Two Responses
 — Rev. Phil Hobson

May 27, 2012

Acts 2:1-21

Grace and Peace to you this morning. Grace and Peace.

What a cacophony they heard that day. Each speaking so that those around them could understand in their own language, in their own hearing. Faithful Jews from so many areas that have one thing in common…they make people afraid of being liturgist on Pentecost Sunday!

No, that isn’t it. People from so many different parts of the world, where they spoke such different languages, who were in Jerusalem at that time, and each one heard it in a way that they could understand it.

We can safely assume that people responded very differently to such a strange moment. That Luke offers us two responses means Luke is trying to tell us something.

The one response is “What in the world!?? Are these people drunk?!?”

The other is “What does this mean?”

This is a moment of great upheaval. Kate Huey calls it a moment like creation; there is wind, and fire, and something new is coming about in their midst.

The followers of Jesus, who have been waiting for this moment, are probably as shocked as everyone else there. When the Spirit is so vitally present, so readily apparent, so empowering and inspiring, our lesser agendas and more selfish ways get overwhelmed and we simply witness to it, hanging on for the ride.

In such moments, indeed to all our moments, we have the choice of how we will respond. We can dismiss this as someone else’s drunkenness, some aberration unworthy of our attention. Or we can look at it and say, “What does this mean?”

Some days it is the difference between asking, “Why me,” to which the universe seems so often to ask us in reply, “Why not you;” to asking, “What can I learn from this?”

For the church, Pentecost is a terrible day. We like to celebrate it as the church’s birthday. We pull out the good red paraments, the ones we save for this day and maybe Reformation Sunday, or an ordination or installation. But, like the good china, we soon put them back away and go on about our business.

Pentecost is a terrible day in the life of the church because it requires of us to check and see if we treat the Holy Spirit like we do the red paraments.

Do we call on the Spirit only on these special occasions, and then try and put it back in the drawer until the next time we think we need it?

Do we dismiss people who have a calling from God, but such a calling disrupts how we have always done things?

I give thanks for the United Church of Christ and its forebears for those amazing times that they have listened to the Spirit calling in ways that the world (and even parts of the church) did not approve:

  • Rev. Samuel Sewell, a Congregationalist minister, wrote “The Selling of Joseph” in 1700, one of the earliest arguments for the abolition of slavery, a century before the movement gained momentum.
  • In 1773, Phyllis Wheatley, a member of Old South Church in Boston became the first African-American author to be published. To show the difficulty and complexity of the time, she was freed from slavery a short time later.
  • In 1785, Rev. Lemuel Haynes became the first African-American pastor ordained within a Protestant denomination, and the first Black pastor to lead a white congregation.
  • In 1814, Rev. Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, a Congregationalist minister, began his ministry. Soon, however, he turned to seeking better education for the deaf. He helped develop what became American Sign Language. Gallaudet University renamed itself in his honor.
  • In 1853, Antoinette Brown became the first woman since the early church to be ordained as a Christian minister and installed as pastor of a church.

In the 20th Century, such listening for the Spirit continued.

  • In the face of television blackouts of news coverage of the civil rights movement in the South, in 1959, the UCC’s Everett Parker helps win a Supreme Court case that the broadcast airwaves are public, not private property.
  • In 1972, Bill Johnson was ordained in the United Church of Christ, becoming the first openly gay minister recognized by any denomination.
  • In 1976, Rev. Joseph E. Evans is elected to be President and General Minister of the United Church of Christ. He is the first African-American to be elected to leadership of a racially integrated Protestant denomination.

Such Pentecost moments are dangerous to the church. Some, both inside and outside of our congregations, looked at us in those moments and dismissed us. “What are they, drunk?!?” Some wondered if we had had a little too much of the communion wine. But others leaned closer and said, “What does this mean?”

Looking back at these moments, many of which were upheavals in their own day, we now wonder, “What took us so long?”

Pentecost is dangerous. It reminds us that the church is founded upon the coming of the Holy Spirit. And the Holy Spirit is not something we can just put back in the cabinet when we are done with it. The Holy Spirit is still moving among us. God is still speaking.

Are we still listening?

We have a choice of responses when the Spirit moves. We can dismiss it. Or we can lean in and ask, “What does this mean?”

Were it not for those who leaned in and asked, there would be no church, no faith, no saving hope in which we live today. For them and for the Spirit, lets us say:

Thanks be to God.