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Be careful what you pray for!
In the first chapter of Acts, the prelude to all the Pentecost Day drama, we learn that in the days immediately following Jesus’ ascension, the apostles and other Jesus followers developed the habit of meeting together. And that, as the scripture says, “all these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer.”
In the history of the church, togetherness plus devotion plus prayer seems to be the formula for all kinds of wonderful surprise: wind and fire, Spirit and power, and language that transforms and unites.
Be careful what you pray for!
On Pentecost Sunday last year, our construction project was just beginning. We thought it would be a simple and straightforward update to this old building. Sure, we hoped it would widen our welcome and bring more and different kinds of people into the building, but also into the healing and transforming love of God.
And so we came together on that day, beginning our worship outside, standing next to a chain-link construction fence. And so we blessed, raising our hands toward this building. And so we prayed, daring to imagine that God was doing a new thing.
“As old structures come down and new possibilities take shape,” we said together, “may all people know this as a place of extravagant welcome. … May God continue to bless this big old building, that it might always be refuge for the homeless, sustenance for the hungry, community for the broken, light in the darkness, and a wellspring of hope, justice, peace, and love for Amherst and the world.”
Be careful what you pray for!
Little did we know what the next year—the next few months, even—would bring.
In a couple of weeks, we would declare ourselves an immigrant-welcoming congregation. But we had no intention of becoming a sanctuary church, and we had not yet even heard the name Lucio Perez—much less met the man. But Lucio, a hard-working, God-loving father of four from Guatemala, was praying, too—in Spanish.
And the Spirit was moving, the Spirit was connecting disparate dots, the Spirit was doing something new in us and among us.
And so it was on that Pentecost so long ago. Jews from all over the known world had come to Jerusalem to celebrate the feast of Shavuot, a festival of thanksgiving for the spring harvest that comes 50 days after the beginning of Passover, a festival that also includes thanksgiving for God’s deliverance of the law to Moses on Mount Sinai. Jews had come, with their many different languages, to offer sacrifices and worship in the temple. They had crowded Jerusalem’s narrow streets; they created a mighty and messy energy.
The Jesus followers, meanwhile, were separated from all that, huddled as they were behind closed doors, devoting themselves to prayer.
Togetherness plus devotion plus prayer.
And then, all of a sudden, there was a loud noise, like the roar of a tornado. Then there seemed to be fire. Then there was a holy indwelling. And then there was chaotic speech. And things were never the same after that.
Be careful what you pray for—because prayer changes things, prayer changes us, prayer opens hearts, prayer tears down walls. Be especially careful when you pray, “Come, Holy Spirit,” because she is no quiet, heavenly dove. Spirit is the dramatically powerful force that blows the church into being—a church full of immigrants, mind you, a church built out of difference and diversity. Be careful when you call on the Spirit, because she is also the powerfully dramatic force that can blow the lid off the church.
Be carefully prayerful, because the Spirit brings new language when she comes—language that brings people together, language that opens pathways of understanding and compassion, language that enlarges and reshapes community, language that enlivens, language that empowers, language that creates, language that changes the world.
The language of the Spirit is love—God’s extravagant love for us, our love for God, our love for one another, love that calls to love, a love that may not even realize how deeply it longs to love. Love is the language that breaks down barriers. Love is the language that unites. Love is the language all people—all creatures—can understand. Love is the language of openness. Love is the language of community and sharing. And love is the language of justice—for, as the African American professor and thinker Cornel West says, “justice is what love looks like in public.”
Be careful, because the Spirit blows where she will. Be careful, because the Spirit of Love is poured out on all people. Be careful, because the Spirit turns things upside-down and inside-out. Be careful, because the Spirit will call you out of yourself and into something greater than yourself. Be careful, because the Spirit will shake up the church, blurring the lines between in and out. Be careful, because the Spirit will send us out beyond these walls to love the world.
Be careful, and be prayerful, because you never know when you will need Spirit’s power.
Be careful, and be prayerful, because the Spirit of God is not the only force at work in the world. There is greed and racism, there is hatred and violence, all manner of oppression and injustice. There are forces that would separate us from one another. There are forces, too, of biology and bacteria, forces of disease and possible destruction that compel us to heed their power.
Be careful, and be prayerful, because you will need Spirit’s power to reckon with these forces. Be careful, and be prayerful, because in this beautiful but broken world we need God’s Spirit working in and through the young and old, the churched and un-churched, citizens and immigrants, friends and strangers, beloveds and those who work our last nerve. Be careful, and be prayerful, because the day will come when, whether or not the U.S. government is out to tear you away from your family, whether or not you are wearing an ankle monitoring bracelet that tells Immigration and Customs Enforcement exactly where you are at every moment, whether or not you are facing deportation to a dangerous place, you may need the Spirit to make a way out of no way.
Be careful, and be prayerful, because whether or not you realize it, someday you, too, will need Spirit’s love language to be spoken by all people—from your estranged family member to the person you’re asking for a job to the enemy who tempts you to hatred, from the drunk and homeless man berating you from his street-corner perch to the bishop preaching love and power to billions at a royal wedding.
Be careful, and be prayerful, because you will need Spirit’s prophetic power to be exercised by all people—from the hospital CEO, who shows up in sneakers within minutes of your arrival at the ER and for four days does everything she can to protect you, to the surgeon who operates, the church members who play Crazy Eights with your daughter while you are in surgery, the nurse who weeps over the injustice of your situation, the compadres who accompany you every minute you are in hospital, the activists and pastors who strategize your release, and the community that celebrates your return to the safety of sanctuary with a song of thanksgiving to God.
Be careful and be prayerful, gather together regularly in devotion and holy imagination, because we all need Spirit’s help to heal and open our hearts, to see what is possible, to inspire us to follow Christ’s call, to give us courage and hope. Be careful and be prayerful, because, while we may not speak Spanish, we all need to be fluent in the language of love.
Be prayerful and be careful, because we just never know what the Spirit will do next. Be prayerful and be careful, because Spirit moves where and how she will. Be prayerful and be careful, because Spirit love for all God’s children will open our hearts to fear as well as courage, to pain as well as joy.
Lucio and his family, Lucio and all we who love him, experienced it all last week. Even in the pain, Spirit was there. Even in the fear and uncertainty, Spirit was there. Even in the chaos and frustration, Spirit was there.
If our joy in the Spirit seems a bit muted this morning, it is only because some of us are a but wrung out. If our gratitude is quiet, it is only because we weep when we try to speak of it.
But we have no doubt that God’s Holy Spirit is here: surprising us, pushing us, healing us, bringing us together, changing us and the world.
Thanks be to God.
So let us continue to be prayerful. Let us pray that, between now and the next Pentecost Sunday, God’s Spirit will continue to surprise us, continue to expand our understanding of love and church, that Spirit power will continue to overcome the powers of this world, that Spirit will return Lucio to his home and his family. Let us pray, in the words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as spoken at yesterday’s royal wedding, that we will continue to “discover the power of love, the power, the redemptive power of love. And [that] when we discover that we will be able to make of this old world a new world.”