Message for Pentecost on Acts 2:1-18 given on May 31, 2020 at the first in-person, Parking Lot Worship at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas
I was trained and ordained, but I still felt so inadequate in my first church. My first call was at an urban congregation on the east side of Detroit; I was only 27 and knew I still had a lot to learn. The community was 85% African American, and the church, which was only 30% African American, wanted to become more of a neighborhood church. We worked on developing relationships with families through our summer program, and one summer, one of our youth had a conflict with one of the younger teens in the community. I had not even arrived at their house yet, and the teen came outside, looked at me, and said, “I’m not listening to this skinny girl.”
I resisted the urge to say, “you think I’m skinny?” and instead tried to act like the grown-up pastor I was trying to be. But I felt inadequate. Later that year, one of our members was murdered by her neighbors, drug addicts who got her to open her door and shot her point blank. Oh yes, I felt inadequate. I discovered that you can pray and have faith, and even think you are doing what God wants you to do, but still feel you are not up to the task and inadequate in every way.
I wonder if that is how the disciples and other followers of Jesus felt while they were praying in that upper room. There were about 120 of them—including some of Jesus’ family, and all the women who stood by him at the cross and witnessed the empty tomb. They did what Jesus told them to do after he ascended into heaven—they went back to Jerusalem and waited to receive power from on high. But how were they—this motley crew of people, rejected by their religion, and some by their families—how were they supposed to fulfill a mission that included being Jesus’ witnesses to the ends of the earth? How many people was that anyway? How many languages? How do they do THAT without Jesus here, when they only managed to get around this region when he was here?
Their numbers, training, time with Jesus, even their culture and language skills were woefully inadequate. They prayed, they had faith, they were even doing what Jesus told them to do, but they did not feel up to the task and inadequate in every way.
Even those of us who, a few months ago, might have felt we were operating at the top of our game, may feel woefully inadequate in this world in which we now live. Do we have the resilience, the flexibility, the emotional maturity, to keep adapting to changing circumstances, letting go of expectations, and still be the reliable presence for those we love? Moreover, can we make a difference in overturning the racism in our institutions so that skin color does not determine how people are treated, and whether we, or our brown-skinned friends and family fear dying when they are arrested, go jogging, or walk home from the corner store in a hoodie.
Jesus did not leave the disciples, feeling bereft and inadequate to the tasks and challenges that faced them. With the rush of a violent wind and the power of tongues of fire, the Holy Spirit blew into the house where they were praying and pushed them out into the city, where immigrants from the whole region lived. The power of the Spirit enabled them to speak in diverse languages, so everyone heard the good news of Jesus’ forgiveness and victory over death. It sounds like Peter became the star of the show—he preached a great sermon and people experienced the power of God in Jesus Christ.
But there is an important thread in this Holy Spirit story that often gets overlooked when we are wowed by fire, by Peter’s preaching, and by the difficult-to-pronounce languages and cultures. I learned to pay attention to this thread when in my first congregation.
There was a man with Down’s Syndrome named Alex, and he and his mom, Ella, who had struggles of her own, lived in the neighborhood. About a year after I started, they began to walk to church.
Alex and Ella loved to participate in whatever was going on—they would sing with the choir, they loved church potlucks and spending time in fellowship. Sometimes, they would get mixed up on what day it was and show up for church on Saturday instead of Sunday. But I knew when I saw them in their Sunday best on Saturday, that they weren’t just confused, they were excited to get to church, they were ready to sing, to pray and praise, and to be all together with everyone in one place.
One Sunday after worship, we were all in the fellowship hall and Alex said he wanted to give me something. He took me by the shoulders and positioned me in the middle of the room, and then backed up about 5 feet, put out his arm, and began to sing, “You are so beautiful, to you…”
The gift of the Holy Spirit rested on Alex, because he shared with me his spiritual gift of encouragement. We chuckle because he got the words wrong, but I have always known he actually got them right. The Holy Spirit rested on me, too, and I needed to believe it. It was easy for me to see the gifts of the Spirit in other people, in other pastors, in my church members, and even in Alex and Ella, but not in myself, not in those difficult situations I faced. I needed to believe that God would use me, that God could make me more than I was, or none of my gifts would be available for God to use. I would be hiding them under a bushel.
Here the Pentecost story is extremely specific, and we tend to miss it, as I did: “a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit.” With the words, “you are so beautiful, to you…” Alex was saying, “a tongue of fire from Pentecost is resting on you and you better start believing it for yourself! Alex reminded me that I was not only adequate, I was more powerful than I would ever understand, not because of my training or my ordination, but because the Holy Spirit is in me, blessing me with skills, words and ideas I do not even possess—just like on that first Pentecost.
Because even when they felt inadequate, the Holy Spirit made the disciples not just adequate—but empowered way beyond their abilities to fulfill the mission Jesus gave them. The Spirit was so powerful that day, that later in Acts, it says that 3,000 people joined the church! From 120 to 3,000—that’s 2500%--what a growth curve!
It was not just the Peter-preaching show either—every single believer had a tongue of fire on them
• Someone started teaching people who had questions and doubts
• Someone provided food
• Someone made comfortable places for the elderly to sit
• Someone helped the families with children
• Someone prayed for healing for the sick.
• Someone preached in other languages
• Someone started baptizing
• And someone put up a tent, others passed out bulletins, and others blew up balloons!
We cannot be the people God calls us to be, the disciples Jesus beckons us to be, the church the world needs us to be, when we shun or shirk the gifts of the Spirit and the tongue of fire God has put on us. “A tongue of fire rested on each one of them” and a tongue of fire rests on YOU.”
This Pentecost fire is about YOU and YOUR gift and YOUR belief that the Holy Spirit is landing on YOU today! What are YOU going to do about it?
You are not just adequate, you are empowered beyond your abilities, skills and training to be a vehicle for God’s love and justice in the world! Accept the gift of the Holy Spirit on you and ask how God is leading you to share love and forgiveness, hope and encouragement, justice and belief, in your circle of influence, in your community, and in this church’s mission!
None of us have the gifts to do everything, but all of us have a gift to do something, something vital, something essential. St. Luke’s needs your something, your gift, your life that has been touched by the flame of the Holy Spirit.
In this time when patterns of church have been so radically altered, this is our time to flourish beyond what we think we are capable of—we will know for sure it’s the Holy Spirit’s work!
• This is our time to continue to feed the hungry and clothe the naked.
• This is our time to reach out with love and prayer and compassion to those who are grieving or scared.
• This is our time to figure out how God calling us as a predominately white congregation to listen to and stand with communities of color who are not only suffering disproportionately from COVID-19, but who fear for their lives in a justice system that is supposed to protect all of us.
• This is our time to evangelize, to find new and creative ways to tell the love of Jesus and say he died for all.
• This is our time to try more neighborhood parades, parking lot events, and creative ways to connect with and serve our community.
Author Marianne Williamson writes,
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
We ask ourselves
Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.
Your playing small
Does not serve the world.
We were born to make manifest
The glory of God that is within us.
It's not just in some of us;
It's in everyone.
And as we let our own light shine,
We unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.
As we're liberated from our own fear,
Our presence automatically liberates others.
As God sends the Holy Spirit of Pentecost anew to us today, God says to each one of us, “you are so beautiful to me.”
Embrace the power of the Holy Spirit in you, as you also affirm: “you are so beautiful to you!”