Sunday, May 24, 2015

This Week's Sermon: "Nine-in-the-Morning Holiness"

Acts 2:1-15

When Pentecost Day arrived, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound from heaven like the howling of a fierce wind filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 They saw what seemed to be individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them. 4 They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak.

5 There were pious Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 When they heard this sound, a crowd gathered. They were mystified because everyone heard them speaking in their native languages. 7 They were surprised and amazed, saying, “Look, aren’t all the people who are speaking Galileans, every one of them? 8 How then can each of us hear them speaking in our native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; as well as residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the regions of Libya bordering Cyrene; and visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism), 11 Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the mighty works of God in our own languages!”

12 They were all surprised and bewildered. Some asked each other, “What does this mean?” 13 Others jeered at them, saying, “They’re full of new wine!” 14 Peter stood with the other eleven apostles. He raised his voice and declared, “Judeans and everyone living in Jerusalem! Know this! Listen carefully to my words! 15 These people aren’t drunk, as you suspect; after all, it’s only nine o’clock in the morning!  (Common English Bible)

Pentecost 2015

I love Waffle House.  Love, love, love it.  Wish we had them here in the great Pacific Northwest, but we don’t, so I have to make do with partaking of their great greasy spoon goodness whenever we are in Kansas City visiting my family, or in North Carolina visiting C’s.

I love the waffles, first and foremost.  Waffles have always been my favorite food.

But I also love the hash browns.  I love that you can get them in any size—you’d be amazed how hash browns usually come as a one-size-fits-all side in most diners.  And I love Waffle House’s unique vocabulary for them—smothered, capped, covered, there are all sorts of modifications you can make to them.  It really is another language that you learn to get your hash browns order just so.

But sometimes, the language in Waffle House is universal, like for a five-year-old boy in Alabama, Josiah Duncan.  He saw a homeless man outside of the Waffle House his mother was taking him to, and, well, I’ll let WSFA 12 news—and Josiah’s mother, Ava Faulk—take it from here:

Josiah…started peppering his mom with questions.

“He’s homeless,” the little boy’s mother explained.  “What does that mean?” he responded.  “And I said, “Well, that means he doesn’t have a home,”” Mom continued.  (Josiah’s questions continued): Where is his house?  Where is his family?  Where does he keep his groceries?”…Josiah felt the urge to do something.  He insisted on his mom buying the stranger a good meal.  She listened, and then obliged.

“He came in and sat down, and nobody really waited on him,” (she) explained.  “So Josiah jumped up and asked him if he needed a menu because you can’t order without one.”

The man insisted on a cheap hamburger to start, but he was assured he could have anything he wanted.  He got the works.

“Can I have bacon?” Faulk remembers him asking, “And I told him get as much bacon as you want.”

Before the man could take the first bite, Josiah insisted on doing something.

“I wanted to say the blessing with him,” Josiah said.

And Josiah did, publicly, with 11 other customers watching, Josiah sang the blessing as loud as his little voice could muster.

“The man cried.  I cried.  Everybody cried,” Faulk admitted.

In a restaurant where there is another language you learn to be able to order exactly what you want—sort of like in, say, In-N-Out, or McMenamin’s—a group of people re-learned the language of genuine compassion…when a homeless man wouldn’t even be given service because of how he looked, that is a sort of language that we are unfortunately taught, a language of stinginess and judgment, but fortunately, one that can be removed, surgically and precisely, with the grace of a boy.

The book of Acts of the Apostles is the second of a two-volume set composed by Luke—the first volume being, of course, the Gospel that bears his name.  Because they are separated in the Bible by John’s Gospel, it is easy to think that this was Luke’s follow-up sequel to the immense popularity of his debut work.  You know, like his Gospel is Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and Acts is Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.  Or his Gospel is the original Star Trek and Acts is Star Trek: Next Generation.  Or his Gospel is the Star Wars trilogy, and Acts is The Phantom—no, wait, not even going to go there.

But the truth is that Luke-Acts was actually written as a singular cohesive story broken into parts, so the more apt comparison might be the seven-volume Harry Potter series after all...

And we see this cohesiveness at work with the Pentecost story itself.  Fifty days ago, Jesus was crucified, and ten days ago, He ascended to heaven, and the disciples cast lots to replace Judas Iscariot with Matthias in order to keep their number at an even twelve.  Luke keeps us going at a neat, tidy pace up to this fiftieth day after the Passover, when the Festival of Weeks is celebrated.

What is the Festival of Weeks?  In the grand scheme of things, it was not the biggest holiday on the calendar, certainly not being so close after the big to-do of Passover.  It was originally a harvest festival of sorts, a gathering of the first fruits and a thanksgiving to God, but over time, the Festival of Weeks turned into a celebration of God’s giving the law to Moses upon Sinai.  Don’t ask me how a day devoted to celebrating squashes and radishes turned into a day celebrating the laws and rules, I don’t know how they pulled that one off, although one commentator I read says that traditionally, the time between escape from Egypt and arrival at Sinai for Moses and the Israelites was, in fact, fifty days.  So we’ll go with that.

Anyways, so this festival celebrating the giving of the law is taking place.  And by this time, the disciples maybe are a little worried and a little antsy.  Jesus has promised them the coming of the paraklesis—the paraclete, which we translate as the Holy Spirit—except that Jesus has beat it back to heaven without leaving behind said Holy Spirit.

However, the Festival of Weeks provides a great chance for the Holy Spirit’s arrival—not only does it give a reason for all the disciples (and not just the Twelve—Luke says devout Jews from every direction were here to celebrate the festival) to all be in one place, but it is also spiritually appropriate.  After the Passover—the liberation of God’s children from the bondage of slavery—comes the law.  And after the Resurrection—the liberation of God’s children from death and evil—comes the Spirit. 

And this coming of the Spirit includes everyone, everyone who traveled from near and far alike to celebrate this festival.  They are, many of them at least, well outside of their comfort zone because they had just elected a new member and have been trying to go about their work without the presence of Jesus.  And the travelers are outside of their comfort zone because…well, they are far from their physical homes, even as they gather near their spiritual home.

And so outside of these comfort zones, they utilize one comfort zone they still have—language.  Except, instead of speaking the lingua franca of the day, Greek—which was most peoples’ second language, like how English is today in many parts of the world—they are speaking each their own native, first languages.

And yet they understand each other perfectly, though it does not look like it on the outside.  The passersby sneer, “They are drunk on new wine,” and don’t you just love Peter’s retort to that accusation?  “Of course we are not drunk, it’s only nine in the morning!”  It’s almost like Peter is implying, “But hey, once it gets to be noon, all bets are off.  After all, it’s 5 o’clock somewhere.”

Despite being outside his comfort zone, Peter is able to laugh off the insult: it is only nine in the morning!  Honestly, I wish it were even earlier in the day, not only because the Holy Spirit arriving right at nine on the dot makes it look like the Holy Spirit only does this sort of thing as a 9-to-5 gig and not as a 24/7 devotion, but precisely because we all know that the Holy Spirit is perfectly capable and willing to have its mantle descend upon us at any time of any day.

Like at dinnertime, at a Waffle House.

Or at church on Sunday morning.  That at least is an expected place for the Spirit to appear.

But what about experiencing that nine-in-the-morning holiness right before you go to bed, or first thing at dawn, or during your lunch break, or, dare I say it, right after you’ve been dealt a really crappy hand and are reeling from experiencing something terrible?

The Holy Spirit is not a fair-weather friend who only shows up after you cashed in your winning lottery ticket (don’t play the lottery, either, it’s a tax on pipe dreams…but that’s another kettle of fish).  The Holy Spirit, as a part of God Almighty, will not and cannot abide by leaving you when the going gets especially tough.  The Holy Spirit is rarely, if ever, truly quiet.

There’s a saying that makes the rounds every once in a while on my Facebook newsfeed, posted by I am sure well-intentioned friends, but it drives me nuts: If you wonder where God is in a mess, remember that the teacher is always quiet during a test.

Good grief, what a crock.  God doesn’t test us like He’s some sort of emotionally stunted and needy significant other, just to see if we love Him enough.  Those days of Abraham actually trying to sacrifice Isaac are long gone.  No, if God’s voice is inaudible, it isn’t because God has chosen to shut up, it’s because we have closed our ears to what God is trying to say to us.

But at least once, one day in Jerusalem fifty days after a Galilean peasant who dared to state the truth that He was the Son of God was crucified and resurrected, our ears were finally opened fully to God’s presence, and we finally, at long last, understood each other, no matter the tongue or accent.

What a miracle if we did the same, to teach and re-teach to opened ears, the languages of God—the languages of mercy, and grace, and love, instead of the languages that we have taught ourselves.

You know these languages.  I know you all do.  Now go and teach them to others.

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
May 24, 2015

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