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Transformed

Rev. Karen McArthur
Sun, May 24

Text: Acts 2:1-21

The promise of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit … the transformative spirit … the unpredictable spirit.  Visions and dreams and prophecies.  These are huge promises.  Are we ready for them?  Where will they take us?

This last Sunday in May is very special to me.  Depending on the liturgical calendar, it’s often either Pentecost Sunday or Trinity Sunday, when we celebrate the Holy Spirit, and the “birthday of the church,” and we mark the beginning of summer.  This year, it is the 40th anniversary of my Confirmation, as well as the 30th anniversary of my very first sermon.

Forty years ago, as a fifteen-year-old ninth grader, I was quite certain that I wanted to join the church.  I was less comfortable with the God part, and even more anxious about the Jesus question.  There were 65 of us in my confirmation class – it was the end of the baby boom in suburban Minneapolis.  We had met weekly for two years, the first year with our youth minister, a very cool guy who looked remarkably like a Scandinavian guitar-playing Jesus on a motorcycle with his long hair and beard and blue jeans.  The second year we met with our Senior Minister and studied his book, The Congregational Way of Life, learning all about the Pilgrims and the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and about the congregational polity that they developed.

I was there for the weekly classes, and faithfully signed in for worship most Sundays as required, but skipped all three of the mandatory confirmation retreats – I had good reasons, really I did.  I was intrigued by the congregational history, though I had no idea at the time that I was learning about some of my very own ancestors, or that I’d work at three of the churches that we learned about!

As the culmination of our two years, we had to write a paper about how we had accepted Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior.  I have no idea what I wrote.  I do remember that I felt embarrassed, and that as soon as I got the paper back, I tore it up – absolutely certain that I didn’t want anyone ever finding it or reading anything I had written about God or Jesus or faith.

It was just ten years later on Pentecost Sunday, at the end of my first year at Harvard Divinity School, that I led worship and preached at the Roslindale Congregational Church.  That’s a huge change!  Although my experience is nothing compared to the crisis that the disciples endured in the aftermath of the crucifixion, I do know the feeling of transformation.

Following the horrific tragedy of Passover weekend, when Peter denied ever even knowing Jesus, the disciples hid behind locked doors.  Seven weeks later, it’s Pentecost and Peter is preaching to the crowds.  What happened?  What was the moment – or moments – that led to that transformation?

I had grown up thinking that Pentecost was the “birthday of the church” – the day that the church was born when the spirit was poured out.  But as I was working on that first sermon, I noticed that the activity had picked up at the Old Vilna Shul, a block down the street from my post-college Beacon Hill apartment on Phillips Street.  Usually, the Temple was quiet and deserted behind its locked gates, an historic remnant of the Lithuanian Jewish community that had resided in Boston’s West End during the first half of the twentieth century.  The orthodox synagogue didn’t have a regular rabbi or congregation.  In fact, it was down to its last faithful member.  Each fall, as the High Holy days drew near, someone would arrive to open the gates and doors, sweep the front walk, add a fresh coat of paint, dust the pews, and wash the windows.  A small group of people, at least ten men, would gather for the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services led in the orthodox tradition.  Then, when the holidays were over, the gates would be locked until Passover, when the semi-annual ritual of opening, sweeping, painting, dusting, washing and gathering would begin once more.

So, as I was working on my first Pentecost sermon, I was surprised to notice that there was something going on at the Shul.  Passover had come and gone in April, and the High Holy Days would not arrive until fall.  As I approached the usually empty signboard in front of the Shul, I read that services were scheduled for Shavuoth, for Pentecost.  I wondered why the Jewish community would be celebrating what I had always thought was the birthday of the Christian church.  And I wondered what “shavuoth” meant.

This was 1985.  Pre-google.  Pre-internet.  So I re-read my biblical text.  The second chapter of Acts tells us, “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.”  That is, before the Spirit had descended on them, resting on them like tongues of fire, the people had gathered for a reason.  They gathered on Pentecost in the first verse.  The Spirit was poured out in verses 2, 3 and 4. 

It turns out that Pentecost means “fifty days.”  Makes sense, “pente” meaning fifty.  It is celebrated fifty days after Passover, and is one of the three major feasts that were celebrated in Jerusalem.  These were the three times each year that the faithful would make the journey to Jerusalem.  This year, Pentecost for our Jewish friends began at sundown last night and continues until sundown tomorrow.  Seven weeks earlier, this year and every year, on the second day of Passover, a measure of barley would be brought to the Temple to mark the earth’s awakening fertility.  Now, seven weeks later, the beginning of the wheat harvest is marked.  Another name for the feast is Shavuoth, the Hebrew word for “weeks”.  Thus, the Jewish feast of Weeks occurred on the fiftieth day after Passover.  On this day, leavened bread is offered to God as a representation of the first fruits of the harvest.  So the women and men who were followers of Jesus would have returned to Jerusalem to celebrate the beginning of the summer harvest. 

But it was not only an agricultural festival.  The rabbis had discovered, through careful reading of the book of Exodus, that the revelation at Mount Sinai, in which God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses, also occurred fifty days after Passover.  Thus the summer festival became the celebration of the Giving of the Law. 

It seems appropriate that such an outpouring of God’s Spirit occurred on this particular feast day.  After the barley rite was celebrated and new produce was eaten for the first time, the wheat crop continued to grow as the days lengthened and the fullness of summer approached.  But not until Shavuoth, with the beginning of the harvest of wheat, was summer truly underway.  Likewise, the wonder of Jesus’ resurrection brought the hope of new possibilities.  But it was the outpouring of the Spirit that truly celebrated the fullness of the experience.  But why is this event such a dramatic turning point in the life of the church?

The Jewish tradition has the three major festivals: Passover, Shavuoth, and the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  The Christian church has its three: Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost.  For us, I think that Pentecost is the least understood of the three – and certainly the least celebrated.  We’re not always sure what to make of the Spirit.  But I do think we’ve experienced it.

For me, in that formative decade from age 15 to 25, I celebrated many Pentecosts.  The first few, I immediately stopped going to church, at least to Sunday morning worship.  But then my friend Jackie invited me to Pilgrim Fellowship, our youth group that at the time was attracting a couple hundred high school teens every Saturday night.  Mark, the previously mentioned bearded, long-haired, super-cool motorcycle-riding youth minister played his guitar and led the four-piece band singing all those songs from the 60s and 70s: This Little Light of Mine, Precious Lord, It Only Takes a Spark …  He taught us the Eagles’ “Peaceful Easy Feeling” and so many more.  We sang, we prayed for our teenage concerns and for the world, and we heard from either Mark or one of the high school seniors about how their faith had shaped their lives.  It drew me in.  There was something very real about that experience.

And so, in college, I sought out the church.  When I arrived for my junior spring and summer terms at Dartmouth College, I was drawn into the UCC church on campus.  The college fellowship group was small, but very fun with dinners, and conversations, and bike trips – and the church offered “affiliate membership” to students while they were on campus.  Three of us decided to join on Pentecost Sunday that year – and now all three of us are UCC ministers, although only one, a young 19-year-old David Jones was the only one thinking about it at the time.  (For those of you who have arrived here more recently, he served as one of our ministers here from 1997 until 2002.)  The music, the conversations, and the fellowship of the church continued to draw me in. 

After I graduated, I considered work in economic consulting, or public policy, or applied math.  But it was my involvement at King’s Chapel in downtown Boston that excited me.  I couldn’t wait to get to Bible Study, or a church retreat, or the Sunday School class of five 11-year-old girls that I taught.  But most especially, it was a thirteen-week Spiritual Autobiography class that Carl Scovel taught that transformed me.  More than 30 years later, I could probably still name the sixteen people who were in that class, sharing the stories of our spiritual lives.

I was not a writer before those days.  When I had to write a brief essay about a childhood spiritual experience, I stared at that blank paper for hours, even days, with nothing to say about God or Jesus.  Church was important to me.  But I couldn’t put in into words – and I knew I hadn’t felt that in my childhood.  I didn’t think I had ever had a spiritual experience.

I did know that music was important – the singing at PF or my years playing piccolo in the high school band.  So instead of trying to write about church and God and Jesus, I wrote about the spirit of those moments when the ninety of us in the Concert Band worked together to create music that literally gave us goosebumps when it came together just right with a soaring horn melody or low brass power or woodwind runs and trills.  I wrote about the relationships and about the thrill of performing under the stage lights to a sold-out theater. 

In that moment, I realized that it didn’t have to be about Jesus in order to be about God’s presence in the world.  I began noticing all the ways that the Spirit is present, implicitly and explicitly, and that has made all the difference.  After that essay, I took my spiritual autobiography and turned it into divinity school applications, and before I knew it, I was preaching on Pentecost.  When I fumbled through my confirmation paper in 1975, I am so thankful that I didn’t know where the decade would lead me – it would have totally freaked me out!  But I am so grateful for the journey and the people along the way.

I share a bit of my story, because I know we each have our own stories of what has brought us to this place and this moment.  They are all different, all unique, and yet at the same time, it is the same Spirit that has accompanied each one of us.

My clergy group has been getting together 2-3 times a year for more than 20 years now.  The seven of us talk about all aspects of our ministries and our faith and our lives.   Sometimes we go around the group with a question.  One time someone asked: “Are you someone who loves God?  Or who loves the church?”  I am one who loves the church.  And I find God here.  I love the community, and the power I feel in the gathered group.  I love the music and the feeling of the Spirit in my lungs and the harmonies in the voices around me.  I love the multi-generational community, sharing love with toddlers and teens and our elders. 

Others love God first, and therefore find the church.  What about you?  Do you primarily love the church?  Or does your love of God come first and lead you into the Christian community?  Whatever draws you here on your journey of faith, how do we move from what we learn and explore in the safety of this sanctuary and this community, to incorporating our faith into our public lives?

That Pentecost day two thousand years ago made all the difference.  The Spirit was poured out on the gathered people in three ways that I think are important for us to consider: First, it was poured out on all the people, not just those already a part of the religion, but everyone: Jew and Greek, men and women. 

Second, it empowered them to let go of their old languages and to speak in new ways.  When the spirit touched each person, it enabled them to communicate with each other in new ways.  Remember, it was feast time in Jerusalem, and people had come from throughout the land to gather for Shavuoth.  Although they were natives because of their Jewish faith, they were foreigners because of their language.  Suddenly, when the spirit rushed in, they understood. 

Third, it induced visions and dreams in both young and old.  The spirit fueled the imaginations of the people.  The young would see visions, giving them a glimpse into the future.  The old would dream dreams, incorporating the wisdom they had gained through their lives into the future of their people.  The prophetic, contagious Spirit provides for the continuation of the people of faith. 

The Spirit is not new.  It has been present all along, in the people of Israel, in the followers of Jesus of Nazareth, in the pilgrims and Puritans whose vision led them across the ocean to these shores.  What is new, is that the Spirit is given a realm of its own, allowing the church to continually develop its tradition in the midst of an ever-changing world.  The Spirit allows us, it empowers us to speak in a new language, to let go of the old and follow the vision into the new world that God offers to us.  On this Pentecost day this year, I invite you to reflect on the Spirit in your own life, welcome the opportunities to share it, and let that Spirit come.  Amen!

 

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