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Catching Fire

Genesis 11:1-9; Acts 2:1-21


Good morning! Every time I hear this morning’s lesson from Acts, I’m reminded of my freshman year of college. In particular, verses 13-15, in which some people say, “they are filled with new wine,” and Peter disputes this by saying, “these people are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning.” Filled with new wine . . . at nine o’clock in the morning. At this point, you might be wondering why this reminds me of college. Or worse, maybe you’re not wondering at all!

Actually, this story starts at about 10:30 in the morning. It was in August, 1989, and it was my first day of classes. The course was Political Science 109, Intro to American Government. The professor was late. That seemed really strange for the first day of class. Five minutes went by. No professor. Ten minutes passed, still no professor. The students were anxious. Some people talked about leaving, but most of us were freshmen and we weren’t sure how long you had to wait before it was safe to leave.

Somewhere between 10:40 and 10:45, the professor stumbled into class. He was drunk at 10:30 in the morning! Or so it seemed. For a couple minutes, he tried to slur his way through the beginnings of a lecture. Then one student finally had the nerve to call him out. This led to a discussion of what the professor’s duties to the class were, how the law dealt with someone who had a disability or a disease, how those laws have changed over time, and that sort of thing. When I left that classroom, I realized that I knew a lot less about law and government than I thought I did. I also got some laughs out of the professor’s drunk act.

The fancy, academic term for what had happened is social dislocation. I went into that classroom with a set of expectations. I assumed that the professor would offer an engaging lecture that introduced some of the key topics for the semester and that everything would proceed in an orderly fashion. I was shaken loose from my previous expectations and my mind was opened for deeper learning.

Some students weren’t amused by this. A lot of my classmates were studying to be engineers or doctors or accountants. They were taking the class to fulfill a humanities requirement. They had to be there and they were hoping that Poly Sci 109 would be easier than advanced calculus or circuits or organic chemistry. They weren’t there for the professor’s drunk act—they just wanted to come to class, find out what they were going to learn, and get on with it. They expected something neat and tidy, a nice, orderly class. What they got was a professor who challenged their expectations. Some of us embraced this approach, while others grumbled that this wasn’t what they had signed up for.

This is what the Holy Spirit does. The Spirit disrupts things; it blows in like a violent wind. After it blows through, things are changed. But not everybody likes the change, or believes that the change was real—like the students in that Poly Sci class who weren’t amused by the professor’s drunk act.

Today we celebrate Pentecost. This is the birthday of the Church, and the Pentecost story is the story of the Holy Spirit and how it unites us, empowers us, sparks our faith, and calls us to action. The Holy Spirit is often represented as a dove or a flame. I’ve also seen it depicted as wild goose. The idea is that the Spirit is something that provokes us, but it’s something we cannot contain or capture. There’s even an element of sacred mischief in the Holy Spirit—like a political science professor pretending to be drunk on the first day of class.

In our reading from Acts, we can see the Spirit connecting and uniting all of the believers. The Spirit empowers all the believers who are gathered there to understand one another, to communicate with one another. But some people don’t want to hear this. They don’t believe their eyes and ears, so they jump to a rational explanation: These people are drunk! At nine o’clock in the morning. They’re like all the engineers and pre-meds in that poly-sci class who don’t want to be bothered with the professor’s drunk act, they just want to be told what material they have to learn and what they need to do to get an “A” in the class. At times, each and every one of us is like the pre-meds and the engineers in that class.

Let’s face it: We love neat little compartments; we love little boxes! The story of Pentecost is a difficult story to hear. Our modern ears have trouble with stories about tongues of flame. Our modern ears are skeptical of a mighty wind that enables everyone to understand all the foreign languages of the world, to say nothing of prophecies, dreams, or visions. We want to be rational. We want to hear a message that fits neatly into a fifteen- or twenty-minute segment, so that we can finish worship at 11:00 and get on with our busy day.

We don’t want a pastor who runs over by ten or twenty minutes. We don’t want a professor who pretends to be drunk and challenges everything we think we know. We don’t want to be challenged. Or disrupted. Or provoked. But that’s not how the Holy Spirit works.

I was reminded of this a couple weeks ago at the Festival of Homiletics. I was in a workshop when I realized that everything I’ve told you is wrong!

Well. Maybe not everything.

Over the last few months, I’ve talked a lot about our anxieties as a congregation. We’re worried about our finances and our membership and the number of people in worship. Anxiety is dangerous, and I have said that we only need to grow a little—we only need to add a few more members and we only need to give a little more money, and we can get to a place where we’re not so anxious. And I still believe that’s true. But if that’s all we’re focusing on, then we’re missing the larger point.

At the Festival, I attended a workshop led by the Rev. Dr. Cynthia Hale. She’s an African-American woman in her mid-sixties and she’s the pastor of Ray of Hope Christian Church in Decatur, Georgia. Thirty-odd years ago, she felt the Spirit moving in her. She felt that she was called to start a church. She began with a few people and they met in her home.

Pretty soon, they had forty people in worship.

It grew to a hundred. Then it was two hundred, then three hundred, then it became four hundred.

Within a couple years, the church grew to a thousand members. And it continued to grow. Over the next twenty years or so, the membership grew and contracted. At times, Rev. Hale would grow tired in her ministry, and then she’d have to reinvent herself. She came to understand that there were cycles of growth and contraction.

At its peak, Ray of Hope Church had about 9,000 members. Currently they have about 1,500 members. She said that her church feels small. With 1,500 members. That’s a problem I would LOVE to have! Can I get an amen?

Can I get an amen? That’s the Spirit!

In the workshop she led, Rev. Hale urged us to dream big dreams. She urged us to trust in God and the Holy Spirit and ask for God to fulfill our deepest hopes and dreams. She said that the worst thing about a small dream is that it might be fulfilled. And then it dawned on me, I was dreaming too small!

I was dreaming of adequacy.

As I sat in that workshop, I heard the words of our text from Acts: “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.” I wasn’t dreaming big enough! Are you dreaming big enough?

If our vision is merely to get to a place where we have no anxiety; if our vision is to have enough members and enough money in the collection plate to meet our current expenses, then our dreams are too small. If that’s all we’ve got to offer, if that’s the extent of our vision, then who’s going to join us?

Would you like to join First Presbyterian Church? Your contributions can help us to balance our budget! Do you want to join that church? Is that your vision for the church? Sure, we’ll draw a few people in, here and there. But if that’s all we’re offering, nobody’s buying, and we’re not going to transform this congregation or this world!

The story of Pentecost is the story of big dreams and great visions. I’ve preached many sermons about reconciliation. I’ve urged all of my congregations to get outside of the walls of the church and heal our broken world. Often, after preaching such a sermon, someone will tell me, “Pastor, you have to be realistic.”

Yes! We have to be realistic. We have to understand our situation, our community, and the world outside of our walls. And we have to dream big dreams! Can I get an amen?

In our lesson from the Book of Genesis, we heard the story of the Tower of Babel, and the scattering of all the people, when their ambitions were too great. The story of Pentecost closes the loop; it undoes the scattering from the Tower of Babel. The people in the Tower of Babel had big dreams, too, but they dreamt of the wrong things. They dreamed of power; they dreamed of equality with God. The believers who were gathered at that celebration of Pentecost had the right dreams. And what big dreams they were! They wanted to share the love of God in the world! The world that God so loves that he sent his only Son, so that all might be saved. They wanted to spread the Word, so God sent the Holy Spirit. They did this in and through the Spirit, they were knit together in one body. They already had all the tools they needed; they were united in purpose and love.

Those believers were successful beyond their wildest dreams. The Church, which began as a movement within Judaism spread and grew. It grew despite internal divisions and conflict with religious authorities. The Church grew, despite official persecution from the Roman Empire. The Church continues to grow and spread around the world, and in ways that those first believers never could have imagined—and they dared to dream big dreams!

I have some dreams for this congregation. I love that we take our youth on mission trips. I love that we create opportunities for them to see God at work in the world and that we create space for them to participate in that work. This is important and I hope that we continue to do this.

My other dream is that we create similar opportunities for our adults. I want to see our adults go on mission trips across the country and around the world. I want to do this because God calls us to go forth and love the world. And I want to do this because those experiences help us to see the world—and our local community—with new eyes.

I have seen congregations that were transformed by mission work. I have seen congregations that developed a coherent identity through that work. I know than many of you are already involved in this work on an individual basis. That’s great, but there’s always the risk that a congregation never rises above being a collection of pet projects of individual members.

I dream of being a congregation that is known in the community for the work that it does outside of its walls, rather than its beautiful brownstone building. I dream of being a congregation that is known in other communities (and even other countries) by the work that it does outside of its walls. And I dream of being a congregation where the most important thing that we do is not what happens in this sanctuary from ten to eleven o’clock on a Sunday morning, but by what we do all of the rest of the week, as well.

Honestly, I think we’re almost there! We have the people we need to live into these dreams, we just have to catch fire! These are my dreams, what are your dreams for this congregation? Will you dream with me? Will you share your dreams with the rest of this congregation? Will you share your dreams with the rest of the world? Thanks be to God. Amen.


Now, beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that we are called to be Christ’s church in the world today. So, go out there and catch fire! Go out there and dream big dreams! Yes, be realistic, AND dream the big dreams. Don’t let anyone dampen your enthusiasm! Go forth and be instruments of God’s peace and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. Spread the fire! Share the love and joy of our Lord with the world! In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!

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