What is That Above Your Head? – A riff on pentecost

Acts 2:1-13               Tyler Amundson               May 19, 2013
Gracious and loving God, 
May the words shared here today echo your message of peace, love and hope.   Let it be a message of change in a world in need or may it be information that gives us inspiration for our journey ahead.  Amen
     When I was going to seminary in Denver, the first year Crystal I lived there, I used public transportation as a primary means of transit.  In Montana it is customary that we say hello and smile when we see someone on the street.  When you live in larger cities this is not the custom.  I don’t know if this because it would be overwhelming to say hi so much, or if this was just how hospitality is embraced in our culture and not in larger city culture.  Whatever it is, I couldn’t resist nodding and saying hello to people on public transit.  It became for me a sort of social experiment to see the reactions I would get.  A few times it led to me striking up a conversation with individuals and getting to share a little bit of our stories with each other.  When people discovered I was going to seminary they quickly had questions about what it meant to be Methodist.  I met some very interesting people from all walks of life.  They were surprised someone would take interest in their lives, and from their reaction really valued the conversation.  It was as if they really just wanted someone to listen to their story.  In turn they asked me about my story and I was able to practice describing why I was choosing to be a pastor and leader in the Methodist tradition.  These mutual conversations helped me to understand my calling, and provided a much-needed ministry of listening to strangers in the hustle of the daily commute.  I got a lot of funny looks with my initial recognition of people, with a nod and a hello, but it was worth it.
     Today’s message is about Pentecost.  Pentecost is the story that describes the birth moment of the church.  It describes the moment in which the followers of Jesus begin to discover what this movement they are a part of is going to be about and who they will be as followers of Christ.  When you see Pentecost depicted in paintings it doesn’t always look like the beginning of the church, it instead is depicted with flames over people’s heads.  As a young person I always thought it just looked like these people were crazy or this day seemed very strange.  If you didn’t grow up in the church most times Pentecost is an unfamiliar term, and even for those who grew up in the church Pentecost is a rather ambiguous tradition.   I did not really grasp the importance of Pentecost until I was in seminary.  Today perhaps we can glimpse together the importance this day has for our Christian walk and how we act out our Christian lives in the world.
     Along with the Pentecost message, I also want to define for us what it means to be a progressive church.  Progressive church is a term that is used to describe St. Paul’s by people inside our building and people outside our building.  It is used as a slang term to be negative about our choices as a church, and a proud term about how right we think we are.  When terms like this are used it is important to take some ownership of what the term means, because when people use “progressive church” they usually all have a different definition in their mind.  The definition shared today of “progressive church” stems directly from the Pentecost story and the early experiences of the Christian movement.
     A definition of “progressive church” would be:  1. People willing to listen, consider, question contemplate, and assimilate new knowledge from people, books, research, experiences, and information without pre-asserted notions of if the material is valid.  2. A people of faith willing to let the new experiences and information we encounter inform how we live our faith out.
     The argument commonly made about this type of Christianity is that you immediately start to look exactly like the world around you if you have considered all new sources of information.  Essentially that faithful living is watered down, until it looks exactly like those not committed to a faith walk.  That is simply not true because we don’t just adapt to the information.  We filter the information just like everyone does with all knowledge we receive.  For example we all have a proximity filter for new information.  If we were to read a newspaper article about the economic crisis in Greece, we all filter it through an idea of how it impacts us in Montana.  Our reaction to this news would probably cause minimal change in our lives.  Whereas someone in Greece filters it through how it will directly impact an individual as a Grecian and the adaptation will probably be very drastic.  We as Christians and as Methodists actually have filters we use as we consider information to decide how it will inform our lives.
     As Methodists we talk about specific filters we use as we learn and decide how it will change how we live out our faith.  The specific filters we talk about are scripture, reason, experience, and tradition.  We use these things, as a filter for how new information will guide us in our faith walk.  Scripture is a tradition of stories about how people have encountered God, and so we use it to filter new information to see if our experiences are similar to the stories.  Tradition is the way we have seen the faith practiced and the combined traditions of the Christian faith.  Tradition informs us about the mistakes and successes of our communities of the past, and guides us how to be in our future.  Reason is the idea we have been given logical brains not to ignore them, but to help us compare what we logical realities to new ones.  Finally, experience is about trusting our whole past experiences and especially those experiences of God to help us understand our new realities.  All four of these things are filters we use to interpret new information to inform our faith walk.
     The story of Pentecost describes one of the first progressive moments in the church.  Here the disciples are scared and unsure about what their faith life should look like.  Like the time around childbirth there is high expectation, but also a sense of fear of the unknown.  The disciples do not know what will be next for them.  They have seen their teacher and guide killed, feeling the ensuing fear and pain of the times.  Later, they have felt the elation of the resurrection.  Then experiencing their leader once more, they have seen Christ lifted up into heaven.  Talk about an emotional roller coaster.  These disciples don’t know what is coming next, except that Christ has shared with them the message of the Holy Spirit.  And then….
Acts 2
The Coming of the Holy Spirit
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.  Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.” [1]
     This was such a powerful moment in Christianity that artists have depicted it with flames over the heads of the disciples.  It speaks both to an intoxicated power in the people and a sense of the mystical force of God encouraging the spreading of the good news. This is a “progressive church” moment.  The disciples are totally unsure of what to do and are sitting in a room not knowing what is next.  Suddenly they are given clear vision about what is next as if God’s Holy Spirit was the filter they were waiting for.  With this new spirit they know they are called to walk out of the building they are in and let people know that there is a message that God wants them to hear.  God loves and cares for each one of them and Christ demonstrated that love.  These disciples were progressive because they were willing to let new information inform their faith lives and how they were to act their faith out.
     Along with this this passage shares that the disciples shared the good news in a multitude of different languages. The different languages the disciples speak in allow all sorts of people to hear a message of hope, and in turn the community of faith demands that we be willing to listen to them in return.  We have to listen to all ages, genders, colors, ethnicities, sexual orientations, gender identities, economic statuses, or disabilities.  We have to be WILLING to listen to all people and as Christians believing in radical hospitality invite them into our lives that we may share God’s love with one another.
     This progressive message of overcoming divides to share God’s love, to be willing to listen to one another the calling of the world to Christianity today.  We live in a world where divisions and language are being used each day to label people, and separate us from one another.  We tend to divide people up by age in our culture, where the older do not spend significant time with the younger learning and teaching.  In a world where seemingly continue to not value the opinion of those defined as not a part of our group, what better message to share from our faith than the value of listening to one another.  Getting to know one another in our community despite our differences.
     For many progressive Christians we fear sharing our faith in public because of the strange reactions we get.  Either people assume we are Christians who will judge or they are unsure what it means to be Christian because they have never experienced or practiced it.  Many of my peers are fearful of the reactions they will get if they identify as Christian, mostly the negative reactions we receive because they assume we are judgmental.  What if the central reality that Christians shared was this idea of being progressive, this willingness to really listen to who people are?  It would be almost an oxymoron for both those who believe we are bad Christians and those who believe Christians are bad.  We would be able to deeply speak to the world if we can act from this progressive place.
     The central message of Pentecost of being a progressive Christian wasn’t that we could just go tell people things.  It was that we could understand people again.  The disciples could speak in multiple tongues, but also they could understand the people of the world.  By understanding in all these different ways they were able to go out and share a message of hope.  Then they were able to listen to their neighbors and seek to work with the neighbor to live out the hope they knew was possible.
     Progressive Christianity is a wiliness to listen to all people and their realities.  Then to let those needs inform us about how we are going to live our lives as Christian people.  We will look to the life of Christ to help us understand the ways in which we are to live this message out.
     Claiming we are progressive Christians in today’s world will risk people looking at us in a strange way, but that is ok.  As I considered how goofy the tongues of fire looked over the disciples I realized they looked enlightened to some and silly to others.  This is the risk we take by being different, but we have important work to do.  We know that if someone doesn’t step in and say we need to have honest dialogue that divisions will continue to grow.  We have to be willing to step into these spaces of division and grow ourselves.
     And if we want to know what company we are sharing in history it is important to remember that John Wesley and his early gathering movements were called “Methodists.”  “Methodist” was not meant to be a nice word, as “progressive” is not always meant to be a nice word.  However, they owned the word and they believed in their movement.  They believed that miracle of God’s love in the Gospel was a message that needed to be heard in their day.   We know for the Methodists it was deeply informed by listening to the needs of their community, reaching out to form relationships, and through those relationships making a difference.
     We too as “progressive Christians” are being called by our world to step out and make a difference.  To live a life of Christ we have to risk being different, be willing to consider the information of our world, and then go out and serve that world.  May we be a “progressive people” willing to go and share a message of hope with the world, but more importantly listen.   By listening we may hear the wisdom of God that might heal the divide.
 Audio can be found here for 30 days: http://stpaulshelena.sermondrop.com/sermons/16518-What-is-that-above-your-head-

[1]  NRSV

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