Access: Everywhere

a sermon for the Day of Pentecost [Year A]

Acts 2:1-21

As it happens, there was a discussion I came across this week about the number of working payphones that are left in Virginia—and I promise this relates to Pentecost, so please bear with me. It all started when someone came across a pay-phone right here about a half-mile from our church. It’s near Mekong on Broad Street. That person shared it on an Internet chat group, which prompted a call to the State Corporation Commission, which keeps tabs on the payphone industry. According to the SCC, Virginia has 40 working payphones left. I went and found that payphone this week because I was curious and nostalgic, (and I could not get it to work, so I’m starting to be suspicious of that figure 40.)

What’s even more funny about this story is that the SCC doesn’t keep track of where those remaining 40 or so are located. You just have to happen upon them. In any case, the year the U.S. had its highest number of payphones was 1999. At that time nationwide there were 2.1 million working payphones. The arrival of cellular technology and Smartphones made pay phones obsolete, and only those of us who lived through that change can appreciate how amazing and revolutionizing it was. Not too long ago, you youngins, in order to make a call when you were not in your home, you had to find a payphone by actually looking around for one. With your actual eyes. And then you typically had to have some coins on you—another thing we don’t use anymore. And while you were having your phone conversation you had to stay in one place. With cellphones and Smartphones and Wi-Fi, everyone has access all the time. Telephone technology, you might say, has been poured out on all people, and it is so easy to take it for granted!

That is what the Day of Pentecost is like for the first believers, as Peter tells us this morning. Suddenly God’s Spirit is poured out everywhere, and I think those of us who’ve always lived with the presence of the Holy Spirit—that is, those of us who’ve been nurtured in and through the witness of the church over the past 2000 years—can’t even imagine how amazing and revolutionizing that moment was. I can’t.

Prior to the day of Pentecost, access to God’s Holy Spirit was very sporadic and specific, like the location of payphones. Certain leaders in the Hebrews’ history had access to the Spirit—people like Moses and the prophets. God would give them brief outpourings of his own Spirit to use for the sake of God’s people to further them along in their journey of faith. God’s Spirit would help Moses and his elders make decisions about moving through the wilderness. For whatever reason it wasn’t something God let just everyone experience. The same Holy Spirit would come and give people like Isaiah and Jeremiah words of warning and wisdom about the Hebrews’ life together. But these are all very isolated occurrences and channeled to very particular times and places.

Once Pentecost happens, however, the Spirit becomes available to all people. Like a universal, Wi-Fi password that has been posted everywhere in bold letters, there is now no secret to being a part of what God is doing anymore. There is no special elite society or group, no robe-wearing clergy or “diploma-ed” scholarly team that you need to be a part of to do God’s work. God’s Spirit comes to you. God’s Spirit comes to me in our baptism, for sure, but then also throughout our lives. The very love that Jesus feels for his Father—the love that moves him to offer his own life on the cross—and the love that the Father has for the Son—the love that moves him to raise Jesus from the dead—that love is now a force that can permeate all of our relationships. That’s amazing because if true, then it’s no longer just something we observe and talk about happening between God and Jesus when we’re in church. In fact, if we only talk about this love and share it in church then it isn’t the love between God and Jesus. This love is now something we experience in our own live and it compels us to share it with others in the world.

That’s why images of wind and fire are the only descriptions we have of these event as it is recorded to us. This story sounds a bit fantastic to us with our scientific worldviews, but all it is really communicating is what that miracle felt like that day. When suddenly everyone can sense and be a part of God’s unconditional love in Jesus it feels like fire and wind. Wind and fire have the ability to give energy to things around them. They permeate and change things that seem to be lifeless. A flame leaps up from a dead log on a fire at a church camping trip and punctures the night sky. Wind comes out of nowhere and powers a windmill to create energy or makes a tree’s leaves dance and shimmer.

And that’s what we’re used to, right? Faith that is led by the Spirit leaps up from you and from me, even when the circumstances feel hopeless and joyless to give life the world around us. The Spirit moves us to visit people in prisons and hospitals and homeless shelters where life seems bleak. The Spirit comes from out of nowhere, making us step out of our comfort zones to do ministry with those struggling with poverty and hunger. To the apostles this movement of God’s Spirit was so thrilling and so all-consuming it was a rush of violent wind and fire that touched everyone.

As God’s church, we should be prepared to be like fire and wind in the world, not a building that expects people to come to it. We are a force of good, burning down systems of oppression and discrimination that marginalize people. We are a force of unity, gathering up like a gale-force wind that pulls all kinds of people into one movement.

And that’s why that first Pentecost is a miracle of language more than anything else. All of those thousands Jewish festival-goers who are in Jerusalem for this harvest festival hear and see these apostles moved by God’s Spirit suddenly speaking in different languages. The apostles were Galileans, which was an area not known to be very cosmopolitan. As God’s Spirit took over, these relatively backwoods people were suddenly comprehensible to all of the people who had gathered from all over the world. And they are hearing and understanding these Galileans talk about things that God had done.

This development, this event—that ordinary, everyday people like the apostles from Galilee can be vessels for God’s own Spirit—is so unexpected and so surprising that the only conclusion the onlookers can reach when they observe it is…these people must be drunk. The Spirit’s presence causes the apostles to appear out of step with society, lacking propriety, even. There is no way, they must think, that God would be that generous and that reckless and that risky to entrust his very Spirit with the likes of these people.

And yet God has. It makes me think of the Christmas Eve candlelight service, when there are literally flames glowing on almost every person’s face. It is a risky thing we do with those candles, and many times we hand those candles to young children and have them light it up as well. They sit there and hold it, mystified by the flame but mystified more by the responsibility they have been given with something so powerful! This is the risk God has taken with us—to actually walk out in the world claiming to speak for him and draw all people to him through the things we do.

And the things we do as followers of Christ who are inhabited by the Spirit should probably always look a little out of step with society. The Holy Spirit makes these things feel a little bit natural to us nowadays, but really much of our common life is directed by a wind that blows directly against the habits of culture. Just our act of gathering together on a Sunday morning, whether in person or through livestream, is countercultural. It makes us come off as a little different, behavior that’s not expected nowadays.

In fact, gathering together at all and sharing life in meaningful ways, religious or not, is becoming more and more extraordinary, probably to our detriment (and our country’s detriment). Data show conclusively that for the past fifty years Americans have become less social in just about every way. We gather with friends less than we used to, we gather with family less than we used to, we even go and hang out at bars less than we used to. Perhaps most harmful to us all, Americans now spend 50% less time with their neighbors now than they did in 1970. We are literally not interacting personally with each other in society at the same levels as we were in previous generations.

Against this tide the Holy Spirit continues to gather us together, to pull us out of our isolation, our of our camps of Democrat and Republican, and into spaces where we can share our gifts and offer ourselves in ways that build one another up. Singing together. Pooling our hard-earned money in order to tend to the needs of those around us in our communities. Teaching our children to, under certain circumstances, not just to trust strangers but to love them. When you step back and consider our common life, the Spirit causes us to do things that probably make us look we are filled with new wine.

Each week a preacher typically scours her memory trying to come up with a good real-life example of the Scripture lesson for her sermon. What happened in the last week or so that exemplifies whatever that morning’s lessons are about? Trying to come up with a real-life example of the Holy Spirit for a sermon of the Day of Pentecost is kind of pointless. It’s like trying to think of an example of air. Or of breathing. Everything the church does is the Holy Spirit at work. There isn’t AN example. We are the example now. We are God’s powered people. And like having phones in our pockets or purses that can connect anytime and anywhere…that is a mission and a name we should never take for granted!

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Never Orphaned

a sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter [Year A]

John 14:15-21 and Acts 17:22-31

Jesus’ words to his disciples this morning reveal he is very in tune to a basic human fear and feeling that everyone has had at some point. It is the fear of being left behind or left alone, left with no one who will watch after you and take care of you. “I will not leave you orphaned,” he assures them. “I am coming to you.” Even as he is preparing to undergo his own suffering and his own feelings of rejection, here we see a tender, perceptive side of Jesus who is intuitive about what his friends are going through. They are worried about being abandoned.

I don’t remember this event from my early childhood, but my father remembers, and he’s told me about it. When the Disney movie Bambi was re-released in 1982 my dad took me to the movie theater to see it and my mom stayed home with my younger sister. I would have been in the second grade at that point—so about eight years old—and I think it was one of our earliest father-son bonding moments. As many of you may know, Bambi tells the story of a young deer in the forest who grows up becoming steadily aware not just of the other animal friends but of the dangers around him. At one point in the movie Bambi’s mother, who is the young deer’s only guardian, is shot by a hunter and dies. The young Bambi crawls out of the safety of the thicket where he’s been hiding and frantically runs through the worsening snow, calling out for his mother to have no one answer.

It has been called one of the most traumatic movie scenes of all time, especially through the eyes of an 8-year-old. Apparently it traumatized me because what my father remembers and I don’t is that later that night as he was sitting on the edge of my mattress, tucking me in bed and helping me say my prayers, I looked up at him and asked out of the blue, “Daddy, what’s going to happen to me if you die?” He said he felt entirely unprepared to contemplate his own mortality at that moment as the lump rose in his throat. I don’t think we went to a movie together for a while after that. I think that’s when we started going to sporting events.

“I will not leave you orphaned,” Jesus says, and this morning I imagine some might be celebrating our first Mother’s Day without our mother or maternal figure and feeling a little orphaned. But it’s not just death that takes people from us. I ran into a man this week while I was birding who shared with me right there on the boardwalk, both of us holding our cameras, that his retirement is much lonelier than he had planned. His wife, as he explained, is in a memory care facility with early onset Alzheimer’s and their children have backed away from helping much.

That awareness of possible abandonment or loneliness is something that never really goes away, whether it is from parents, spouses, siblings, or friends. From the moment God first looked at man and said, “It is not good for him to be alone” we were meant to be in relationship with one another. Jesus understands this, and he understands that his disciples feel terribly apprehensive about a life without his guidance and leadership and most importantly, his love. This is the love that has bound them together as masters and servants who wash the feet of one another. It is the love that has filled the room as bread has been broken together and a cup of wine passed around. To imagine life without this love is something the disciples are likely finding hard to imagine, as he has literally just had to tell them not to let their hearts be troubled.

And so he sits on the edge of their mattress, tucking them in for a life of sharing their faith and suffering, assuring them he has thought this through. This separation from him they may experience will not be forever. In fact, it won’t even be long. He will die, but he will come again and they will see him. “I will not leave you orphaned.”

On one level here we can say Jesus is speaking about his resurrection. The disciples can’t comprehend that at this point, but Jesus does really mean that although the authorities will arrest him and execute him on a cross, he will be able to overcome it all. He will live again and he’s going to eat with them and hang out with them again.

But on a deeper level Jesus is speaking about his absence once he ascends to the Father. He won’t orphan them because he will send another Advocate to be with them and having that Advocate will be just like having Jesus with them again. This Advocate, the Holy Spirit, will abide in them and in their life together in such a way that Jesus will be in them. They will be able to keep Jesus’ commandments, specifically the commandment to love one another, because this Spirit will dwell among them. They will not feel orphaned because this Advocate will do such a good job at animating them with Jesus and his love that it will be as if Jesus himself is there. And the Advocate ends up doing a really good job! The community of disciples hits rough patches here and there but overall it grows and touches more and more people with Jesus’ love.

I’m not sure we modern disciples necessarily feel orphaned by Jesus anymore. Not only do we now stand on the other side of the resurrection from when the disciples first heard this, but we’ve also lived and carried on for a really long time with this Advocate guiding us and bringing us into the presence of Jesus. The church is the love of Jesus we’re used to. But I think we do feel sometimes that it would be easier for everybody if Jesus had just stayed around in his bodily form instead of ascending. Then he could just continue hanging out with everyone—field our questions, allay our fears, do some miracles here and there. If Jesus could have stayed around until today because he has life eternal why did he choose to leave us with this Advocate like some kind of babysitter?

As many of you know, Taylor Swift is in the middle of her Eras tour right now. It’s a big deal. People are crowding into parking lots outside of venues just to hear her. To know what Taylor Swift is truly like, or so her fans say, and to experience her in all her glory, one really must have a ticket to one of those shows. You may be a fan, you may really like her music and know a lot about her, but to truly be able to say you have experienced Taylor Swift you need to be in the arena when she is singing and performing. And indeed, when tickets went on sale last November, a record number of people agreed, demand for them crashed Ticketmaster within minutes. To see as many fans as possible, Taylor has to keep the concerts going,  visiting town after town.

With the Holy Spirit that Jesus sends, no one needs to physically be in Jesus’ presence anymore. No one needs to see him in his sandals or touch the hem of his coat or get a ticket to whatever the next stop on his tour is because now Jesus can be everywhere and all at the same time There is no “Eras of Jesus” stadium tour, no lines to see Jesus and maybe get his autograph—which is what would have happened if the plan had been for Jesus to stick around as one person all this time.

Now he dwells in his followers. Now our relationships with each other bring him to life to every corner of the earth. We keep his commandments and his trademark love is made known everywhere.

Saint Paul makes this exact point when he travels to ancient Athens, which was a city that had all kinds of different faiths represented in it. He tries to convince them of the truth of Jesus and inspire faith in them. Pointing out, one by one, all of the different temples around them that have all been built to different deities, Paul says that the one true God, the one who created all things, does not need a temple. “This God does not live in shrines made by human hands…for ‘in him we live and move and have our being.’” In a land that would have understood that gods are always attached to certain elements and locations in the natural world, be they silver or gold or water or stone, Paul presents a God that dwells in and among people. Paul wants people to know a living God that moves around all over the place, calling all people to repentance, wherever and whoever they are, not bound by nature…not bound even by death because this God is with his people wherever they happen to be.

St. Paul Preaching in Athens (Raphael, 1515)

And we, my friends, are those people. Whether we are keeping Jesus’ commandments here on a Sunday morning when we happen to be in our temple or whether we are out in the world where God calls us to work and live through our vocations, we are those people. We are Jesus’ people, who are never left alone by God and who are constantly keeping his commandments of love, because he loves us all of the time.

We are those people and so therefore we do not leave the world orphaned. We stick with people in their suffering. We celebrate with them in their joys. We set up hospitals and recovery clinics and literal orphanages in order to reveal love for those the world often does leave behind. We go in right after the hurricane hits or the famine strikes and we stay until the last house is rebuilt and the last belly is filled. The family who joins this morning as new members, the Dicksons, came from one former congregation that had to shut its doors but instead of selling the property and giving the money to the Synod they decided to set up a trust, the annual proceeds from which were invested right back into the community organizations they had participated in and supported—the soup kitchens and food pantries—when the congregation was alive and vibrant.

This is all to say that we, no matter where we are, we keep ourselves in tune to what people are feeling. Now we sit with the world on the edge of the mattress, in the dark, listen to their fears, and promise them we’re here for the long haul. And we do this not because that’s what Jesus would have done or would have wanted us to do, but because that is what Jesus is doing. In and through us.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.