Sunday Sermon from Pentecost Sunday, May 19, 2013
Text: Acts 2:1-21
Preached by the Rev. Matt Gaventa
You may have noticed that I have now done what is almost unthinkable in most congregational settings. That's right, I've changed my regular seat. You know as well as I do that church people get very attached to their seats; I suspect most of you have sat on most Sundays in exactly the same place for most of the years you have been coming into this sanctuary. I suspect that exact part of the cushion has become your best friend; I suspect the wood on the pew has now permanently absorbed something of your aura. I suspect you would notice rather quickly if, on a regular Sunday morning, some of your number just spontaneously showed up in another section of the church without explanation. And so you may likewise suspect any number of things about me; after all, I was well informed when I arrived that your former pastors took residence in the center seat, just here behind the pulpit. And being a new pastor who was completely uninterested in change for its own sake, I had no objection to sitting exactly where I was told to sit. But genetics and circumstance have conspired against me. With apologies to those of you who have heard this already: the pulpit at its historic height is just a bit low for me; it pulls my eyes down too far for my own taste. And so the building & grounds committee obliged my request for something like this riser, which elevates the pulpit and makes my preaching task that much easier. But the unintended consequence of the riser is that if I sit in the middle seat to which I was assigned, I can no longer see any of your bright shining faces. And so I've changed my seat.
I've changed my seat even though I knew full well that there might be a handful of you with some vested interest in having the pastor sit in the middle, for reasons I couldn't venture to guess, perhaps symbolic, perhaps theological, perhaps simply as an overture to tradition. But as you now know that the change has no theological or symbolic motive; it's just a consequence of having called a reasonably tall pastor. It's a change occasioned more by who I am than by some agenda I might have. In fact the only agenda I brought with me was to come and listen and learn and begin to be able to tell the story of Amherst Presbyterian Church; I did not come with an agenda of change; and yet, as I sit here this morning in what is by all accounts the wrong seat, I realize that a season of change has nonetheless been upon us. Yes, graduation is in the air; and summer is around the corner, but here in this congregation the season of change started long before the weather turned, as you reached out to welcome a new pastor and his family. Your welcome has been extraordinary. But I know that even though I did not come here to change everything, that just by being here, that just by entering into this season of transition with you, that change has nonetheless been let loose upon us. And so the question is: are we afraid?
Are we afraid of change? Today is Pentecost Sunday; it marks the changeover between Eastertide and what liturgy refers to as Ordinary Time, the vast swath of Sundays that will occupy our attention between next week and the beginning of Advent. But it's not only a seam in our church calendar; among the disciples originally present to the story we heard today in the second chapter of the Book of Acts, the event of Pentecost was the most drastic kind of changeover, a seam in the very fabric of Creation. For them as for us, it has been some time since the miracle of Easter Sunday. The resurrected Jesus has come and gone, ascended now and leaving behind disciples who have had no recourse but to hide. In the solitude of that upper room, Jesus's promise has rung in their ears -- the promise of of a Holy Spirit who would come to empower them for the ministry and discipleship to which they had been called. And so the story that we read on this critical Sunday is the story of the arrival of that Spirit: "And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 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."
It's easy to get lost in the distractions of this text. Yes, the disciples suddenly find themselves speaking in languages they didn't previously know. Yes, they find themselves understanding languages they had never learned. But don't take your eye off the ball; Pentecost isn't just all talk; the real force of Pentecost is the arrival of the Holy Spirit into the selfsame world we occupy. In its own way it is no less a seismic event than Christmas morning itself, in the sense that both events mark God's unlikely and unrelenting entrance into the world. As the fulfillment of Jesus's promise to his disciples, Pentecost should be very good news indeed, a welcome change if there ever was one. And yet the language is filled with the most frightful imagery - a sound like the rush of violent wind, flames and tongues of fire. In his sermon to the crowd, Peter interprets the Pentecost event through the words of the prophet Joel, who foresaw the day of the restoration of Israel as a day of blood and fire with the sun turned to darkness. And so the question is, if the disciples are indeed witnessing the day of restoration; if they are indeed witnessing the coming of Jesus's promised Holy Spirit, if they are indeed witnessing the fulfillment of God's promises for all Israel, then why do they seem so afraid?
It's tempting to imagine that the disciples might fear change for the same reasons that we fear change. You know that refrain, whether you agree with it or not: that we like the way things are; that we're used to it; that it's comfortable; that I don't know, I just kind of got into this habit and it's worked out okay for me so far. Better the devil I know than the one I don't. The conventional wisdom on the fear of change is that inertia is just a powerful engine of comfort; that we like things well enough the way they are to be bothered. But note that this is defiantly not the case for the disciples. They've already walked away from the lives they once had; they've already given up everything. In the aftermath of the events of Holy Week they have clung by their fingertips to what must seem by this point to be Jesus's threadbare promises. They have been ostracized by the Jews and criminalized by the Romans and at this point in the story have nothing left to lose. I would think that the winds of change would be sweet relief. I would think that the flame and fire and sun turned to darkness, that the signs and portents of the day of the Lord would be for the disciples signs of hope and victory.
The problem is that none of those things have actually happened. Again, it's easy to get lost in the distractions of this text, but note that there's no real wind, and there's no real fire, and there's certainly no real blood or darkness. The author uses the language of Joel's prophesy as metaphor to dramatize something much less, well, dramatic. It's just a sound -- like the rush of violent wind. But there's no storm. Tongues -- as of fire. But, our red colors for Pentecost notwithstanding, there's no real fire. It's just the sound, the sound from the Heavens, the sounds of the disciples talking in so many new languages; for all our talk of the Holy Spirit as wind or the Holy Spirit as fire, Pentecost is an audial event, it's the event of a sound, and for the disciples who heard it and then expected wind and flame; for the Jews who heard it and then expected the total force of Joel's prophecy, the total restoration of Israel in blood and darkness, the total fulfillment of all of God's promises; for all those present who heard the sound and then kindled that dream of what the promised day would look like, how could they not be disappointed that nothing else happened? How could they not think Pentecost to be, as the poet says, full of sound and fury and signifying nothing? How could they not think Pentecost to be, as we might say, just talk?
Note for a moment that we've flipped entirely our opinion towards change. This here is the kind of change we can get behind. God promised it; the world needs it; that much we can agree on. The problem is that God's promise just feels like talk. Injustice and despair and wrath are the orders of the day. Things are not as they ought to be; everything is in its wrong place. Just this past week another mass shooting erupted, this time in New Orleans, where two gunmen opened fire on one of the city's famed Second Line parades, sending twenty to the hospital. And with the promises of Easter so freshly on our minds, how can we not ask, "Where is God's fire, the fire of judgment?" Just this past week a series of tornadoes of historic force ravaged several towns in North Texas, killing at least six people, wounding dozens, and leaving hundreds homeless. And with the day of Pentecost so freshly at hand, how can we not ask, "Where is God's storm, the storm of mercy?" Just this past week, in every hospital or funeral parlor or nursing home you know, the darkness struck, leaving countless families wounded in despair. And with the promises of the Day of Lord ringing freshly in our ears, how can we not ask "Where is God's light, the light of hope?" The disciples thought Pentecost would change the world. How can we not understand?
It's true that there was no Pentecostal flame or violent wind; it's metaphor, meant to convey the force and power of the sound that shook all Jerusalem. But that doesn't mean that Pentecost lacks an enforcement mechanism. Quite to the contrary: the Spirit of Pentecost appears and rests upon each of the disciples. At first, of course, this new power manifests in speech, as they converse in languages they never thought they knew. But it's not just talk. In the chapters ahead, armed with the new power of the Spirit, these disciples will go on to perform miraculous acts of healing throughout Jerusalem. In the years ahead, they will follow God's call as disciples throughout Israel and to the far reaches of the known world. The Holy Spirit enables and empowers them to deeds far beyond anything they might have previously imagined; it uses them for purposes beyond their comprehension; it shapes them into tools for God's work upon the landscape of creation. All of which means that Pentecost absolutely changed the world. Just not entirely as the disciples expected. They expected God to fulfill His promises, and He did - in and through them. They expected God to change the world; and He did, by first changing them. They expected on that Pentecost morning for the world to change; instead, God expected them to change the world.
For several of my teenage years I played a variety of instruments poorly for the high school orchestra. I had been in violin lessons from a young age, but it had never entirely taken, and by time ninth grade rolled around I was the orchestra equivalent of a utility infielder, someone you brought in off the bench to play triangle in the desperate hope that nobody would notice. But there was a particular concert where none of that mattered. We were set to perform in some regional orchestra celebration and competition, up and against other orchestras from high schools around the state. And we had practiced and polished some fleet of classical favorites, with one exception: a modern, minimalist nightmare of a piece whose name and composer I have blessedly forgotten. It was abstract and repetitious to a fault; the beauty of thing I suppose would only have emerged if we had landed every note exactly in its right place, but of course we did not run around with that kind of skill. We needed pieces where 85% could get you pretty far.
After weeks of practice, we were getting nowhere. I mean it sounded awful: abstract, repetitious, and soupy. Not a winning combination. And so the day of the competition, our conductor decided to change the rules. A sort of experiment. Instead of following the music to the letter, we were meant to improvise. He organized our improvisation: so many measures of this, so many measures of that. We used the sheet music as a harmonic guide while he counted off the measures, but the rest was entirely up to us, as if he were saying, "Alright, we're all in this together -- what do you want to do?" And so off to the competition we went, newly empowered, newly terrified, and deeply amused. When the time came, he stood before us and counted with faithfulness. He counted with grace. He counted with love. And we sounded ... terrible. I mean, terrible in a way that at least seemed amusing to the people listening. Terrible in a way where they didn't bother to tell us that we hadn't won. But the thing is that I'm not sure that we sounded any worse than we would have if we had just followed along with the printed music. It's not like the score was doing us any more favors than we were doing it. And at the very least we had been empowered. At the very least we had rethought our individual relationships to the whole. We had not really changed the music - it was as it always had been, the sound of a violent wind filling the house - but at the very least we had, ourselves, been changed.
This is the rub. Pentecost doesn't really change the world. It changes us. It is the Holy Spirit not only claiming us for God's purposes but empowering us for deeds beyond our imagination. It changes us so that we can change the world. It is, as it always has been, no small task. You may ask how we can possibly manage, and I tell you that God nonetheless stands before us and counts with faithfulness. You may ask how we can possibly succeed, and I tell you that God nonetheless stands before us and counts with grace. You may ask how we can possibly go unafraid, and I tell you that God nonetheless stands before us and counts with love. You can ask all of these questions and more, but on the day of Pentecost, on the day when God's promises are brought to life in and through us, the only real question is: "Alright, we're all in this together - what do you want to do?" People of Amherst Presbyterian Church, friends, this is our season of change; what do you want to do? At brunch this morning you heard from Blue Ledge Meals on Wheels: Amherst County has double the homebound and disabled rates of the state as a whole. The need is there. What do you want to do? You know that even in our own midst, in hospitals and funerals and nursing homes, the the pain of grief and mourning are as acute as ever. The need is real. What do you want to do? Around the world, injustice and despair and wrath are the orders of the day. Everything is in its wrong place. But this is our season of change: what do you want to do?