It is wonderful to be back with you here at First United Methodist Church! I did the math, and it was just about eight years ago when Matt, Ruby, and I became official members of this community. Church membership is an important thing to note on Pentecost, which is sometimes described as the birthday of the church.
That description arises from the story of the coming of the Holy Spirit in Acts of the Apostles chapter 2 – the one that was referenced in the Call to Worship. You may have heard the story before. It’s a wild one complete with a Spirit that comes like a rushing and violent wind and like tongues of fire that affect every person who is gathered together. And having been touched by fire, each one is miraculously able to speak in languages they could never speak before, so that they could speak of God’s deeds and power to all the people from different places who had gathered in Jerusalem for the Pentecost festival. The coming of this Spirit is so wild and unruly, that as Peter and the rest of the Jesus’ followers talk to the crowds, some of the people did not know what to think. At least a few of them were all like, “Go home, Peter. You’re drunk.”
But Peter insists that they are not drunk – because it was only 9 o’clock in the morning. (That’s actually in the scripture – you can’t make this stuff up!) Peter explains to the crowds that the coming of Jesus and of the Spirit represents a fulfillment of the hopes and expectations found in the Hebrew prophets. And by the end of the chapter, some 3,000 people were baptized and added to the Jesus-following community…and the church was born.
So sometimes we celebrate this day as the birthday of the church. Christian tradition tells us that the Holy Spirit has played a critical role in establishing the church universal – with its 2.2 billion members in all of its branches and denominations. And as members – some of us – of a particular denomination, say our own United Methodist Church, we also understand the Holy Spirit to be involved in its establishment and function as well.
Now, maybe it’s just because I’ve spent the last seven years navigating the labyrinthine ordination process of the UMC, but I find this more than a little ironic — that a church universal started with the chaotic appearance of the Holy Spirit has become so tightly controlled by doctrines and policies and procedures. Theologian Elizabeth Johnson describes this phenomena in her Catholic tradition as a reigning in of the Holy Spirt by the institutional church, and I quote, “thus ensuring that the radical freedom of the Spirit is controlled by subordination to ecclesial order and discipline” (Johnson, She Who Is, p. 129). The Spirit is indeed present in the church, but Johnson suggests that church structure itself is an attempt to capture and tame the Spirit – rather than allowing ourselves and our church to be transformed by the Spirit.
Which leads me to the scripture that I chose today. I chose it because it reminds us that the Spirit cannot be contained or controlled by human beings or human institutions. It blows where it chooses. Bidden or unbidden, the Spirit shows up – and transforms and empowers us in ways we could not have imagined.
I mentioned before that I have been on this journey toward ordination – to be an ordained pastor – we use the word “Elder” in The United Methodist Church. And I could preach possibly the world’s worst sermon for you if I recounted all of the institutional requirements and evaluations I have had to complete over the past seven or so years. It’s not a bad process. It’s incredibly important to carefully vet our religious leaders . It’s a good process. It’s just terrible sermon fodder. Instead, I want to tell you about some places that the Holy Spirit has shown up in remarkable, unpredictable – and even occasionally slightly unwanted – ways.
So first, confession time. I had an evangelical conversion experience. I know. I’m as shocked as you are. Okay, are you ready for this? I had it here. Right there to be exact. Last row of the front quadrant, piano side. Who’s sitting there right now? You should wave. Hi!
Here’s what happened. I had been attending church here for a few months. And I was constantly on guard – waiting for someone to say something that would cause me to pack it in. I would describe myself that time as agnostic but slightly hopeful. And after a few months where Jane managed not to offend me out of church (see you didn’t know how much pressure was on you!), this thing started happening. I started feeling a pull on my heart, the nudging of the Holy Spirit, an inward witness to God’s presence. And it was freaking me out! Week after week, I’d show up, the crazy Holy Spirit would start poking at me, and I’d put up my guard. And finally, one week I thought to myself, what if I just stop resisting this? And during some particularly moving piece of music (thank you, Mark Kurtz), I found myself filled to overflowing with the assurance that God was real, God was present, and God claimed me as beloved. And I cried. Because God makes me cry.
Because of that experience, I realized some things about how I had been living my life. I realized that I did not have to spend all of my time trying to be perfect anymore. In traditional language, you might say I was saved, and I am being saved every moment in every day. I was saved and am saved from the death-dealing expectations of our culture to which I could never live up, and I was saved for the task of loving the world into wholeness the best I could.
That’s all I had to do, and I didn’t have to do it alone. Because God is with me and working through me, and God is with you and working through you. And God is with us and working through us. And God has a dream for a world of peace and love and justice, and God has promised that Her dream will come to fruition one day, whether we live to see it or not.
That assurance and that hope – it freed me. I began to let go of my fears and disappointments and jealousies, and I began to embrace love – like Jesus calls us to do. I began to be able to experience joy instead of resentment in the successes of others. I began to know that even if my best laid plans fell apart, even if I failed, I was still loved and could still choose to be loving in each and every moment. And that was all that mattered. Of course, I didn’t and don’t choose love perfectly in every situation, but because of God’s grace and mercy, when I fall off course, God calls and guides me back, and I am freed to love again and again.
This new life brought me so much joy that I began to ask the question, “What can I do to invite other people into this experience of joy and liberation?”
And so here I am about to be ordained in five days, standing before the congregation that sent me into ministry, in the place where – as our Methodist tradition likes to describe it- my heart was strangely warmed. It is also the place that first taught me that God is a God of restorative justice, and that Christ always stands with the most vulnerable members of society. This the community that has taught me to speak – with the help of the Spirit of Truth – about how God is calling us all to wider inclusion and deeper love, even to include and love those who we would call enemies.
I’d like to share one more Holy Spirit story about that. Last year, I was assigned to find a college student to offer a prayer at the Campus Ministry luncheon at the Great Plains Annual Conference – a yearly gathering of Methodists from all over Nebraska and Kansas. About 200 of those gathered typically attend the campus ministry lunch. Well, I invited a young man with whom I was acquainted from a university in Kansas to say the prayer. My invitation came to him shortly after The United Methodist Church failed to find a way to become fully inclusive of LGBTQ people at its most recent global meeting.
This young man responded to me that he did not want to offer the prayer. He told me he was reconsidering his own plans to pursue ordination. He wrote, “I don’t feel too confident in the Great Plains to make an inclusive or progressive decision when they inevitably find out I’m gay.” This is something I did not know about him when I asked. Of course, I responded to him that his concerns were legitimate and that he was loved just as he is – and I was so sorry the church had not yet figured out a way to welcome him and all of his gifts.
And then the Holy Spirit did Her thing. An image popped into my mind of an empty podium during the time of prayer at the campus ministry lunch. So instead of replacing him with another student, I asked his permission to share his response with the people gathered at the lunch. I planned to read it and then to invite the people into a moment of silent prayer, so they could experience the felt absence of a gay person who could have been a future leader of the church. He gave me his permission and encouragement.
As the day of the lunch approached, it started to be one of those things that I like to describe as “it seemed like a good idea at the time.” It turned out that I was pretty terrified, but also convinced by the Spirit that it is what I needed to do. I was especially anxious because I knew our bishop – Bishop Scott Jones who was rather infamous for his comments regarding his willingness to discipline pastors who performed same sex weddings – would be at the lunch.
So that day, the lunch started, and there was no bishop in sight! (Praise God!) Then, about 30 seconds before I was to step up to the podium to begin the lunch and invite the prayer, Bishop Jones sat down at a table in the front row. I will not lie. I did not make eye contact with him. But I did go through with my plan to name the hurt that the student had experienced and the loss that our conference was experiencing by not affirming the young gay man I had invited to pray. And so we had a moment of silence, and the lunch went on.
At the end of the lunch, the bishop was scheduled to offer a prayer for the campus ministers, of which I was one. As we were invited forward, I continued not making eye contact. And then something unexpected happened. As the bishop prayed for us, I was deeply moved by his prayer for our well-being and for the success of our campus ministries. I can’t exactly explain it – except to say that I felt like he was responding to my holy trouble-making in a way that went beyond just being diplomatic. It seemed deeply earnest.
To be honest, I don’t know what he was thinking, but I do know that as his prayer ended, and I walked back to my table where I was sitting by my senior pastor Debra, I was surprised to see that the tears in my eyes were reflected in hers. She felt it too.
In that moment, the Holy Spirit showed up. I felt overwhelmed with love from and love for Bishop Jones – the person whom I had feared, and who the world might have invited me to consider my enemy in that moment. And I felt overwhelmed with hope for the healing of our United Methodist Church. And I felt overwhelmed for the possibility that as more and more people respond with faithfulness and boldness to the movement of the Holy Spirit, that hearts and minds will be opened to creating a fully inclusive United Methodist Church – and that it might include the vast majority of the 12 million of us who are members right now.
Friends, bidden or unbidden, the Spirit shows up – and transforms and empowers us in ways we could not have imagined.
May we hear Her call, believe ourselves loved, and respond with courage – for the love of God and the transformation of the world.
May it be so.