What are we doing here? Do we have any idea what we are dealing with? We come into this sanctuary every Sunday morning, yes- faithfully; but we approach God and ask God to be present in our worship. Do we really understand what this entails? Are we truly prepared for the wild, unrestrained, holy presence of God that we call upon every week?
In her book, Teaching a Stone to Talk, Annie Dillard reflects on our inadequate preparations:
“On the whole, I do not find Christians… sufficiently sensible of conditions. 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 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; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping God may wake someday and take offense, or the waking God may draw us out to where we can never return.”
I find Dillard’s words on this to be startlingly profound, and they ring true to our all too human psychology. Our brains are probably the most intricately complicated things in perhaps the entire universe. They perform thousands of functions every minute, most of them without us having to do a thing! We don’t have to tell our hearts to beat, or our lungs to breathe. We have even developed the ability to multi-task when we are doing familiar tasks. These are called cognitive scripts: activities we do over and over and over again that are so familiar, we don’t need to think about them. Consider this: have you ever gotten out of the bath or shower and thought to yourself, ‘did I wash my hair?’ Or have you ever been driving along a highway and completely miss your exit because you were daydreaming or singing along to a song on the radio? (I confess my guilt to all of the above!). These are all cognitive scripts. Patterns of behavior that we are so adjusted to that we can do them without thinking.
Of course… this can lead to danger. The rumble strips on the side of the road are there for drivers who have become distracted, not for those who have fallen asleep. If you have fallen asleep at the wheel, by the time you’ve hit the rumble strips, it’s too late. Sexism, racism, xenophobia, homophobia… these things do not persist in our world simply because people continue to preach and teach them, but rather because they are so deeply rooted in the cognitive scripts of our institutions and our culture, that to effect any change requires a massive effort, a shifting of our very foundations.
This danger is also true in our worship, as Dillard so aptly points out. If our worship becomes rote, we run the risk of it being less than genuine, and only our most genuine worship is what God demands.
This morning we celebrate the day of Pentecost and the gift of the Holy Spirit, God’s continued presence with us after Christ’s ascension. In the Reformed tradition, we tend to be a bit wary of the Holy Spirit. Maybe it has been over-identified with more evangelical traditions whose worship is much less formal than ours. Maybe the idea of the Spirit blowing into our presence as it did for the disciples in those days after Easter is frightening to us. Really, I think there is truth in both of those statements. Just as we have cognitive scripts that help us perform routine tasks, we are uncomfortable with anything “different,” especially anything that will call us out to dangerous, new places.
However, the Spirit is an integral part of our communal life of faith, and it is something we need to more fully understand and embrace if we are to live faithful lives in the light of Christ. As we see in our scripture lessons this morning, the Spirit is not something gifted to us only after Christ left, but rather the very real third member of the Trinity that has been present with us since the beginning. We see its presence directly affecting the Israelites as they wander in the desert. Of course, it is more visibly present in the New Testament, but even there it is depicted in different ways. For the writer of John, the Spirit is an Advocate, one who will act on our behalf. For the Apostle Paul, the Spirit is that which unites us to Christ and makes us into his body, giving particular gifts to each person for the sake of the community. It is in Luke and Acts, though, that we see the Spirit as the power of God; the mighty burning wind that blows the church into new and unexpected places of ministry.
Audrey West, a professor at Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, has broken up the ideas found in the second chapter of Acts into four distinct movements and ideas.
First, God’s Spirit is not ours to control. If the encounter between the Spirit and the disciples tells us anything, it is that God’s Spirit is wild and unrestrained. Consider- the disciples were holed up in an upper room, terrified and paralyzed, unsure of what they were supposed to do next, despite Christ’s resurrection and given mission to continue his ministry. And then these tongues as of fire appear over each of them and they are pushed outside to begin ministering to God’s people in many different languages. In full view of everyone- even the authorities they so feared.
Second, God’s Spirit is active where (and when!) we least expect it. If we had our way, we would minister to those who are familiar to us, on our terms, and in our own good time. Lucky for us, God has different ideas, and we are pulled to new and uncomfortable places where we are forced to stretch and grow.
Third, God’s Spirit empowers proclamation. Yes, the outside world was terrifying for the disciples. Yet the Spirit gives a courage and boldness that cannot come from within us, but only from God. Even when the future seems bleak and desolate, the Spirit sweeps in, breathing new life into us, sparking a fire within us to move ahead, sure of Christ’s victory, and assured of our salvation.
The final aspect West points out is that God’s Spirit is poured out for the sake of God’s world. This is not something that is limited to a few select people in an upper room, or even a slightly larger community in any one place. It is an altering presence that transforms individuals, communities, nations, and ultimately the world.
There is, of course, one other aspect of the Spirit that needs acknowledgment. We must remember that the entire encounter with the Spirit- in Numbers, in Acts, in our world today- is completely, ineffably mysterious. Sometimes mystery shrouds God’s will. We expect God to act in certain ways only to be surprised. And that is something we must accept. I’m not saying we need to be comfortable with it. Surprise and anticipation are not something we humans do very well at all, especially in our tradition! But we do need to accept that God’s call is, most often, surprising! Personally, I never anticipated I would be teaching High School English, let alone working with teenagers ever again! After almost a dozen years working in youth ministry, I swore I would be sticking with the adults from now on! … and God laughs. Who knows where the Spirit might blow.
What we are called to consider this morning, is what unexpected, dangerous-seeming places might the Spirit be blowing us? There is much to be uncertain, nervous, and even downright scared about in today’s world. Terrorism, a shaky economy, a certain presidential candidate…
We can never be prepared for where the Spirit will blow us. But we can control how we react. Are we resistant? Are we so hard-nosed and stuck in our ways that we cannot relinquish complete control to God? Are we so reliant on our cognitive scripts that we refuse to be bent to the urging of the Spirit, even when it means we are moving toward our own harm?
Or will we allow ourselves to be blown to new places? Will we allow ourselves to be drawn out to where we can never return? Friends, the Spirit is here, the Spirit is present. Let us allow ourselves to be drawn into its ministry of new life and hope.
Dillard, Annie. Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters. New York: Harper & Row, 1982. Print.
West, Audrey. “Commentary on Acts 2:1-21.” Acts 2:1-21. Luther Seminary, 08 June 2014. Web. 12 May 2016.
Here is a video of me preaching this sermon on Pentecost Sunday:
Video Credit: my beautiful wife, E! Thanks, love!