The Sanctuary Sermon for
The Sanctuary Sermon for 5/23/21
“Psst…Your Head’s On Fire!” Acts 2:1-8, 10-18
Who remembers this song of the early seventies, written during a time of social change stirred by the counter-culture? I wasn’t even a teenager yet, that’s how old this song is; it was written on a scroll. The end refrain went,
Ah changes are taking the pace I’m going through
Turn and face the strain
Oh, look out you rock and rollers
Pretty soon now you’re gonna get older
Time may change me
But I can’t trace time
I said that time may change me
But I can’t trace time
D-D-David Bowie, Changes!
Nadia Bolz-Weber shares a story when her inner-city church was gifted a full set of beautiful used altar cloths. She describes as they went through them, they came to the red set for Pentecost with an image of a descending dove with crazy eyes and claws that looked like talons. Yep. It was as though the Holy Spirit was a raptor. “Man, someone said. We can’t use this one, it makes the Holy Spirit look dangerous.” Hmmmph.
I think that was some completely sound advice.
We like to describe Pentecost as the birthday of the church, even as I wished you a happy birthday this morning. But if truth be known, it’s always kind of smacked of oversentimentality to me. Because it’s not exactly a quaint story. It’s a dangerous one. The story opens with that small group of believers isolating themselves as the text says, all together in one place. Perhaps they were afraid of outsiders, so they all stayed together. Had they known better they would have been afraid of not dispersing because what was about to happen would have freaked out even the bravest amongst us. They were in danger but not from outsiders – the danger they were in as they all sat together in one place, was from a God who is about to crash the party and bring in everyone they were trying to avoid.
Things got crazy with the wind and voices and languages and tongues of fire. Actually, the event that happened that Pentecost day in first century Jerusalem bears little resemblance to what the church has become in 21st century America. There were no guitars or power-point, committees or children’s church. At the so-called birth of the church there were no ushers handing the Parthians a service bulletin. The Medes didn’t have a bake sale after the service. It can be hard to see any resemblance at all from how we started to what we’ve become. Well, unless we look at the people. In which case, there is honestly no difference whatsoever.
We still have seclusion in the Protestant church. It’s called denominationalism. So, nothing’s changed there. And those people who did the whole speaking in tongues thing, well, obviously they are the Pentecostals, the fore runners of the Charismatics. And that long list of how many different nationalities showed up must have been added by the UCC’ers bragging about their multiculturalism. Nothing’s changed there. Then there were those who witnessed this powerful act of God and in an attempt at intellectualizing it, all they said was, “well what does this mean?” So, they were like, the first Lutherans.
And the ones who said, “Those people are drunk” were perhaps some Baptists focused on the personal morality of others. So that’s not changed a whole lot either. Then finally there’s the nice but completely naive guy who says, “O my gosh, there’s no way they can be drunk…it’s only 9 o clock in the morning.” So, there we have what we like to call the Methodists.
Nothing’s changed much. People are people. There are the emotional ones, the judgmental ones, the naive ones, and of course the ones like me, who insist on categorizing and naming everyone as though people can be reduced to a label. People. They’re the worst, but that’s for another sermon.
So, there we all are even from the beginning. The flawed, smug, confused, embarrassed and embarrassing. In other words, the very people to whom God sends the Holy Spirit.
Because you see, God hasn’t changed either. Just like that first Pentecost, God still crashes our parties and invites in the people we are trying to avoid. God still says yes to all our polite, “No thank-you’s.” This is what’s actually so dangerous about the whole thing. In which case, that red tapestry with the crazy taloned raptor dove is actually more apt of an image for the Holy Spirit than some soft-focus hallmark card dove gently flying in a watercolor sky. Obviously, when speaking of the Holy Spirit we revert to all these metaphors of comforter and dove and wind and fire, but the thing to remember is that the Holy Spirit is not a metaphor. He is a person, the Comforter, but he will mess you up. Metaphors can’t do that. Instead of Jesus saying he would send us the comforter, perhaps he should have said interrupter. But hey, that’s just me.
Because the Spirit while called the Comforter, does not bring the warm chocolate chip cookies and a night-night story kind of comfort. The Spirit brings the comfort of the truth – and if you’ve had any experience of the truth whatsoever, you can testify that it’s not exactly cozy.
It sure didn’t feel cozy to me over a decade ago when The Sanctuary experienced a big demographic shift. We left the UCC and were looking to belong to a more centric network. We reworked church boards into a centralized council. We identified as The Sanctuary on our new marquee. We had differentpeople coming in, visiting and worshipping with us. Some not so conformist or predictable. We had a month of name tag Sundays to acquaint names with faces. We opened a youth coffee house called the Grindz on Friday nights and the social hall was filled with kids. Now we have a chair lift. Hmmmph. We implemented all kinds of ch-ch-ch-changes. And you know what? Some people left and took their money with them. It got to a tipping point when the question was posed at a board meeting by one card-carrying member, “Just who are these people anyway?” Referring to the coffee drinking during worship, flip-flop wearing non-conformists attending on Sunday mornings. Some churches might fear drag queens and homeless folks, but only in Mayberry are the devout repelled by the sight of tattoos, short pants and plain white T’s. Long story short, what I thought was going to be positive change turned out to create two factions, us and them. I started to resent getting out of bed on Sunday mornings. There was tension during worship and at board meetings. As some were leaving, saying, this isn’t for me, I began to think it sounded like a good idea. It’s painful to be a pastor when you start questioning your calling.
Long story short, I was afforded a graceful gift of a summer sabbatical. And through that, my stupid plan changed. The plan changed because I underwent what I can only describe as a heart transplant. This is what the prophet Ezekiel describes when God said to him; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.
You’d think that with as often as this particular procedure happens to me, I’d have like a zip-lock or a port installed in my chest like Tony Stark for easier access but apparently that’s not how it works. If you’ve experienced it, you know it doesn’t feel like a chocolate chip cookie or a night-night story.
So, here we all are together in one place this morning: flawed, smug, confused, embarrassed and embarrassing…in other words the very people to whom God sends the Spirit to mess everything up.The very people God loves enough to send that crazed bird with bared talons and a predatory beak to come and snatch out our stony hearts and replace them with the comfort of God’s own. Why?
As I said, God hasn’t changed. God still says yes to all our polite, no thank you’s. God still crashes our parties and invites in the people we are trying to avoid. That’s the thing about the Pentecost Spirit of truth: it feels like the truth might crush us. And that’s right, it does. But the instant it breaks us, it puts us back together into something real. Perhaps for the first time.
Because the radical and mysterious and dangerous thing the Spirit does has always been to form us into the Body of Christ. Sometimes, despite us, sometimes against us, but always for us. Because it is only the Spirit who can turn us from a “them” into a “we.”
Pentecost is all about change. Truly, there is nothing to this story except tremendous change. Change has already happened—Jesus is gone and change is ongoing. As Luke records this account, he knows what some of the upheavals are going to be for this group of believers. They’ll struggle with pressures from outside and inside their society. They’ll want to bring in newcomers but will not be happy with some of the changes newcomers bring. They’ll try to be inclusive, but not always successfully. They’ll attempt to carry on the way they think Jesus would want them to, and sometimes they’ll fail at it. They’ll argue about the best way to go on. Their mission teams will break up and divide. They’ll endure hardships, stoning’s, beatings, persecution and death for the advance of the Good News of Jesus Christ. That’s going to be their change.
Change isn’t always easy.
But change they must. It’s part of life; it’s part of a life of faith. Invited or not, welcomed or not, it comes to all of us.
Ch-ch-Change is inevitable.
But you know what I really think about change? We don’t so much. We have become real good at putting a regulator on the Spirit of God. We have become rather skilled at stifling the Spirit when he doesn’t line up with our whims and fancies or if he threatens to inconvenience us. The Spirit is strong, but he doesn’t force himself on anyone or any church and will only go as far as we allow.
Thank goodness, right? Because it’s much easier running the church on our own, without being bothered by the Spirit, isn’t it? I mean, a church can survive quite a while keeping the Spirit at bay. All you have to do is be organized, play nice, have study groups, find a good speaker to tell nice stories, play good music—and you’re on the way in being pleased with yourself with all you can do with your church. Sure, there is only so much you can accomplish without the aid of the Spirit, but at least you look good. At least, you’re in control.
I can tell you a nice story but if I haven’t received any inspiration from the Spirit, it’s just hot air. The worship team can present worship with all the enthusiasm and passion they can muster but if it’s not Spirit led, it’s just noise. We can have deep scripture studies that evoke wise discussion and thought but if it doesn’t affect the heart, enter our spirit and bring growth, it’s just head knowledge. We can refurbish and transform the sanctuary into a beautiful house for the Spirit’s habitation, but if we don’t intentionally invite him, he won’t abide.
Most of us here are living in flux or some kind of change this morning. We’re experiencing what’s called the new normal as the result of choices, decisions made or events beyond our control. The new normal isn’t conceding anything or throwing in the towel. It’s understanding how to live in a new paradigm. How to adjust to and embrace a new season. As individuals or in institutions, we can resist change, ignore change, berate change. We often want to go back to those times when things were comfortable or exciting, important or fun, more free or more structured. But going back in time is impossible. Moving forward is our only choice. Like that group waiting, praying, hoping, we look to see what’s coming next. The one thing we know is that it won’t be what we expect.
Annie Dillard says that we as Christians aren’t sensible of the conditions we’re under when we worship the One who brings change. She says, “Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are like children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.” Indeed.
This morning church, be reminded that God has given back to us a heart of flesh where the power of his Holy Spirit resides in every child of God. This alone should enable all of us in the words of the apostle Paul to, “Press on.” The Holy Spirit is God’s power right inside of you.
Change is coming.
Let’s turn and face the strain.
Let’s meet it with our heads and hearts on fire.
This is the Word of the Lord for today.