View print-optimized version | View pdf of bulletin

Day of Pentecost, Sunday, May 31, 2020 | 11:00 a.m.

Trusting in Abundant Grace

Lucy Forster-Smith
Senior Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 104:24–34
Acts 2:1–21

Probably the most dangerous aspect of being human at this point in history is the danger of losing hope. With so much sinking us down, way down, it is easy to simply throw in the towel at everything we encounter. Part of this loss of hope is grounded in the fact that we are people who live in the moment. We shrug off history as irrelevant. We walk around dazed and overwhelmed, and the horrors of an unarmed handcuffed African American man, George Floyd, having his life taken from him in broad daylight in a pristine city—yes, another in a long line of harm done to black and brown brothers and sisters—holds the danger of sucking any shred of hope out of us.

So social distancing be put aside, protesters, a riot of protesters, could not keep silence. And there we stand, with our masked faces, our hearts hammered by this one, our lives energized, burning out or igniting justice for every one of God’s beloved community.

“Where does this lead us?” you ask. It may come as a surprise, but it leads us squarely to this day in the life of the church: Pentecost. This is a day of erupting spirit—that is the Holy Spirit. This is a day of fire, flames like tongues, resting on a little band of disciples who have waited a long time for the promise!

Pentecost is the day of unity, when the range of languages arising from many cultures could be understood by all, when the message of none other than God Almighty swept in and started the dance, upended the assumptions, and with unrelenting vision for all of her children to be one in the Spirit, the dance goes on.

Pentecost is also the day that inaugurates God’s new day for radical inclusion. Yes, it is the words of that old prophet Joel—whose time was so riddled with darkness and fear—that the irreverent disciple, Peter, that rockin’ guy, quotes, redeploying them to state that everyone in the room, everyone in the streets, yes, everyone, young, old, male, female, menservants and maid servants are part of God’s plan.

And the plan takes every one of us, because a big God needs every hand, foot, construction engineers, community gardeners, baby rockers and preachers, doctors, nurses, professors and retirees for this one. Because this one is the hope train; this one, that is God’s plan, is for the healing of the world; this one is the loud and lumbering Spirit that is unrelenting in power that addresses the rage that arises from racism, sexism, classism, and counters all of this and so much more with a mighty force of God Almighty’s Holy Spirit.

Folks, this is big. Yes, Pentecost is a huge revival. And though on this day our stride is weary, we must persevere with hope. This is a day of birthing after a long and arduous labor. And it is a day of new life, new calling, not only for our kin but every child of God on this wide earth!

That day, that first-century day, held a lot of similarities to our day. If you ever feel fragile or helpless in the face of racism; if you ever feel overwhelmed by the unprecedented pandemic; if your heart breaks because the Zoom call just can’t replicate your little grandchild or your aged mother’s touch on your face, your arm, with fragrant light; if you wonder about the cold and heartlessness of governmental systems that are poised to help but often are too slow, too self-serving, too far from the real deal; if you have felt like your voice or your perspective was silenced, shoved aside, off on the margins because you are black or brown or woman or trans or Asian or in prison, Pentecostal or mainline, well, guess what? That was the first-century world as well.

Maybe not in those terms exactly, but in the occupiers and the occupied, the Roman world and the Jewish world. The disciples who had lost their leader on a cross and fifty days later were waiting. It was a time that tried the souls of those whose life had been awakened by the amazing grace and remarkable healing of Jesus. He taught them about the realm of God in our midst. He brought them to their knees with his love. He held their hearts and stirred their imagination for a world that did not shrink back from the tough stuff—the abuse and neglect of others; the poor and the prisoner; the widow and crooked tax guy; the ones who showed no hospitality and the arrogant ones who tried to set him up with their brilliant intellectual gyrations. Nope, it really was not all that different than now.

And so, just a few short days before the scene we read about a few moments ago, the eleven along with the newly called twelfth were together in a room. They were there for the Jewish holiday. But they were waiting for the promised Holy Spirit. Now you have to realize that all of the promises of the Holy Spirit that had been spoken of up until then were likely more like the still small voice kind of spirit. And most often the Holy Spirit arrives cloaked with comfort and tending the fear that often arises in our lives. So when all manner of ease starts breaking loose; when the wind knocks the plant off the ledge, when the eruption of sounds start bringing things open, they may have had second thoughts about it.

As it begins to happen they may have been slapping their foreheads, remembering the early days with their Lord, Jesus, when he launched the whole program with the quote from Isaiah—the Spirit, yes, the Spirit of the Lord is upon me—and that one almost resulted in getting him thrown over a cliff. Or they may have had their big ah-ha when they remembered the prophetic words of John the Baptist when he said he baptized with water but the one coming after him would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire.

The wind and the fire were just for starters. It then filled them up, that Spirit did, and the next detail is very, very important: they “began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.” Was it glossolalia tongues like showed up later in the formation of the church? It doesn’t seem to be. No, this manifestation of the Holy Spirit came to the disciples as a means of unifying the range of languages and cultures who were in Jerusalem from “every nation under heaven.” They were stunned that the sound that came from the multitude of Galileans, disciples, could be heard in their own language. Marvelous!

Of course there are the ones in the crowd who are bewildered and perplexed, and then there are the naysayers, the cynics who think the disciples with their assiduous ability with language are drunk. It is then that Peter, the apostle that Jesus declared is the rock on which the church will be built, steps out. Preacher Peter finds his voice and starts it up, and we can only imagine the crowd leaning in, wondering if this is the end, the sky falling, the end of time erupting, igniting, coming from every direction, or the beginning of something untold.

Peter’s text is the prophet Joel. For Peter the coming of the Spirit signals a new day, a profoundly inclusive day, where young and old, male and female, servants of both genders are included . . . in the last days—this is when the vision and dreams are bold and unrelenting. This is when the power of God goes toe-to-toe with the power of divisiveness, and it is when we come to realize that the sweet and calm of balmy breezes gives way to the absolute necessity for us to be people of the Spirit of God, filled with this power from on high to counter the powers in this world that assume they have the last word! And God’s last word, I am here to say, is a word of hope and one that arrives when we least expect it in a form that may surprise us.

In an interview with the famous Latinx writer on self and society, Richard Rodriguez, Krista Tippet of On Being/Speaking of Faith fameasks him about a book he wrote that ended with the juxtaposition of Mother Teresa and atheist Christopher Higgins. It was a time when Higgins was going from cable channel to cable channel to tell us God is dead. Rodriguez notes that after Mother Teresa’s death, a number of her letters to confessors and bishops were revealed: “For forty years of her life, Mother Teresa describes her life as a darkness.” Rodriguez contrasts the paradox of Higgins’ exuberant certainty with Mother Teresa’s despair.

Tippet asks Rodriguez why he ended his book, Darling, with the contrasting views. Rodrigues responds:

I once was with [Mother Teresa] in San Quentin prison. It was the most remarkable afternoon I can remember, religiously. There was a group of prisoners, and she was supposed to meet these guys from death row. . . . this tiny little woman . . . four foot tall or something, in her sari. She tells them in that little tiny voice that if you want to see the face of God, look at the prisoner standing next to you. These tattoos coming up over their necks: look at the man next to you. This man who has murdered and raped: that’s the face of God.

And Rodriguez says, he didn’t know that. He didn’t know. He’d been looking at the holy picture all this time when he should look more closely at the face of the sinner to find the face of God (Krista Tippet, Becoming Wise, pp. 207–208).

Pentecost blasts the categories, the life of God in this world. It blows you out of the water, this power of the living God. And it sets up a whole new pattern, undoing the assumptions that keep us from living Spirit-filled, Jesus-animated lives. We are tempted to back away from those who scare us with their tough talking, unrelenting beat for justice. We may only seek the calming, soothing, white-bread faith. And you may lose heart. You may be waiting in a room, alone, wondering if you’ll ever be able to join with others to serve those in need. And even more, we may wonder if the Spirit of God and the church she works so hard to animate has lost its nerve as it has traveled over the millennia.

But we are Pentecost people, those who hearts are hitched to the power of the living God! So let us boldly step into all that threatens to undo us and let us open our lives to the Holy Spirit’s new, abundant, healing, inclusive power to address the pain with promise and hope. The Spirit is ready to pour out the abundant life on each and every child of God on this planet. And hope unhinged is the watchword. This is hope that arises from encounters with adversity and that asks us to embody a hope that is fantastic, a hope that awakens the impossible hope, that brings the planetary good to each and every one of us, by the fantastic power of the Holy Spirit of Christ to us for this day. Amen.