A sermon for the Day of Pentecost [Year A]
“When the day of Pentecost had come,” goes our first reading from Acts, “they were all together in one place.”
Ouch. That hurts this year: “They were all together in one place.” And we…well, we aren’t at all. It’s like the Scriptures are rubbing our faces in it! The beginning of the church, the arrival of the Spirit of God which will enliven the faith of all people and bring Jesus’ ministry to life begins as a real, physical gathering.
This is significant. When the Holy Spirit makes its big entrance, it is not first to individuals with their Bibles laid out on kitchen tables or to people in their homes with their heads bowed in prayer but rather to a group of disciples gathered as one, breathing the same air, hearing the same words, bumping elbows and shaking hands in the same rooms.
It is hard for me to read this story—and really almost any story of God’s people in Scripture, but especially this one—and not be struck by the differences to our current time. For one, we’re watching this worship on a screen. It’s not even live. I’m at home with my family on the couch in the weird position of watching myself deliver this sermon and trying not to cringe too much. For once I may actually get to leave and use the bathroom during my own sermon!
The governor of Virginia has declared in his Phases for reopening that houses of worship may gather physically according to certain restrictions, and yet many, including ours, are still assessing the risks of doing so. Nowhere in the Pentecost story does it explicitly mention what the church should do in a pandemic.
So hearing this story of the church’s beginning makes me miss so much about our physical gatherings when we’re all in one place. They have become the things I associate deeply with church nowadays.
I miss the crucifer leading us down the aisle and then turning so Joseph and I can bow before we go to our seats and trying to make sure we bow at the same time.
I miss Ms. Betsy perched at the end of a low wooden table holding court with a gaggle of two-year-olds.
I miss having my blood pressure read by Carla Schwertz or Carolyn Kronk and then hearing them say, “Wow, that’s pretty good considering it’s Sunday morning for you.”
I miss Dan Byerly getting there almost as early as I do and filling up the big coffee urn and then hearing it groan and gurgle as it gets ready like the rest of us.
I miss Gail Lyddane and Allison Worth hitting the high notes on some of the special hymns. I miss passing the peace with the Hammer family because they always sit close to the back where we’re getting ready to come down the aisle.
I miss the sun coming through the stained glass window at just the right angle during the 8:30 service so that the Sizemores, sitting on the opposite side of the church, have to squint through parts of the service.
I miss the acolyte and an acolyte parent in the sacristy furiously searching for a robe that will be the right length and then the click-click-click of the lighter not working right just before they go out.
I miss Matt Greenshields shouting “Thanks be to God” at the end of the dismissal.
I miss getting the church giggles and not being able to stop them. Oh, the church giggles! That might be one of the reasons why onlookers on that first Pentecost thought those first believers were filled with new wine.
Perhaps more than anything else, however, I miss the unique way each person approaches the communion rail and kneels or stands and sticks out their hand to receive the bread. This strange separation, this strange way of worshiping apart from one another, so unlike that first Pentecost, has dragged on much longer than any of us probably anticipated, and we’re not finished with it yet. We long to be gathered again in one place as the body of Christ and the vessel of God’s Holy Spirit that can move in and through us.
And yet, in some ways, this may be the Pentecost-iest Pentecost of our lifetimes. Our inability to gather because of the spread of a virus places us literally out in the world, which is precisely where God’s Holy Spirit first drives the first believers. They begin together, but then they separate. They start in one place, in Jerusalem, but within months, if not weeks, they are all over the place, in Judea, in Samaria, in Asia Minor and beyond. Fast forward several centuries and the believers are here, in the Piedmont of Virginia, setting up churches, starting ministries, and proclaiming through word and deed that the kingdom of heaven has come near.
And the believers begin as a microcosm of the known world at the time. That’s the meaning behind that laundry list of difficult Bible names that we hear in the Acts reading. Luke, the writer of Acts, is making sure his readers understand that the church, at its start, was a diverse, multi-racial and multicultural community. It may have been born from the unique story of Jesus’ people, the Hebrews, but the Spirit intends to gather and involve all of God’s people. The Elamites, the residents of Mesopotamia, residents of Egypt, and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene—these are all ways of saying that at its birth the church contained people of every skin color in the same room and there was no indication they viewed each other as anything other than equal—equal in God’s eyes, equal dwelling places in which God’s Spirit of freedom and life could reside and breathe.
Today we are reminded that those are our roots. As much as we may miss all the things about 1400 Horsepen Road and long for them to return, we should miss even more the things about that day of ours in Jerusalem when God’s Spirit was poured out upon all flesh, and the young men and women saw visions and the old men and women dreamed dreams. We should miss that legacy we were given that put all colors of people on an equal playing field, where God’s image was acknowledged to the same degree in each person. Our own city, of course, has complicated and sensitive issues surrounding race and culture and history that we need to confront. May the Spirit lead us through those conversations with humility to the image that God provides for the church.
Members of the church don’t need to be in the building to do that work. Quite frankly, that work might happen better when we are out of those walls, learning to lay our prejudices down and sometimes our sacred cows for the sake of the one who laid his down for us. As the words of our middle hymn this morning put it, “where deceit conceals injustice, kindle us to speak your truth!”
And that is the reason why fire is such a compelling image for the Holy Spirit, why fire is seen on that first day and as people told the story later they remembered the fire on people’s heads. We should take to heart that fire can rarely be controlled, especially in the ancient world before running water and fire engines. Fire, once loose, spreads and goes wherever it wants, wherever there is oxygen to inhale.
So it is with Christ’s church. No one can close the church because the church can’t be closed. No one needs to re-open the church because the church is always going to be open. And our ministry is and has always been essential because through the Spirit’s power we embody the crucified and risen Savior to the world, and that is the only life that is life. Our buildings may be temporarily unusable for worship, but the church itself is always on fire.
And this is not the first time the church has found itself in this situation, which is something I think we in our era have forgotten. Just several hundred yards from here is the site where Chimborazo Hospital stood. Built by slaves during the Civil War, Chimborazo went on to become the largest hospital in the world during its time, treating tens of thousands of soldiers.
It was a cutting edge facility. But many hospitals up unto that point were in other buildings, including churches. Several churches in Richmond were converted to hospitals during the Civil War. And we could never count the number of church buildings in Europe or Africa or Asia that have temporarily halted worship so that the sick and wounded from wartime or plague could be treated.
When those times arose, the church did not understand itself to be closed. The church was just at work in a different, special way. And I’m not just playing with words here. When Jesus greets his disciples after his resurrection, he doesn’t say, “Go build a church building.” He says, “Forgive. Go forth with peace.” I see the church in a similar way in the current circumstances. I know that there are differing viewpoints as to the level of crisis this coronavirus may eventually be, but right now our church buildings are not unlike the hospitals of previous eras and our approach toward worship is not unlike worship during those other special times. The Spirit will gather us back, but for the time being we are the church being the church outside of the church building.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read the account of Pentecost but never have the divided tongues of fire stood out to me so much. The sign of the Spirit’s presence that day was not in one large fire, or like the bush that Moses saw, but in individual flames. Each person had his or her own. The Greek word for “divided” here is “to be cut into many pieces” in the way that a butcher cuts meat. So from the beginning, the church is gathered together and meant to gather as one, but within that unity is a breaking apart. We are each a part of that glorious, creative fire of God’s love whether we are physically in one place or whether we’ve been divided up for the world to have. Like a loaf of pita bread, which starts as one on the altar, but then is broken into parts and handed out at the rail, the church is constantly being gathered up and then broken up for service.
And this is when we’re broken up for service now—a little longer than we had hoped, perhaps, but no less bright. No less powerful. Putting on a facemask may control the spread of a virus, but it can’t do anything about the spread of the church, the movement of the gospel.
This is where I’m going to ask you to do something that may seem a little out of the ordinary, but go ahead and use the template we sent you, which is also downloadable from the front page of our website, and make your own divided tongue of fire handband. Get your children to make one. You can either cut out construction paper or color the pattern we sent you. Once you have it made, put it on and take a selfie or have someone grab a photo of you out and about or even in the comfort of your living room, and post it on social media or send it to our church office and we’ll do it for you. Use the hashtag “churchneverclosed,” and let’s see those tongues of fire, divided, but yet united, throughout the region. And then, more importantly, may God give us the humility and courage to enter into the conversations about racism and privilege and unity that need to happen in our country and to work toward that first reality of the church, our family. Together let’s make sure the world knows that Pentecost 2020 may, in fact, be the Pentecost-iest Pentecost we have ever experienced. Who knows? We may even give someone a case of the church giggles.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.