This sermon was team preached by Pastor Joy Perkett and Carolyn Frantz. Carolyn Frantz is a graduate of Boston University School of Theology and a member of the United Methodist Church. Originally from rural Ohio, she spent time in Michigan before moving to New England. Carolyn is a lifelong lover of music who sings with Chorus pro Musica. In her free time, she enjoys volunteering with peace and justice initiatives and playing board games with her husband.
The Scripture for this sermon is Acts 2:1-21.
As Joy mentioned, I come from a different Christian tradition. While I’m United Methodist now, when I was a child, my parents attended an Assemblies of God church. Now, for those of you who don’t know, the Assemblies of God is Pentecostal— no, not the kind that don’t let women wear pants, the kind that speak in tongues. It seems pretty weird to a lot of people. Those in the A/G tradition believe that the Holy Spirit is active and working in our lives today, including giving us the gift of tongues as a personal prayer language. Speaking in tongues can sound like gibberish to everyone except the Holy Spirit. When you’re speaking in tongues, what comes out of your mouth isn’t exactly voluntary: it’s such a complete surrender to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in you that you actually allow God to control your physical person.
While this gift is actually discussed in the letters to the Corinthians, the Acts passage we just read is about what charismatics call an extraordinary event— something that happened only once and for a specific purpose. But Acts 2 is the first occurrence of speaking in tongues, and is the time when the Holy Spirit arrived in our midst. So it was the go-to passage when talking about speaking in tongues. Although I was precocious enough to be baptized at the young age of 8, I did’t speak in tongues until I was almost 11. Everyone around me was concerned about this. I thought that something was wrong with me because I had never spoken in tongues and so I obsessively read Acts 2 over and over again, hoping to find some clue as to why the Holy Spirit seemed to be passing me by year after year. By the time I finally received the gift of tongues, I had almost memorized it. While I don’t speak in tongues anymore, the experience of speaking in tongues and listening closely for the Spirit’s leading taught me to be very attentive to the presence of God’s Spirit in my everyday life. Today, when I feel the Spirit’s leading, it’s either a gut feeling that something isn’t right or an irresistible pull to do something specific.
Not having grown up in a Pentecostal church, I never knew what it meant to speak in tongues.
Yet, I have still experienced the Holy Spirit in my life. I experience the Holy Spirit in the ways that this community prays for people when they are going through difficult times. I feel the Spirit as I visit the shut-ins of our church and we gather around the table, eating bread, drinking grape juice together and celebrating that we are all part of God’s family. The Spirit speaks to me though God’s beautiful creation and in the kindness of strangers and in the ways we worship each Sunday.
The Spirit speaks in many ways.
That is, after all, what we learn in the Scripture today.
The text tells us that each person at the Pentecost gathering heard about the wonders of God in their own language. People from Asia and Egypt and Rome heard what the disciples were saying about God in their own tongue.
Like the disciples, we too are called to tell about the wonders of God in our language, with our tongues. I wonder though if telling about what happened long ago is the easy part and telling about the wonders happening right now is the hard part.
After all, I love telling the story of how the disciples gathered and the Spirit came down so powerfully that She burst open the doors and moved the disciples to speak.
I find it harder to tell the story of the Spirit in our own lives.
After all, who are we to speak?
It seems like we can’t possibly measure up to the disciples.
We are people who make mistakes and experience heartbreak and wrestle with difficult decisions. Are our stories worth sharing? Don’t they pale to the stories found in the Bible?
Yet, I can’t help but wonder, if the disciples wrestled with similar questions. I wonder if they too asked, “Who are we to speak? We’re not Jesus.”
Perhaps they wrestled with this question as their thoughts lingered over their failures, like the time all the disciples abandoned Jesus in his time of need or the time Jesus was trying to explain all this was going to occur and they just didn’t get it.
Who would want to hear their story? Who would want to hear about how Peter had messed up and Jesus had just gone ahead and forgiven him? Who would want to hear about how Thomas had doubted that resurrection was possible and then Jesus totally got his doubts and showed up in person to show him that yes, new life can totally come from places of death? Who would want to hear their stories?
The disciples had felt they knew the answer to that question. The answer rang loud and clear for them: no one. No one would want to hear their story.
As they came to this obvious conclusion, the Holy Spirit, interfering as always, can whooshing through the doors. She rushed into the room like a violent wind, flinging open the shutters. Bright light and fresh air rushed to fill the stagnant room. Startled, the disciples winced, the bright light hurting their eyes. Then, taking a deep gulp of air, they looked around and began to see. They began to see that they had the words to speak all along.
Just when the disciples thought they had everything figured out, light flooded in the room allowing them to see things from a new perspective. It allowed them to see that they were called to share the wonders of God in their own language.
No, they were not Jesus, but they could share their personal experience with Jesus … Jesus who challenged them, taught them, forgave them, healed them.
Perhaps, the disciples came to realize, their story was not one of perfection but one of journeying, of finding their way, of experiencing grace and mercy along the path of life.
This is the story the Spirit was inviting them to speak. In their own language.
The Acts 2 story shows us that the Holy Spirit helps us cross boundaries that would otherwise impede the spread of the Gospel. In that situation, the disciples faced language barriers and cultural differences that would made very difficult for them to talk about who Jesus was in their lives and to deliver the Good News of the Gospel. They were up in that room all by themselves because they were afraid and they didn’t know what to do. So they prayed. And the Holy Spirit made herself known in unmistakable ways: a rushing wind, flame, and the ability to speak in different languages.
The Holy Spirit continues to empower Christians today to cross social boundaries in order to bring the Good News of Jesus Christ to all people. A good example of this is something that happened at the United Methodist Church I attended in college. I went to Albion College in the small town of Albion, Michigan, which has been struggling economically for many years. As is the tale in so many Rust Belt cities, when the manufacturing plants left town, many of the townspeople permanently lost their livelihood. This disproportionately affected black members of the community, who are less able to drive to another town for work.
Albion First UMC is a white congregation that cares a lot about the poor members of its community and takes the lead in working to alleviate poverty. When I was a sophomore in college, Albion First decided to enter into a dialogue of racial reconciliation with Lewis Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME for short). Now, the AME church was created in 1816 when white Methodists started making rules about where in the sanctuary black members were allowed to pray; the black members walked out. Ever since then, our division has been a sore spot for Methodists, and we have tried to heal it. So when Albion First and Lewis Chapel AME started this dialogue, they had a big kickoff event with bishops from each denomination. It began with a potluck meal followed by a joint worship service. All of us college students who were involved with Albion First were invited.
I don’t quite know why I said yes, but I was terrified. First of all, Lewis Chapel was on the wrong side of the tracks and we were going at night. Second, I was afraid that I would have nothing in common with anyone at Lewis Chapel. Along with differences in race and socioeconomic status, came differences in the way we talked, the songs we would sing, and the food we would eat (was I going to be expected to eat pigs’ feet!?!). My companions decided we should all sit with someone from the other church, and I nearly shook as I walked down the stairs into the basement of Lewis Chapel. Hesitantly, I put some food on a plate and sat next to an older man with a cane and some kids. He was their granddad. We greeted one another, asked some guarded questions, and then settled into a conversation. As it turned out, we all liked macaroni and cheese and fried chicken. In the service, I met Bishop Linda Lee, who was the representative bishop from my church and one of the first African-American woman bishops to be elected in the UMC. She led by acknowledging that many people there had feelings of uncertainty as we entered this new journey together. But she applauded our decision to work together to build personal relations and address some of the problems in Albion. Ten years later, the Methodist churches in Albion have become a unified force for good in the community.
Looking back, it’s clear to me that the Holy Spirit was pushing me to go to that first gathering. The Spirit gave me the courage to face my fear of difference between myself and others, and to reach out to them despite by fear. Despite the fact that we were all English speakers there, I was tongue-tied! I didn’t know what to say, but the Spirit helped me figure it out. That’s what I think we mean when we talk about how the Spirit helps us to speak in tongues today— she helps us to talk to people we never thought we could talk to and further the cause of the Gospel together. I don’t know about you, but when I think about being pushed out of my comfort zone, my big fear is that I’m going to mess it up. But knowing that the Holy Spirit is there to help me allows me to let go of my fear of messing up and be able to just be present with others in the here and now.
That is the Good News of the passage. That God calls us out into the world, God calls to love one another, to tell of the wonders of God in our own language. The Holy Spirit doesn’t need us to get it right, the Holy Spirit just needs us to try, to being willing to take a risk, to go to the wrong side of town, to talk to a stranger, to tell our story – and in that risk the Holy Spirit transforms our lives, our community and the world.
This is the truth of Pentecost 2000 years ago and that is the truth of Pentecost today.
That is a truth I have experienced right here at FBC. From the start, in my interviews with the search committee, I learned that this is the type of church that goes to the wrong side of town, that starts a soup kitchen when everyone said it was going to “attract the wrong type of people” This is a church that called a young, single female pastor in the late eighties when that was not the thing to do. We are a church who has called an African American pastor as our interim. We are a church that listens across difference and dares to say, no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, God loves you and welcomes you.
What I learned in my interviews, is that this is a place where the presence of the Spirit is palpable. In those early conversations there was not violent rush of wind or speaking in tongues – I will save that for my Pentecostal sisters – but it was clear to me that this is congregation is a place where the Holy Spirit is at work and present in the world. A place where God’s love is made real.
The calling of the Spirit is a challenging one.
A meaningful one.
A life changing one.
The Spirit continues to call us forth into the world to share and proclaim the wonders of God.
Are you ready?