Over the past month, I've taken a couple of flights; one to see my mother in Oklahoma and another to attend a preaching conference in Atlanta. I confess that whenever I fly my anxiety level rises. I am not worried about the plane crashing, I'm not claustrophobic and I'm not afraid or being involved in some kind of disaster. What worries me when I fly is that a stranger sitting on the plane next to me will want to engage me in conversation.
I don't mean to sound as if I don't like to meet new people. I'm no introvert who feels drained by conversation. It's just that I'm afraid the person will ask me the dreaded question. And, I'm sure you know what that is. "What do you do for a living?"
After I respond, "I'm a minister," there's no telling what will come next. Often, the person simply says, "Oh." As in "Oh, really." Or "Oh, not one of those." Or "Oh, I think I'm in the wrong seat, I'm supposed to be sitting in the back."
Don't get me wrong. I am not ashamed of being a minister. I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to serve the church. I love being a minister and, the fact is, I do not have a clue what else I could do. It's just that when I'm on a plane and the person sitting next to me discovers I'm a minister, it can become a bit awkward. If the conversation does not completely grind to a halt, it usually proceeds along one of two lines. Either they think I'm some sort of religious nut who holds irrational beliefs and is ready to whack them with the Bible and twist their arm until they say they believe in Jesus, or they say "Praise the Lord," and start rattling on about Joel Osteen and the prosperity gospel.
I am always anxious about answering this question because I don't want the person to think that I'm some sort of moron who has thrown away his brains and wants to do away with science. I don't want the person to think I'm a male chauvinist who believes women should be subservient to men. And, I do not want him to start apologizing for the drinks he ordered from the flight attendant!
I want to very quickly tell the person, "It's okay, I'm a Presbyterian." I hope they understand that means I am not a religious fanatic. I want them to know that we Presbyterians are rational, balanced and normal. We are reserved and dignified. We do not have bizarre beliefs and we do not let our emotions runaway with us.
And yet these same characteristics that make me proud to be a Presbyterian also are a cause for concern. We "decently and in order" Presbyterians can miss something vital if we fail to recognize the surprising and unpredictable activity of God's Spirit. In our drive to make sense of our faith, we must be careful not to close ourselves off from the mystery of our faith. In our critical task of spelling out what we believe, we must not become blind to the unpredictability of God. In our desire not to be seen as religious fanatics, we must not give in to the temptation to become timid in living our faith.
Today is Pentecost Sunday, the day Christians celebrate God's Spirit filling the first disciples and launching them on their mission. This morning's passage from the second chapter of Acts tells the story of an event that seems to defy description. The author of this first century event says that close followers of Jesus, perhaps numbering as many as 120, were gathered in one place at nine o'clock in the morning. "And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability."
A violent wind rushing through the house? Tongues of fire resting on each disciple? The Holy Spirit filling them so that they can speak in foreign languages? This was not exactly a typical Presbyterian study group, was it?
Pentecost must be the most un-Presbyterian day on the church calendar. It just doesn't fit with our M.O. We are practical and predictable, we are rational and reserved. We do not go in for wild, ecstatic experiences of the Spirit. So, one way to treat this passage is to simply write it off as an incomprehensible exaggeration from the ancient world.
Or perhaps, we can say that since Luke wrote his gospel and the Book of Acts some fifty years after this event, maybe his language was as much poetry as prose. Had we witnessed the event with our own eyes, maybe we would have interpreted it differently. But Luke is trying to tell us that after Jesus was no longer physically present, his disciples did not pack up and go back to their former jobs. God's Spirit inspired them and empowered them for the new road ahead.
Pentecost ought to fire up our faith with some passion. It ought to remind us that sometimes God seeks to shake things up, dislodge us from our typical patterns and thrust us into new ways of living.
Pentecost is the day we celebrate the fact that God's Spirit is loose in the world, urging us to live with Christ-like compassion and challenging us to extend ourselves beyond what is reasonable and expected; to go beyond what is measured and balanced. These words were never used to describe Jesus. They used other words to describe him. Trouble maker comes to mind, because he sought to disrupt a status quo that rewarded wealth and punished poverty, that blamed victims for their suffering, that praised self-righteousness over honest confession and that limited mercy only to those who were deemed worthy.
Jesus was not reasonable and restrained; he was not measured and moderate. And for good reason; he was tanked up with God's Spirit. And God's Spirit pulsing through his veins created an extreme thirst for justice and produced within him an infinite quantity of self-giving love. So when he taught, he often set people on edge. He said, "You think you are being generous when you forgive someone seven times. God wants you to forgive not seven times, but seventy-seven times." (Matthew 18:22) He said, "You imagine that prosperity is a sign of God's blessing; I'm sorry, you're confused. Blessed are the poor because they have a special standing in the kingdom of God." (Luke 6:20) He said, "You think it is just to limit retribution to an eye for an eye, but I say turn the other cheek." (Matthew 5:39) "In fact, you should love your enemies and do good to those who hate you." (Luke 6:27) He told the people a story about God that pictured God as not being very reasonable either. He said that God was like a father who had two sons. One of the sons took his half of the inheritance and blew every penny on wine, women and dancing until the wee hours of the morning. And when he was dead broke and tussling with the pigs for a scrap of food, he dragged himself home to see if he could simply get a hot meal. When he arrived, his father did not say, "I hope you've learned your lesson," but instead declared, "You want to party? I'll show you a party!" (Luke 15:11-24)
Pentecost celebrates the fact that the same Spirit that filled Jesus, filled his disciples. And it made them so passionate about God's love and so determined to break down the barriers that alienated people from one another, that people thought there was something not quite right with them. How could these men possibly believe that people from different countries, different cultures and different faith traditions could live together in peace? Some who witnessed this Pentecost event were amazed and baffled by what was going on with the disciples. Others were cynical and sniped, "They've had far too much wine to drink!"
Well, they were drunk all right. But not on alcohol. They were drunk with God's Spirit. And when people are intoxicated with Spirit of God, they become a little wacky and starry-eyed. "Young men see visions and old men dream dreams." They begin to see the world, not as it is, but as God envisions it can be. And when people imagine a world where all have enough to eat, where all receive medical care, where all care for God's creation and where all are treated with respect and dignity, they break out of normal patterns of behavior and begin to love with reckless abandon, to give with an uncalculated generosity and to forgive with a magnanimous heart.
Pentecost is not so much the remembrance of an event from long ago as it is the recognition that the same vibrant, life-altering Spirit that inspired those first disciples to risk living like Jesus is as available to us as it was to them. God's Spirit is alive in our midst challenging us to burst out of our routines and to act a lot less like our cautious, reserved selves, and a lot more like the first followers of Jesus who were accused of turning the world upside down.
Jim Lowery remembers a hot night in the summer of 1958, just weeks before he was to leave home for college. In the middle of the night, the telephone rang and woke up everyone in the family. His father picked up the phone. It was the chief of police of their small town in South Carolina. The chief reported that one of his officers, Bean Pole Hammond by name, had caught Billy Bradford, flashlight in hand, pilfering through the merchandise in the hardware store owned by Jim's father. Jim says that Billy was a twelve-year-old throw-away child of a hard-living, down-on-her-luck woman who lived on the wrong edge of the wrong side of town. Jim remembers that the first question out of his dad's mouth was not about the condition of the store and its merchandise, but rather what they had done with Billy. The chief said that he had been taken 20 miles away to the county jail.
The next morning after breakfast, Jim's dad did what he always did immediately after breakfast. He read out loud a passage from the Bible. But that morning his father broke from his usual custom of reading straight through the Bible, one chapter a day. That day his father left his book mark in the place he had left off the day before and skipped to Matthew 25. And his father slowed down in his reading when he got to the verse where Jesus said, "I was in prison and you visited me." He slowed down again when he reached the verse in which Jesus said, "In as much as you have done it to the least of these ... you have done it unto me." When his father finished reading the chapter, he closed the Bible and offered their family's morning prayer, and he included Billy in the prayer. Then his father stood up from the table, kissed his wife and drove the twenty miles to the county court house. At the court house he spoke to his friend, the county judge and he talked the judge into the sentence he thought Billy deserved. So when Billy came before the judge, the judge sentenced him to live for the next three months with Jim's family.
Jim says that Billy came into their lives with neither shoes nor shirt and only one pair of high-water pants. And he was welcomed by Jim's father like a son. He lived with them for three months because he had to. However, for several years after that, he came back and lived with the family as often as he needed or wanted a clean bed, clean clothes and a place at the table. Jim says that today, Billy, his wife, children and grandchildren are all doing just fine.
What Jim's father did was not standard operating procedure. It was neither logical, nor the expected thing to do. Nobody invites the one who has tried to steal from you to come live with you.1 Nobody, that is, except maybe someone who has been filled with God's Spirit; someone who has been given a vision of divine justice and a dream of Christ-like love.
Are you brave enough to drop your defenses and set aside your routine way of responding to others long enough to allow God's Spirit to get into you? If you are, there's no telling what might happen. People might even begin to think you are drunk at all hours of the day.
1. James S. Lowry, "Preaching the 2009 Easter Texts," in Journal for Preachers, Easter 2009, p. 5.
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