Sunday, May 20, 2018
What's Your Angle? (Sermon)
“What’s Your Angle”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
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.
5Now 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? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”
12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
14But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: 17‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. 18Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. 19And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. 20The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. 21Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ (Acts 2:1-21 NRSV)
“In the last days,” God declares, the heavens will open, as for a drenching rain, and all flesh will be soaked in the rising waters of the Holy Spirit. Then, all that wrinkled flesh will prophesy that love is our native tongue. Love is the language by which God proclaims the Good News that all things are being redeemed and united in Christ. One difficulty is that all flesh may see it together, but not all flesh will see it the same. What constitutes holiness to some will appear as drunken foolishness to others.
Years ago, Shelby Presbyterian held an evening prayer service for a member named Sherry. Sherry had developed a very rare and aggressive form of lung cancer. She had a husband and two daughters, one in high school, one in middle school. Folks from all over the community came to the church to pray for that family. As Sherry lay in ICU, sedated and intubated, we gathered around her husband and laid hands on him on her behalf.
It was a moving and heart-wrenching scene. And some might have looked at it and thought it kind of quaint and sentimental, or maybe desperate and grasping. A sympathetic heart would have seen at least an act of solidarity with a family in crisis. Because most of us in the sanctuary that night found our hearts angling toward the Mystery of holiness and love, we witnessed an act of prophecy. Now, we weren’t naïve. We knew Sherry wouldn’t survive. Nonetheless, there we were, in the power of the Holy Spirit, singing, speaking, and wailing our prayers to God who is real, present, and, come what may, more powerful than any illness or loss we might suffer.
Paul says that there are many gifts but one Spirit who gives them. What each of us does with our gifts – or rather, what the Spirit does with each of us – will often appear very different. And that diversity of perspective reveals the wide spectrum of the Holy Spirit’s beauty and work.
Did you know that a rainbow – for us a symbol of God’s promises – is caused by sunlight refracting through individual droplets of water at angles between 40 and 42 degrees? And those small differences in the bending of the sun’s light reveal the spectacular array of colors within light itself. To appear, a rainbow requires those precise angles and billions of water droplets.
At Pentecost, inebriated on the Holy Spirit, the disciples find themselves bending holy light. They proclaim the love of God in Jesus in every color of the linguistic spectrum. The event in Jerusalem is not glossolalia, speaking in tongues. Luke describes an event when the gospel is proclaimed in all languages, for all people. It’s a moment when, through the Holy Spirit, God reveals that God’s love reaches beyond any boundary that humankind creates.
You may be a single droplet, but what happens when the Holy Spirit bends the light of God through you? What’s your angle? What’s your unique color? This is the Pentecost question. And because it has to do with the Light of the World refracting through you, it has to do with vocation.
In her book, An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor writes about wrestling with her sense of call, even as she studied in seminary. “I did not have a single clue what I would do when I graduated,” she says. “I did not even belong to a church. So I began asking God to tell me what I was supposed to do. What was my designated purpose on this earth?”1
She began to experiment more intentionally with prayer. Her first efforts left her feeling more empty than full. Then she discovered a fire escape on the side of an abandoned Victorian home next to the Yale Divinity School. It was one of those ancient structures clinging precariously on the side of the building. A “Danger: Keep Off” sign warned would-be climbers that the steps could prove more of a stairway to heaven than an escape from fire. “The fire escape turned out to be an excellent place to pray,” says Taylor. Up there on the fire escape, she learned to pray, she says, “the way a wolf howls.” Up there on that fire escape, she encountered the fire of the Holy Spirit.
“[One] night,” she says, “when my whole heart was open to hearing from God what I was supposed to do with my life, God said, ‘Anything that pleases you.’”
“‘What kind of answer is that?’” wondered Taylor.
“‘Do anything that pleases you,’ said the voice in my head, ‘and belong to me.’”
Initially bewildered by the experience, Taylor began to understand that “it was not what [she] did but how [she] did it that mattered.” She discovered that when the Holy Spirit bent through her preaching and writing, beautiful things happened for her and for many others. In 1996, Baylor University named Barbara Brown Taylor one of the most influential preachers in the English-speaking world.2 To illustrate that the Holy Spirit never finishes with us, in the late 1990’s, Taylor left the parish ministry to join the faculty of Piedmont College in Demorest, GA. Because of Barbara Brown Taylor’s preaching, writing, and now teaching, in 2014, TIME Magazine named this Episcopal priest and teacher at a small college in a backwater town in northeast Georgia, one of the world’s 100 most influential people.3
Pentecost lives are lived with purpose, passion, and openness to change. They require constant self-examination and critique so that we discover the new ways God is bending our holiness into beautiful colors and voices that bless and build up the creation. And everyone participates in this great bending of holy light. God pours Spirit out on “all flesh,” says the Joel, men and women, young and old, slaves and free.
Pentecost is about so much more than getting saved. Indeed, if Pentecost is about “getting” anything, it’s about getting out of the way so that God can reveal God’s love in us and through us for the sake of others.
The epigraph of the chapter to which I referred in Barbara Brown Taylor’s book is a quotation by Henry David Thoreau. In a letter to a friend, Thoreau says, “Do not be too moral. You may cheat yourself out of too much life. Aim above morality. Be not simply good; be good for something.”3
Your goodness, like your inherent holiness, comes as a gift of the out-pouring of the Holy Spirit. You did nothing, nor could have done anything to deserve much less create your giftedness. You are simply a steward of the gift – chosen, called, and sent.
What’s your angle? What will you do with your Pentecost gift?
1All references to Barbara Brown Taylor’s story come from: An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith. HarperOne, 2009. Pp. 109-110.
3Taylor, p. 107.