Sunday, May 31, 2009

What's gotten into you?

Acts 2:1-21

“What’s gotten into you?” Have you ever been on either end of THAT question? It’s one of those questions that can mean SOOO many different things. There’s the frustrated “WHAT’S gotten into you?” Or the confused, “What’s GOTTEN into you?” Maybe the annoyed, “What’s gotten into YOU?” Even the compassionate, “What’s gotten INTO you?”

However it is asked or intended, it’s a question we ask when we see something we don’t expect – the sudden misbehavior of a usually quiet child, or maybe the creeping wave of depression that shadows over a close friend. It’s a question we ask when something seems to come completely out of the blue, when there’s been a sudden and alarming change, and we don’t know what to do or how to react. What has gotten into you?

I’m sure it wasn’t a new question for Jesus’ apostles who found themselves in Jerusalem. These are men and women who had given up more than a little to follow Jesus. Some had thrown down nets. Some had walked away from family and livelihoods. Some had given up cushy jobs and regular paychecks. Some had risked being ostracized, being refused religious privileges, being shunned from everyone and everything they knew and trusted, being stoned just to follow this itinerant preacher who claimed to be the Son of God. I can just hear their families. Can’t you? What in the world has gotten into you?

No, that question wasn’t a new one to Jesus’ first followers and apostles even when they heard it together on the first Pentecost after Jesus’ earthly life had ended. This time they really earned it, didn’t they? Their day started out pretty normal. They were gathered together in a house, maybe the house of a friend or family member of one of them. Having come to Jerusalem to witness to Jesus and celebrate the holy day, they had joined together in the morning to worship and give thanks to God for the gift of the Law at Mt. Sinai in the desert wilderness. Gathered in this house in the morning with the joy of the celebration and the anticipation of what they were called to do, they began their day together, likely in prayer.

Faithful pilgrims and residents all over the cosmopolitan city were doing the same thing. Friends and relatives were packed into each other’s homes or in inns around Jerusalem for the holy day observance. Waking up and getting ready for the festival celebration they probably bumped into one another in the way we do when a home is stretched beyond its usual capacity. The volume was probably excitedly a little louder and a little more celebratory as conversations and morning greetings spilled through open windows into the streets that were busier than usual with the faithful who had come to town to worship in the Temple.

The apostles, there both to worship and to wait, likely gathered to pray together first thing in the morning, to hear how they might spend the day waiting and preparing for their new gift from God that might be coming any day now! But when they gathered something happened. Suddenly from out of NOWHERE there came a sound of a violently rushing wind. No cloud outside to explain it, no storm brewing on the horizon. Just inside and just this one house, the screaming noise of wind tearing through the home, tearing through the apostles as they sat in anticipation of what was to come.
With the wind came the unbelievable vision of tongues of fire, of light and heat, divided and resting over their head upon each of them, and the bewildering gift of tongues being spoken from their mouths. As the wind blew and the flames danced over them, the apostles found themselves suddenly, inexplicably, able to speak in languages they had only heard in confusion before. The noisy sounds reverberating throughout the house poured into the streets, improbable in occurrence and impossible to contain.

What has gotten into them? That’s almost what the crowds were saying. I’m sure they stopped to overhear what they couldn’t ignore. Walking by on their way somewhere, devout Jews from every possible background who lived in the important city of Jerusalem or who had gathered for the holy day were drawn toward this house as they heard words and phrases, accents and dialects, they hadn’t heard in ages. The way a newborn baby perks up at her parents’ voices even within just minutes of being born, recognizing something she has known more than any other sound, the men and women were drawn to the sound of their native tongues tumbling out of the house full of Galilean guests. It just didn’t make sense.

What has gotten into them? Or as they said in the Scripture, are they DRUNK?

Many call Pentecost the birthday of the church. Actually, I know a lot of churches celebrate it that way, singing “Happy Birthday” in their worship, blowing out candles and cutting a cake in fellowship. The apostles first Pentecost, more than any other of the defining moments of the early church, is lifted up as the day the church came into being. You might say that the resurrection made us Christians, but it’s Pentecost that made us the church. It’s Pentecost that equipped the apostles for their mission and ministry on earth. It’s Pentecost that let this group of men and women limited by their common language speak the message of God’s love in Jesus to the world. It’s Pentecost that united the believers not only around the person of Jesus and belief in his grace, but it’s Pentecost that united them and us around our mission as the Body of Christ, the church. And it’s Pentecost that shocked everyone who witnessed it.

That’s an important piece of the story, I think, the shock of the crowds who saw what the spirit was doing. It was nine in the morning and they thought the apostles were drunk. They could come up with no other explanation for what they saw or heard coming from the house where the apostles were gathered. They thought they were under the influence of mind and behavior altering wine – and too much of it.

I know this could be a risky question to ask in a congregation that just hosted a wine tasting event, but I’ll try it anyway - - when was the last time the crowds asked that of us? I don’t mean to glorify alcohol and I certainly am not advocating for drunkenness, but when was the last time THAT was the only excuse the world could come up with for our Spirit-filled actions? When was the last time someone asked excitedly and hopefully of First Presbyterian Church, “What has gotten into you?”

A couple of months ago a church member gave me an article copied from the Pioneer Press. It was an editorial written by a columnist for the Miami Herald, Leonard Pitts, Jr. Pitts was commenting on a recent study of 54,000 Americans on the topic of religious identification. In a nutshell, the study found a sharp erosion in the number of people claiming any religious affiliation. In talking about this change over the years, Pitts speculated on the cause of this flight from organized religious traditions. Ultimately, he thinks, religion is undermining religion. Drawing on the sins of a multitude of faiths, denominations, movements, individuals, and traditions he points to those who loudly claim religious backing as they cause pain through abuse, discrimination, violence, and intolerance and name’s the world’s disgust and frustration at these witness to any faith.

I think Pitts is on to something. The expectations the world has of religious bodies, of churches, seems to have declined in recent years. Those on the fringes or on the outside, those passing by in the streets who overhear the voices, prayers, and shouts of denominational bickering, those who hear reports of clergy abusing parishioners, even children, those who see buildings toppled or wars waged invoking the name of ANY God, don’t have a whole lot of high hopes for the churches or other religious bodies of the world. They certainly don’t seem to be hearing their own language, their concerns being spoken about, spilling out of our windows into the streets of our shared communities, cities, and countries.

No one walking along the diverse and crowded streets of Jerusalem expected to hear their own language that morning. No one from Parthia or Egypt or Libya or even s far away as Mesopotamia expected to hear and understand the good news of the gospel, but by the power of the Holy Spirit, they did.

The Spirit of Pentecost calls us to defy the expectations of the world. The Spirit of Pentecost calls us to defy the expectations of the crowds walking by our community of faith with words and actions that shatter the perceptions. The Spirit of Pentecost empowers us to show generosity where there is greed, shelter where there is abuse, pace where there is violence, justice where there is vengeance, welcome where there is discrimination.

The world around us certainly doesn’t seem to expect a whole lot of good out of the church. What would it take for us to be so filled with the Holy Spirit of God that people would ask, “What has gotten into them?”

In a couple of weeks my family is going on vacation back to Nebraska. You could say it’s birthday season in our family. K turned 4 a couple of weeks ago, a birthday she shares with her 84 year old great-grandmother. W turns 2 in the middle of June a couple of days after his great-great aunt turns 90. A whole slew of birthdays in P’s family come up in July. I’m noticing something about birthdays as we have moved forward this year. Those early birthdays are celebrated with endless energy and spirit! The later birthdays are done up right, too. But the rest of them, the ones in the middle somewhere between 4 and 90, they don’t get quite as much attention. For some of those middle years, we even try to forget they are happening.

We can’t afford to do that with the church’s birthday. We can’t afford to forget the day of our birth, its circumstances, its events, its meaning. The church was born in the rush of the Spirit of God. The church was born reaching out to the world. The church was born shocking and bewildering the world with its unbelievable message of God’s renewing and saving love. The church was born with the Spirit of God dancing and entering God’s people, men and women, young and old, so that the young could see visions and the old could dream dreams; the rich and the slaves alike received the Spirit of God.

We can’t afford to push that memory away and live as if its truth is not in us. We can’t afford to let the world’s expectations reign and our message and ministry to be lost. The disciples who learned became apostles who are sent. We are now apostles, those sent into the world filled with the Spirit of God to carry on Christ’s ministry and witness to his grace– feeding the hungry out of our abundance; providing physical and spiritual shelter to those with no place to call home; freeing those held captive in slavery, unemployment and addiction – wherever we go. We can’t let our actions confirm the suspicions of the world. No, we’ve got to leave them wondering, “What has gotten into them?” And then we’ll all get to tell them the answer, “The Spirit of the Living God!”

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