God breathed out over the face of the deep, and the World began. God breathed in and took back the world at the Flood. God breathed out and became incarnate. God breathed in and incarnate God ascended. And today, God breathed out, and the Church was born.
I think it sounds sort of not very serious to call today the “birthday of the Church”. That phrase evokes an image of cake and candles—lots of candles—and a Maypole, even a bouncy house. It helps for me to think more seriously about the day if I separate the actual day of birth from subsequent celebrations of that day.
Here’s the thing with actual birth days. When the time comes, however early or late or smack on the due date, there’s no stopping it. And the baby has no say in the matter and it is only coming out. It’s going to happen.
Births are never pretty or controlled. For something that happens as often as childbirth, it’s surprising really that it defies order. It seems to be, by design, agonizing, painful, and often scary.
The day the Church was born was sort of like that. The story opens with that small group of believers isolating themselves “all together in one place.” Perhaps they were still afraid of outsiders so they remained huddled. If they’d had any sense, they’d have been afraid NOT to disperse. Because by staying in one place, their gathering was about to be crashed by God who was going to bring in everyone they were trying to avoid. And in a weird twist, God was going to invite all those different nations and religions inside the church through the disciples’ own invitations by miraculously allowing the outsiders, the foreigners, to hear the gospel in their own languages.
Once the Spirit arrived on the scene, things got crazy. The wind started blowing really loudly and auras appeared around people’s heads that looked like flames of fire. It was nothing like today’s gathering of believers. No one pushed a red button in the narthex to discretely notify the disciples that the Holy Spirit was ready to process into their midst. No ushers handed out bulletins so that the disciples could see what was coming next. It’s hard to see any resemblance between how we looked the day we were born and how we look today. Unless you look closely, and then you can see that we haven’t changed a bit.
We are still afraid of people who don’t look like us or pray like us. We like to sit with folks who smell good and wear shoes. But we have other differences too that we think are really important to note. I mean, people who still speak in tongues are not Episcopalians; they’re Pentecostals. And all those different nations that showed up that day in Jerusalem? It sounds like United Church of Christ congregations bragging about their multiculturalism. Then there were those who stood back and watched all that “Pente-chaos” and wondered what it all meant. Those were probably early Episcopalians.
Then there were the ones who thought they must be drunk. Those were probably the fundamentalists, focused on other people’s outward signs of inward grace. Then there were the nice ones who tried to say they couldn’t possibly be drunk. Those were the people in every denomination who just wish what they are seeing would go away, and maybe if we say we don’t see it, it won’t be there. There’s maybe a little of us in there, too. There we all are, in our “birthday suits”, flawed, smug, confused, embarrassed and embarrassing. In other words, the very ones to whom God sent the Spirit.
God still crashes every one of our birthday parties, inviting in the people who we want to minister to but don’t necessarily want to sit near; or, more precisely to have them get too close to us. And I’m not talking here about folks who could use a bath. I’m talking about the ones that bring us dangerously close to what we thought we were escaping, and make us aware of our own need for a good cleansing.
In my first Lamaze class, the coach told me “Once this starts, in about 10-12 hours you’re going to have a baby. How you pass those hours can make a big difference in your early relationship with your baby. You can kick and scream and fight against it, and in 10-12 hours you will have a baby. Or you can decide that you are beginning a privileged journey that is mostly an uphill climb without much time to catch your breath, but you can visualize your way into the adventure and whisper an amazing birthday story to your unborn child, and in 10-12 hours, you will have a baby. You’re going to have a baby.”
God still says “it’s time” to all our polite “Umm; just a little longer. The nursery’s not quite ready.” This is what’s so dangerous about birth.
We like to speak about the Holy Spirit in terms of a comforter, a dove, something gentle. But the thing is the Holy Spirit is not a metaphor. “The Holy Spirit can mess us up and metaphors can’t do that (Nadia Bolz-Weber, May 15, 2012).” Jesus’ purpose was to save the world. The Spirit’s purpose is to build the Church by guiding each one of us into the truth.
The Spirit is the midwife for truth and the truth can feel like it’s going to kill us. But the “radical and mysterious and dangerous thing the Spirit does has always been to form us into the Body of Christ. (Bolz-Weber, May 15, 2012).” It is a beautiful thing to behold but in its infancy it’s about as attractive as Winston Churchill.
The Spirit turns testimony that we usually preface with “This stays in this room” into “Tell anyone who you think might find this story helpful to call me!” And, like birth, we’d like to time that sort of thing better, but the next thing we know we’re saying it. And we feel lighter and then terrified and think, “Oh my gosh. What have I just done?!?”
But then it’s done and you realize that you have just received the gift of tongues because you see that every family is like yours, sort of. The weird thing about the Pentecost story is not that the disciples started speaking another language, but that the foreigners, the strangers, the outsiders heard the gospel in their own language. That story that you thought no one would ever understand because no one could possibly understand YOUR family because YOUR family is DIFFERENT? Well, as it turns out, they understood it fluently.
I recently hosted a party that the Holy Spirit crashed in this way. For two months, several of us met weekly to learn how to “parent” more effectively. Pretty safe party to host if your children are all grown and live out of town and can’t dispute anything you say. It was also a nice distance between me and the young parents sitting around the table. Being old enough to be their parent lent a sort of authority to my words.
Then, the Spirit showed up and people were telling stories, crying, testifying, confessing, and sometimes—but not always—the subject was actually parenting. But the Spirit had so much more in mind for all of us, including the veil coming down from all our faces, my own included. And, on the last night of class, you would have thought we were never going to see each other again with all the hugging and hanging around and thank you’s and I love you’s.
Just learning how to be better parents would have been great. But learning about how we belong to God and to each other made us fall over ourselves telling stories and each one wove us together into community, into family and I’d like to think into better parents.
And that’s the good thing about actual birth days. At the end of the day, once you’re holding that baby in your arms, it’s the best thing ever and so worth its messy and scary arrival. And you surely know that you are in no way prepared for what comes next, and you think how much harder it is to get a mortgage than it is to become a parent.
So, here we are again, all gathered together in one place for the 2015th celebration of the day we were born. Even after all this time, we still only recognize the Spirit when it blows so hard that it makes a noise that stops us and in the chaos we see each other differently. And despite ourselves we are learning to speak the gospel by testifying to what the Spirit is doing in our lives and somehow that translates into a language that is understandable by someone else, someone who we thought could not possibly understand the language of OUR family.
Breathe in, breathe out. For the next 25 weeks, we are going to see and feel the Spirit blowing in and out of every huddled space in our lives. Ready or not, the day has arrived.
Rev. Dr. Cynthia Park
Pentecost Year B
May 24, 2015