“Every Time I Feel the Spirit”
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
June 4, 2017
University Baptist Church
The Pentecost story is a familiar one. Perhaps it’s not as memorable as Christmas and Easter, but it bears remembering, celebrating with as much power as our other high holy days. It’s the day that the church was born. It wasn’t born because of the baptisms. It wasn’t born because of the mystical flames dancing on the heads of people. It wasn’t even born because it was a familiar festival. The Feast of Pentecost 50 days after Passover marks the time when God’s law was given to the people.
But today a new law was born.
It was born because people from different nationalities, different cultures, even warring factions started to understand each other. And it was revolutionary: revelationary and revolutionary. It dumbfounded the rulers and the military. Women saw visions and men cleared their eyes. For a moment of inspiration, the old boundaries were dissolved. It may well have been called the Jerusalem Accord. People began to understand those different than them. That ought to be the goal of the church. It started at Pentecost and ought to be celebrated and trumpeted. That’s how we know we are Christians. That we go out of our way to understand people different than us.
This past year, we have spoken about the prison industrial complex and how we need to see people who have been incarcerated with all of their complexity and struggles. We need to look at the cycle that people get stuck in once they have been behind bars. Today, one of our own gave us the gift of a window into his struggles. He is asking us to be in community with his whole self, not just the self we like to see. He is asking us to tenderly look together for ways to keep us in community—safe, respectful and healing. I don’t pretend to understand it all, but I am committed to keeping this entire community safe and supportive, inasmuch as that is within my power. We’ll need the Spirit’s presence to guide us on our way.
The Rev. William Barber II said at the Alliance of Baptists Meeting in April that we need a political Pentecost right now: a reorienting of priorities, an influx of the Holy Spirit and a trust that we can overcome any obstacle in front of us.
The state legislature recently ended their special session. In a time of a vast surplus, you would think that they could come to some agreements. And they did, but at the last hour, they got into the old habit of talking past each other and now we are back at a posturing stalemate that will likely end up in court rather than at the negotiating table. We need a Holy Spirit intervention.
Rev. Barber reminded us that at that first Pentecost, Caesar was in charge. He demanded uncritical authority. He ruled by military terror. He declared, “I alone can fix things”. Caesar crucified you if you dared to be a revolutionary. It was a chaotic time. And if there was just one revolutionary, then they could easily be dispatched with, eliminated. That’s what they thought they did with Jesus’ execution. But on Pentecost all the provinces under Caesar’s control decided there was a better way. They recognized not only their common enemy but also their common opportunities. And they adopted spiritual language to explain it. They talked about tongues of flame. They talked about a great wind. They talked about fire. But what they demonstrated was understanding. That they demonstrated was bravery. Caesar held his power by pitting people against each other, saying, “don’t trust the people who don’t speak like you, don’t pray like you. Fear them.” And if you can get people to fight with each other, then Caesar can do whatever he wants to.
The Holy Spirit interrupts the current agenda with a better way of doing things. Pentecost challenges our narrow nationalism. Just look at the way the Spirit has moved across this world to double down on climate protecting actions and initiatives in spite of what one Caesar does or says. That’s the power of the spirit.
Rev. Barber says that what we are seeing is the last gasps of an order that is passing away.
For the past two months two dozen UBCers have attended sessions called “My Neighbor is Muslim”. There we learned of the religion of Islam. We delved into the Holy Koran. We watched prayers of our Muslim sisters and brothers and prayed alongside them. Taking off our shoes, covering our heads in respect. We even refrained from eating as much as we usually do during this month of Ramadan. On Wednesday five of us went to an Iftar dinner at a Mosque in Plymouth. Hundreds of devout and hungry Muslims gathered at the 9pm sunset for their first meal of the day. They welcomed us as beloved neighbors, and insisted that we ate first. I for one saw a hospitality reminiscent of Pentecost.
The language of the Spirit is a language that addresses right vs. wrong, meanness vs. kindness, greed vs. generosity. This new language is not to stay within the walls of the church but needs to be voiced loudly and clearly in the public square, in governors' offices and yes all the way to Congress and the president.
Rev. Barber said this is no time for a polite conversation about alternative facts. Instead, we need to adopt a public morality. We need to adopt a moral language that is as old as our scriptures. It’s a language that engages people who know the difference between right and wrong. Peter reminds us the words of Joel that tells us that God’s Spirit will come upon God’s people even in the midst of their greatest challenge and pour out the spirit on the people. And all people, all people, all people who call upon the name of God will be saved. It doesn’t matter what your language is. It doesn’t matter whether you have a green card. It doesn’t matter your age, your gender, your sexual orientation, your income, or your status. If the Spirit is upon you, then you will know the truth and the truth shall set you free. And you will understand the pain and challenge of your former enemy who will be your neighbor.
We learned that when Muslims pray, they stand shoulder to shoulder, rich and poor, of whatever language and nationality. They are to stand touching shoulders so there is no room for the devil to get in between you and your prayer partner.
Let us learn to speak the new language clearly and in love. If Saul can be changed to Paul, so can we—even the worst of us.
The old song says, “Every time I feel the Spirit moving in my heart, I will pray.” I say that the Spirit is alive and well. And I think that praying is a good start. I’m pro-prayer. But it’s not enough. The people on that first Pentecost heard the spirit. They prayed and then they listened. They listened, they understood and they committed themselves to a movement that was greater than themselves. The movement of the Spirit inspired people to be baptized, washing themselves clean from the sinful stains of power and misunderstanding and rising to embrace a new and better way of living. That’s what the church is.
Every time I feel the Spirit, I will give thanks to God and find a way to join in that movement of Spirit.
Every time I feel the Spirit, I will show up.
Every time I feel the Spirit, I will vote.
Every time I feel the Spirit, I will give of my time and talent and treasure to a great cause like UBC.
Every time I feel the Spirit, I will advocate on behalf of my sister or brother.
Every time I feel the Spirit, I will proclaim the acceptable year of God’s favor.
Every time I feel the Spirit, I will seek to be understood.
Every time I feel the Spirit, I will pay attention.
Every time I feel the Spirit, I will seek out the moral core of our nation.
Every time I feel the Spirit, I will offer sanctuary.
Every time I feel the Spirit, I will recommit myself to making my corner of the world safe and open to God’s blessing
And I know I don’t do it alone. Because people in this very room feel the Spirit and we join with those of good will across this nation and this world. Every time I feel the Spirit moving in my heart, I will join in the revolutionary work of the church. Thanks be to God.