We’re going to start off with a little vocabulary work this morning. I know, the semester is over at ISU and most of you don’t really want to think about things like word etymology anyway, but it’s like eating spinach, it’s good for you. The word “conspire” means “to breathe together.” Did you know that? Take a deep breath, everybody. Now breathe out. Congratulations: you’ve just launched a conspiracy!
In the word “conspiracy,” you can hear the word “spirit” as well. To conspire is to be filled with the same spirit, enlivened by the same breath. When we gather for worship, the Holy Spirit moves among us, blows around us and in us and through us like the wind, knitting us together as the people of God, through the songs we sing, the prayers we pray, through the breath we breathe.
Jesus’ followers were kind of moping around, wondering what they were going to do next. Jesus had left them and said that he would send the Holy Spirit and they would be filled with power, but they had seen no sign of anything unusual or dramatic, and they certainly were not feeling powerful. And then suddenly, it happened. There was a mighty wind – a powerful gust of the Holy Spirit. In fact, it was more than a gust; it was more like – well, a “Cyclone.” It was so powerful that sparks were flying and flames were aloft above each one of them. And Jesus’ band of followers breathed deeply together, breathed in God’s own breath, God’s Spirit, and things were never the same.
Pentecost was wild and wonderful and chaotic and powerful. The Day of Pentecost is thought of as the birthday of the Church. It is through the Spirit that we conspire together to be the Church. The Holy Spirit came at Pentecost and the Holy Spirit comes to us today, bringing gifts that enable us to truly be the Body of Christ.
Look at what happened at Pentecost. Through the spirit, shy and scared people became bold and gutsy. Prior to this time, there is nothing to make us think that the disciples can actually do it. Based on their track record, we have no good reason to think that this enterprise is going anywhere without Jesus. But the next thing you know, these same people who had been dull and backward and reticent and fearful are boldly preaching the gospel and healing the sick and caring for the downtrodden. On the Day of Pentecost the church, this little group of followers, goes from 120 to 3000 in one day.
The Spirit is still in the business of giving boldness and courage to fearful people. Garrison Keillor is retiring from Prairie Home Companion, with his last show in a little over a month. For 40 years, he has advertised Powdermilk Biscuits – they “give shy persons the strength to do what needs to be done.” I think he may have stolen that tag line from the Holy Spirit. The Spirit gives shy persons the strength to do what needs to be done.
The Spirit is at work bringing people together. The inclusiveness and the diversity of the church at its beginning was striking. Did you hear the list of people who were together there in Jerusalem? People were there from “every nation under heaven,” the text says. Parthians, Medes, Elamites – even the Cretans. Because the list of places and nations sounds odd and archaic, we can lose sight of what a motley collection this was. I mean, how many of us really know the difference between Phrygia and Pamphylia?
We might get a better sense of things if we paraphrased the text in this way:
Each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Iowans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Germans, Indonesians, Liberians, Russians, Chinese, residents of France and Morocco and Iran and Uzbekistan, Ecuadorians and Italians, Laotians and Norwegians and Somalis, Mexicans and Ghanaians and Brazilians - and even Canadians!They all breathed the same Spirit. They all heard the same message. And together, they all became the church. Pentecost was seen as the fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel, “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh…. Your sons and daughters will prophesy. The young will see visions and the old will dream dreams.” Old, young, men, women. Everyone is included.
We don’t always do so well today. The sad truth is that the church can at times be among the worst offenders when it comes to leaving people out. But whenever the Spirit is at work, the church becomes more inclusive, more open, offers a broader welcome, and the grace and love we share becomes more expansive.
The Spirit leads us from confusion to clarity. At Pentecost, all people were able to hear and understand in their own language. It wasn’t simply that the disciples spoke in various languages; it was that everyone could understand. The disciples were speaking in tongues, but the point of it all was understanding – the crowd was “hearing in tongues,” if you will.
Years ago a conscientious homeowner wrote to a manufacturer of cast iron pipes, telling them that he had found that by pouring pure hydrochloric acid down the drain, he immediately opened the grease-clogged pipes. He asked if there was any way in which the acid might be harmful to the pipes.
The plumbing manufacturer wrote back to him. “Thank you for your letter. The consequence of such acid upon ferrous-constructed materials is certain to be deleterious. We therefore strongly urge you to terminate such activity for the welfare of your plumbing.”
He read their letter and responded, thanking them and saying that he was relieved that he was doing the right thing in using the acid.
Another letter came from the manufacturer: “We fear that there may have been some miscommunication in our correspondence. Acid, of that density, applied to cast iron pipe, is certain to have pernicious results. Therefore, please desist from your prevailing practices.”
The homeowner read the letter, then wrote back, thanking the company again for their reassurance. Finally, an exasperated manufacturer sent a telegram: “Don’t use acid. It rusts the hell out of the pipes!”
The only way we can really understand is to hear in our own language. This may be a bigger issue than we realize. Frederick Buechner wrote,
If the language that clothes Christianity is not dead, it is at least, for many, dying; and what is really surprising, I suppose, is that it has lasted as long as it has...There are (religious) words that through centuries of handling and mishandling have tended to become empty banalities that just the mention of them is apt to turn people’s minds off like a switch.I’m not just talking about theological terms - monotheism, providence, grace, the Beatitudes. Increasingly, people are not familiar with Biblical stories, so when we mention the fiery furnace or the burning bush or say someone is as old as Methuselah or has the patience of Job, we may get blank stares. And then when you consider words like Baptist, which for many conjures up images that we would just as soon not have associated with our church, the difficulty of communication becomes clear.
There are a growing number of people who have not grown up in the church, and for them, merely repeating religious jargon is not going to get it. If they are going to hear, we are going to have to speak in a language they understand. The Spirit leads us to communicate so that people may really hear, and the Spirit can take our efforts, as meager as they may be, and allow others to hear the truth of the gospel.
There have been times when I have preached a sermon that seemed to me a real clunker, and afterwards people will share how much the message spoke to them. That is the Spirit. And there are those times when you have tried to communicate with another person and just couldn’t say the right words – but somehow you were understood nevertheless. That’s the Spirit.
And then, the spirit leads us from weakness to power. The disciples had been with Jesus for three years. They had received on the job training. But they had not proven themselves to be particularly outstanding students. Before he left them, Jesus told his followers to wait until the Spirit came. And when it did, the power of God changed everything. Bumbling followers of Jesus were suddenly filled with fire, and despite a lack of education or credentials or demonstrated skill or intelligence, they absolutely changed the world. All because they had simply inhaled on the Day of Pentecost.
Isaac Asimov, the scientist and author, once told a story about a Rabbi Feldman who was having trouble with his congregation. It seemed they could not agree on anything. The president of the congregation said, “Rabbi, this cannot be allowed to continue. There must be a conference, and we must settle all areas of dispute once and for all.” The rabbi agreed.
At the appointed time, the rabbi, the president, and ten elders met in the conference room of the synagogue, sitting about a magnificent mahogany table. One by one the issues were dealt with and it became more and more apparent that the rabbi was a lonely voice in the wilderness. The president of the synagogue said, “Come, Rabbi, enough of this. Let us vote and allow the majority to rule.” He passed out the slips of paper and each man made his mark. The slips were collected and the president said, “You may examine them, Rabbi. It is eleven to one against you. We have the majority.”
Whereupon the rabbi rose to his feet. “So,” he said, “you now think because of the vote that you are right and I am wrong. Well, that is not so. I stand here” -- and he raised his arms impressively-- “and call upon the Holy One of Israel to give us a sign that I am right and you are wrong.”
And as he said this, there came a crack of thunder and a brilliant flash of lightning that struck the mahogany table and cracked it in two. The room was filled with smoke and fumes, and the president and the elders were hurled to the floor. Through the carnage, the rabbi remained standing, untouched, a grim smile on his face. Slowly, the president lifted himself above what was left of the table. His hair was singed, his glasses were hanging from one ear, his clothing was in disarray. Finally he said, “All right then, eleven to two. But we still have the majority.”
Sometimes we can be pretty thick-skulled about it, but regardless of what we may believe, real power belongs to God. At Pentecost, the Spirit brought power to the church, and when we are open to the Spirit, when we breathe in the Spirit, we are a church tuned in to the power of God.
And then, the Spirit gifts us for ministry. Our first reading this morning was from 1 Corinthians chapter 12. It tells us,
“Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”What if we had a church full of expressive and outgoing talkers, but nobody was a good listener? What if we had lots of students but nobody could teach? What if we had lots of thinkers but no doers? What if we had plenty of willing workers but no organizers? Where would we be without folks with empathetic hearts? What would we do without people with musical gifts? Where would we be without members who have wisdom and discernment? Where would we without folks who have deep faith, who have a spiritual sensitivity, who are a healing and caring presence? Where would we be without people who have gifts of hospitality and welcome and community-building? Where would we be without people who have all kinds of practical skills?
The Spirit blesses us with a variety of gifts that we are to use for the common good - for the building up of the church and for the betterment of our world.
One more thing about the Spirit: we don’t control it. Barbara Brown Taylor wrote, “There is some very fine teaching available on the Holy Spirit and I hope none of you is satisfied with it.” What she was getting at is the fact that we don’t have God in a box, we don’t control where and how God may be at work. Do you know the Celtic Christian symbol for the Holy Spirit? It is a wild goose. A wild goose that cannot be controlled or managed or tamed, whose movements and logic cannot be predicted. I once visited a church that had a giant wild goose hanging above the sanctuary, a symbol of the Spirit at work among them. I loved that.
The question for us this morning, perhaps, is not about what happened two thousand years ago. The real question for us has to do with now. Is the Spirit still at work, here, now, today? We believe the answer is Yes.
We have experienced it in moments of inspiration when suddenly we understand. We have experienced it when we have connected with another person in a way we didn’t expect and really heard one other. We have experienced it in this place and with one another when a word spoken by someone else became a word from God for us. We have experienced it in new beginnings, when our spirit unexpectedly lifts and we get something like a second wind. We have experienced it when after an estrangement from someone close to us, it just hits us one day that now is the time, and we pick up the phone and dial the number, and as soon as they say “hello,” the rest is history - your heart opens and the words come out and a reunion is in the works. It’s the Spirit.
In ways large and small, in our personal lives and in our life together, the Spirit is at work. The Spirit leads us—from fear to boldness, from narrowness to inclusion, from confusion to clarity, from weakness to power, and the Spirit gifts us for ministry.
Every time we take a breath, it is God’s moment-by-moment gift to us. We breathe in the Spirit and we can conspire together. And it’s not just a Conspiracy Theory. It is a full-blown, actual conspiracy. Thanks be to God. Amen.
For this sermon I have drawn from Barbara Brown Taylor’s sermon, “The Gospel of the Holy Spirit,” in Home By Another Way.