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I hesitate to say too much this morning, as so many of you have already been to church this weekend.
Whether you woke up early, or watched the recording at a reasonable hour, many of you were among the masses who tuned in to yesterday’s “Royal Wedding” and if so, you saw what might have been the most viewed sermon in history, as The Most Reverend Michael Curry preached the gospel of the “power of love.”
Bishop Curry, who was formerly the Bishop of the Diocese of North Carolina, is the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. And yet, the Episcopalian preached a decidedly “Pentecostal” sermon, drawing on Pentecost and the work of the Spirit with themes and images like imagination, fire, and a reorientation of the world. He didn’t have a whole lot of help from the royals and dignitaries in attendance, but he found “Amen” corners around the globe as he imagined a new world, where love is the way.
Most powerful to me is how Bishop Curry’s preaching in that moment and that place embodied this very message. He began his sermon quoting from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “When we discover the redemptive power of love, we will make of this old world a new world.” Make of this old world, a new world. It should not be lost on us what it means for the Bishop of the Episcopal Church – a champion for human rights and inclusion in his denomination, and the first African American to assume his role in his church’s history – to quote a revolutionary preacher and Civil Rights Leader, proclaiming hope for a new world while standing amidst the pomp and pageantry and medieval Gothic setting of St. George’s Chapel in the middle of a 14th Century Castle. It was as though this new world can come right in the middle of the old. Right amidst the most established and historic structures, new visions appear. Right in the places with so much evidence of the old and ordered, a new Spirit can come.
It was an extraordinary moment. One of those that the Indian writer and activist, Arundhati Roy must have been speaking of when she once said, “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. [Some days] I can hear her breathing.”
Of course, the disciples can’t hear or see or imagine anything like that as we find them in our passage in John.
It’s the last night of Jesus’ earthly life. Already he has washed their feet and served them at the table. He has spoken his last words about his love for them, and their charge to love one another in this way. All of his predictions about his death have now culminated. His betrayer has left the fold. With the remaining disciples, Jesus has wandered out of the upper room and into the muggy night air. The disciples now understand fully what they had tried to avoid: he is leaving them. Jesus acknowledges it himself, saying multiple times that he is going away – going away to the one who sent him.
There’s no new world to be heard or seen. Just so much of the old, “way things are” world, where Rome runs everything; where the powerful dominate the vulnerable; where those who speak of revolutionary love are crushed by an established order seemingly set against them; where the only thing the dreamers can see on the horizon is a silhouetted cross; where the only spark and fire is in the torches of the mob who are already on their way to claim him.
And yet it’s in this moment – this moment amidst so much evidence of the old and established; this moment so thick and muggy with despair and consent to the way of things – that Jesus tells them of the Spirit that will come. He speaks of the Advocate, giving them the power to testify, guiding them into all truth, and telling them the promise of the things yet to come. And then in verse 8 he says so powerfully, “When the Spirit/the Advocate comes, he will prove the world wrong.”
They are surrounded by all the things that would prove the world right – the old stories, old structures, old loss and defeat, old rugged crosses and old crooked systems – and Jesus says one is coming who will empower them to prove it all wrong.
That’s the work of the Spirit. And it’s what we see as the Spirit comes in Acts, in Luke’s description of the Day of Pentecost. Wind and fire, unrestrained, are falling from the sky and rushing through the streets of Jerusalem. Then suddenly, in a world where everyone is subdivided in their own private homes and upper rooms, they’re spilling into the streets together. In a world separated by background and language, suddenly they can understand and communicate, not abdicating their individuality and identity, but understanding one another amidst their beautiful diversity. In a world of old structures and old stories, Peter stands in the middle of the assembly and declares that “‘I shall pour out my Spirit on all flesh,’ says the Lord, ‘and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy… and your young shall see visions, and your old will see dreams…” Your old will dream dreams. Even those who have seen it all, and with their tired eyes and worn imaginations can no longer invest much energy in the notion of something new – when the Spirit comes – they are the very ones who will dream.
This is what happened in Indianapolis at the old, established church Broadway United Methodist. Once the largest church in the city and the largest Methodist church in the state, Broadway had dwindled in numbers and involvement since the mid-20th century. Amidst changes in the needs of their neighborhood, they began to respond as other urban churches have, as a caregiver: with food pantry, after school programming, a clothes closet, and basic ministries of compassion and charity.
But about a decade ago, that began to change, and it was sparked one Pentecost Sunday. Pastor Michael Mather was preaching on Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 on the Day of Pentecost: “On all people I will pour out my Spirit… your young will see visions, your old will dream dreams…” And at the community lunch after the service, a woman walked up to him and asked him pointedly, “So, how come we don’t treat people like that?”
Pastor Mike didn’t understand. Then the woman explained that she was talking about their food pantry. To get food, people had to fill out a form that basically asked, “How poor are you?” Nowhere on the form did it ask people their gifts. Nowhere did it wonder about their visions and their dreams. Nowhere was their evidence of a belief in God’s Spirit working in their lives. “If we believe that God’s spirit is flowing down on all people, old and young, women and men – on the poor,” the woman said, “Why don’t we treat people like that’s true?”
I had the chance to meet Pastor Mike a couple weeks ago, as part of a program I’m participating in with the Lilly Endowment and Faith & Leadership at Duke Divinity School over the next two years, and he told our group of 30 church leaders how that Day of Pentecost was a turning point for him. It led him to try to live like he actually believes in a Spirit that brings something new where we can only see the old structures, old stories, old habits and patterns, old forms.
It led the church to do away with some of their charity programs and now ask people with whom they work new questions, like, “What three things do you do well enough that you could teach others how to do it?” One of the first days they asked this, one woman, Adele, said “I cook.” She didn’t need job training. She knew her gift. So Pastor Mike said, “Can you cook lunch for our staff? We have a staff meeting tomorrow. Can we hire you to cook lunch for the group?” It was so delicious, that Pastor Mike said, “We have a regional meeting coming up, and we need a lunch. Can we hire you to cook for that?” And they loved it. Then she cooked for a church meal and a neighborhood gathering, and then whenever groups asked to use their space, the church would make it conditional on them using the church caterer: Adele. She printed business cards on the church printer, and passed them out any time her food was served, and within 18 months, she had opened Adelita’s Fajita shop, which remains a popular lunch spot to this day. (1)
Because a church – a gathered community of those on whom the Spirit had fallen, right in the middle of so many old ways, old stories, old patterns – was able to see new visions, dream new dreams, and treat people as though the Spirit of God had actually come down on them.
Just think of what that could mean, in a world where so many of us disciples huddle together in a place of defeat. So many are trapped in that old upper room, where so often we find ourselves, unable to see, too tired to dream, too jaded and hardened to imagine anything more than this, as all the old ways just prove the world right.
Peter Gomes was an eminent preacher and teacher of preachers, who for many years was Pastor of the Memorial Church at Harvard, and Chaplain of Harvard University. He once gave a stirring sermon on the Spirit, and its ability to enliven and inspire us to change this world. At the close of the service, a dear parishioner was in the greeting line and nodded knowingly, patted him on the arm and said, “If only it were true… if only it were true…” (2)
Just think of what it could mean if we lived as though we believed it. Because in this old world, somebody needs to dream some new dreams.
We are a week removed from the devastating loss of five children of our community – five of our children – in a preventable apartment fire. A family of refugees from the Congo, living in substandard housing in a seemingly impossible situation, making a home in a new place while balancing family and school and work – I heard the mother couldn’t even leave her shift when the news came to her at risk of losing her job. And we can huddle together and mourn, as we should. But will somebody – or will some church – dream some new dreams about safe, affordable housing for all people in our community?
This week, my friend Rev. David Fracaro, a leading immigrant advocate in our community who directs FaithAction International House and works with our newest neighbors and immigrants to this area, shared of another early morning call that came in to his office. This time it was a babysitter, who was watching two young kids, when their mother, who is an undocumented immigrant, was taken away from her job by ICE. The babysitter had stayed the night but didn’t know what to do. And we can hang our heads, and lament. But will somebody – someone inspired by the Spirit – dream some new dreams about our broken immigration system?
The news comes from Santa Fe High School – children, our children, vulnerable to gun violence at their school. And we gather and mourn and pray. But won’t those prayers inspire someone to revive their imagination about what is possible, lest we sit around waiting on Jesus when Jesus says to us this morning, “I have gone away… but the Spirit I have sent to you so that you can dream dreams and see visions…”
And we know the truth of Pentecost: that it happens right in the old place, the established place, the oldest structures imaginable, right where everyone thinks it could never happen. So the world nods knowingly, pats our arm and says, “Nice idea… thing won’t change… if only it were true…” But Jesus says, “I have sent you the Spirit so you can prove the world wrong.”
It was Pentecost Sunday some years ago, and Tom Long, preacher and professor, was a young pastor serving his first church. He decided to do a childrenʹs sermon, and so calling the children forward, he asked them if they knew what Pentecost was all about, but all he the kids gave him was stone silence. And so he told them the story of Pentecost, just as Christina did this morning, sharing about the great rush of wind, the flames descending upon the people so that they could hear and understand the words spoken in their own language, holding the children’s attention with his dramatic flair.
He described how the disciples went from there with the Power of the Spirit and began healing the sick, and selling their possessions to provide for all in need, began raising people from the dead, doing the very work of Jesus, began changing the world, and their eyes were wide with amazement when finally one little girl raised her hand, and said, “Excuse me, Rev. Long, but when was this? I think my family and I must have been absent from church that Sunday.” (3)
And the amazing thing about that story, is that in her imagination, the little girl believed that could actually happen at her church. That her church could be the place where it happened. That her church could be the place where the Spirit rested on all. That her church could be the place where people believed it, where people dreamed it, where they knew the Spirit that recreates us and proves this old world wrong is not only real, she is on her way.
- More on Broadway UMC at www.faithandleadership.com/death-and-resurrection-urban-church
- As related by dear friend, Rev. Scott Dickison, who worked with Dr. Gomes at Memorial Church
- From “What’s the Gift?,” a sermon on Day1 (www.day1.org/3822-whats_the_gift)