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The Place of Pentecost

Rev. Daniel A. Smith
Sun, Jun 04

Text: Acts 2:1-21

    I’ve never been to Iowa but one of the things I know about it is that it produces great writers, by way of the world renowned creative writing programs and workshops offered through the University of Iowa. A session being offered at one such workshop caught my eye recently. It’s part of the Iowa Summer Writing Festival.  It’s called the “How of Where: Place as Character in Fiction & Creative Nonfiction.”  Check out the course description:

Where a story happens can be a key factor in determining what happens, if you’re interested in place. The setting you choose will offer up all kinds of gifts—powerful imagery, metaphorical meaning, unique characters, political and social relevance—if you pay close attention. In this workshop, you’ll delve into your own meaningful places, as well as explore new places and their gifts right here in Iowa City. We’ll consider examples of successful storytelling that foreground place….We’ll get outside, too, to gather details from the places in front of our eyes and beneath our feet, and we’ll practice selecting from those details to create effective descriptions….. “Story comes from place,” says Annie Proulx. Let’s test her theory.

    Sounds kinda fun, right? I don’t plan to go to Iowa anytime soon, but I would like for us to test the theory, that place can be a character in stories, and that “story comes from place.” Consider first the story that comes from place in Acts.

    On the day of Pentecost, we are told “they were all together in one place. A sound from heaven like the howling of a fierce wind filled the entire house where they were sitting.”  I confess, before this week, I hadn’t given much thought to the place of Pentecost, as in the actual location. The Spirit rushes in and pretty much obliterates attention to the usual details, as if to say, “Hey, all eyes on me!”  But what kind of place was this, I wonder?  What kind of a house could contain and hold, even for a moment, that eternal Spirit of the living God?  We know they were there in first century Jerusalem, living in occupied territory under a brutal and violent Roman Empire that had just 50 days before crucified their beloved teacher. Clearly, this was a place of resistance!

    Earlier in Acts we learn that they are gathered in an Upper Room. Tradition has it that the place of Pentecost, where the Spirit came, was the same place, that same upper room, where the disciples gathered for the last supper with Jesus. It’s called the Cenacle, from the Latin for Dining Room, and yes, you can bet there is a traditional location for it Jerusalem, no doubt with a small entrance fee. I gather its part of a two-story building near the top of Mt. Zion in Jerusalem, built on the foundations of an old Jewish temple and sitting underneath a Muslim minaret. Leave it to Jerusalem to put all that on one lot! This place already held some powerful memories, and not just any memories. This was the place, after all, where Jesus washed the disciples’ feet, where he ate his last meal with them, where he said, “Do this in remembrance of me!”

    Wherever the original site was, this house must have been open enough that a fierce wind could penetrate its walls, windows and doors, and the sound of that wind could emanate for passersby. The Spirit was alive in that place of resistance, that place of memory, and the Spirit was made almost tangible there on Pentecost. One could feel it as we do here when we belt out our hymns or let them wash over us! When the larger crowd gathered, one could experience it as we might at a large protest. One could sense the Spirit as we might in moments of exquisite encounter with nature or beauty or in times of deep prayer.

    I wonder what places this draws to mind for you? Where have you most felt the Spirit, moving in your heart, in your breath, in the wind around you? For many of us, First Church is just such place, and it’s a place that continues to tell the story of the Spirit in our lives. So let’s test the theory again! I wonder, how has this place been a character in your story? And even more, what story and stories come from this place? 

    You see, that upper room wasn’t the only place where that primordial Spirit of God makes an appearance. The ruah hakodesh, the Spirit of God, was there in the beginning too, as a great wind that swept over the face of the waters of creation itself!  She was there in a leading role as Sophia, the very wisdom of God, when the Proverbs and Psalms were written, inspiring breathtaking imagery and words that would echo through the ages. This is the same Spirit that “spoke through the prophets” in Ancient Judea, speaking God’s truth to the power of kings and empires. The Holy Spirit shows up over the waters of River Jordan, where the Spirit descended like a dove and said to Jesus, the Human One, “You are my beloved! With you I am well pleased!”  

     According to Paul, the Spirit is here even now, inspiring us and giving us each different gifts for love and service for the glory of God. Paul says too that the Spirit is in our hearts, always, even when we are unaware— the Spirit that prays within us, unceasingly, sometimes even in sighs too deep for words. All of these stories come from a place! And, of course, the Spirit shows up here in this place too.

     So, what of this household? And what story of Spirit comes from this place, and I mean what deep story? How often do we consider that the story begins long before the first cornerstone was placed, even before the first meetinghouse was built some 381 year ago, at the corner of Dunster and Mt Auburn where J.Press is now. The story of this place, of the ground beneath our feet, is first the story of native lands! How poorly we remember that! A few months back, we hosted an event that had local Native Americans sharing chants and stories, eschewing national and state lines, laying claim to what they call the ground on which they stand -  Turtle Island! It was a humbling moment! Indeed, the story of this place is not merely the story of First Church, or the Puritans, or of Newtowne, it was first and foremost the story of God’s creation! As our current administration ignorantly and arrogantly turns away from global efforts to care for the planet and combat climate change, it is especially poignant to recall the power of the spirit that was present at creation and that is sustaining not only the ongoing wonders of creation all around us but also the ongoing efforts of today’s prophets who are speaking inconvenient truths in this moment of global climate crisis. Thank God, for the strident staying power of other nations and for governors and mayors and CEO’s who are stepping up and stepping into the vacuum of political, economic and moral leadership to assure our ongoing participation in reaching the goals of the Paris Climate Accord. But I digress!

    This place, this marvelous structure, has been wind-swept over the decades; this community of First Church that has been touched by the Spirit over the centuries and that has gathered and regathered in six different meetinghouses, is a story that connects to a larger story – the story of God’s Spirit that has inspired generations of Christ followers who together discerned new visions and dreamed dreams. With them, we too have gathered our gifts together and shared them in common to lay foundations and reframe walls and open ever new space through which the Spirit winds will blow! A poem from the Irish writer John O’ Donohue helps convey this power of place. Imagine, if you will, that he is talking about this place:

 Before a human voice was ever heard here,
This place has known the respect of stone,
The friendship of the wind, always returning
With news of elsewhere, whispered in seed and pollen,
The thin symphonies of birdsong softening the silence,
The litanies of rain rearranging the air,
Cascades of sunlight opening and closing days,
And the glow of the moon gazing through darkness.
May all that elemental enrichment
Bless the foundation and standing of your home.

Before you came here, this place has known
The wonder of children’s eyes,
The hope of mornings in troubled hearts,
The tranquility of twilight easing the night,
The drama of dreams under sleeping eyelids,
The generous disturbance of birth,
The anxieties of old age unclenching into grace
And the final elegance of calmly embraced death.
May the life of your new home enter
Into this inheritance of the Spirit.

    Yes, this ever-changing place, this household of God, this home to generations of pilgrims, and seekers and searchers, made ever new by God’s power, can once again receive the inheritance of the Spirit, as was the case at that first Pentecost.

     Just consider the wonder of children’s eyes that this place has known and will yet know! Consider those anxieties of old age that we and past and future generations will know, the elegance of a calmly embraced death in the memorial services we host! Consider the inheritance of Spirit we have received in this place and consider the inheritance we are now preparing to pass on! Indeed, story comes from place! Let’s keep testing that theory, and writing the story of our ministry that comes from this place— a story of place that is constantly breaking ground, breaking bread, feeding, welcoming, healing, remembering and resisting! It’s the story of a place where we are grounded in God our hope and our healing, where we grow in community with Jesus as our Center, where we are acting in love, made bold by the Spirit!  Our plans are bold, to be sure, because our story is God’s story, the story of God’s boundless love. This place is God’s place, this house is God’s house! May we, too, enter into this inheritance of the Spirit with joyful and faithful anticipation for all the blessings that have yet to flow from the new spaces we are creating. Amen.

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