Last week was the final episode of The Late Show with David Letterman, and like many TV viewers I watched with curiosity to see what he would do with his final Top Ten list. On the TV show the Top Ten list comes with all sorts of fanfare and anticipation. There's this big dramatic build up with an animated introduction. Dave waves his cards around triumphantly, "I have here in my hand tonight's Top Ten list!" Even if you're not really a late night person you can usually stay awake for the mock excitement of the Top Ten list.
The story of Pentecost is dramatic story, a story of faith for the whole church. In fact, we call it the birth of the church, and birth stories in some way, shape, or form are always dramatic stories. But the best part about it isn't just what happened that day. Just like the best part about our own individual faith and birth stories, Pentecost has lasting meaning not because of the one thing that happened on that one day, but because of the series of events that happened afterward -- the long series of individuals and communities of believers who noticed the presence of God's spirit, heard her calling, and chose in faith to follow where she led.
So, as I watched the final episode of The Late Show on Wednesday night, I thought it might be fun today to think of some of these instances, some of these events and movements that have carried the Pentecost spirit out of the upper room in Jerusalem and into the lives and churches of Jesus's followers in the two millennia since.
This morning, I bring to you a Top Ten list. It certainly isn't exhaustive, but it's a start.
10. Giving everything away.
Gulp. Yep, we're going to start right here with a big one. After the Spirit has blown through the room where the disciples have gathered, after they have received the gift to speak in tongues that they have never known, after they have spoken the good news to those who are in Jerusalem, after more than 3,000 people are baptized into the faith, the members of this new community of faith sold all their individual possessions in order to live for the good of the group over the desires of the individual. In response to the Spirit who drew them together in common faith, they lived their lives in common dependence on one another.
And we're off to a challenging start.
9. Entertaining murderers
Wow. This is not sounding easy. Many of us have heard of the conversion of Saul to Paul, Paul one of the most prolific early Christian writers, the author of much of our New Testament and the first theology of the church. In his days as Saul, he as a murderous persecutor of Christians until he had a conversation experience on the road to Damascus. An important part of his conversion, though is the rarely mentioned Ananias - a faithful follower of the Way of Jesus who was tapped by the Spirit to welcome this notorious man into his house to nurture his newborn faith. Paul gets a lot of the press, but Ananias was called to set aside his fear, his concern for safety and security, his own prejudice against this proven enemy to welcome him into his home and faith.
And one more from the New Testament
8. Going to jail
This happens to Paul and Silas when the message they preached challenged the comfort of the establishment, but it also refers to the women and men who care for them while they were in jail. It took a whole crowd of brothers and sisters in faith to support those who were in jail - praying for them, feeding them, clothing them, keeping their spirits up. Ministry looks like a lot of different things, and going to unexpected places to care for unexpected people is no small job.
Not just any book, but the earliest surviving book in English written by a woman. It’s called Revelations of Divine Love and the author was Julian of Norwich. Born in about 1342, Julian attached herself to a church as an anchoress, a monastic life of sorts. Living in the midst of the misery of Black Plague and the dark theology of the church that focused on God’s punishment through disease and death, Julian wrote of an entirely different way of thinking about God. She focused on God’s mercy, suggesting that there is no wrath in God, that sin is the result of ignorance and naiveté, not inherent evil in human beings, and that God in Christ is both father and mother. Devoting her life to prayer and listening to the spirit, Julian offered and still offers a new word in the landscape of faith, speaking an orthodox, faithful even if unpopular and lesser-known word of comfort.
6. Learned Greek
Many of people know that one of the hinges in the Protestant Reformation was the invention of the movable type printing press. Johannes Gutenberg’s first commercially viable printing press made books faster, easier, and cheaper to produce, meaning Bibles and other religious materials could get into the hands of common people at a greater pace. However, a book wasn’t much good if one couldn’t read what was in it, and likewise a Bible was even better if one could read it in the original language - - something that was inaccessible to the masses for 1500 years. Desiderius Erasmus, a sixteenth century Catholic priest, broke the mold however, when he learned Greek in order to read ancient theology and the New Testament in the original Greek. In doing so, he uncovered a centuries old translation mistakes that had shaped an entire practice of the Roman church. The cry of John the Baptist that had been read as “Do penance!” supporting the medieval Catholic system of confession and penance, really meant “Repent!” - - turn back, return to God. With that, a single correction, tradition continued to be transformed.
A simple prayer: "Lord, even as we enjoy the Super Bowl football game, help us be mindful of those who are without a bowl of soup to eat" is inspiring a youth-led movement to help hungry and hurting people around the world.
This prayer, delivered by Brad Smith, then a seminary intern serving at Spring Valley Presbyterian Church in Columbia, SC, gave birth to an idea. Why not use Super Bowl weekend, a time when people come together for football and fun, to also unify the nation for a higher good: collecting dollars and canned food for the needy? Youth could collect donations at their schools and churches in soup pots, and then send every dollar DIRECTLY to a local charity of THEIR choice.
The senior high youth of Spring Valley Presbyterian liked the idea so much they decided to invite other area churches to join the team. Twenty-two Columbia churches participated that first year, reporting their results so a total could be determined, and then sending all $5,700 they had raised to area non-profits.
That was 1990. Since then, ordinary young people have generated an extraordinary more than $100 million for soup kitchens, food banks and other charities in communities across the country. In addition, hundreds of thousands of youth have experienced for themselves the joy and satisfaction of giving and serving, inspiring people of all ages to follow their generous example.
4. Threaten to remove clothes
Did that get your attention? I imagine so. The story I am referring to now is one that is much more recent. It took place in 2003 in West Africa. A civil war in Liberia was killing men and boys who were conscripted into military service. Women were living in abject poverty and their lives and security were threatened daily due to lawlessness. There was no peace in any sense of the world. One night Leymah Gbowee, a peace activist awoke from a dream where she says God had told her, "Gather the women and pray for peace!" Some friends helped her to understand that the dream was not meant for others, as Gbowee thought; instead, she realized that it was a necessary for her to act upon it herself. Leading a movement to end the war led her and a large following of women to stage a sit in at peace talks in Ghana, Angry about the lack of productivity of the talks and the way they were proceeding the women threatened to remove their shirts if peace was not made and their concerns were not addressed. The women kept vigil at the talk until three weeks later when the Accra Comprehensive Peace Agreement was at least signed. What these women of faith accomplished was the beginning of the end of violence.
3. Cancel Church
A few years ago one of the churches in our presbytery embarked on an experiment that has changed their life together. It has changed how they are church in the world. They cancelled worship. After several months of conversation about what they did and who they are and what God is calling them to be they realized that what their congregation needed was Sabbath – rest, prayer, intentionality – as much as their worship as a gathered community. Lake Nokomis Presbyterian Church now gathers for community worship two Sundays a month. The other two Sundays a month the people of God in that congregation worship through listening to what the Spirit is calling them to do in their own lives - - they go for walks, or sleep in. They have coffee with friends or enjoy the paper. They participate in their children’s activities or go for a bike ride. Understanding that God has blessed all of life, committing themselves to be set apart from the rat race of life in the 21st century, even the rat race of what it takes to put on worship, the saints at Lake Nokomis heard the Spirit calling them to rest and be present, and it is around that calling that they have built their life together.
Margaret Kelly, a Lutheran pastor in St. Paul, spent her early working years as both a French chef and social worker, and through her work became intimately aware of the crisis of food insecurity among people who are homeless and near-homeless. Wanting to both help with their immediate need of food to eat and the longer term need of skills and a feeling of belonging, she started Shobi’s Table - - a food truck ministry in St. Paul. Shobi’s Table is a church on wheels that drives to where people are, offering free food and prayer to the poor, homeless and near-homeless. The people helping to serve the meals are from the community that the truck is serving. It’s not a traditional church or maybe what we would call a “regular” ministry, but it is how one young woman heard the Spirit calling and followed.
And we are finally to the number 1 spot. But I don’t have a #1. Instead I want everybody to think about our own #1. The Spirit is still moving. We live in this Pentecost world where every time the wind blows it could very well be God nudging, God inviting, God chasing, God urging us to be a part of the work of the Spirit in the world. Every one of us is invited into God’s mission in the world through the simple gifts, the common interests, these little impulses we have to love and serve and pray. Our own desire to work for good in the world, when we care for creation in our own garden, when we volunteer at a school, when we reach out to a neighbor or a stranger, when we assist other charities that serve in our community or around the world can all be a way we follow God's Spirit in the world. So I’m leaving the #1 spot open and inviting each of us to listen now for the Spirit’s calling, listen now for how we might follow as individuals and as a church.
Dan Wolpert who will be preaching here most of the summer is a student and a practitioner of spiritual practices. Dan says that all of the layers of things we try to teach ourselves about prayer, whether it's trying to each ourselves to write our prayers or any number of other prayer practices, are all about trying to teach us to listen. And sabbath is designated, intentional, set apart time for listening. As Memorial Day moves us toward summer, and summer in this church moves us toward a time of sabbatical for me from this part of my work, but also for this congregation, I invite us into a time of listening. How can we, people of faith, hear the Spirit's call and answer it in our life together?