Sunday, May 11, 2008

"A Different Kind of 'Exciting'" - A Sermon for Pentecost

Acts 2:1-21

Throughout junior high and high school, I went on a lot of mission trips through my church’s youth group. These were week-long work trips to inner city Philadelphia or Cincinnati, or more “outer reaches” type places in Illinois and Massachusetts.

The place in Massachusetts is called Heifer Project – if you’ve never heard of Heifer Project International, this is an organization that raises various animals to send to Third World areas to help their economy or their food supply. So essentially, Heifer Project is a farm, so we basically did farm work for the week when we went there.

I’ve been to Heifer Project twice. The first time I was a newly minted confirmand, and took the trip with some fellow confirmands (it was my first mission trip ever, actually). The second time I was a junior in high school – and my mom signed up as one of the chaperones. Actually, she’d become the youth group coordinator by this point, so there was no escaping being on that trip with her.

So during this week of farm work, we’d put up electric fences, clean the barn, feed the animals, milk goats and a cow – typical farm chores. Every day we’d be divided into subgroups to take on these different tasks, and one day my little subgroup was assigned the task of fixing up an overhang that housed lumber and other materials: cleaning it out, nailing up some tarps to keep out the rain, and so on.

My mom and I were in the same group that day, and I remember that morning very clearly. I remember it being hot and muggy. I remember my sinuses violently protesting the pollen count. I remember the bugs: flies and mosquitoes both. And I remember that it had come close to lunch time, and everyone else in my group had already headed back to get cleaned up. I’d wanted to quit for the morning as well, and come back later even though we’d only had a little more to do. I was standing on a ladder nailing up those tarps, and my mom looked up at me on the ladder and handed me another nail, and said, “Come on, let’s finish this. This is the hardest I’ve ever seen you work.”

I tell you this story about my mom for two reasons. One: it’s Mother’s Day, so it seemed appropriate. Two: it’s Pentecost, so it seemed appropriate.

The second reason probably sounds strange. What does a story about a mother’s encouragement to finish the job through sweat, discomfort, fatigue, and bugs have to do with Pentecost?

Believe it or not, it has everything to do with Pentecost. Here was a 17-year-old kid who was more interested in popping on his headphones than hammering nails. Here was someone more interested in air conditioning than the hot humid morning air. Here was someone more interested in being back with his friends than out alone finishing the work that everyone else had abandoned. Here was someone to whom music seemed more exciting, cool air seemed more exciting, laughing with his friends seemed more exciting. And the work that he was doing to help others didn’t seem so exciting. It was hard and tiring – but not exciting in the sense that he enjoyed it. It took someone else’s prodding for the task to be completed.

The story in Acts 2 of the first Pentecost can be called exciting – after all, it’s certainly not boring. Here we get the sound of a rushing wind; we get the disciples all speaking in different languages so that everyone who heard them could understand their message. People who hear and see them are amazed, confused, cynical, but nevertheless interested. This is not something that anyone – the disciples or the observers – is able to ignore.

Finally, Peter stands up in order to offer an explanation, and you can bet that he had an attentive audience by this point. He quotes the prophet Joel as he lays out what the work of God’s Spirit is about. It’s about men and women prophesying – in other words, calling people to own up to unfaithfulness. It’s about people receiving visions and dreams about what God truly wants out of God’s people – faithfulness, trust, love – and at the same time condemning people’s actions to the contrary.

These prophesies, visions and dreams couldn’t have been tremendously popular. The people at whom they’re directed probably got a little upset, to say the least. The people charged with delivering them probably didn’t want to give them because it would damage relationships; create tension and awkward moments.

The ability, the drive, the courage to do all of this through the sweat and discomfort had to come from someplace else…it had to come from Someone Else. In order for this work to be accomplished, in order for us to finish the job, we need the Holy Spirit to swoop in and light the passion within us and to say to our hearts, “Come on. Let’s finish this.”

When people talk about how exciting any particular church is or making the church more exciting, this stuff isn’t what they usually mention. When talking about an exciting church, people may talk about the upbeat music, or how many jokes the pastor told that day, or Sunday School classes that don’t weigh themselves down too much with that boring book called the Bible. There’s nothing wrong with these things – they can actually help engage different people in different ways; help them learn how to follow Jesus (except maybe the “Bible study with no Bible” thing).

But there are some other exciting things that the Holy Spirit may have in mind – a different kind of “exciting.” The Holy Spirit may have in mind some stuff that might make us sweaty or uncomfortable.

Think of some of the exciting things that church members have accomplished over the centuries.

Think about Martin Luther opposing practices of the Catholic church that he thought were oppressive or unnecessary, making him a pariah and drawing the ire of his church in the process. That’s not boring.

Think about New England Congregationalists who were responsible for the Boston Tea Party – church people sneaking onto ships in the middle of the night to chuck tea into the harbor! That’s not boring.

Think about Dietrich Bonhoeffer helping to organize opposition to the Nazi party. That’s not boring.

Think about Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as he organized churches to combat racial discrimination. Think about the nights he spent in jail and the opposition he faced. That’s not boring.

The Holy Spirit helped inspire church people to these actions – hard, uncomfortable actions; actions that strained or broke relationships. This is the kind of exciting stuff (because it’s certainly not boring) to which the Holy Spirit calls the church, prodding us, speaking to our hearts while saying, “Come on. Let’s finish this.”

The Holy Spirit gives the church the passion and drive for justice, for God’s kingdom to come into view more fully through our actions: Actions like fixing up a needy person’s home. Actions like reconciliation between enemies. Actions like confronting our own prejudices.

Exciting actions, because they certainly weren’t boring.

Actions where people saw visions and dreamed dreams and prophesied faithfulness.

Actions that would have a much longer-lasting effect than the most exciting music or the most joke-laden sermon.

Actions where the Holy Spirit poked and prodded, and keeps poking and prodding, saying, “Come on. Let’s finish this. This is the hardest I’ve ever seen you work.”

Hard work, but not boring work.

Exciting work.

Spirit-filled work.