Original Posting At http://bethquick.blogspot.com/2018/05/sermon-for-pentecost-sunday-year-b.html
Last Sunday, it was a joy to have our District Superintendent Rev. Mike Weeden here with us in worship. He helped us wrap up our series “Strengthen Your Core,” by talking about the last of our five areas of focus, based on the membership vows of The United Methodist Church. We’d talked already about prayers, presence, gifts, and service, and he shared with us about what it means to be a witness. How do we tell the world our story? How do we share our faith in meaningful ways? How do we convey to others how God has impacted our lives through our relationship with Jesus Christ? How will we be witnesses?
As I’ve reflected on his questions, I have been thinking back to my years taking piano lessons throughout junior high and high school. I had a few different teachers over the years, and until I started with my final teacher, I never had to perform in any sort of recital. In fact, I never really had to play for other people at all, except informally, for members of my family. This suited me just fine, because I was petrified of playing piano in front of others. I practiced a lot, but I wasn’t very confident. When I was nervous, my hands would shake, and when my hands shook, it made it quite difficult to actually hit the right notes. But when I started with a new teacher in high school, she was much more demanding all around. She was demanding about my consistent practicing, and she was insistent that I play a solo for NYSSMA – that’s where students in NY go to get graded on a musical performance and some musical skills – and that I perform for a local recital and scholarship competition. I was petrified. But my teacher was such a gifted musician, and though she was strict she was kind, and I admired her skills as a pianist so much. I wanted to be able to play like she played. And so, with fear and trembling, I agreed to everything she wanted me to sign up to do. Perhaps you are expecting that here is where I will share with you my triumph, but alas: I ended my first piece at the scholarship competition on a wrong note, my hands were shaking so badly! But I survived. And having conquered that most terrifying event, I went on to be able to play in other settings in a more relaxed way. I never attained the skill of my teacher, but I did become able to share my playing with others. And music has so much power when we share it, doesn’t it? I’m so thankful for my teacher pushing me to move beyond my comfort zone, even though I struggled still. We practice, practice, practice, always! But eventually, we have to wonder: What are we practicing for? Will we ever put our practicing to use?
In just over a month, I will celebrate 15 years of ministry, as I hit the anniversary of my very first day when I officially became “Pastor Beth.” I still remember stepping into St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Oneida on my very first day. The day before, I hadn’t been a pastor, not yet. Now, I had gone through a lot of training to get where I was. I had been to college, and years of seminary. I had spent time working as a chaplain, and time interning at churches. I had done preaching and visiting, and was cultivating my skills. I was well-equipped, I thought, to be a pastor. But that day, July 1st, 2003, I was suddenly “Pastor Beth.” I was a bit petrified, frankly. I felt a little bit in over my head. And to be clear: I still had a lot to learn. I look back with such love in my heart for the people of St. Paul’s, because they were so nurturing and supportive as I figured out what it meant for real to be a pastor, and when I made mistakes, they loved me anyway. But even as I continued to learn – and still continue to learn – if I just stayed in school, and kept training, and kept practicing at being a pastor until I felt 100% ready for all that ministry would bring my way: Well, I’d still be a student, and not a pastor at all.
What are we practicing for? What are we training for? When do we put all of our learning and growing to use? When we ask these questions in context of faith, I think the day of Pentecost is a day of answers and action. Remember, last week Mike shared with us a text from Acts 1. The resurrected Jesus was speaking to the disciples for the last time in person, in the flesh, before returning to heaven. The disciples had been just that – disciples, which means students – for three years, traveling with Jesus and learning from him, and practicing, occasionally, on their own, healing and preaching and sharing the news about God’s reign on earth. But now, Jesus told them that he was returning to God and they would be the witnesses to God’s work in the world. They would be the messengers of Jesus. They would be the ones doing what Jesus had been doing, strengthened by the power of the Holy Spirit. The same Holy Spirit that descended on Jesus at his baptism, that led him into the wilderness, and that filled him up as he preached for the first time: this same Spirit was now about to fill the disciples so that they could be in ministry to all the world.
And that’s exactly what we see happen on Pentecost, in our reading from Acts. The disciples are gathered together, ready to celebrate Pentecost, a festival celebrating both harvest, and the giving of the Torah, the law, to the people of Israel. It’s a festival that takes place 50 days after the Passover. So not only are the disciples gathered, but many others are in Jerusalem to celebrate the festival too. And suddenly, we read, a sound comes from the heavens, the sound of a mighty rushing wind, and it fills the house where the disciples are. Something like flames, like tongues of fire, seems to rest on each of them, and they are filled with the Holy Spirit. The Spirit, somehow, gives them words to speak in many languages so that the people gathered from so many places will understand what they’re saying. People are rightly astonished by what they hear from the disciples, and some even wonder if they’re drunk. But Peter, ready to be a witness, just as Jesus has called him to be, stands and addresses the crowd. Using the words of the prophet Joel, Peter insists that what the crowds are seeing is a fulfillment of what Joel’s wrote about: God’s Spirit is poured on all flesh, sons and daughters prophesy, young and old along share visions and dreams, and even the boundaries and limits created by humans, like the institution of slavery, cannot bind up the Spirit – slaves will be Spirit-filled too, will be prophets too. And everyone who calls on God’s name will be saved.
Peter, who seemed sometimes to be a hopeless disciple, one moment saying something brilliant that made it seem like he knew who Jesus was, and the next moment causing Jesus to say to him, “Get behind me, Satan”; Peter, who was brave enough to step out on to the water with Jesus, and afraid enough to quickly sink; Peter, who Jesus said would be the rock of the church, but who also denied even knowing Jesus – Peter is not just practicing at following Jesus anymore. He’s standing up. He’s sharing his faith. He’s boldly claiming the work of Jesus as his own. Filled with God’s Spirit to strengthen him, encourage him, inspire him, he’s making God’s story his story, and sharing it in a way of his own. The other disciples begin to do likewise. And suddenly, even though Jesus is no longer there in the flesh, the message of Jesus begins to get carried to the world.
What about you? How will you make this story your story? How will you make God’s story, the story of Jesus, Jesus’ work in the world, into something that has meaning for you? How will you share your story so that others might make Jesus’ story their own too? We’re celebrating something else here today too. The Service of Confirmation is a spiritual milestone that has been celebrated in conjunction with Pentecost over the years because of the new baptisms that take place just after our text for today in Acts. It’s a day of making a commitment to follow Jesus. But I think it is especially appropriate because both Pentecost and Confirmation are stories about taking what has been taught to you by someone else, and making it your own. At Pentecost, the disciples finally took everything Jesus had taught them, all the encouragement he’d given them, and, empowered by the Holy Spirit, stepped out in front of the crowds to make a bold statement of faith, putting it all on the line. Finally, they had to stop standing behind Jesus, relying on him to answer their questions and tell them what to do, and start acting as his messengers in the world.
Confirmation is a similar occasion. Ayse, Peyton, Shea, and Taylor, who will stand before you today, were instilled with the values of faith and the church. Their parents and other teachers and family members and guides in their life have led them and shaped their faith, guiding them to learn about God’s grace and walking with Jesus. But Confirmation is a celebration that these young women are choosing to confirm for their own what they have been taught already. From here on out, they can continue to be guided and helped by their elders, of course: but we’re saying together, them, and us, that their faith journey is their responsibility. They stop standing behind adults to answer for them, and start acting as disciples in their own right, even leaders and messengers of God in this congregation, in our world.
They’ve been through a lot of lesson this year, our confirmands. They certainly don’t know everything about this congregation, or Christianity, or Methodism. Although, until they forget it, they might know a little more than some of you do! But the point is, if we waited to give them all the rights and responsibilities of membership and leadership in the church until they knew everything and were totally ready and prepared – well, then, I’d bet we’d never celebrate confirmation again. They won’t stop learning just because they’re confirmed. But they lay claim now to having their voice in all that we do here, because they’re laying claim to their own faith.
What happened on Pentecost is both hard to explain and easy to understand. The disciples, even though they weren’t really ready, became the church. Since Jesus had returned to God, they became the body of Christ in the world. They weren’t ready. They needed to know more. They still didn’t have all the answers. It isn’t long before they get in fights with each other and stray from what Jesus might have done. But they take the plunge. They take the leap of faith. They can do it, because once they feel the Spirit moving, they know that Jesus is really always with them. They aren’t alone. When they step out on faith, God is with them.
What will you do? God is with you. The Spirit is yours, just as Jesus promised. So whatever it is you are waiting for to be ready to start following God, really – remind yourself that we’re never ready for everything we’ll face. But we can be ready to put our trust in God, who has never failed us yet. Let’s tell the story. God’s story. The story of Jesus. Our story. We’re not just practicing. We’re living it. Amen.