(Acts 2: 1-21; Ezekiel 37: 1-14)
There is power in the wind. Those in the know have been saying for years that wind power is one of the more promising forms of renewable energy. Because it’s always there. Unless it’s not. And there’s the problem. There’s a level of trickiness involved in “catching” wind. Because in order to effectively harness it, you really need to access the best winds – the stronger, more consistent wind you only find some six miles up in the air; far above the current turbines that, at best, stretch 650 feet tall.
That’s why, back in 2007, a company called Sky WindPower developed a flying generator – sort of a cross between a kite and a helicopter. Picture an H-shaped metal frame with small rotors at the four ends, tethered to the ground by a long cable. The rotors lift it up, and as they do they turn small dynamos that generate electricity, which is then transferred down the cable to the ground.
And what if the wind stops? Here’s where the genius comes in– the rotors reverse and serve as electric motors to keep the contraption airborne and find the wind. You can see it’s much more efficient than a grounded turbine that has to wait for the next breeze to come around. This thing goes wherever the wind is.
And thus the name of the game in the wind energy biz: if you want to catch the wind, you have to put yourself where the wind is blowing.
You know, there are a lot of images we use to unpack the essence of faith, but wind is rarely one of them. Today we get it twice. Wind as breath, the Hebrew ruach, breathed into the dry bones of Ezekiel’s desolate valley. And wind as spirit, the Holy Spirit that descended on the gathering of the faithful in the second chapter of Acts. Tongues of fire and the ability to speak foreign languages and all that.
So wind blows in for us on this Pentecost Sunday – which is pretty elusive in and of itself. Pentecost breezes around on our church calendar, falling on a Sunday sometime between mid-May and mid-June. It’s one of the very few days our liturgical calendar gets its red on. Forever lost in the shadow of Easter, Pentecost often gets stuck in the transitional time between the end of school and beginning of summer. Memorial Day weekend this time around.
So over the years, churches have tried to dress Pentecost up a bit. Make it into a birthday celebration, that’s one way; complete with a red-icing sheet cake served up at coffee hour. Or – have the kids sing “Happy Birthday” to the church, because it’s just so cute when they do that. Or – take worship outside near the end and release dozens of red, helium-filled, non-biodegradable balloons into the air.
It’s so funny. We do Christmas great. We pull out all the stops for Easter. We even make All Saints Day a memorable occasion. But the church struggles to get Pentecost right. Which I guess is kind of the very essence of Pentecost. Elusive, surprising, like trying to catch wind wherever it blows. When the day of Pentecost had come, our passage begins, they were all together in one place. In one place. No location given. Nothing to plug into our GPS. Just some place, somewhere.
So at first glance, it appears, we’re left with little to go on. How can we locate ourselves in the Spirit if we have no idea where it is? This dilemma has plagued the church for centuries, in a very real sense. And what do we do? We manufacture the “where.” We create our own coordinates. We take something that shows signs of promise and cast it as our “silver bullet” that will solve everything – reverse declining attendance, increase giving, turn those “nones” into rabid believers, make the church relevant again.
So we create a contemporary service, even when the one we had before worked just fine. We throw our support and dollars behind quick fixes that bear more resemblance to marketing gimmicks than missional identity. We look at another church down the road that’s growing like wildfire and try to carbon copy their “success” to make it our own.
And rarely do these things work, long-term. Why? Because you cannot create the “where” of the Spirit. It doesn’t work that way. Remember: If you want to catch the wind, you have to put yourself where the wind is blowing. Not the other way around.
So how do we find the “where” of the Spirit? I wonder if it’s easier than we might think. Listen again: When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. In one place. Could it be that simple? Could the Spirit simply be wherever the people already are?
Throughout the church’s history, one truism has prevailed: wherever God’s spirit thrives is also where the church thrives. Consider this – in our lifetime, we’ve seen a dramatic shift in where the church is growing the fastest. Today, sixty-percent of the world’s Christians reside in Africa, Asia and Latin America – a majority. And how about this: from 1970 to 1985 about 4300 people were leaving the Church in North America and Europe on a daily basis, while in that same period over 16,000 were converting to Christianity every day in Africa alone!
So, as our crowd of Pentecost people in today’s scripture asked, “What does this mean,” we ask the same thing. What does this mean? Well, let me first say what this does not mean. This does not mean, as some might say, that God has somehow “deserted” or “abandoned” our country. You’ve heard this sentiment before, I’m sure. The one that takes whatever recent catastrophe – a massive hurricane, a school shooting, 9-11 – and props it up as a blatant sign that we as a nation have fallen away from God. That the Spirit can somehow be located in a “where” and that our actions, or inactions, have a direct effect on where that “where” is.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve never understood the notion that God looks favorably or unfavorably upon entire nations. Countries do not please or fail God; people do. I also can’t make sense of the rather anthropocentric view that suggests our actions in any way force God’s hand. That we are somehow calling the shots. If anything reveals the fallacy of this thinking, it’s Pentecost itself, right? The wind blows wherever it pleases, Jesus once told Nicodemus, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going.
Last week I saw this great commercial on a friend’s Facebook timeline for some wind power company. Kind of set up in mock documentary style. There’s this tall man, wearing all black, speaking in a deep French accent. He begins by telling the camera: “I feel like I’ve always been misunderstood….people don’t seem to like me all that much.” And then scenes of him walking around town and being a general nuisance to everyone he meets – knocking paper cups over at an outdoor picnic, messing with a lady’s hair, turning over an outdoor tent, throwing sand in a kid’s face on the playground, even flipping up a lady’s skirt walking down the street. But no one looks at him or says a word. They just pick up the cups, fix their hair, wipe the sand off their face, smooth out their skirt. “It was lonely,” he says, “but you get used to it after awhile.”
And then one day, the day he says everything changed – he’s rustling the newspaper of a man sitting at a park bench; but instead of ignoring him, the man looks at him and invites him to sit down. Talks with him. Shakes his hand and gives him a business card. “Now I finally feel useful,” he says, as he leans back in his chair to spin the model turbine that rests behind him. And that’s when you realize – this man is the wind, once ignored as a nuisance; now, recognized and with purpose.
I can’t help but wonder how often the church resembles those people – the Spirit blows, but all we see is a nuisance. God moves, but for us it’s just something else to deal with. I cannot help but wonder what would happen if we were so tuned in to the Spirit’s moving, almost like a tethered WindPower turbine, that we followed the Spirit wherever it went, instead of trying to do it the other way around.
Easier said than done, of course. We’ve got our monthly meeting agendas and strategic plans. We’ve got our sermon outlines for the next six months. We’ve got our calendar of church programs and ministries that tell us, this is what we’ve done in years past, so this is what we need to keep doing.
And yet, the wind blows! A new idea surfaces for a new ministry, or a twist on an older one. A sister church wants to talk with us about a budding partnership. Leadership transitions compel us to both give thanks for what has been while preparing for what is to come. A missionary from a country not ours stands in our pulpit and tells us of the good work going on in God’s name in Haiti.
How will we view these, friends? Will they be nothing more than a passing breeze to us? Will we see them as a nuisance? Or will we recognize what they very well may be – the Holy Spirit, moving mightily in our midst, inviting us to go where it blows?
The answer to that question, my friends, depends on one very important thing – the location of the people. Did you notice, I wonder, the way the word “all” surfaces throughout the telling of this story? The wind fills all of the house. A tongue of fire rests on all of them. The Holy Spirit fills them all. All of them begin to speak different languages.
And the languages – not just foreign tongues of the day, but languages belonging to nations long since gone. In the yearly stumble-fest of a roll call the poor schmuck reading scripture gives voice to – Parthians, Medes, Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphlyia – it becomes impossible to forget that the key component of Pentecost is not just the Holy Spirit itself, but this huge swath of humanity that the Holy Spirit moves through. One theologian puts it this way:
The beginning of the Christian Church was the GATHERING of the disciples.
The renewal of the church in our day, therefore, begins with OUR gatherings.
And inevitably we hear the mocking voice: The Spirit, moving and blowing in a Presbyterian church? The Frozen Chosen? It’s an unfortunate moniker that has stuck over the years, perhaps for good reason.
But here’s the thing: I’ve felt the Spirit move in our community of faith in some pretty powerful ways over the past year or so. I could list them, but I don’t think I need to. I think you know them already. It’s all those moments when change has persistently knocked at our door – knock, knock, knock. It’s those instances when we’ve felt a little off-balance, off-kilter. Those times when something unexplained happens. It might even hurt a little bit, or be slightly embarrassing. It’s every one of those plastic cup-knocking-over, hair-tussling, tent-overturning, sand-in-the-face, skirt-upflip moments in the life of our church.
They’re not a nuisance. They are instances of the Holy Spirit moving right here. Recognize it. Invite it to sit down and stay awhile. Give it voice; give it purpose. For when the “where” is right here, that is when a church thrives.
Hold on to your hats, my friends. It’s going to get a little breezy around here.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, thanks to be God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN.
http://www.homileticsonline.com/subscriber/illustrations_for_installment.asp?installment_id=93040381, visited on 5.18.2015.http://www.homileticsonline.com/subscriber/illustrations_for_installment.asp?installment_id=93040381, visited on 5.18.2015.