Rev. Danielle K Bartz May 23, 2021
Act 2:1-21 “The Presence of the Spirit”
When I was in college, I enrolled in a class called ‘Religion in America.’ It was about exploring religious traditions outside of the mainstream. While many of the traditions have names we recognize: 7th Day Adventist; Church of Latter Day Saints; Church of Christ (not to be confused with United Church of Christ); Christian Scientist; Assemblies of God – for many of us, these traditions remain a bit mysterious. They certainly were for me, and this class offered me a chance to lift a bit of that fog.
The final project was to visit a worship service of one of the traditions we had studied. We could pick a church to visit and the professor would arrange everything. I attended an evening service at a local 7th Day Adventist church. I was there as an invited observer and I was welcomed warmly. I sat towards the back to observe their service and at one moment, a woman sitting near me began, to shout and jump around. She was speaking in tongues. The people around her were raising their hands in praise and prayer – giving thanks for the experience she was having.
It was a first for me – I grew up in the UCC, and speaking in tongues – otherwise known as ‘falling out in the Spirit’ was never something I had seen nor experienced. I tried to remain an impassive observer, but I was 20 years old and found myself reacting. I was frightened and amused at the same time. I was skeptical of her experience and started to pass judgement on what I was seeing. When the worship leader led the congregation in a prayer of thanks for the work of the Holy Spirit in that woman’s life – I remember thinking: “I’m glad I don’t need to deal with the Holy Spirit like that.” I found myself suspicious and dismissive anytime someone tried to tell me of their personal experiences of the Holy Spirit.
But, as I have gained more experiences, talked openly with more people, heard more stories, and worked hard to set aside my assumptions and prejudices, I have begun to wonder – what is it I have been missing out on? What as a I fearing? What is the role of the Holy Spirit in my life? And, my Beloved Community, what is the role of the Holy Spirit in your life? How have you opened yourself to its presence? How have you shied away from it? What are your assumptions? And what are your hopes? And, most importantly, what has the Holy Spirit been trying to say to us that we are too afraid to listen to, in our fear of losing control?
Because, that is the thing about the Holy Spirit. We cannot control it. We cannot predict it. We have no ability to plan for the Holy Spirit. I remember when I was a chaplain intern one of my colleagues was struggling with her inability to plan her day, because as a chaplain, crises come up all the time and we must respond. She was someone who liked a schedule, who liked to plan what her day would look like, and whenever her pager went off it would throw her day out of her control. Our teacher gave her this advice – plan to be interrupted. Intentionally plan your day knowing you will be interrupted, so when it happens, it was expected – it was planned for. That is the nature of the ministry – and that is the nature of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit’s role in our lives sometimes feels like a pager going off – calling us to stop what we are doing, change our plans and do the unexpected. But, as Christians, we need to expect that disruption, and even plan for it.
But, here is the problem – it can be really easy to ignore the Holy Spirit when she does interrupt us. It can be really easy to say – not now, I have too much going on. Or, you want me to do what?!? That’s ridiculous. We may not have control in predicting when the Holy Spirit will arrive or what she will call on us to do, but we do have the ability to simply ignore that call and move along with our lives. The Holy Spirit, God’s still speaking voice, can be muted and ignored. And I am beginning to think that there is nothing more tragic than when we give into that temptation.
We all have experiences of the Holy Spirit. We all have moments in our lives, that when we look back on them, we realize there was something going on that was completely out of our control. Sometimes we may call them coincidences. Sometimes we call them happenstance. And sometimes we recognize them as God moments, when God intervened or pushed us or gave us courage or simply wouldn’t stop pestering us. As pastor my greatest privilege is to hear your stories. And I have heard so many of your stories that showed the Holy Spirit alive and at work in your lives – the moments, times, experiences when you listened to God’s still speaking voice and responded. Some of the stories you have told me are extraordinary. Some are ordinary. Some are hard to imagine, others I have been completely able to relate too. But, I am confident you all have a story to tell.
However, our challenge is not simply to look back at a moment and recognize the Holy Spirit was working in and through us. Rather, our challenge is to recognize the Holy Spirit in the moment. In the moment to hear God’s voice. In the moment to say to ourselves and those around us: this is the Holy Spirit talking to me and I need to listen, even though I am not sure what is going to happen next or where I might end up. We may not end up speaking in tongues, but we may find ourselves speaking up in a moment, or taking an unexpected step into a new experience, or maybe just slowing down to notice something or someone around us.
Our world is loud. Our world is full of distractions. Our lives, both professional and personal, are over-whelmed with voices, noises, diversions – so many things to distract us from the voice of God. And that is maybe the problem with the Pentecost story we hear every year. It is fantastic – an extraordinary moment of the Holy Spirit falling upon the early leaders of the church. Tongues of fire, the ability to understand and speak other languages. Accusations of public drunkenness. It can be easy to read this story about the Holy Spirit and think it only appears in our lives in a cacophony of sound and light, and only if something like that happens we need to pay attention. And maybe the Holy Spirit has spoken to you like that – maybe you have had a fantastic, extraordinary moment. But, I imagine for most of us the Holy Spirit is quieter and we have to listen in order to hear.
Beloved Community, the Holy Spirit is speaking to us all the time – but the loudness of this world can distract us from listening. Or, even when we do hear her voice, it may feel inconvenient – we’ll pay more attention next time, we tell ourselves. The Holy Spirit is God’s voice, God’s presence, the living memory of Christ in our midst. Paying attention is vital. Paying attention helps us to know how God is calling us to act. Paying attention makes God relevant today. So, let’s practice listening. Let’s practice opening ourselves up to God. Let’s be willing to take a risk and follow wherever the Holy Spirit is leading us. Amen.
God of Spirit, we feel your presence moving in and through us. Your Holy Spirit is the gift you give your Creation and for it we are thankful.
We are thankful for the wind in the trees, reminding us that you move though time and space.
We are thankful for the light of flame, reminding us that you bring light to dark places.
We are thankful for the voices of your diverse body, reminding us that you speak to us in many different ways, many different languages, through many different tongues.
We are thankful for your still small voice that speaks in the silence of our souls, reminding us that you are always with us and hold us fast as we move through our lives.
God of Spirit, you are truly present in many ways. You are present in the good, the bad, the wonderful, the sorrowful, the times of gathering, the times of solitude. You are present to us when we are struggling with grief and when we are celebrating. And because we are confident of your presence with us, we are confident of your presence with everyone – those we know and those we do not.
We listen for you voice in the silence of our souls and in that silence we also speak to you, turning over to you the burdens of our heart. Hear now our prayers that we lift to you in silence…
Gracious, Loving Spirit – it is in your presence we find ourselves whole. Continue to bestow your blessings upon us and all of your creation. We pray all of this in the name of Jesus Christ, our teacher, redeemer, brother, and friend who taught us to pray, Our Father….