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When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. 5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?...12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ 13But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’

(Acts 2:1-8, 12-13, NRSV)

Recently I led a funeral and met a gay couple, Dave and Paul, who were friends with the deceased. I often use a very traditional Trinitarian benediction at the end of funerals saying, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN.” Upon hearing these words, people in some churches make the sign of the cross on themselves. One reason I use these words is so the non-Congregationalists in the crowd will be reminded that we worship the same God and believe in the same Trinity. As I gave the Trinitarian blessing last week, I noticed Dave and Paul dutifully crossing themselves and I thought to myself, what a shame that these men are, in all likelihood, being faithful to a tradition that rejects them. I later learned that Dave and Paul were married, but not in their church as it is not allowed. I spoke with them over lunch to let them know that there is a church in Manhasset, this church, that affirms them in every way and offers them the same rights and privileges and extravagant welcome that we offer to every other child of God.

In our church we try to break down barriers that separate people from God and from one another. We also build bridges for those who may have felt rejected or left out in other houses of worship. There are no “certain types of people”…wink, wink… who are excluded from anything in our church. For that matter, we don’t have a checklist to decide which people are worthy of inclusion at Christ’s Communion table, because in our church everyone is included at the table.

After all, today is Pentecost Sunday, a day when, 2,000 years ago, God broke down the barriers between people who were from different places with different customs and different languages. How did this miracle come about?

The New Testament Book of Acts puts Pentecost in context. Some 52 days prior the followers of Jesus had witnessed the horror of his crucifixion. Two days after that shocking tragedy, their minds were blown again, this time by the miracle of Christ’s resurrection on Easter Sunday. After seeing Jesus appear off and on for forty days, the disciples witnessed Christ’s ascension into Heaven from the Mt. of Olives, his last commands still ringing in their ears. In words we call the Great Commission, Jesus told his disciples to go share his teachings and baptize his followers. His parting word was a promise that he would be with them always, even to the end of the age, even to the end of the world.[i]

With those words Jesus was gone. I imagine the disciples dumbfounded and confused. Jesus left them with marching orders but no plan, no direction, no strategy or visioning committee, no steps toward measurable goals and objectives. We don’t know what they did next, but as the story unfolds, it sounds like they sat around scratching their heads. No doubt they prayed. No doubt they had serious discussions well into the night. The days began to pile up and then Jesus had been gone a week. Another day passed and then another. Some of them were likely getting bored and restless, chomping at the bit to do something, but what? Perhaps they would never know.

As day 10 dawned I doubt they expected anything significant. I doubt they thought to themselves, today will be different. Today our lives will be turned upside down. On the contrary, they assumed they knew what the day would bring. Being faithful Jews, the disciples were in Jerusalem to celebrate the Harvest Feast, also called Pentecost, because it came 50 days after Passover. The faithful celebrated this feast to give thanks to God for the beginning of the harvest.

For the followers of Jesus, a new harvest altogether was about to begin. The Spirit of God indwelled and empowered them to do God’s work on that life changing day. The timing was perfect since Jews from many lands throughout the Jewish diaspora were in Jerusalem, each speaking their native tongue. God’s Spirit filled the disciples to overflowing, miraculously enabling them to speak languages they never knew so that the multinational crowd who gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate Pentecost, might hear the story in their own language.

As with many spectacular events, Pentecost was not without its controversy. Some skeptics in the crowd, seeing the disciples joyously talking with words these scoffers could not understand, accused the disciples of being drunk. Peter met the skeptics head on, giving the first-ever Christian sermon. And the response? The text tells us many of the hearers felt “cut to the heart” and asked the disciples what they should do. In the end, 3,000 believed and were baptized.[ii]

Without the gift of language that fateful day, none of this would have been possible. The newly multi-lingual disciples communicated with people they assumed were out of reach. With the Spirit’s gift, barriers of national identity and assumed cultural superiority disappeared as the egalitarian life and teachings of Jesus emerged.

At the same funeral reception where I met David and Paul, I met someone else who asked how long I had been at our church. When I told him 23 years he was floored and asked, “Don’t they move you around to different churches after a while?” By “they” he was referring to a religious hierarchy above our local church that controls what happens here. When I answered no I could tell he was still skeptical. To clarify he rephrased it a couple of times. “So the pope doesn’t tell you what to believe?” “No,” I said, “I really like the current pope, but he doesn’t call the shots.” Just to be clear he asked, “So do you at least have bishops to tell you what is acceptable in your church?” “No, we don’t have bishops either,” I told him. “Wow,” he responded, “I’ve never heard of a church like that!”

“It’s all about freedom and democracy,” I said. “In the Congregational tradition and the UCC denomination, each church is its own little democracy making decisions about the clergy they hire and the Communion they serve among other things. It’s up to the people, after all the church doesn’t belong to me, it belongs to the members, and ultimately our church and every church belongs to God.”

Then he asked if it would be easier if our church had bishops so that everyone would know what to believe. I told him in my opinion no, that I feel most alive in a church where “we the people” decide the direction we will pursue, where it is up to us to interpret the Bible for ourselves, and to believe as we see fit. I told them that I didn’t believe that Jesus came to make us all clones of one another. On the contrary, just as each of Christ’s original 12 disciples had a different personality and thus a different relationship with Jesus, the same is true with us. No one’s connection to God is exactly the same as anyone else’s.

For me and for many in our church, this sacred space is one of those places where we become fully alive singing God’s praises, taking mindfulness classes, teaching our Sunday School children, chaperoning youth mission trips, helping feed the hungry through a project with Island Harvest, or donating money to buy a cow or build a chicken coop for the formerly homeless Tanzanian children living at Kwetu Faraja. We come alive when we do something to help someone else.

As Howard Thurman said, “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

My grandfather was one of those people who came alive, in his case with a rod and reel. My grandfather loved to fish, though he did not like eating fish. Catching yes! Eating no! Instead of catch and release, Gramps always kept the fish that were big enough to eat and brought them to families in town who were short on food. He started doing this decades ago, before there was a Food Stamp program. In other words, my grandfather started feeding the hungry and eventually the federal government followed.

God made each of us as unique human beings. Let us discover what helps us come alive and then find ways to use our gifts in service to God by serving others. AMEN.

Written by Rev. Jimmy Only

Pentecost Sunday

June 4, 2016

The Congregational Church of Manhasset, New York (UCC)


­­Eternal God, who filled the disciples with your Spirit at Pentecost, fill us we pray. We give thanks that the faithful of old overflowed with your Spirit of love and that their love of you spilled over into the lives of others through the centuries until at last it touched each one of us. Fill us with your Spirit that our lives might be poured out in love for you and for our sisters and brothers in need. Challenge us whatever language we speak, to learn the universal language of love, to speak its message in word and deed this day and every day.

Through the power of your Spirit we pray. AMEN.

[i] Matthew 28:16-20

[ii] Acts 2:37-42

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