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Hymn # 291 Spirt, Spirit of Gentleness
Prayer of Invocation
Call to Confession
Prayer of Confession
Assurance of Pardon
“I will take you out of the nations;
I will gather you from all the countries.
I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean.
I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you;
I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.
And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees.
You will be my people, and I will be your God.”
Friends in Christ: by the power of the Spirit, we are united with Christ and given a new spirit. Live in the joy and peace of that assurance.
Passing of the Peace
Prayer for Illumination
Acts 2:1-21 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
17 ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that 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.
18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.
19 And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
20 The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’
Sermon: Burning Questions
Good morning. Today we celebrate Pentecost, the birthday of the Church. I’ll admit, it feels a little bit weird to celebrate this birthday in the sanctuary all by myself. This is a story about people who are all gathered together in one place. This morning, we’re all gathered together, but in separate places. I wish we were all gathered together in the sanctuary today, all dressed in red.
I wish I could pass the peace with you and shake your hands. I wish I could sing with you. I miss seeing you in the pews, in the CE building, and in the parking lot. I know that many of you are asking, when can we worship in the sanctuary again? It’s a burning question.
I don’t know.
I wish I had a definitive answer, but I don’t. Please know that the Session is working through a lot of difficult questions as they formulate a plan for a return to in-person worship. Those questions are very complicated. So are the answers. For now, have faith and have patience. We will worship together again in God’s time.
The story of Pentecost is all about God’s time. In last week’s lesson, we heard Jesus tell the apostles that in a few days, they would be baptized with the Holy Spirit, then Jesus ascended into heaven. So, the apostles, along with some other followers, including Mary and Jesus’ brothers, gathered in Jerusalem. They prayed and they waited.
In a span of ten days, other believers gathered with them in Jerusalem, about 120, in all. As we heard in this morning’s lesson, they came from all over: Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, Cretans and Arabs. Most of them were born Jewish, but some were converts. They all spoke different languages, yet they could all understand one another.
This was the Holy Spirit uniting them in faith and love.
This was their baptism, their commissioning service.
To our modern ears, the Pentecost story seems strange, hard to believe. It’s hard to get past the tongues of flame dancing over everyone’s heads. It’s hard to get past the portents in the prophecy from Joel: blood and fire and smoky mist, the darkened sun and the blood red moon.
Even today, many Christians look for these signs. We look for these things instead of focusing on the deeper meaning: God’s message is for everyone! Salvation in and through Jesus Christ is for everyone! Young and old, Jew and Gentile. Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord!
Maybe we have trouble understanding this story because the world we live in is so broken. Beloved,
I was excited about Pentecost this year. I know that you have all been engaged in being the church in this time of quarantine. I know that you are all working hard at maintaining and strengthening the connections within this congregation. As I thought about the story of Pentecost, the burning questions that were on my mind were:
How are we going to live into the Spirit of Pentecost?
How are we going to harness our relationships and take this message out into the community?
How are we going to be apostles and communicate what we have in this congregation to the larger world?
Those are the questions I wanted to ask, and they’re still important questions, but the brokenness of the world reminded me that there are other burning questions out there, questions that we must address if we are going to be effective witnesses to the love of God in the world.
My heart broke this week when I watched the video of George Floyd, the African-American man who was killed by the hands of the Minneapolis Police Department. I’m sure many of you felt the same way. It was a stark reminder that, as difficult as this time of quarantine is for all of us, some of us face a lot more challenges than others.
Some of us, myself included, have the privilege of turning off the news when it gets too bad. We can watch the video of the police officer with his knee on George Floyd’s neck, say to ourselves, “that’s awful,” and then change the channel.
Some of us have the privilege of forgetting. In my weekly prayer for the congregation, I asked that God wake us from our slumber, keep us from ignoring all the suffering in the world—particularly when the people who are suffering look different from most of the rest of us. I’d hoped that would be enough of a response. I’d hoped that I could go on and write a happy sermon for Pentecost; I’d hoped that I could talk about this later.
I posted that prayer on Facebook on Wednesday. Trena Parks responded to the prayer, saying: “It seems like God doesn’t hear our prayers.” Her response cut me to the bone. To be sure, Trena wasn’t the only voice I heard this week. I have many African-American classmates from seminary and from high school. A lot of my friends posted similar questions on social media. They asked, “Does God hear the prayers of black people?” This was the burning question on their minds.
Of course, the easy answer is: Yes, God hears all prayers. But easy answers don’t take away pain or anger or rage. Easy answers don’t take away fear or anxiety, either.
I want to be clear: I’m not standing in this pulpit and calling any of you racists or bigots. I don’t believe that’s who you are. I love the fact that I serve a multi-racial congregation. I love that people of color feel welcome to worship here and be full members in this congregation. I also know that racism is a disease that infects and affects all of us to some degree. I believe that we, as the Church, the body of Christ in the world, are called to heal the divisions in the world. We are called to participate in Christ’s work of reconciliation.
And I know that this seems like an impossible task.
It takes faith and it takes time.
It also takes work.
Scripture tells us that we are reconciled to God through Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit. The gospels show us that the disciples don’t fully understand this mission. They see Jesus healing and feeding people, but they only understand it in part.
Even in the beginning of the Book of Acts, the apostles don’t fully get it until they are baptized with the Holy Spirit. Their understanding is incomplete until they’ve been baptized. This is why the disciples didn’t quite seem to get it in the gospels. This is why the apostles asked the resurrected Jesus for information, for secret knowledge. This is why they kept watching the sky after the Ascension.
Now they get it. They were baptized with the Holy Spirit.
Instead of knowledge, they have relationship. Through the Holy Spirit, they are united with God and Christ—and also with one another. Their relationship is now complete! 120 believers were baptized with the Spirit on the day of Pentecost. They are equipped with the Spirit and they built the Church. Through relationship. They kept the faith and they persevered.
The Book of Acts tells the story of how the apostles built the Church. Dozens and hundreds and thousands were added. They had the Spirit and the Church grew. Yes, it’s hard to believe the Pentecost story, but look at the numbers. On the day of Pentecost there were about 120 believers gathered in Jerusalem. Today, there are something like 2.1 or 2.2 billion Christians in the world.
Remember, it took faith and it took time.
We, too, have been baptized with that same Spirit. If we want to convince people outside of the Church that the story of Pentecost is real, that this story is true, then we have to live as a changed people. And as a changed people, we have to go outside and transform the world.
The story of Pentecost reminds us that the Spirit empowers us to listen, to hear the languages that other people speak. As individuals, we need to listen to the voices of people who don’t look like us. If you’re looking for a place to start, I would suggest websites like The Root or The Grio. Also, we must not tolerate racist language and jokes. We have to tell our friends and loved ones that such things are not acceptable.
As a congregation, we need to embrace the opportunity to build relationships with our African-American brothers and sisters in Christ at Bethel AME. This starts with going to ecumenical services for Lent and Thanksgiving, as well as the annual celebration of the life and work of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It starts there, but we need to move beyond occasional gatherings; we need deeper engagement.
Transforming the world is a monumental task. But it’s not as big as the power of the Holy Spirit. It takes faith and it takes time. It takes a group of followers who are attentive to the movement of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit binds us to one another.
The Spirit draws us into relationship with one another. If we are attentive to the movement of the Spirit, then we must be willing to be changed by these relationships. We need to see and hear the people that we might overlook, or not listen to fully. We need to hear the cries of pain before a riot breaks out. And we have to transform the world so that the freedoms we cherish in this nation are shared equally. That is part of the reconciling mission of the Church. Are we willing to embrace that mission? Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymn # 300 We Are One in the Spirit
Prayer of Thanksgiving
We give our thanks through our talents, our time, and our treasure.
Thanks be to God; whose love creates us!
Thanks be to God; whose mercy redeems us!
Thanks be to God; whose grace leads us into the future!
Prayers of the People
First and foremost, as we see all the brokenness in our world, and especially the broken bodies of black and brown people, God, we ask that you break our hearts of stone and give us hearts for love alone. Purge us of our indifference, our complacency, and our tolerance for racism around us. Send us your Holy Spirit, so that we may mend the breaches in our society. Equip us to heal the divisions and take up the work of reconciliation.
We offer prayers for everyone who is cut off from loved ones during this time; those who can’t visit their loved ones in hospitals and nursing homes; those who are in hospitals and care facilities; and most of all, those who have been unable to visit and sit with their loved ones as they have died.
Finally, we offer a prayer of thanksgiving—and prayers for health and safety—for all of the helpers out there. We lift up all the nurses, doctors, lab techs, nurses’ aides, housekeeping staff, and first responders who are on the front lines of this pandemic. We give thanks for all they do and we pray that God continue to watch over them in this time.
The Lord’s Prayer
Hymn # 288 Spirit of the Living God
Benediction I want to bless you before I send you out into the world, but I think we all need to spend a little more time in prayer. We need to devote ourselves to prayer, like the apostles did, in that time between the Ascension and Pentecost. Let us pray the prayer that’s attributed to St. Francis:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me bring love.
Where there is offence, let me bring pardon.
Where there is discord, let me bring union.
Where there is error, let me bring truth.
Where there is doubt, let me bring faith.
Where there is despair, let me bring hope.
Where there is darkness, let me bring your light.
Where there is sadness, let me bring joy.
O Master, let me not seek as much to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love,
for it is in giving that one receives,
it is in self-forgetting that one finds,
it is in pardoning that one is pardoned,
it is in dying that one is raised to eternal life. Amen.