June 8, 2014 Numbers 11:24-30, John 7:37-39, 20:19-30
The wind and sails are your engine. That phrase from Tuesday’s newspaper really caught my attention as I was thinking about Pentecost. Originally Pentecost was a sort of spring harvest festival. It came fifty days after Passover, about this time of year. And in what is today Israel the first spring crops were being harvested. There was a festival in Jerusalem every year and people came from all over the known world to celebrate the 50 day festival.
For Christians this day took on a very special meaning. The year that Jesus was crucified the Holy Spirit blew into a dozen of Jesus’ inner circle disciples and these ordinary fishermen from Galilee were able to speak in languages that they not only did not know—they probably had never even heard these languages spoken. People thought they were drunk. But they told about the death and resurrection of Jesus and people from all over the known world heard about the resurrection. Some Christians say it was the start of the Christian church. For some Christians Pentecost is a bigger, more important holiday than Easter.
You were invited to wear red today because when the Holy Spirit appeared on Pentecost it looked like it was tongues of fire entering Jesus’ nearest followers. Red is a color of fire. Last Sunday evening I was in Weyaweaga for the ordination of Rose McCurdy. Rose is a hospice chaplain serving up and down the Fox Valley. It was really neat to see so many people wearing red. I sometimes joke that I wish I could wear my red stoles more often, but only get to pull them out once a year, but that’s not really true. Whenever we ordain or install ruling elders or deacons, red is the appropriate color, because red reminds us of the tongues of fire that gave the disciples the miraculous ability to speak in strange languages.
This year I cannot think about fire and wind without imagining wildfires that have been burning in the western United States. It looks like this summer will be an especially bad one for the destructive power that fire and wind have when they’re combined.
But that’s how it is with a lot of things: when we control them, and they are in moderation, they’re fine, safe and beneficial. But too much of anything can be catastrophic. At the end of this month we will celebrate the sacrament of baptism when we experience water’s power to cleanse even as we’re reminded of its power to destroy.
With this background in mind, let’s take a look at the Old Testament lesson. It appears that Moses has a “surplus” of the Spirit—perhaps God has given him too much. So God parcels out some of the Spirit to 70 elders. And they began to prophesy. Let’s take a break here. Because as we talked about this passage around the lunch table last month we noticed a couple things. First, all of these elders began to prophesy, but it is not recorded anywhere the content of their prophecy. I imagined 70 stout, trusted, responsible leaders out at camp in the wilderness suddenly wandering around speaking incoherently. To no one. The way I read this it’s only Moses and the 70, not only do we not know what they are saying, there’s no one listening to their words anyway! I used to see and hear people like this on the subway in New York—people speaking words from God and no one’s even paying attention.
We had a number of different understandings of what prophesy is. Some think of it as predicting the future; others that it is speaking God’s words; still others thought of the prophets that appear later in the Old Testament as figures who warned of God’s coming judgment. Someone said “Prophecy provides direction.” Another found a note in her Bible that said the presence of the presence of the Spirit gives the ability to lead.
Whatever took place with Moses and the 70, it caused confusion, maybe division. Joshua, Moses’ most trusted assistant is alarmed that two additional people received the gift of the Spirit and appeared to be freestyle prophets. Joshua was concerned that maybe things were getting out of control. Moses seemed to respond that things should get even more out of control than they already were! That’s the thing about the Holy Spirit—no one controls it. It’s unpredictable and invisible. It takes courage to follow where it leads.
That’s why I found that quote about learning to sail in the newspaper so timely. Of course a sail boat needs the power of the wind to go anywhere, but the wind cannot be harnessed without a sail. And it takes a long time and lots of practice to learn how to use the wind to lead a ship. If we imagine that the wind, the energy, the drive, the power, the force comes from God—and we should—we must also recognize that God needs sails and sailors to get the ship to move at all.
We’ve got two odd passages in John’s gospel. In the first one Jesus is speaking at the Jewish festival Succoth, an autumn harvest festival, foretelling the renewing life of living water which will come to everyone. But not yet. Now fast forward to the day of the resurrection, the first Easter. And here’s another occasion where we see the seed of anti-Semitism getting replanted. It says the disciples were meeting in a locked house because of fear of the Jews. Not quite. The disciples themselves were Jews. They feared the Jewish leaders, the ones who had arranged for Christ to be crucified. While they were behind locked doors and hiding, Jesus appeared to them. He shows them his wounds—it’s really Jesus! He gives them his peace and sends them as God has sent Him. He gives them the power to forgive the sins of others—and also the power to withhold forgiveness. Whoa. Oneweeklater
They’re again, or maybe still, behind locked doors. This time Thomas is with them. He hadn’t been with them the week before and he did not say, “I doubt what you’re saying.” He said, “I need to see this myself.” We Thomases are a little sensitive about the “Doubter” label. And Jesus instructs Thomas to touch his wounds and Thomas says, “My Lord and my God.” The important part is not that Thomas was true to his word and believed what the disciples had told him when he saw it with his own eyes. Here’s the important part, here’s the hand reaching up from the text and pulling us all into the story: Jesus said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Who might that be? Well. Everyone! Faith is hard. Faith is not certainty. Faith is trust in something that can never be fully, completely described. Faith is wanting to follow Christ, but not seeing much of a road map.
At my last church the choir would sing a very short piece immediately before the lessons were read. It was based on Psalm 119 and it went “thy word is a lamp unto my feet; thy word is a light unto my path.” Isn’t that good image? Here we have a prayer for illumination; we pray that God’s light will shine through the reading of the Bible. Well someone pointed out to me that a lamp didn’t give much light, just a little halo of light at your feet so you could spot a root or stone in the trail just ahead. The lamp or light that the psalmist writes about isn’t all that bright. It’s not a halogen headlight that pierces the fog and lets your drive 90 miles an hour in all kinds of weather. The light from the Bible just is enough for the next step. The faithful step. The next faith-filled step. Sometimes we sing a hymn that conveys the same message, “We walk by faith and not by sight…” That’s how faith is. We get nudges, glimpses. And we get moments when we feel the Spirit and know precisely how to turn the sails. But we’re never, never in control of it.
Last week there was big news about new pollution standards for electrical generating plants in the United States. We need to reduce carbon emissions dramatically and burning coal to make electricity is one of the greatest sources of carbon in the atmosphere. We’re looking at a variety of ways to generate electricity without depending on burning carbon. The most promising new source for electricity, in my opinion, is wind power. Four years ago when my family visited Denmark I was amazed that they get about 30% of their electricity from the wind. It seemed that one could not turn around in a circle without seeing a windmill. They’re quiet, majestic, peaceful and powerful. We call this kind of energy “renewable,” that is, energy is not exhausted or used up. You can only burn coal once, but a windmill can generate electricity indefinitely. All it takes is the wind. The symbol of the Holy Spirit. Do you ever think about the Holy Spirit as being the renewing energy for the church? How would the Good News of Christ been communicated if the Holy Spirit hadn’t entered people like Thomas and Peter and James and John? Without those disciples to catch and harness the Spirit we would have gone nowhere. So recognize and feel the strength and energizing power of the Holy Spirit. Be ready to turn your sails into the wind when you feel its power. Amen.