Sermon for Pentecost, June 4, 2017
So I spent the early part of this week touring northwest Nebraska and camping in the black hills. We visited Scottsbluff, Windcave, Custer State Park and the Nebraska Sandhills. And we spent a lot of time staring at campfire flames.
The Scripture says,
Suddenly they heard a sound like the rush of a violent wind, God’s Holy Ruach.
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.
Tongues of fire touched each of them and filled them with the holy spirit.
Pentecost is signified with the color red because the holy spirit is likened to flame. After staring at a campfire for days, it’s easy to visualize the way a flame bends and curves and flashes and flicks, at once capable of engulfing or ignoring an object.
It is the time when God breathed on the disciples and infected them with His holy purpose. God’s breath, hot and contagious, sparks in each of us our unique gift to help ignite the church, to help electrify the body of Christ, to help drive it out into the world. The holy flame alights on the disciples, and it catches fire. It is contagious and quick, powerful and elusive. It touches on the disciples, as they gather as Jesus had instructed, and enables them to tell the story of the power of God in every language.
I don’t know about you, but Pentecost is not a church event that brings back strong memories for me. I don’t remember there ever being a pageant, or special music, or even a really good children’s message. If you are like me – Congregationalist, born and bred – you may have not been schooled in Pentecost whatsoever. Being a bit of a cool, calm and collected tradition; an intellectual, diplomatic, proper and understated tradition… we are pretty far from the Pentecostal, or what ministry folks would call ‘spirit-led’ church traditions. I’m not sure I ever heard much about the Holy Spirit, and even less about how it moves among us.
But Pentecost Is a big deal. In fact, Pentecost could be seen as more important that Christmas, in terms of our history. Pentecost is considered the birth of the church. It is the day that ‘church’ became a thing. It is the birthplace of evangelism, of taking the message of God out of the comfort of the upper room, and into the world.
In our scripture last week, reading from Acts of the Apostles and the book of Luke, Jesus orders the disciples to remain in Jerusalem until they receive the Holy Spirit – not that they necessarily knew what he was talking about. But they did as told, stayed put until something took hold of them that was so undeniable that they started talking in tongues. Pentecost is traditionally celebrated 50 days after Easter, perhaps echoing how Moses received the commandments 50 days after leaving Egypt. But in the book of John, our last reading today, the disciples are actually touched by the holy spirit on the Resurrection Day. They are gathered in the upper room, on the first day, in a locked room. The Resurrected Jesus emerges into the room, despite the locked doors and delivers the Holy Spirit upon them – breathing it into them himself.
It is then that the disciples go out into the world inspired with the gifts of the Holy Spirit – the gifts of tongues and impassioned speech, the gifts of courage and determination, the gifts of compassion and service for God’s people, the gifts of preaching and teaching throughout the land.
When I was touring our land here in Nebraska and South Dakota this week, I learned a lot about Nebraska geology. I learned that this area was covered with seas 7 times throughout history, giving us the sandy soils of the Northwest. And I learned that so much of that soil has blown or eroded away that the top of Scottsbluff used to be the level of the land. I even examined the remains of sea creatures – whales, perhaps – on the top of a bluff at 4000 feet above sea level.
We went underground too, at Wind Cave, walking through miles and miles of underground channels worn through limestone by acidic groundwater. All those years of sea and wind, erosion and volcanic eruption, designed a fascinating story that took generations to uncover.
And throughout each of these visits, I kept hearing ‘when the black hills emerged’… Which was baffling; how does rock and ground that rises 7000 feet in the air, taller than anything except the Rockies and the Swiss Alps, emerge? The rock was formed underground by the same substance that is called ‘lava’ above ground; magma. The Magma cooled under the earth’s surface, and then was pushed by later volcanic activity, perhaps as much as 2 billion years ago. In this ‘uplift,’ they were covered by much more soil and sediment, which wore away under wind and rain, just like with Scottsbluff, resulting in the interesting crevices and pillars and needle eyes that exist today.
The most fascinating part of this was the way each of these processes impacted each other. In Wind Cave, most of the rock is craggy or rounded or covered with calcium deposits or hollowed out. But, amidst all this random bumpiness, there are straight lines of material that resembles a kind of spiderweb or honeycomb design, protruding from the more smooth and rounded stones. These formations are what cave experts called ‘boxwork’. When the black hills emerged, erupted, worked their way to the surface, it was such a powerful force that it left cracks in all the other surrounding rock. And, into those cracks spilled life – water, soil, plant growth and plant death, and began the process of solidifying into earth all over again. But the remains of what is in these cracks is not yet hardened into stone. And when the groundwater turned acidic and began to wear away the limestone, the earth filling in those cracks left by the emergence of the black hills remained, straight and unique, leaving a lacework on top of canyon-like cave walls.
Jesus emerged, erupted, into our world 2000 years ago. His life and death and resurrection disrupted, and broke through our earthly world with a demonstration of God’s power on earth. It cracked the foundation of the world as we knew it. The moment he died, the cloth in the temple was torn from top to bottom, creating a tear in the fabric of our existence. Like the Black hills, God’s power demonstrated through Jesus tore through the earth’s surface and made new things possible. And in his life, and death, and resurrection, Jesus created ripples – cracks – in the surface of our lives. Cracks in the world as it is, so that we would know how close God’s power is to our mundane lives. And into those cracks poured the Holy Spirit, bringing life-giving water for our thirst, nurturing our lives, allowing growth and death and rebirth, and slowly solidifying our strength in this world. The holy spirit is like the boxwork in the caves, filling up what we might think of as broken with solidifying comfort, and growth, and energy. What filled those cracks in windcave has actually lasted longer than the ground matter that came before it. Like the church, it carries the mark of that eruption in time, that crack in the space between God and us, and provides strength for God’s purpose. Like the boxwork in the cave, it is the sediment of God that was formed in our lives which has stood the test of time.
The boxwork, the interlaced structure of relationship and proclamation that began with this first touch of the Holy Spirit, this first lick of that flame, is the structure that started the church that we are in today. Without Jesus, we wouldn’t have the cracks, but without Pentecost we wouldn’t have all the work that came after. Pentecost is the church’s birthday! But the festivities of this day pale in comparison to that of Christmas, and Easter, and that’s curious. Why do you think we neglect Pentecost?
Perhaps it is because, while Christmas puts Jesus at the center, and Easter puts God at the center, Pentecost puts us at the center. Christmas delights us. Easter amazes us. Pentecost makes a demand on us. It requires us to use our gifts to continue building the boxwork of the church. We are required to go out and proclaim the ways we fulfill God’s kingdom, the ways the Holy Spirit enriches our lives, the gifts that flame bestows upon us.
Whether your gift is preaching the good news or pricing a rummage sale. Whether your gift is caring for the least of these, or caring for the church grounds. Whether your gift is calling for justice in the structures of society, or shopping for doors to improving the structures of our building. Whether your gift is providing safe space for growing youth, or safe space for seeking hearts. Whether your gift is managing a budget for the church or communicating a vision for the church. Whether your gift is teaching the story of Jesus, or reaching the community with your sign-making. Whether your gift is feeding and clothing the multitudes, or finding out where food, and clothing is needed. Whether your gift is lifting up God with music or lifting up those who need a little light in their lives… these are all gifts of the holy spirit. They are how we fill in the cracks in our world and grow our boxwork to build God’s kingdom. It is the way the holy spirit moves, fills us, uses our gifts, that stays behind.
The Holy Spirit touches each of us with our gifts, and electrifies those gifts to fulfill a purpose in God’s kingdom. Frederick Buechner once said, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” This is how the Holy Spirit moves within each of us. The gifts are each as unique as we are. But those gifts become the boxwork of God’s kingdom when they come together. Your gifts, those flametips of the Holy Spirit, are needed here in this church, and in this world. On this Pentecost day, what is the Holy Spirit sparking in your heart? What demands is God making on you on this day to grow the kingdom?