The theme for this year’s Pentecost service had seemed rather obvious:
Just as the Spirit blew through that upper room 2,000 years ago, sending the apostles out of their comfort zone to engage a huge crowd of people who spoke a multitude of languages, so the Spirit is breaking through the walls of our big old building, calling us to live out our radical welcome, to make it possible for people of all abilities to move with safety and ease.
Just as the early church consisted largely of people of different backgrounds and cultures and languages—they were immigrants to Jerusalem!—so we will prayerfully consider today whether to adopt a covenant proclaiming ourselves an immigrant-welcoming congregation.
Just as the birth of the church was not separate from, but intimately connected to, Jewish tradition—with Pentecost being part of the Shavuot festival and coming 50 days after Pesach, or Passover—so today’s Pentecost celebration is enriched by the presence of our friends and neighbors from the Interfaith Opportunities Network, reminding us that we of different faiths are all one.
There are many ways we speak of the Holy Spirit, as advocate and friend, comforter and power source, ruach and pneuma, wind and breath, the Holy One making her home within us and moving through us. We speak of the Spirit’s power, of Spirit’s wildness and unpredictability. We know the Spirit is always with us, but we often forget and we never know just what she is up to. And so we like to reflect on how and when we feel Spirit’s presence. We speak of the many gifts of the Spirit and the various fruits of the Spirit, marveling at how all this diversity emanates from, and is held together by, the one Spirit who unites us all.
There is so much to say, and even more to celebrate, about the Spirit, about the many ways God so generously shares divinity with us—breathing Spirit into us and pouring it out on us that we might know the fullness of our God-given power.
This year, though, as I reflected on what it means to be the church and how the Spirit makes that possible, I have been drawn to one particular attribute of the Spirit, one particularly evident facet of God’s love:
The Spirit of God—the same Spirit wind that swept over the face of the waters and gave birth to the earth; the holy life-force that was breathed into the first human made in the divine image; the still, small voice that spoke to Elijah; the voice of affirmation and belovedness that spoke to Jesus when he came up out of the waters of the Jordan, the Spirit breath that blew through first-century Jerusalem like a multi-lingual tornado and gave birth to the church, the Spirit that stirs the waters of baptism, the Spirit that brings Christ into bread and wine, the very Spirit that fills our songs, radiates from our children, and enlivens our ministries—is a Spirit of welcome.
And so, on this Pentecost Sunday, on this day of all days, I really wanted us to celebrate how the Spirit of Welcome is being made manifest among us right now:
In our years’ of discernment and deliberation about how to spend an unexpected, Spirit-filled gift from Ben and Midge White; in the generosity of the 110 families and individuals who contributed more than $560,000 to the Project 275 campaign; in the joyful work and selfless commitment of the leaders that campaign; in the seemingly never-ending work of the Building Design Ministry Team; in the wise leadership of several moderators; in the patient faith of church members and other contributors who wondered if they would ever see anything happen; in our willingness to make do with a porta-potty and other inconveniences for a while; in each one of us as we give thanks and wait and pray with a palpable air of excitement and anticipation; in the homemade bread we give to visitors and the embracing warmth of this congregation that virtually every visitor mentions; in the comment on our Facebook page last week from a stranger saying she wanted to contribute to our building fund.
All of this—from the praying and debating, to the giving and preparing, the waiting, the bathroom being ripped up, and windows, stairs, and walls coming down—all of it is the unpredictable, uncontrollable work of the Spirit of Welcome.
For all the ways in which this Spirit comes to us anew and again, thanks be to God. For signs of movement and action, we rejoice. For the many unforeseen ways in which the Spirit of Welcome will continue to tear down, shake up, and rebuild First Church Amherst, we give thanks and celebrate.
These are exciting times! Time, perhaps, to think beyond stairs and doors and other physical things that separate us from one another, and to focus on the internal barriers that divide us. Time, perhaps, to begin praying and wondering, listening and looking for the next big thing the Spirit has up her sleeve.
There is so much life and new life to open our hearts to. So much healing and power, love and peace to claim and to share. So many ways to follow Spirit’s lead in drawing the circle wider and wider.
And still we live in a world ripped apart by violence, among nations and peoples divided by greed and difference, race and religion. Even as we try hard to follow Jesus in the way of love, even as we seek Spirit’s power in doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God, even as we pour ourselves into this or that struggle for justice, creation care, and equality, other forces are at work.
Even as we try to move out of our comfort zones, be more open and affirming, come together with all people, the president of the United States has acted again and again in recent weeks to do just the opposite: to insult other nations, to snub the rest of the world, to declare that we matter more than anyone else, to utter falsehood upon falsehood in rationalizing an action that not only jeopardizes the entire planet but mortgages the welfare of future generations.
Like many of you, after President Trump announced he was pulling the United States out of the Paris accord on climate change, I vacillated between red-hot anger and deep despair. Unlike you, I was also feeling a more personal frustration: His unbelievably selfish and short-sighted action had also wrecked my sermon plans! There were so many clear and beautiful things I had planned to say, but now I would clearly have to throw all that out and, instead, address the sinfulness of this decision.
Boy, was I angry!
But as I prayed and thought about what to do, I had an insight that I want to share with you this morning:
I realized that in reacting to the evil of the world, in letting it determine what I would say and do, I was moving away from the Spirit. I was falling into the temptation, giving rise to the lie, that our lives, our choices, even our sermons have to be one thing or the other: God or the world, spirituality or activism, inner peace or anger, engagement with the brokenness of the world or focusing only on ourselves and our loved ones, heavenly hopes or earthly cynicism. Friends, those are false choices, and that is no way to live.
I realized that I could not let my justifiable anger and understandable despair over the evil in the world and ordinary, everyday existential suffering blind me to Spirit’s presence in and through it all. I would not let the greed, isolationism, hatred, and pure wrong-headedness of some dictate my course of action.
(And, besides, there was nothing I could say about all that that you do not already know—except, perhaps, to remind us all how to live through these frightening and infuriating times.)
Countless books have been written and still more debates will be had on whether Jesus was “political.” He lived and taught under the oppression of Roman occupation; so much about the lives of first-century Palestine was defined by the evils of empire. And it was that empire that executed him—because it recognized the menace of his method: that if the powerless masses really did live as if the realm of God was within them, if they lifted up the poor and embraced the outcast, if they stopped striving to have more and more and, instead, held everything in common, if they lived out of the one Spirit of self-emptying love—the economics of empire would be turned upside down. In the face of nonviolence, military power would fail; in the face of spiritual unity, cynical efforts to divide and conquer would fall flat.
Well, as G.K. Chesterton said, it is not that Christianity has “been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.”
The fruits of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. The gifts of the Spirit are freely given and widely shared. The manifestations of the Spirit are infinite and unimaginable.
So on this Pentecost Day and always, let us keep our eyes on the Prize. Let us love God with our whole heart, mind, soul and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves. Let us pray for our enemies. Let us be grounded in love and prayer, so that we become like trees planted by streams of water—not withering in dry times or reacting to every evil wind that blows—but yielding fruit in due season.
Come, Holy Spirit, come, and fill us with the joy of welcome and the power of love.