conversation with them:

"When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf.

…I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you…And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment:

16:9 about sin, because they do not believe in me;

16:10 about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer;

16:11 about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned…

16:13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the Truth.”

            The Holy Spirit turns our way of seeing the world upside down. Through the Spirit, we see that we sin, that is, we miss the mark, when we accept the small and puny possibilities of our own creation of a world. How much greater our capacity through faith? We settle for driving a used Chevy Nova when turbo charged God power sits unused in the garage. 

           The Holy Spirit transforms our global commitments. The rulers of the world, however great our nation, always pale in wisdom when compared to the wisdom of the Spirit of Truth who knows how to eradicate ISIS and other embodiments of evil, man’s inhumanity to precious humankind.    

The Holy Spirit guides us in the path of reconciliation and truth between all peoples, leading us to peace as a way of life even in every war torn, violence-rocked region of the world, including our own.

Here at First Parish, many of us experience the stirring of God’s Spirit in our time. We catch glimpses of possibility at the corners of our imagination, just now unfolding for those who have eyes to see. Our children lead the way this summer through vacation Bible school with a prayer flag project, inviting all of us to join them in time. Our youth lead the way in their commitments to things that matter, supporting the AIDS walk, testifying as bravely did middle school student Kate Marshall recently before a Senate sub-committee on behalf of a new drug that will change her world and the world of others with Cystic Fibrosis. You lead the way, as the Spirit moves through your heart and your life, stirring you to work you did not know you had in you, on behalf of our God whose power continues to shock and thrill us in its revealing. This past week twenty-eight of us gathered to hear Steve Rasche talk about his experience with Christians living in dire circumstances in the Kurdish no-man’s land of northern Iraq. Together we prayed for the power of God’s Holy Spirit to reveal to us a way out of no way to partner with peoples in need of a word of hope and the promise that they are not forgotten and are not alone. We will remember them.

As we remember this weekend the fallen who died serving this country, I asked my father to recall World War II and his arrival in both Hawaii after Pearl Harbor and in Osaka, Japan after the horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I asked him why he went there, given that the war was by then over, the truce signed. He said simply that while the war may have been over between nations, the war battled on in the hearts and lives of individuals unwilling stop hurting each other.

Perhaps Jesus came into the world to show us that the war is finally over. God doesn’t care much who is right and who is wrong, who owns the most toys or exercises the most power or has the most favorable form of governance in our time. Maybe what matters most to God is that this entire fabulous world filled with every living thing and human creatures both plentiful and diverse is a beautiful Garden of Eden and home of delight. The power of God’s Spirit heals and reconciles every other living thing to itself, and to the power that uttered it. Jesus showed us the way.

Concluding this morning where we began, the author of yesterday’s daily devotional tells us that her son eventually grew up a bit, and stopped imagining Jesus in the closet as such a scary idea. If the whole earth is now filled with God’s Holy Spirit, then there's no sweeping God out the door.  If the whole earth is charged with the grandeur of God, then maybe eventually we will grow up enough to trust God more, and the scary things will stop seeming so scary.  And on that wonderful day we will shout one to another in high, sweet voices, "Holy, holy, holy!"

May the power of God’s Holy Spirit flame out upon us and upon all people, shining, as shook foil.


Holy, holy, holy God!  We rejoice that the whole world is full of your glory!  Help us to know your overarching presence as a gift, in the scary times as well as the joyful ones.  Amen.