St. Michael and All Angels
Pentecost – May 27, 2012
Several years ago, I went on a mission trip to Bolivia. I was leading a women’s retreat in Cochabamba and listened as everything I said was first translated into Spanish, then into Aymaran. It took me awhile to get used to it, but I discovered a rhythm to it and learned to wait on the others. When I began to pray, the translating stopped. Everyone prayed aloud with me in her native tongue. It was disconcerting for me. I was used to one person praying at a time. All of a sudden everyone was speaking at once. I had no idea what they were saying, but I could feel their faith in a powerful way as the words rose “like burning incense” from their hearts. I came back to the United States to the “one person praying at a time” way of doing things. It sounded very empty to me after praying in Bolivia. There are moments in our prayer time at St. Michael’s when we are invited to pray out loud. Often we do that quietly, almost shyly so as not to disturb our neighbor. I sometimes wish that we would pray like the Bolivians and speak the prayers of our hearts without worrying who is going to hear us.
The Pentecost story begins with the faithful folks gathered in a room waiting for something to happen. Jesus had promised that the Spirit would come, but what did that mean? What is it we want as we gather for worship each week? Do we hope God will show up? Are we prepared to respond when that happens?
I’m guessing they were hoping the Spirit would show up…just not like THAT. Maybe a kinder, gentler Spirit…one that would quietly enter the room and whisper a message to each person that would send them comfortably back into their routines. What kind of God sends a Spirit with wind and fire? Maybe God breathed life into the followers in that way because nothing less would have worked. Does God still send wind and fire today? If so, perhaps we should have stayed home?
We come to church and we hear stories of God’s amazing power to heal divisions, to bring hope into the most hopeless situations, to take ordinary people and enable them to do extraordinary things. Somehow even though we know all that, it is easy to forget that God still blows among us in powerful ways. Pentecost reminds us that the Holy Spirit is still engaged in wild and subversive business, making possible what the world says is impossible…taking us closer to the world God has in store for us.
The Acts story is intriguing, but the power of the story is found in what happened afterward. People left that room and went out into the world to do amazing things. The book of Acts tells stories of lives opening and sharing generously with one another, of people becoming community as they worshipped together and fed one another and cared for all in need, of faith spreading like wildfire because it was so evident in people’s lives. There was no fancy marketing campaign with billboards or slogans like “Got Spirit?” The sign of God at work in the lives of the most ordinary people was contagious and the church spread to the corners of the world as a result.
The scripture tells us that a tongue of fire rested on every person, not a select few like the ones who applied for the job or the ones who chaired the committees. All were filled with the Holy Spirit. That means that land owners and weed pullers, women and men, and gulp: even children were given this astounding power to be God’s people in the world. Beware! This is not just an ancient story. God is at work among us today calling us to be keepers of the fire begun more than 50 years ago in the St. Michael’s community. This applies to Vestry members, lay pastors, ushers, founding members, newcomers, those of us who sing off key, those of us who try and hide in the crowd, those who have retired and those who are newly baptized. God’s Spirit is in us…all of us! The words “be very afraid” come to mind as we think of ourselves given this power to be God’s people in the world.
We are the vessel for God’s amazing power. It is humbling to realize that God works through us. But I have seen it. God steps into the food pantry each week and those who volunteer are human examples of the God who feeds us. It happens in Godly play as the stories come alive. We see God as children struggle to carry baskets of food to the altar during the offering. God shows up in people’s homes as volunteers carry the Eucharist to them. God works through the altar guild as they prepare the sacred meal behind the scenes. God is in the musicians who give us a taste of heaven each week. God is in us when we reach out to one another.
We began this journey in ashes and today it culminates with fire. On Ash Wednesday, we were reminded that we come from dust. My friend Jan Richardson says that the story of Pentecost “bids us to remember what the Spirit can do with dust. Pentecost reminds us that the Spirit draws us together and gives us to one another so that we may hear and see and know with greater clarity. This day challenges us to open ourselves beyond the limits of our individual lives to the Spirit who sets us ablaze for the healing of the world.” (The Painted Prayerbook website: http://paintedprayerbook.com/2011/06/05/pentecost-one-searing-word/)
This week I had the privilege of joining the new members class as we asked the question “What is your yes to the Spirit?” It is a great question for them to ask as they come to the end of that class and prepare to take the next steps in their journey. It’s a good question for St. Michael’s as well. What is God doing here at this time in history? As God’s wind and fire blow through our community this Pentecost morning, what is our yes to the Spirit?
Rev. Deborah Little tells about an unusual spirit-filled gathering in Boston. “Right after my priestly ordination, I started going to Boston's main train station on Sundays, making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for people who spend their days there. On Christmas Eve, I found the courage to celebrate a communion service with folks I had gotten to know. It was an unlikely setting -- a round table in the main waiting room, our prayers punctuated by announcements of train departures. Eight people were in that first gathering. Their reflections and prayers told me more about worship than my many years in seminary. I continued spending Sunday afternoons in South Station through the winter.
Then, on Maundy Thursday, I was walking back up to the Common after washing several homeless feet. I was thinking about Jesus, and how he was always going to people, being with them where they were, healing, washing, feeding. I realized this was the church, not where buildings are necessarily, but where people are. Folks I was getting to know on the street, many of whom find it impossible or are not welcome to be inside, and others -- "us" -- who want to help and learn, needed to gather in the midst of the city, in an accessible place. We needed to pray, to celebrate, to talk, and to be a presence to people who sit around or pass by. We needed to pray for the city, raise up the concerns of the streets, bring alive a presence of hope and faith and hospitality. We needed to celebrate communion.
So that Easter Sunday 1996, I led worship on Boston Common for the first time. I was quite scared. I'm really not a brave person. I just knew what I was going to do. I asked my street friends what the best gathering place was for them, and they said it was the benches around a large fountain at one corner of Boston Common. It was a bitter cold afternoon and I wore an alb and a stole over several layers of sweaters. We had sixteen communicants. More people gathered after the service to eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and talk.
You wouldn't believe the power of that worship on the Common, the looks on the faces of people who haven't received the sacraments for years, the witness of what felt like whole worlds coming together to pray for each other and to thank God. That first Sunday seemed a small step, although it had been huge for me. I was a new priest and nothing was easy. As I drove home, I made notes about changes I might make if I were brave enough to do it the next year. As that week went along, folks on the street who hadn't even been there told me they'd see me on Sunday! I couldn't have imagined at the time that we would be there the next Sunday and every Sunday at 1 p.m. since. And the design of the service is pretty much the same as our first Sunday. Everyone offers prayers; and I speak for one or two minutes about the gospel lesson and then welcome anyone to speak. What we receive ranges from songs, to cries of pain and despair, to brilliant exegesis, and the most Christ-like parable stories I've ever heard.
Our third Sunday, people said we had to have a name. Someone said, "Well, this is our church." Looking across the street at the diocesan cathedral, he said, "This is common cathedral." And so we were.
Our community has grown to a Sunday average of 100 to 125-plus communicants. Many more join us during the gathering time that follows. We have volunteer nurses and lawyers, Bible study in English and Spanish after the service. We celebrate birthdays, anniversaries of sobriety, and releases from jail. Homeless and housed volunteers help with setting up, serve as altar guild, bring food and clothing, and visit with regulars and newcomers. One will assist a disabled man with a housing search; another will drive a sick woman to the clinic. We visit our folks in hospitals, hospices, jails, and help them reunite with families, buy eyeglasses and winter boots. We load belongings into our cars to move them into housing. We baptize some and bury too many.
Every Sunday, we welcome people who live under bridges, people who live in suburban houses, and everyone in between. One common denominator of our church is that almost everyone would describe herself or himself in some way or another as "on the margin." So, we have our being "outside" as common ground. We also have natural elements, especially the weather, which is a great equalizer. We're all hot or we're all freezing cold. If it's noisy we are all straining to hear each other. If it rains, we are all wet.
Another common denominator is truth telling. Radical openness is the gift of homeless individuals who stand out there "in front of God and everybody," as my friend Ann would say, and tell the truth.
Sometimes I think -- could this really be what the church is about? Loving this neighbor; loving this God? So wild and unpredictable and naked and hungry? A neighbor who needs everything; a God who demands everything. But then, I think about Jesus, still walking around in our hearts and minds, inviting us, showing us how to be in love with JUST THIS NEIGHBOR, JUST THIS GOD.” (Rev. Deborah Little, http://www.ecclesia-ministries.org/ecclesia/birth_of_a_church.html)
My prayer today for St. Michael’s is that we release our grip on what is and open ourselves to receive God’s Spirit in whatever form it comes, trusting that this story is intended for us here and now. God breathes new life into us and sends us into the world to breathe life and love into each other.