May 20, 2018
William G. Carter
William G. Carter
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 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.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
In the midst of a lot of wind and fire, a new community was formed. That is the miracle of Pentecost. Beginning with the Jews who gathered from “every nation under heaven” – or at least, every nation known in the Mediterranean world, God’s Spirit blows open the windows of a fearful church. The lungs of a multitude are filled with the Holy Spirit. Bold testimonies about Jesus are preached. Everybody hears the message in their own language, and they all discover that they belong together in Christ.
That’s the miracle of Pentecost. A new inclusive community is formed. Everybody belongs.
Know what we need? Another Pentecost.
In the small town where I began my ministry, there were two Lutheran churches. They were two blocks apart. Now, I know there are a lot of Lutherans in the Lehigh Valley. The Germans are pretty dense down there. But two blocks apart?
And they told me the story: the first Lutheran church was founded in 1851. It took them a year to get moving, but by July 4, 1952, they put a cornerstone on a plot of land that they purchased for $300. The Rev. Jeremiah Schindel preached a dedication sermon on Christmas Day, and St. Paul’s Lutheran Church was begun.
By 1868, the church was in trouble. The worship services were spoken in German, and some wanted to worship in English. For a while, they solved the problem by have a German service in the morning and an English service in the evening. The church council, consisting of two old German guys, decided it wasn’t worth the effort, so they cancelled the English service... and a faction departed to create an English-speaking congregation two blocks away.
In time, the German-speaking congregation switched to English-speaking services, but did the two congregations apologize and recombine? Of course not. We need another Pentecost.
Is this exclusive to the Lutherans? No. For a while, my wife played the organ for a Presbyterian congregation that was worshipping in a Roman Catholic sanctuary. Located on a street named after an American League umpire, it was one of three Catholic churches located on corners of the same block. One was Irish, another was Italian, and the third was made up of leftovers (i.e. neither Irish nor Italian).
On the fourth corner is a Russian Orthodox church, and around the block is a Ukrainian Catholic church. All of them wanted a priest who would speak exclusively to them. It took a bishop with the subtlety of a bulldozer to get any of them to work together, and he paid a harsh price to get it down. We need another Pentecost.
And it’s not exclusive to Lutherans and Catholics. In 2003, in the very next room, a retiring Presbyterian minister met with a committee to discuss the congregation he was leaving. It began as a Welsh congregation, but the neighborhood had changed. There’s a Mexican grocery on one corner, a soul food kitchen on another. Down the street, a Polish funeral home sits near an Italian restaurant.
The minister was troubled. As he was preparing to retire, he reported a faction in his congregation wanted to hold the line and resist all these newcomers. One of his elders proposed that they only allow new members into their church if they spoke Welsh or had a Welsh last name. The motion did not pass, but the sentiment did not go away. In time, the church sold the building rather than reach out to their new neighbors. I think we need another Pentecost.
On the first Pentecost, Luke says there was every nation under heaven. They had gathered for a religious festival fifty days after Passover (hence the name “Pentecost”), and instead got a multilingual sermon about Jesus raised from the dead. Everybody understood it. The Holy Spirit brought voice and understanding. An inclusive community was formed. It was a miracle of God.
It can happen. God willing, the wind can blow, and it can happen.
In 1906, a one-eyed preacher named William Seymour was invited to preach for a series of revival services on Azusa Street, in a run-down part of Los Angeles. The newspaper called the building a “tumble down shack,” but Rev. Seymour kept preaching and the Holy Spirit came down. Within a few months, a couple dozen people grew to crowds of 1500 a week, all crammed into that tumble-down shack.
The remarkable thing is not that there were signs, wonders, and miraculous healings – but that the crowd was so diverse: women, men, children, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, rich, poor, educated and illiterate. This was at the height of Jim Crow discrimination laws, and yet the races were “mingling” for Christian worship. Women “got the Spirit” and stood up on tables to preach. They didn’t wait for the Pope or the Presbyterians to give them approval, either. The Holy Spirit said, “Preach the Gospel,” and they preached. A new community was formed.
It’s an appealing memory, don’t you think? In our time, we could use more of this sort of thing.
In historian Jon Meachum’s latest book, The Soul of America, he reminds us of what he calls “a universal American inconsistency” – we uphold life and liberty for some and hold back others deemed unworthy. If you know about the immigration waves that have come through our region for the past 150 years, you know that yesterday’s immigrants were always beating up on the immigrants that arrived today.
The truth of the Gospel is that every human life matters. Every one. If you tuned into yesterday’s royal wedding, you may have been blessed to hear that marvelous sermon by Archbishop George Curry. He spoke the truth, the Pentecost truth, that love is the way to live, that it is the only way.
Imagine this tired old world where love is the way. … When love is the way, then no child will go to bed hungry ever again. When love is the way, we will let justice roll down like a mighty stream and righteousness like an ever-flowing brook. When love is the way, poverty will become history. When love is the way, the Earth will be a sanctuary. When love is the way, we will lay down our swords and shields, down by the riverside, to study war no more. When love is the way, there's plenty good room for all of God's children because when love is the way, we actually treat each other well, like we are actually family. When love is the way, we know that God is the source of us all and we are brothers and sisters, children of God. My brothers and sisters, that's a new heaven, a new Earth, a new world, a new human family. (https://bit.ly/2IYIXwG)
I’m ready for another Pentecost. How about you? Because this new heaven, this new earth, this new human family is where everything is headed in the glory of God. Pentecost is the first glimpse of what God wants for the world through Jesus Christ our Lord. And it can happen, if we get out of the way and let love become the way.
Last June, my wife and I were invited to spend a weekend in Placitas Presbyterian Church in northern New Mexico. The pastor was gone on a sabbatical and they were desperate for a preacher, so we went. The congregation is a bit smaller than this one, about a half hour north of Albuquerque. The people have a great gift of hospitality, provided a comfortable bed and a lot of tacos.
When we arrived at the church, they said, “By the way…” (Usually that means, “Uh oh, what did we get ourselves into?”) They said, “By the way, the service is bilingual. It’s in two languages, Spanish and English.” Did that mean the service was twice as long? Oh, no. They did the hard work of blending everything, speaking both languages, singing both languages, welcoming both, and making room for all.
As we drove away, Jamie said, “There was something magical about that place.” I blurted out, “The Holy Spirit was there.” She looked at me funny, like she often does, as if to say, “You’re talking preacher-ese again.” I said, “God was there, with all of us. That’s difficult to quantify by easy to tell. Everybody was welcome. Even us.” The Gospel was for everybody. That’s Pentecost.
This afternoon, I’m preaching at a new minister’s installation. Another desperate church, I’m afraid. It is the Presbyterian Church of Lamington, New Jersey. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because the church is a quarter mile from the gate of Trump National Golf Course. Right after the presidential election, Mr. Trump and Mr. Pence worshiped there, with a half hour advance notice from the Secret Service. My friend Carlos is just starting as the new pastor.
So I said to him, “How’s that going to work out for you?” He said, “It’s a remarkable church. It’s purple. There are red voters and blue voters. Many have deeply held convictions on either side, but they get along with another. They believe the Gospel is a lot bigger, a lot more inclusive, than one opinion or one political position. We want to be a church for all people.”
What can we say? It’s Pentecost. And on Pentecost, God sent the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus Christ, to push and shove the church beyond its own boundaries, because the Gospel is for everybody. Isn’t that what we want?
We ordain our elders to led us to be a church for everybody. We ordain our deacons to help us care for all people, regardless of who they are or what burdens they carry. For the truth is clear: when God breathes the Spirit on us, when God puts the Gospel in the air for everybody to hear it, there are no longer insiders or outsiders; in the grace of Jesus Christ, everybody belongs… because today is Pentecost, when the love of God is poured out on a crowd so much larger than we ever imagined.
And if we lean in real close, we will hear God say, “This is what I intended from the beginning.”
(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.