Birthday Blues and Pentecost Praise
Reading: Acts 2:1-18
Well, it seems that we’re in celebration mode this weekend. Apparently there was some wedding in Windsor yesterday; at our Christian Aid fundraiser last night we congratulated Sarah and Dan on their engagement and in today’s reading we hear of the day that the disciples were filled with the Spirit…which is widely considered to be the birth of the Church, meaning that today is the Church’s Birthday. So Penblwydd Hapus to the Church!
And as we heard the story of that first Pentecost, I wonder how you felt, what you thought. As you heard the tale of torched tongues and a heavenly hurricane, I wonder how you reacted. Is this a scene that you find easy or difficult to imagine? Is it a passage you’re very familiar with or new to? Are you easily able to relate to such an experience of the Holy Spirit or do you confine the story to the realm of ‘Bible-times only’ experiences that don’t seem to happen in the same way today?
I must confess that when I read this passage for today, I felt somewhat flat. In a week during which I had to deal with data protection, building regulations and visa requirements, alongside news of a number of members from both congregations experiencing a time of illness or difficulty, reading of the supernatural celebrations which marked the birth of the Church felt so far removed to my life today, that I was tempted to skip this passage entirely and to turn instead to the more palatable passages about the Holy Spirit being the breath of God inside us all.
In fact, I felt about the Church’s Birthday in a similar way to how I felt about my own recently. As I chalked up another year gone last week I felt pretty nonplussed about the day itself. Sure, the cards and texts, emails and phone calls I received were nice and everything but…well, my awful confession is that alongside my thanks for the near hundred greetings given, I heard myself sighing deeply for I knew that replying to the messages and emails – especially those with long messages which would require lengthy answers – would eat into my time, whilst I’d probably forget who gave me what and who I had to thank, offending those generous enough to bless me on my Birthday. The whole endeavour felt like an added hassle – ‘I’ve got too many other things to be getting on with’, I thought to myself, ‘I’m far too important or perhaps not important enough, to waste time on such frivolity’. So instead of spending time to appreciate the tokens and messages of love that were so kindly given, I ticked off the opening of cards and presents as if it were just another task to be completed. How ungrateful can you get?!
And if I haven’t come across badly enough already, let’s add another confession to the pile! As I’ve hinted at already, whilst reflecting on the reading this week it became clearer to me that I sometimes treat the presence, the work, the wonder of the Holy Spirit in the same way that I do my own Birthday celebrations – When both come, they disrupt my routine and disturb my status quo. When both come, they require me to respond in ways which can feel futile and unproductive. When both come, I am tempted to hide for a while and wait a little until the moment or the day has passed again.
I wonder whether anyone else here today has felt the same. I wonder whether you’ve ever felt the prompting of the Spirit; felt the gentle…or not so gentle…prod from God to perhaps try something new, question long held beliefs or let go of old grudges only to pull the duvet over your head and pray that God goes away again. I wonder if you’ve ever heard a whisper beckoning you away from the usual routine and to do list so to while away some time in God’s dangerously divine presence…only to schedule in such a time for tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. Or if you’ve ever been provoked to speak to a stranger, challenge an injustice, step out of your comfort zone…only to shake the feeling off and retreat back into your comfortable normality.
If you have, then, I wonder whether such a response is because the Holy Spirit can be a disruptive influence and we’re far too busy to face such holy havoc. Such rigid busyness seems to be a plague of modern life.
Do you remember The Jetsons? The Hanna-Barbera family who lived in Orbit City?! Or even old episodes of Tomorrow’s World? Weren’t we promised a future where technology would free up more time for us, and yet so many in our society today seem to be more and more busy, more and more stressed, more and more on the verge of having poor mental health than ever before. And the Church often colludes with this way of thinking. When membership is ageing and numbers declining, we often feel the need to plan and do more and more with less and less, as if redeeming the world was our job, not God’s. And I 100% include myself in this. I frequently battle my colleagues in the lose-lose game of whose diary is the most full, whose ministry is the most tiring when we get together.
And yet we claim to be walking in the footsteps of the one who would set aside time to be still, to be divinely distracted, to be infused by God’s Spirit. In our reading of that first Pentecost, we’re told that when God’s Spirit is poured on all people, there will be prophesies and visions and dreams. We’ll come back to the former in a minute but first, are we allowing ourselves time to dream? Just yesterday, the charismatic Bishop Michael Curry invited the world to dream; to imagine what the world would look like if love was the way we are followed. Are you, am I, gifting ourselves the time to wonder, to imagine, to dream what our lives, our church, our world might be or are we too busy for such futile endeavours?! If so, perhaps this Pentecost, God is reminding us to take time to dream. Research out last year suggested that dreaming is actually fundamental to our emotional and mental health whilst artists, musicians, even scientists have frequently told us that their greatest discoveries were made through their dreams – such as McCartney’s ‘Yesterday’ and Mendeleev’s construction of the periodic table.
More than even this, from Joseph and his garish dreamcoat to Luther King and his iconic speech, we know that dreams have the potential to challenge the corrupt, give hope to the despairing and bring us glimpses of God’s kingdom of justice and joy. So thank God for the dreamers. Thank God for those amongst us who are wise enough to put down their diaries and to do lists when the Holy Spirit comes a-knocking; who are inoculated against the disease of constant busyness and who find the time to listen to the Spirit, to allow themselves to dream.
Of course, it could well be that, just like the other potential cause of my glum attitude to my Birthday, some of us might be closed to the workings of the Spirit, not because we feel too busy and important but because we don’t feel important enough. Who am I to expect God to speak to little old me? Who am I to be open to the miraculous and magnificent…or even the subtle and supportive work of God’s Spirit? Who am I to think that the Spirit will give me something to say, to do, to offer?
‘Well,’ God says in our passage today, ‘who are you not to be?! For I will pour my Spirit on all people. The old, the young, the slave, the free, the male, the female…no one is to be considered too unimportant or undeserving of my Spirit and the revolution it will bring.’ Back in 1st century Jerusalem, a time when the old, the young, the female and the slave were ignored by the movers and shakers in society, God was saying ‘My Spirit will be with you too. You too will have a part to play in my topsy turvy kingdom. You will do some moving and shaking of your own!’
And God says the same to us today! As we gather together as those first disciples did; as we celebrate the birth of the Church; even as we consider who is being called into eldership today, God tells us that none of us is unworthy or unwanted, that God’s mischievous Spirit might just transform lives, churches and communities once again. So if there’s a grudge that you’ve been holding tight to, be open to the Spirit helping you to let go. If the hurt you’re currently facing threatens to overwhelm you, be open to the Spirit bringing even just a glimpse of hope and healing. If you’ve been tempted to speak out, to challenge others, to challenge yourself but have been too scared to try, be open to the Spirit helping you take that step forward this week.
‘But Phil,’ you might well say, ‘surely this talk of prophesies and visions and dreams is a little too much for us to imagine’. Well, perhaps. If we let it be. For this past week as banners have been erected outside this church and walls inside it; as refugees have been taught English on a Monday and children taught about God’s love on Tuesday; as food has been shared around tables, prayers of protest have been made, as money has been raised for the poorest and most vulnerable in our world, I have witnessed the young, the old, the male, the female, the foreigner, the free from this community see, prophesy and live out God’s vision for a world in which war and inequality and despair are replaced with love and justice and hope. God’s Spirit is very much moving and shaking, peace-making and boundary-breaking amongst us, even when folk like me are reaching for the duvet!
This Pentecost then, this Church Birthday, let’s not be too busy to dream. Let’s not feel too unworthy to celebrate how the Spirit is moving around us, within us, perhaps even in spite of us. Instead, may we be inspired to envision a world in which peace and justice kiss, where God’s extravagant love might be known to all. May we look out for the Spirit’s presence in our daily living and be open to be changed by it. And may we give thanks that whether we’re busy or bedbound, Spirit-filled or flat, a Birthday grouch or an everyday joy, God yet loves us and calls us to be partners in the coming kingdom. Glory be to the Father, and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit as it was in the beginning, is now, and evermore shall be. Amen.