May 15, 2016, Pentecost
Church of Peace, UCC
Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield
Still Breathing, Still Speaking
About two months ago on a Friday morning, we heard the sirens flood the neighborhood. A few of us left the church and walked up Twelfth Street while neighbors were coming out of their homes, the air getting thick with smoke. We could see flames shooting out of the roof of Daniel’s home, and the people on the street kept asking each other, “What happened? Was anybody home? Did everybody make it out okay?” as though asking each other over and over was somehow helping.
Thankfully, this time, everybody got out alive; one person was injured from trying to put out the fire. This is the day when we can do something more than shake our heads and ask what happened. I thank you for your generosity in donating gifts and money to Daniel’s family.
When you’re home and a fire breaks out, all you want in the world is to put out the fire, clean up the mess, then go back to whatever you were doing. Nobody says, “Ah, let’s just keep an eye on it for a few minutes and see if it goes out on its own.” No, it’s like a switch turns on and we know what to do —get the baking soda or the fire extinguisher; get control and put out the fire. Unless we can’t.
There is a terrible and holy moment when I look at what’s going on and see this is beyond my control. The fire won. And this room is not the place I will die, not today. Change of plans: get everybody outside and call for help.
This is what it is to be human: the terrible and holy moment when living becomes more important than putting things back together, thank God. This is what it is to be human: help the little children, get out of the house, and call for help.
On this day of Pentecost, we remember how the Holy Spirit is like fire. I know that might not seem like good news, but the fire reminds me, I am not in charge of God. Sure I can be careful with the candles, but if the fire breaks out, chances are it will win. There is nothing safe about the Holy Spirit. We keep imploring her to come dwell among us, and do we even realize what we’re asking for…
Another way the Holy Spirit gets described is like wind or like the breath of God. Maybe breath seems a little less dangerous, but it turns out, that’s not the case. Throughout the writings of Luke, people get filled with the Holy Spirit. When this happens, it compels them to prophesy so the truth of God spills out of their being like it or not, so the promise of the future refuses to stay unspoken.
The people in Luke who get filled with the Holy Spirit don’t exactly volunteer; it happens to them. It makes Elizabeth pronounce the blessing on Mary (Luke 1:42). It makes Zechariah recite God’s promise of liberation (Luke 1:67-79). The Holy Spirit rests upon Simeon and makes him bless the baby Jesus (Luke 2:28-32).
So I need to tell you that we are not immune from this risk. Anybody could be filled with the Holy Spirit, inspired to imagine new possibility and tell the truth. This could happen to you. Actually, it might be happening already.
Friends, today we’re concluding our Easter sermon series called “Faith Set Free” by remembering the story of the day of Pentecost. Historically, Pentecost was a Jewish holiday celebrating the event of God giving the law to Moses on Mount Sinai.
But the Pentecost we hear about was not just any Pentecost. This year, the early Christians (who were Jewish) were gathered in one place grieving for Jesus. Remember he had been killed, and raised from the dead. He came back to be with them, but now he had ascended into heaven. So Jesus left them all over again, and now what? Maybe like an extended family makes a point of getting together on the holiday after someone has died, on this day, the believers come together in one place to remember the giving of the law and to comfort each other.
The whole thing would have been a perfectly respectful memorial service, until the Holy Spirit poured into the place. She did not skimp on the special effects. The house was filled with the rush of violent wind and smoke, then tongues like flames rested on the heads of the people, and everyone began to speak in different languages, and that’s not even the part that surprised them. What surprised them was they heard each other speaking in their own language.
They understood and they didn’t understand at the same time. They kept asking each other, “What does this mean?” and maybe they’re drunk, except of course they’re not drunk. Then Peter preached, the Spirit gave birth to the church right in that house, then she drove them out of the house to go and tell the truth so you can’t even tell the difference between being forced out and being set free.
This is the day we remember how the church came into the world through the mourning, and the breath, and the fire, through all the voices testifying. Nobody would blame you if you hear this description and think, well that’s really something, but that’s not the kind of thing that happens in my church every week. Turns out, at Church of Peace there are many languages spoken here all week. But on Sunday mornings, we like the fire to stay on the candles, and the breath to stay in our bodies, and this whole clamor of conversation is not our cup of tea, thank you.
If you look at the attendance trends in the mainline churches, you will see how the numbers have been declining. The prevailing perception is that our churches are aging and dwindling, and nobody would blame you if you’re wondering whether the Holy Spirit has gone out. Many of us can name churches that have closed in recent years; we’ve wondered whether that is in store for this church. We’re asking each other, What does this mean? And nobody would blame you if you’re wondering whether the church is dying.
The truth is: some churches are dying, some of us are dying. Dying is part of living, and death is not the end. I used to worry that the real threat for the church is that we’re dying and don’t know it, that we are oblivious to the signs and setting ourselves up to be shocked when the truth comes crashing down, and we have to close our doors. There’s an actual risk of dying and not realizing that’s what’s happening.
But recently I’ve discovered there’s an even greater risk than dying and not knowing it. What if we’re actually living and we don’t realize how alive we are? Dying is part of living, but not all living is dying, and it is important to know the difference. Remember when they rush to get Jesus because there was a young girl who had died. After he went in to see her, he said, “Do not weep; she is not dead. She’s only sleeping” (Luke 8:52). It is critical to know the difference.
It’s critical to know whether there is breath in our body. Of course it’s so easy to go through the day without even noticing our breathing! Who pays attention to breathing? Well, a lot of people actually —usually people whose bodies are doing something extraordinary like surviving an asthma attack, or singing in an opera, or running a marathon, or taking the saxophone solo, or having a baby… What would happen if we pay attention to our breathing as the living body of Christ?
At Church of Peace, there may not be tongues of fire, or a tornado, or a cacophony of proclamation every Sunday, but surely the presence of the LORD is in this place. We’re already filled with the breath of God; we have already begun to prophesy. This is what makes us go back and say I’m sorry, or ask for help, or whisper I love you. By the power of the Holy Spirit, I’m sitting with the confirmands who are deciding whether to join the church. One of them is reading the UCC booklet and notices where it says each generation has the responsibility to interpret our faith anew. And what does this mean?
You could go ahead and take our pulse right now, because what if we are more alive than we realize? What if the Holy Spirit comes and rests upon your head, and fills your being, and you find yourself speaking words of love where love is what needs to be heard. This really could happen to you; I’m pretty sure that it already is. The trick is to notice it.
Now the Holy Spirit comes and evicts us and convicts us. God drives us out into the world because there are people who don’t know they are loved, and we’ve got something to say about that. Look around and see, this room is not the place we will die, not today. This is what it is to be filled with the Spirit: help the little children, get out of the house, call for help. See everybody’s life get saved.
In just a minute, we’ll conclude our series on liberation by singing the promise we first sang back on Ash Wednesday. Fair warning, we are actually going to implore the Holy Spirit to come down and set God’s people free, and are you sure that’s a safe idea? Because dying is something we know. The structures we cling to are familiar and maybe it’s not so bad to stay locked up…
See there is nothing safe about getting set free, about coming back to life, and moving into the fullness of life. There’s nothing safe about telling the truth of God’s love, and you know, this is exactly what’s happening to us. As a church and as a people, we are still breathing and still speaking.
And God help us live. Amen.