Rev. Danielle K Bartz May 28, 2023
Acts 2:1-21 “Being Pentecostal in a UCC World”
As Christians we are descendants of the miracle of Pentecost, which means that we too are Pentecostal in our identity. I know how weighted a term that is, especially for nice progressives like ourselves. But I believe it is not a wasted effort to try and reclaim some of those Christian ideas that have been used, and arguably sometimes misused, by our kindred. But first I want to be clear of what type of Pentecostalism I am not trying to reclaim. And to do so, I want to tell a quick story.
This story comes from a professor of mine who I traveled to Central America with while I was in seminary. Pentecostalism is a popular form of Christian expression in Central America – in fact I attended a Pentecostal Catholic Mass – if you can imagine such a thing – while I was there. But, this story is not from my trip, but rather one my professor told us one evening while we were there. Some years prior he took a group of students to a small Pentecostal church in Guatemala. There was a great deal of speaking in tongues and physical expressions of worship. The minister asked at one point for volunteers to have a full experience of the Holy Spirit cast into them. The term, which perhaps you have heard, is to be ‘slain in the Spirit.’ About 5 people volunteered. The minister walked up to each one individually and touched them on the head (the word my professor used as ‘smacked’) and then the people would fall to the ground, convulse, or speak in tongues.
And, for a bunch of students from a progressive UCC seminary, this was something that was completely out of their comfort zones. Already highly skeptical of what they were seeing, they didn’t know what to make of all this. But, after the third and fourth person fell in a moment of what looked like genuine religious ecstasy, a few of the students were starting to be skeptical of their skepticism. However, when the minister ‘smacked’ the head of the five and final person, my professor and his students could not help but notice that the woman first took a second to adjust her bra strap, and then fell to the ground in a sudden moment of being over-come by the Holy Spirit. Skepticism fully reinforced, the students went back to observing the worship service with narrow eyes and side-ways glances.
That is how many of us who do not worship in what is referred to as a Pentecostal way today view those moments – as theater. And perhaps they are and perhaps they are not, I simply do not know. Just because I have not experienced that does not mean I completely dismiss it. But, I am not trying to reclaim that form of worship expression when I say we need to embrace our Pentecostalism. Instead, I want to consider what it means to fully claim our Pentecostal heritage in our world today and as part of the United Church of Christ and its witness. There are three parts of our Pentecostal heritage that I see that we can and continue to claim and live out – listening for God’s still-speaking voice; embracing diversity but not insisting upon uniformity; and seeking opportunities to listen deeply in an effort to build bridges.
In the United Church of Christ we are very fond of saying God is still speaking. That phrase comes from a quote by Gracie Allen that she wrote in one of her final love letters to George Burns. She said, ‘Never place a period where God has placed a comma.’ Building on that we like to say ‘God is Still Speaking.’ Which is exactly what was happening in the Pentecost miracle. The Apostles were left without the presence of Jesus. While it is not explicitly stated in the scriptures, I think it is entirely possible that some were worried that God had abandoned them, that without Jesus they no longer would know how to follow God’s hopes for humanity. But the miracle of Pentecost made it clear that not only had God not abandoned them, but that God was still active – moving through the people. God was still speaking into the hearts and spirits of those willing to listen. The Holy Spirit is God’s voice, whispering to us, nudging us, giving us courage to move our faith forward. For us today it is good remember that it was God’s still speaking voice that led the UCC and our predecessor bodies to ordain the first woman into Christian ministry and the first African American. It was God’s still speaking voice that urged the Congregationalists of New England to defend the survivors of the Amistad slave ship uprising. It was God’s still speaking voice that brought together four traditions into one United Church. It was God’s still speaking voice that urged the UCC to ordain the first openly gay man into ministry, and the first transgender person. It was God’s still speaking voice that we echoed as our denomination led the efforts for same-gendered weddings, women’s reproductive healthcare rights, and saying to all who will listen Black Lives Matter. And it is God’s still speaking voice that we continue to listen for as we advance our mission in the world to ensure that all are recognized and valued as God’s Beloved Creation. Claiming that God is still speaking, listening to that voice, the Holy Spirit, and echoing it back to the world is a part of our Pentecostal heritage, one that we should be immensely proud of and continue.
One of the reasons people, ministers and lay members alike, hate to read aloud the Pentecost story is because of all the names of different regions that were present for the miracle. The conveyor of the story wanted to make it abundantly clear that this miracle was for all people. The scripture says there were people from every nation under heaven there. While not geographically accurate, the intent is for the descendants of that miracle, you and me, to know that it was not just for a select few. But more importantly, I believe, is that the people did not all of the sudden speak the same language. They were speaking their own languages, but they were able to understand one another. Diversity exists in this miracle, in fact diversity is celebrated in this miracle. But there is no insistence on uniformity.
Celebrating diversity, the diversity that God created, is the only way to fully experience God. If we are truly created in the image of God, and I believe we are, God’s image can only be recognized when we embrace and honor the diversity of that image. God’s image cannot be fully seen in one skin color or body type. God’s image can only be seen in the rainbow diversity of humanity. Celebrating that diversity is worshipping God, and celebrating that diversity is, I believe, how humanity can heal its wounds. But for far too many people, that diversity is a threat. The differences frighten, and they seek a world of uniformity. They may concede that we cannot all look alike, but they will strive for a world in which we all follow the same moral codes, follow the same social rules. And if any resist, we all know the efforts that have been made to quash that resistance. Laws have and continue to be written, segregation – racial and economic – is reinforced, and a difference in expression is labeled as bad.
As descendants of the Pentecost, we must be a part of the resistance against that forced uniformity that diminishes God. Instead we carry forward the Pentecostal call to celebrate our diversity. And the primary way we can do that is by listening deeply to build bridges that connect us to one another.
Poet Steve Garnaas-Holmes wrote in his poem ‘Listening in Tongues’ this: “[W]hat if in fact the miracle [of Pentecost] was that those people from every nation heard in tongues?/What if they had the God-given gift to listen deeply enough to know the work of God when they heard it, even in a foreign language?/…Maybe the true Pentecostal gift isn’t speaking at all, but listening: listening in tongues, letting the Spirit listen through us, listening in new ways for what we haven’t heard, listening deeply enough to hear God, even in the life of someone not like us./What miracles emerge, when we listen deeply!”
Listening deeply to one another is the way we celebrate our God created diversity. Listening to the stories of those who are different and have experienced the world in ways we cannot imagine. Listening to the words of those pleading for attention because the world has left them behind. Listening to the songs of the oppressed. At times listening means asking questions, seeking to understand more. And at times listening means getting out of the way, to make room at the microphone for those whose voices have been silenced. At the Pentecost miracle the people not only understood one another, but they listened. The Holy Spirit made it possible. As descendants of the Pentecost, we too are to listen deeply to the diversity of voices around us, and we can do so with the aid of the Holy Spirit.
As Christians we are descendants of the miracle of Pentecost, which means that we too are Pentecostal in our identity. We are Pentecostal in our identity because we believe that God is still speaking. We believe that we must embrace and celebrate diversity, and never insist upon uniformity. And we listen deeply in that diversity to better understand and create community. We are Pentecostal in our identity as Christians, but that does not mean we are perfect at it. To be Pentecostal in this way, to be open to the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, is a task which is never complete. But it is a task which will never wear us out because that same Holy Spirit gives us the strength, the resilience, the joy, and the purpose to always remember and carry forward our Pentecostal identity in a UCC world. Amen.
God of the Pentecost miracle, you have sent your Holy Spirit out into the world in order that we too may be the hands, feet, and voices of God. Your Spirit is always with us, and for this ever-present presence we give you great thanks. It is in that gratitude that we come before you now in prayer.
Spirit of God, we know that you blow through our lives in ways that urge us to action. At times what we hear your still-speaking voice whispering to us seems not possible. But we know that by leaning into you, and working together as community – that nothing is impossible with you. Give us the courage to always listen, to always act, and to celebrate each small step along the way.
One of the ways God that we feel your Spirit most present in our lives is when we open ourselves to you in prayer. In these moments of silence, we turn over to you the prayers our hearts, trusting that you hear and respond…
Good and Great God, we are descendants of your Pentecost miracle, and for this we are grateful. We pray all of this in the name of Jesus Christ, our guide and example in what it means to follow the will of your Spirit. We now pray in the way he taught…Our Father…