Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice? On
the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand; beside
the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries out:
“To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live.” - Proverbs 8:1-4.
In this season our assigned Bible readings provide beautiful, challenging, and sometimes strange stories that confront us with the importance of heeding God’s call in our lives. During this worship series, a variety of preaching voices and texts will help us consider how Spirit’s prophetic, liberating, convicting presence is always at work to wake us up, turn us around, and grace us with what we need to live with purpose and power. Join us for a surprising and nourishing series as we continue traveling along The Way.
What Is the Pentecost Miracle?
A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC June 9, 2019, Pentecost Sunday and Pride weekend. “Questions Along The Way” series.
Text: Acts 2:1-21
“Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.” St. Catherine of Siena, the 14th century laywoman, activist, and mystic who first said these words to challenge and embolden, might be discouraged to see that you can now find them floating “along on a vast sea of comforting spiritual quotes on Pinterest…and available for purchase as a framed, floral watercolor on Etsy.[i] Don’t get me wrong, I love a pithy, meaningful quote. But framed in these ways, St. Catherine’s words become domesticated and easily misunderstood.
In her context and understanding, to be who God means you to be isn’t about mastering all the self-help books or setting out on an “Eat, Pray, Love” journey of self-discovery, but rather to be so close to God that some of the divine image—that image we are meant to reflect—begins to shine out of your perfectly unique life. And to set the world on fire isn’t to have your blog or post go viral or have your name in lights or glowing headlines, it’s to spread the fire of God’s love and grace in a way that is so compelling that others’ hearts and lives are changed for the better because of you.
Once upon a time, a rather ragtag group of women and men—Acts 1:15 suggests there might have been around 120 of them—were gathered together in one place. They had been on an extraordinary journey with Jesus both before and after his death. They witnessed and participated in signs and wonders, and at this moment they are doing what Jesus told them to do (Lk 24:49); they are waiting in the city for the baptism of Spirit.
I wonder if they had any idea just what was in store. I wonder if they thought the Spirit would show up gift-wrapped or floating in with the gentleness of a dove. If so, they were wildly mistaken. Holy Spirit pours Herself out upon the gathering—just as Jesus had promised. But this is no framed watercolor scene. Spirit comes (in the Greek) aphno—suddenly—and biaias—mightily or even violently—think wind and fire that sets off alarms, that wakes people up, that cannot be ignored, that requires some kind of response. Spirit (a person of the Trinity and not a thing—hence my intentional omission of “the”) comes like a wind and fire storm and fills the congregation with power and ability to not only communicate with one another, but to be immersed in something so disruptive—so far outside the norm—that those outside the house gather around to see what in the world is going on. This crowd includes many immigrant Jews—those who likely were reared in various places of Jewish diaspora and had returned to Jerusalem, bringing with them the diverse cultures and languages of the tribes and nations surrounding Palestine. Spirit blows into the house, sets the disciples on fire so that they begin proclaiming God’s deeds of powerful, liberating love, mercy, justice, and peace, and the fire starts to spread; the word is received by people of all ages, nations, orientations, and races—we are told the number that day was around 3,000 (Lk 2:41)!!
“What is the Pentecost miracle?” The miracle is that for a bright, shining moment, the people of God were who God meant them to be—available to a disruptive and surprising Spirit, filled with love and courage and freedom, and instrumental in a great conversion to love and justice and generosity and peace and mutuality and the formation of a new community with those things at the center.
This is the beginning of all the stories we’ve been exploring since Easter—all the signs and wonders, all the life-changes and reconciliations, the humanizing moments, boundary-crossings, and heart-openings are fueled by this mighty moment of Spirit’s anointing, filling, and fueling people like you and me to go into the world to be instruments of God’s love and grace—that is, to be who God means for us to be. When we first stepped into the Acts of the Apostles 50 days ago, I shared how this book ends on a cliff-hanger—and I believe that’s to remind us that the story is still being written by those of us willing to continue to show up expecting Spirit to fill us and set us on fire.
The Pentecost miracle isn’t something that happened once a long time ago. It is an ongoing miracle—that even with all the ways that the human family gets it wrong down through the centuries, Spirit continues to touch hearts, to disrupt the status quo of our lives and communities, to stir people to gather, to empower once timid followers to take risks for the sake of the Gospel. At least one part of the ongoing Pentecost miracle is that the church continues to exist at all with the mess we’ve made of it over and over again.
But the church’s survival shouldn’t surprise us since, from the very beginning, there were forces who stood in opposition, forces and voices who sneered and jeered, who saw barriers broken and, instead of celebrating the amazing beauty of a diverse human family sharing an experience of God’s liberating and reconciling love, labeled what was happening as bad behavior, they assigned blame, twisting this beautiful moment into debauchery. And yet this perversion of the truth could not stop the life and community-creating power of Spirit from flowing—not then, and not now.
We are in this very moment experiencing a fresh Pentecost moment in the United Methodist church—a moment when Spirit is setting off alarms, waking people up, stirring discomfort, disrupting what has been, creating confusion, leading people into new configurations of community, inspiring boundary-crossings among persons used to dwelling in discrete tribes, and empowering once timid Jesus followers and justice-seekers to stand up, to take a risk, to speak out about the love and grace of God and the imperative for inclusion and justice in the church and world. It is not a cozy time, a familiar time, a time when we have a clear path, much less a map—because we know something new is coming, but don’t know where exactly Spirit is leading! It’s like the Israelites in the wilderness having been liberated from bondage in Egypt but on an uncertain journey toward a promise they couldn’t fully perceive or define. Like them, we are traveling the Way of Jesus right now without the comfort of one clear plan and without a firm timeline. We don’t know how long this journey is going to take. Like our spiritual ancestors in the wilderness and in the chaos of the first day of Pentecost, we are surrounded by folks who are processing the experience very differently. I know we have folks here at Foundry who are angry, confused, tired, sad, hopeful, energized, afraid, curious, and more. On most days, I feel most of that stuff all at once! Across the Methodist connection, I assure you that folks are “having ALL the feels!”
But Spirit is truly up to something. Openly LGBTQ candidates are being commissioned and ordained not just in Northern Illinois and Baltimore-Washington and New York, but in Michigan and Texas! If we can stay open and available and engaged, we will have a front seat to something happening that is certainly historically significant and potentially spiritually extraordinary. I am under no illusion that those who have so clearly rejected the invitation to remain in communion will change their minds—so please understand that’s not what I’m talking about. But among the large contingent of United Methodists across the country (and world) who are NOT aligned with the Confessing/Good News/WCA movements, I see the church connecting and supporting one another right now in beautiful and powerful ways. The more intentional connections and collaboration that emerged after the General Conference in 2016 have continued to mature and are bearing fruit in annual conferences everywhere. Boundaries all along the spectrum of culture and belief continue to be crossed in order to find places of mutuality and solidarity. The work is painful and trust is often in short supply and there are places of struggle as this new level of intentional connection emerges, but it is happening.
I know that we want things to be done, that we want justice already, that we want things to be quick, that we want things to be simple and clear and well-defined. And there may be some of us who are ready to check out, to give up on this thing, to turn away from the moment we are being given to participate in whatever extraordinary and surprising work God is up to. We may feel like nothing we do matters, we may feel small and insignificant and powerless. We may be tired of this part of the struggle and long to focus on other things. The sneers and jeers from without and within may discourage us to the point of apathy, resentment, and depression. But as I have said before, many folks look to Foundry for leadership and take their cues from our witness. This is not a time for us to retreat but to bring the full force of our experience and advocacy, our commitment to intersectional justice, our deep faith, and our bright hope for tomorrow to bear in the struggle.
And we are not without help! That ragtag bunch all those years ago didn’t develop a 10-point plan and a comms strategy for spreading the love of God as they sat in the house in Jerusalem. The church didn’t explode in numbers because of human ingenuity. It exploded because of the new-life giving power of God’s love, manifest in Spirit. That power has continuously stirred and stormed to help the church rise up and keep going, to boldly proclaim God’s love and mercy and compassion even in the face of hatred and violence of all kinds. It’s the power that gave passion to the prophets, that calmed the seas, that fuels forgiveness and humility; it’s the power that has torn down literal and relational walls, inspires the greatest music and art, gives words to those who fear having nothing to say, brings new life out of ashes and resurrection even from the cross.
I can’t help but remind us of the words of Annie Dillard who calls us out with this challenge: “On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, 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; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.”
We are in the midst of a Spirit wind and fire storm! She’s not playing! No wonder we may feel uncomfortable and agitated! The power of God is among us and is moving and is calling and is stirring and is challenging us to stay awake and to stay open and to stay engaged and to stay prayerful and humble—so that God’s power will be able to fill us, move through us, and lead us into the promise that has been made.
Is Annie Dillard’s suspicion correct? Does no one believe any of this? Do we believe that the Holy Spirit has been poured out on all flesh and that we are all tinder, just waiting to go up in flames of love, praise, commitment, and proclamation? Do we believe that Spirit has the power to shake us from the status quo, from the familiar paths, from the unjust systems, from our desperate need to control the journey? Are we “sensible of conditions?”
I once heard this definition of miracle: it’s not when God’s actions align with our desires, but when our actions align with God’s desires. That’s the kind of miracle that seems worthy of our contemplation. And that’s the Spirit-instigated Pentecost miracle. So if you want to be a part of it, put on your crash helmets, grab a signal flare, find a traveling companion for the wilderness crossing, and get in on whatever amazing new thing Spirit is stirring in and through us for the sake of the larger work of new creation and promise that is to come. Let’s be who God means for us to be and—together—set the world on fire!
 Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk
[i] Br. Jordan Zapac, O.P., https://www.dominicanajournal.org/a-patron-for-pyros/