Today is Pentecost in the church; I just read you the story of Pentecost from the Book of Acts. This is one of a handful of Sundays that make me a little uncomfortable each year. Pentecost Sunday, Transfiguration Sunday, Trinity Sunday, Reign of Christ Sunday… In a traditional church like ours, pastors see these Sundays coming up on the calendar each year; we know that there are stories associated with them. And we know that many of you, busy with your own lives and not working in the church, arrive on Sunday having no idea that it is Pentecost Sunday. And we wonder if you will care. And we wonder if convincing you to care is important.
I can see both sides. On the one hand, holding fast to Christian holidays like Pentecost seems totally irrelevant. You’re not thinking about it anyplace else in your life, so I can see how you come to church and I mention Pentecost during the Welcome and I switch my stole to the red one today and those kinds of things seem totally unimportant.
I can also see that there is an opportunity here. When it comes to Pentecost, there is no secular distraction. There is no Santa Claus or Easter Bunny, no holiday parties or egg hunts—there is no parallel cultural celebration that threatens to water down the religious meaning and purpose of the day. So, if we pay attention, these celebrations can make us distinctive as religious people. When much of life seems spiritually undernourished, stories like Pentecost tell us something about who we are and who our lives belong to. In the midst of a world where so many people feel untethered from traditions that matter, these stories might shape our identity and our community.
“Tradition (so the saying goes) is not the maintenance of ashes, but the preservation of fire.” Pentecost is a story about the upkeep of our religious traditions, and as you will see it is about how the church sustains its faith from one age to the next. Pentecost is a story about preserving fire.
So here’s the story. We’ve come to the end of Jesus’ life on earth—Easter morning has come and gone, the resurrection appearances have taken place and Jesus has ascended into heaven, raising the question of “what now?” What is belief in God going to look like on the other side of Jesus’ earthly life? It’s a live question for the disciples, and in some ways it is the question we share in common with those ancient disciples: How do you follow Jesus if he’s not right there in front of you? The answer is in this story: Pentecost is the coming of the Holy Spirit, the holy presence that Jesus sends to continue his presence in the world.
It happened in this way: The followers of Jesus are gathered together on Pentecost; it was a harvest festival in the Jewish tradition, 50 days after Passover. They’re gathered for a religious celebration. Suddenly, it says, there is the rush of a violent wind from heaven, it fills the house and the Holy Spirit descends upon all of the disciples like tongues of fire.
The question this story raises, for me, is: why hasn’t this ever happened in my church? I think if you’re going to have a real conversation about this story, that question has to be asked. In no church that I have ever served have visible tongues of fire descended upon worshippers in a sudden rush of wind from heaven. How can that be explained? Maybe the coming of the Holy Spirit was only meant to happen once. Maybe the church these days isn’t faithful enough for it to happen again. Maybe the preaching here is inadequate to call down the Holy Spirit.
Any of these things, if we think about them too much, might make us deeply discouraged about our religion. But here’s the thing: Why would there would be a story like this in the Bible just to make us feel discouraged and inadequate in matters of faith? That can’t be. So what I actually believe is that this story isn’t meant to discourage us. It’s meant to remind us that the Holy Spirit shows up all the time…if we are willing to look for it.
In order to get to that message, we first need to acknowledge that this story is not quite as supernatural as it might appear. One sign is that, in this story, there are the people who believe and are filled with the Holy Spirit; and there are doubters. There are people standing right nearby who witness the whole thing and are not convinced; they don’t see a rushing wind from heaven, they see a bunch of their neighbors behaving strangely and they assume they are drunk. So whatever these “tongues of fire” looked like, it wasn’t convincing to everyone. Even in the ancient world, right on the heels of the life of Jesus, faith wasn’t obvious to everyone and there were plenty of people who had their doubts. So it seems to me that we’re not supposed to compare ourselves to this story or measure the faithfulness of our religious celebration against theirs. Instead we’re supposed to ask what this story is trying to tell us. And I think it’s telling us to keep the fire of the Holy Spirit alive—to do it by any means necessary, and to be open and curious to know how the Spirit may work among us at any given time. Sometimes the Holy Spirit appears in ways that look much more ordinary than you might expect.
I saw tongues of fire descend on one of our Knox members this week. A young man, attending a Bible study on this passage, opened up about ways he was seeing the fire die out in his marriage and how he is in the midst of a journey with his spouse to cause it to burn brightly again. His vulnerability in sharing his story invited the others into his life—they deepened relationships with Christian friends in the course of that study. They gathered around an ancient Bible story in which they can now see themselves. There may not have been literal tongues of fire, but most certainly, they were speaking a different language than many of us speak most of the time. And in that ordinary way they were preserving the fire of their tradition.
Things like this happen all the time. A week ago, we started a family event called Feast. We had a terrific turnout of families and children in our church; young people who are not yet vaccinated and needed an outdoor venue for worship; parents who have had one of the hardest years of their lives and are looking for support from their church family. We provided dinner; we gave the kids a chance to play and the adults a chance to connect and meet someone new; we worshipped together. We sang songs that were easy to teach and remember. We prayed, and we talked about how to pray. There wasn’t anything fancy about it at all, but we were keeping the fire of faith alive, because of our shared sense that it is important to teach faith to our children.
I’ve seen these kinds of connections made over and over, it’s been one of the strange gifts of this difficult year that has past. At special outdoor events, and weekly coffee and conversation on Zoom, and the new relationships forming between older and young moms in our church; they are making a new friend or strengthening a relationship with an older one; reminding people that we still have a community that is holding together strongly in the midst of the pandemic, and in this way, we are preserving fire.
This week, most of you got a mailer about remembering the Knox Endowment in your end-of-life planning; it’s hard to imagine an example that seems less like preserving fire. But consider this for a moment: The Endowment is the backstop that encourages our congregation to take risks. Thanks to the security of the Endowment, we try new things that may at first seem frightening. During the last generation of gifts to the Knox Endowment, we have responded to God’s call and grown in significant ways by taking chances. We began housing homeless families in our church, rather than just giving money and expecting someone else to do it. We opened our ministries to persons of different sexual orientations, first in membership, then in leadership, and then in marriage. We began the Fresh Spirit worship service and proved that we could celebrate God in different ways and still be one congregation. These are acts of faith that have taken place in the last generation and are tied to the generosity of those who have gone before us, sometimes quite directly; the loan to build the Knox Commons for Fresh Spirit was secured by our Endowment. These changes in our church caused great distress and hand-wringing at one time, but they seem routine to us now. And in these ways of being faithful, we have preserved the fire of our tradition because we have followed the leading of the Holy Spirit.
If we expect Pentecost to look just like it did in the Bible, we will always be disappointed, but the fact is that there are signs of fire are all around us. I wonder how many times the ancient disciples gathered at their Pentecost harvest festival and wondered why nothing miraculous was taking place. It seems to me that what we need to do is to notice when the Spirit is at work, to give thanks for it, and to look for and expect the Spirit to be present more often, so that we take part in welcoming the presence of fire and preserving it.
I have intentionally used mundane, ordinary sounding examples in today’s sermon in order to steer you away from the impression that the Holy Spirit only shows up in violent rushes of wind and tongues of fire. So I’m going to finish with a very ordinary example from my own life.
Being a parent is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done; I’m sure many of you can relate to that feeling. One of the ways that it is such a challenge is in the daily grind of telling my kids the same things over and over and over again. “Pick up your shoes, your clothes, your toys, and put them away.” “Say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and be grateful for what you have instead of always asking for more.” “Don’t make me ask you 10 times do something, do it the first time.” Every day, parenthood involves the frustration of telling your kids the same things you told them just the day before. Why don’t they remember? But of course, when one stops to think about it, the truth of what is going on in these interactions is not just some useless frustration. These are little people, just beginning to be formed. And they need constant reminders, nudges in the right direction as they grow and mature and push boundaries and try to internalize the habits that will help them to be happy adults. And I have the opportunity not only to see them that way, but to receive the gift of being the person who has a chance to help shape them into the person God made them to be, and in the process I get to be shaped into the father God made me to be. Will I keep maintaining ashes, stuck in a tradition of deep frustration, or will I make a tradition of preserving fire, and pass on to my children the very best gifts I can?
I wonder what might be the equivalent example in your life? In all of these ordinary moments, we have the opportunity to choose between maintaining the ashes of a life we don’t want, or preserving the fire of a life to which God is calling us. Amen.