Sermon by Rev. Brian Combs, 6/9/19
The Christmas season is impossible to miss. The deep discounts start one second after Thanksgiving. The holiday music plays on every other speaker. The parade of floats meanders through downtown with Santa Claus bringing up the rear. The plastic nativity scenes adorn front lawns. And on December 25th, church services run from morning until midnight.
Same with Easter.
But when it comes to the third High Holy Day of the Christian year, I’ve never been invited to a Pentecost party, never received a Pentecost greeting card in the mail, never went on Pentecost break from work. At most, a few believers dress up in red for an hour on Sunday morning and politely sing happy birthday to the Church as the arrival of the Holy Spirit breezes by with little mention, or none at all.
Considering all this, why are mainline denominations avoidant of the Holy Spirit?
Acts 2:1-21 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.” But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’
In an Institution of patriarchy, a feminine Holy Spirit is threatening.
We’re scared of our faith making us look foolish in public.
We prefer autonomy over unpredictability.
To help begin Haywood Street, I was required to attend a church planter boot camp, a two-day intensive for pastors wanting to start new congregations. When I arrived at the meeting hall, young clergymen were gathered from all over, many wearing pressed khakis and ironed polo shirts. The small talk was primarily about how to lead the next purpose driven mega movement. On stage, the new church expert warned us about the astronomically high rate of closures, failing to evangelize once the first worship service was over, and the danger of fundraising after the bills are already due. Afterward, I had a one-on-one interview with the general of the event, the denominational consultant. He asked me questions for an hour about my spiritual biography, calling to the streets and the race of my best friend. After listening with growing frustration, I remember, to paraphrase, him ending our time together with this cautionary advice, “If you’re starting a suburban church, then you need to drive a BMW and be a member of the country club. If you’re starting a main street church, then you need to wear a button up shirt and join the Rotary Club. The most critical lesson to learn in planting a new congregation is whatever you see in the mirror, that’s the exact reflection of what your church should look like because no one will worship with someone different than themselves. The demographics don’t lie.”
In America, regrettably, he’s largely right. Church has too often been a hiding place from God, a haven where the pastor’s responsibility includes protecting the congregants from anyone who’s entirely other. Unity in Christ has come to be defined as uniformity in followers. To maintain our safety, many denominations have stayed away from the Spirit, avoiding her entirely.
Back in Jerusalem, the disciples did the same thing. The first church building was a locked upper room where the door was barred from anyone else coming in. Until a disorderly and frenzied exhale from above swept them up and out onto the streets below. There, with a roll call of nations from all over the known world, a disparate assembly of citizens started rubbing elbows with one another, comparing notes about life, and reconsidering the past prejudices that kept them apart.
Israelites were fraternizing with Samaritans, slaves were mixing it up with masters, women were speaking eye-to-eye with men, Arabs were shaking hands with Jews, Romans were empathizing with the people they had oppressed, foes were quickly becoming friends. In the chaotic mix of this disorienting scene, the disciples had to decide: do we go back home to the docks and return to our fishing nets or do we give our lives over to starting a church that looks like this?
Because those original Christians, however begrudgingly, said yes, we’re all in the pews today. Here to receive the connective power of Pentecost unleashed on us so that we too can worship beside, eat next to, and pray with the exact person we would never choose to be with in any other setting.
Like a fierce wind, topple our silos of separation where we huddle with our own kind. Like a refiner’s fire, burn away the settings of our preferred news feeds that censor out any dissenting opinions. Like a blazing tongue, translate the languages of all we shun as foreign. Like a mighty current, flood our reverberating echo chambers that reinforce what we already believe. And like a winged dove, send us soaring with birds not of the same feather.
Come, Holy Spirit come, and disrupt our sanctuaries of sameness.