Texts: Numbers 11:24-30, Acts 2:1-21
Good Morning and Happy Birthday! Today we celebrate the day the church was born by the power of the Holy Spirit. Today we remember and celebrate the day when God’s power was unleashed through the church.
Thousands of people were in Jerusalem celebrating Pentecost, which commemorated God giving the law to Moses at Mt. Sinai. On that day, the disciples were gathered together in a house when suddenly, it happened. Wind and fire swept through the disciples. Everybody was amazed and astonished and there was an overwhelming feeling of power and energy. There were people in Jerusalem from all over the Mediterranean world, folks who spoke many various languages, and the thing was, everybody understood. Everybody heard the disciples in their own language. People were both amazed and perplexed by it all.
Some were pretty skeptical and thought that clearly, alcohol had to be involved, that this must have been some kind of massive, out of control Veishea party.
A huge crowd gathered around Peter and he spoke. “These people are not drunk, as some of you have suggested,” he said. “For goodness sakes, it’s only 9 o’clock in the morning. No, this is the work of God. This is what the prophet Joel prophesied long ago. God has given us the Holy Spirit.”
It was probably the most successful sermon ever. Three thousand believed and were baptized, and just like that – boom – the church was born. And today is the church’s birthday.
We have balloons here this morning, but if we really took this seriously we would all have noise makers and party hats and an awesome band playing. We would have a huge party.
Theologically speaking, after Christmas and Easter, Pentecost is the most important day in the Church year. But somehow it doesn’t feel like it.
Charley Reeb told about being invited to a birthday party. It was for one of the kids in a church he served as pastor. It was a great party: they had invited a bunch of kids and they had one of those inflatable jumpy-bouncy houses out in the yard. There was a clown making balloon animals and kids running around, excited, all over the place.
Charley said that he was taking all of this in, enjoying it, thinking about birthdays when he was a kid, when he struck up a conversation with an older guy who turned out to be the birthday boy’s uncle. He didn’t look too excited to be there. He said something about it being too noisy, the kids being too loud, too exuberant. Then he said, “It’s funny. When you are young, you get excited about your birthday, about life and all that is ahead of you. But as you get older, there seems to be less to get excited about. And when your birthday comes, it’s just a reminder of how old you are. People keep saying ‘Happy Birthday’ to you, but there’s really nothing happy about it.”
Well, maybe you have been there. Maybe you have felt like the birthday boy’s uncle. I confess there are those times when I don’t have the enthusiasm or excitement I may have had at one time.
The story of the uncle at the birthday party maybe sheds some light on our attitude toward Pentecost. We can read the account of the disciples on the day of Pentecost and think of it as sort of a noisy party from the past. We know it is part of our history, and sure, we are all for the Holy Spirit. But we would just as soon eat our cake and go home and take a nap. There may have been a time for all that enthusiasm, for wind and fire, for shouting and carrying on, but now we are more mature, more refined, more civilized if you will, and we don’t want to get too carried away.
It’s that way with every movement, with every institution. We start out with fire and enthusiasm, but at some point the movement needs structure and organization – you can’t just run on fire and energy and pure spirit all the time. So, you develop routines and traditions and by-laws in order to make the whole enterprise work. We have boards and committees and proper channels. We have bills to pay. We don’t just do whatever we feel like on the spur of the moment. The choir rehearses. We print an order of service. We order curriculum. We publish a newsletter. We set schedules; communion is the first Sunday of each month. I mean, you can’t just fly by the seat of your pants, you have to plan ahead.
It started with fire and wind, but in time the church developed a mission enterprise, sending missionaries far and wide and building clinics and hospitals and children’s homes and camps and colleges and seminaries and settling refugees and responding to human need. We built structures and organizations, and hired staff and chose boards of directors to run all of our mission efforts. We started a publishing house. We filed as a non-profit organization. We offered a retirement plan.
All of this is good and necessary. Times were different, to be sure, but there was an organization, a structure present even in the early church. Jesus had the 12, and the church had no more than got started when they appointed deacons to meet needs in the congregation. Some of the earliest Christian writings included rules for church life; we find some of that in the New Testament.
There is nothing wrong with structure. I am very much an organizational person – involved in the denomination, participating in ecumenical ministerial groups. I love history and tradition. I’m not knocking any of that.
But you know, it is possible to focus so much on our traditions and our institutions and on the organizations we have built to further the work of the ministry that we kind of forget about that Spirit that started it all in the first place. We can be like that uncle at the birthday party, more worried about propriety and doing things decently and in order than we are in catching the fire of the Spirit and joining in the new thing God may be doing even now.
It is interesting that in his sermon at Pentecost, Peter quotes from the prophet Joel. And part of what Joel speaks of is dreams. Visions. And this is what he says: God will pour out the Spirit on all flesh. Kids will dream. Older folks will dream. Women will have visions. Men will have visions. Those on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder – they will have dreams. God will give dreams and visions to all of us.
The Spirit has come and God’s promise is that the Spirit will inspire dreams and visions. But I’m afraid that a lot of us shy away from dreaming.
There are reasons for this, of course. For one thing, we may think of dreams as being something for the young. Ask a little kid what they want to be when they grow up, and the sky is the limit. Literally – they may want to be an astronaut. Or a movie star or a ballerina or a baseball player. Or the president. Kids can have really big dreams.
And not just for themselves. Children can dream of a better world.
Blare Gooch is a 13-year old boy in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Two days after the devastating January 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Blare saw a little boy crying in a pile of rubble on a newscast. The story brought him to tears. The next day, still thinking about what he’d seen, Blare remembered the teddy bear that always comforted him. “Then I thought, ‘We could start a drive for Haiti,’” said Blare. At school, his teachers let him announce his plan over the PA system and ask other kids to donate bears. Soon a local TV and radio station got wind, and, via Facebook, other schools joined in. The result is that Blare’s Bears for Haiti gave 25,000 teddy bears to Haiti and about 22,000 more to nonprofits. This year Blare’s group will collect toys and school supplies, too. Blare said, “It doesn’t really matter how small or old you are,” he said. “If you’re young and think you can’t make a big difference in the world, well, you actually can.”
In 2008, 9-year-old Katie Stagliano brought a tiny cabbage seedling home as part of a school program. She planted and cared for the cabbage and it grew to 40 pounds. Katie donated her cabbage to a soup kitchen where it helped to feed more than 275 people. Moved by the experience of seeing how many people could benefit from the donation of fresh produce to soup kitchens, Katie decided to start vegetable gardens and donate the harvest to help feed people in need. Today, Katie’s Krops has many volunteers and donates thousands of pounds of fresh produce from numerous gardens to organizations that help people in need. Katie is now a 12-year-old student in Summerville, South Carolina.
Whether their dreams make the national news like these kids, children are able to dream. Children can dream big. But as we get older, our dreams can become a lot smaller. And at some point we may stop dreaming altogether.
We may have the idea that dreaming is not something that responsible adults should do. But remember, Peter quotes Joel to say that everyone will see visions, everyone will prophesy. He makes it a point to include old men among those who will dream.
Authors Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner write that one of the keys to innovation is to be willing to think like a child and relearn how to question assumptions.
Who says the church can’t grow? Why do we assume certain people won’t be interested in church? Where did we get the idea that we don’t have much to offer to the community? Who says we can’t try something completely new? There are a lot of those things that “everyone knows” that need to be questioned by some active dreaming. Maybe the Spirit will help us see possibilities we hadn’t seen before.
I think too that some people are hesitant to dream because they are afraid that dreams may be divisive. What if your dream is different from mine? How would we decide which dream is better? What if somebody doesn’t like my dream? Maybe it would be easier to just leave everything exactly as it is instead of dreaming and risking potentially divisive change.
Paul reminds us that there is always diversity and difference in the body of Christ. There are a variety of gifts, a variety of dreams, but one Spirit.
A whole boatload of dreams, a vast array of possibilities, could be just what we need. Paul says we need to consider our visions in relation to common good. Each member of the body -- and each member’s dream -- has a role to play.
It may be helpful for us to remember that the Spirit did not come to make things easy, but to set hearts on fire. If there is some struggle along the way as we discern between gifts and dreams of the Spirit, that is OK – we just need to remember that we are all members of one Body.
Our Old Testament reading is a rather obscure passage in the book of Numbers. Moses has appointed seventy elders, who are given the Spirit in order to prophesy to the people. But two men in the camp, Eldad and Medad, also received the Spirit and continued to prophesy even after the official elders no longer did. A young man ran and reported this to Moses. There was unauthorized prophesying going on! Joshua hears this and says, “Moses, you have to stop them!” But Moses said, “I wish everybody had the Spirit like that.”
It is remarkable that in that time of unquestioned, top-down leadership, we would have this story reinforcing the idea that God’s Spirit is available to all, even to those who are not the official, designated leaders. If we all joined in on some dreaming in the Spirit, that would be more than OK. It might be just what we need.
And then we may shy away from dreaming because we are afraid it will just leave us disappointed. Dreaming feels like getting our hopes up, and we have had our hopes crushed before.
I suppose that dreaming carries with it that risk. Maybe that is one of the reasons Jesus so often said, “Do not fear.” He wants to breathe upon us the same Holy Spirit he gave his first disciples and set us loose to share the good news, meet human need, work for the welfare of our community, provide strength to the weak and courage to the fearful, and share with all the dream and vision of Christian community. Is it possible that we might fail? Of course. We may fail spectacularly. But never failing means we are never attempting anything. And God seems to have ways of bring surprising victories from what appear to be complete failures.
Around 15 years ago, some of us brainstormed about building on our ministry with children. It was hard, because we basically had 4 kids in the church. But we decided to try a children’s music camp. We weren’t exactly sure what we were getting into, but we had this idea, this dream, if you will. I thought that if 15 kids showed up and nobody got hurt, it would be a big success - we would have tried something new and had a success. Lo and behold, we had a fabulous music camp, and 15 years later, it is still going strong. We have continued to offer a wonderful week of learning and fun and music that has been a real ministry both to our children and to the community.
Two years ago, we went through what was called a visioning process. As part of the process, we shared our hopes and dreams for the church. We have undertaken some new things as a result of that process and we continue to live into some of those dreams. But dreaming is not just something we do every once in a while as part of a church program. Being open to God’s vision is an ongoing thing. Being open to the leading of the Spirit is simply part of being a follower of Jesus.
We need to dream new dreams and see new visions, and it is the Spirit which not only helps us dream dreams and see visions, but also helps bring these visions to reality.
I think back to that uncle at the birthday party. When it comes to dreaming, instead of sitting on the sidelines, instead of grumbling about those loud, enthusiastic kids, what if we joined right in? What if we jumped in the bouncy house and played with balloon animals and got icing on our faces? And what if we went ahead and dreamed with wild abandon? What if we were open to the new possibilities that the Spirit may have for us?
Happy Birthday, and dream on. Amen.