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Pentecost, May 31, 2020 Rev. Nancy Talbot
John 7: 37-39 & Acts 2: 1-21 Mount Seymour United Church
One of my favourite parts of the story of Pentecost is the moment when the pious Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem come rushing to see what is going on with the Galilean followers of Jesus in town for the festival. They hear them declaring the mighty works of God in their own languages. Surprised and bewildered some of them jeer at them saying “They’re full of new wine!”
Often here at Mount Seymour, we divvy up the parts of this reading on Pentecost Sunday. When we do that what we have that small group of critics say is “They’re drunk” instead of “They’re full of new wine!” So I’ve never really noticed before that it’s not just that Jesus followers, the Galileans are being accused of being drunk, they are being accused of being drunk on new wine, a particularly potent kind of wine, the kind of wine that can burst right through an old wineskin when poured into it.
When my son Nathan was about 5 years old he ended up at Children’s Hospital needing a cast put on his arm. When the day came for the cast to be removed, we took him back to the hospital where they gave him a relaxant so he wouldn’t be anxious when the doctor arrived to cut into the cast with a little saw to remove it. By the time the doctor came into the examination room, Nathan was having a wonderful time. He was drunk as a skunk and seeing things that no one else in the room could see.
The festival of Pentecost, the day we celebrate the coming of the spirit and the formation of the church, reminds us that when the spirit breaks into our lives, it can do so with such force that our old containers, our well defended and well defined boundaries can get blown apart, loosening us up and causing us to lose our inhibitions and even see things, see possibilities, that we have never seen before.
I know that these 50 days of the season of Easter have not felt very Pentecostal to most of us. We might not be quite ready yet to give up our cup of suffering for a cup of new wine. We are still standing in the gap between what has been and what is yet to be just like the first followers of Jesus who stood in the gap between his departure from earth and the promise of the coming of the Spirit. But today is a day for us to lean into the contours of new wine skins to look around and notice the ways the spirit is moving in our midst and we are being made new personally, in the church and in our world.
And if you think I’m just drunk on new wine for even suggesting all of this, you are in good company. Notice that is wasn’t just what those pious Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem saw and heard that mystified them. Certainly the sound from heaven like the howling of a fierce wind and the sight of what seemed to be individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them shocked them. And they were most definitely amazed that each one could hear their native languages being spoken, describing the mighty works of God. But what really seemed to confuse them the most was the fact that the people speaking those individual languages were Galileans.
Here was a group of worldly, faithful, educated city folk being knocked off their feet (or maybe their pedestals) by a bunch of country bumpkins from Galilee. The defining characteristic of a Pentecostal moment is an experience in which we are completely caught off guard by something that expands our understanding of ourselves and others, something that exposes our prejudices and helps us to see things we have never seen before and dream things we hadn’t previously dared to dream. Pentecostal moments set us off balance just enough to make us start weaving in no traffic until we find a new equilibrium once again.
Who would have thought just 11 weeks ago that we could be a church that met online with attendance on the average week well exceeding what we might normally expect to see on a “regular” Sunday? Who would have imagined that we could invite the congregation of Pitt Meadows United to join us in worship as they did last week or that we could join the folks at Highlands United on any given Sunday or that people from North Delta and Coquitlam, Hanoever, Ontario and Halifax, Nova Scotia and beyond would gather with us to sing and pray and reflect on God’s word.
If you had told me 10 weeks ago that I would be recording a weekly mid-reflection beginning in Holy Week I would have told you in no uncertain terms that no I will not. Who would have thought that our online Children’s community could actually attract new members and children who attended Camp Spirit but are never here in this sanctuary on a Sunday?
But the Spirit is so persistent, so determined that life and love and justice and unity will prevail that when it really starts to blow, before we know it we are living a life we didn’t even think to imagine, even in the midst of what for many of us is the most challenging time we have seen in our lifetime.
And we will never be the same again. I know that many of you want to go back to the way things were. I know you want to gather in your sanctuaries and feel the peace you felt in this place and in other places and sense the familiar comfort and challenge but the reality is that church is never going to be the same again. We have been blown apart in such a way that our former container simply will not hold us in the way it once could.
I recognize that might be difficult for many of you to hear and yet many of the ways we are being made new by the Spirit and will continue to be made new in the months to come will serve the church, serve the presence of love, peace, hope and justice in our world in ways that our inherited model of the church, our familiar way of being church, can no longer serve.
There is new wine being poured into the vessel that is the church at this moment in time. We have seen things now that we could not previously have seen. And the possibility and the promise inherent in that truth is a very good thing.
Over the last several weeks I have been taking an online course on Trauma oriented Pastoral Care along with a number of other United Church ministers. Our instructors are two ministers that come from the Salvation Army tradition. As far as I am concerned, they may as well be from Galilee. But, and don’t tell anybody this, I have discovered that I quite like them. Their theology and therefore some of their theological language is quite different than mine, but they are such beautiful people. When they pray, and believe me they know how to pray, the pureness of their intention is so transparent that I can’t help be transported by the presence of the Spirit in our midst. I have been so deeply ministered to by them in these weeks. We come from such different places and we speak very different languages and yet we are united by the Spirit.
They have exposed my prejudices and shown me that the height and breadth and width and depth of God really and truly is beyond my comprehension. I might even go so far to say like those pious Jews from Jerusalem, that this has been a mystifying experience.
One of the things that is happening in this moment is that our prejudices are being exposed.
One of the most powerful parts of the story of Pentecost is that moment I’ve already referred to in which the pious Jews from even nation under heaven hear the disciples speaking in their native languages. It’s so tempting to want to quickly shift into thinking they heard one unifying language. But they didn’t hear one language. They had been used to hearing one language, Greek which was the language of the Roman Empire but in this moment they heard their own individual languages being spoken.
Years ago I was travelling in a remote part of Indonesia. One day I was sitting in a café when the person at the next table asked me if I was from Stratford, Ontario. I wasn’t from Stratford, I was from Ingersoll which is about 40 kms down the road from Stratford. I asked him how he knew that was where I was from and he said I could tell by your accent. It turns out he was a linguistic student and he had lived in Stratford while he was studying so he had a very finely tuned ear.
I have never forgotten that encounter because when he said could understand my language, it was as if he could understand me.
One of the uglier outcomes of the covid-19 is the way it is exposing prejudice in our communities. Just because someone speaks a certain dialect or looks a certain way, namely Asian, they are being targeted on our skytrains, in parked cars on our streets and in the aisles of our grocery stores. As I speak, Minneapolis is on fire and people are raging in the streets due to the death of George Floyd. The Black community in America and in Canada is done with the violence being inflicted on their people due to the colour of their skin.
The old wineskin of prejudice and systemic racism needs to be blown apart once and for all. We all, each one of us, were created to be seen and heard and understood for who we are in the particularity of our individual expression of Divine diversity.
When I understand your language, when I take the time to truly listen, I understand you. Maybe that’s the mightiest work of all God’s mighty works, the possibility that you and I could look at one another and listen to one another and actually understand each other.
In the best of what this Pentecostal moment has to offer us and our world right now, it is a moment for new wine to flow so abundantly that it continues to break open and burst open all the places in our lives, in our churches and in our world that no longer serve the ways of justice, love, peace and compassion the way we need them to be served in our day and age. Through that mystifying inbreaking of the Spirit, what we need is for our eyes to be cleared so we can see new visions and for our hearts and minds to be made open so we can dream new dreams and become just drunk enough to lose our inhibitions and be addressed by what we never imagined possible.