Pentecost B Sermon (2003)

The Day of Pentecost
Texts: Acts 2:1-21; Gen. 11;
Ezek. 37:1-14; John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15


When I was preparing to come here as interim pastor a year ago, it was mentioned that I might be coming to help close the place. Now please hear me carefully: I was never directed by anyone to come and help close Our Savior’s. It was mentioned to me that you folks here had been considering that — thinking about selling the church as recently as last February. As the Mission Exploration process has winded down, we’ve been honest that closing was one of the possibilities considered. Our first several months of work were somewhat dreary, wondering what kind of a mission and what kind of a pastor it would take for Our Savior’s to survive, much less thrive.

But here we are on a festive Pentecost morning 2003. And despite a rainy, hazy day outside, we are here to celebrate and to continue to get fired up for ministry here in this neighborhood, in the name of Jesus Christ. That’s what the tongues of fire mean on Pentecost, right? That Jesus’ Holy Spirit comes to fire us up. Fire can be destructive and frightening, but it is also a source and symbol of energy and warmth. When a school football team is trying to catch the spirit, they have a pep rally to get fired up. That’s what I think Pentecost Sunday means for us here at Our Savior’s in 2003: we’re here to give thanks for blessings and to get fired up for ministry.

At the first Pentecost, there might have been some of the doldrums we were in six months ago. The apostles were still a bit staggered by the suddenness of events: Jesus had come to a terrible and most unexpected end on the cross; then he had even more suddenly and miraculous appeared to them as their Risen Savior, blessing them with forgiveness even though they had all let him down; finally, he had disappeared out of the blue again — or should I say, literally, out into the blue, ascending into heaven. Things had moved so fast. One moment they were up, the next down, then up again. Now, they were missing Jesus again. How could they carry on without him? They were mostly a bunch of uneducated fisherman and peasants — or worse, folks looked down upon, like tax collectors and sinners who didn’t follow the law closely. Would people listen to them? Where should they begin? What did Jesus really want them to do?

Does this sound familiar? When Pastor Jerry left suddenly last summer, Our Savior’s might have hit a new low. Only months before you had stared closing-down in the face and said, “No! We want to carry on!” But that was with Pastor Jerry. What were we going to do with the loss of momentum from losing a pastor of seven years? I really felt that somber mood the first several months.

But I also felt the faith and commitment of a tenacious group of disciples in Christ. So many of you have invested significant portions of your lives, if not all your lives, to the ministry here in this place. You love this church. All you needed was some time to grieve and then a spark to get started again. I think the spark was the trip to Reformation Lutheran in Milwaukee, with eight of us listening to Pastor Mick tell their story. When he had arrived at Reformation eighteen years earlier, the congregation was in a much direr state than Our Savior’s was six months ago. They were worshiping only sixty people on Sundays; all white in a neighborhood of mostly people of color; no children at all; and they couldn’t afford a pastor. Yet with help from their friends they began to catch the spark of an urban ministry strategy of outreach into their neighborhood. Eighteen years later they are an alive and vital ministry, as fired up to do ministry in Jesus’ name as any church in our synod, or the whole ELCA.

We began to feel that spark, too. And over the last several months I feel like Our Savior’s is ready to turn the corner. Pentecost Sunday 2003 can truly be a day of celebration, a day to continue to open ourselves to the Holy Spirit and get fired up. Let’s get fired up in the Holy Spirit! Join me in saying it together: “Let’s get fired up!”

I’m not sure our whole heart was in that yet. Maybe you’re sitting there still wondering: But who’s going to carry out this newer style of urban ministry? It’s got to be more than our new pastor, right? But we’re such an aging congregation. We care a lot about this place and this ministry, but we’re old and tired. Too many of the younger families with children have left or become inactive. Perhaps, it’s a bit like Israel, in our first lesson, who says, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is nearly gone.” Can we really pull this off?

But remember that first Pentecost. The apostles were probably wondering the same thing. Jesus had ascended. How could they carry on without him? They were mostly a bunch of peasants and sinners. Would people listen to them? Where should they begin? What did Jesus really want them to do? But the Holy Spirit came to fire them up. Luke emphasizes the gathering aspect a great deal: “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.” Strength in numbers. And, then, with the coming of the Holy Spirit, “devout Jews from every nation under heaven,” it says, were gathered together to get fired up, too. And Peter’s sermon makes it even more clear: This is the fulfillment of the prophet Joel who says that God’s Spirit will someday be poured out on all people, young and old, men and women, rich and poor, even the slaves.

One of the key components of Pastor Mick’s story is the partnerships that develop with this style of urban ministry. We have already begun to develop such a partnership with Mt. Pleasant. We had another meeting this past Tuesday and brain-stormed our gifts together, as well as some things to begin doing together. Ask Ken Due about it. He came to our Executive Team meeting the other night and was fired up about it! Such partnership between diverse congregations and peoples is another real sign of the Spirit working in our midst, something to get fired up about! Say it with me again: “Let’s get fired up!”

O.K., that’s a little better. But some of us might still be wondering about this “urban ministry” itself. Exactly what kind of ministry is it? It sounds like quite a big change. Is it really for the better? In terms of our Pentecost theme today, what kind of ministry is the Spirit calling us to? Is it really the Holy Spirit?

Yesterday Pastor Mick was here to lead us in a very important aspect of this ministry: a Gifts Seminar. And our new church mission statement is “Honoring God by sharing his gifts.” Pastor Mick led us through identifying some of the blocks to us in using our gifts, and then the things that encourage and empower us to use them and share them. But he also challenged us with the most difficult part of all this: to reach out to others and care enough to listen to them, and to find out their needs. What do the people in our neighborhood need? How can we help them? How can we share our gifts of the Spirit with them? What kind of Spirit is it that we share and why?

For the brief beginning of an answer, let’s consider our Pentecost story again for a moment, along with another very important story that we’re meant, I think, to call to mind — namely, the story of the Tower of Babel, near the Bible’s beginning in Genesis 11. If you’ll recall that story, it goes back to a time when all the people of the earth spoke one language. They decided to build a tower into the heavens. Why? Because they wanted to be like God up in the heavens. And what happens when we try to be rivals with God? Things fall apart and we end up in rivalry with one another. Stuck in competition, the peoples of the earth were scattered to the four corners and began to speak many different languages.

Do you see, then, how St. Luke tells us the story of Pentecost as the reversal of that fateful day? The peoples of the earth that were scattered gathered in Jerusalem and began to hear Peter and the apostles as if they were of one language again. The language of Christ’s love draws us all together again. How? Because Jesus came as the Son not in competition with God but to do God’s will. What is God’s will? To love the whole earth and all its creatures. When we get caught up in the wind and fire of God’s Spirit, then, we, too, can begin to love everyone. Getting fired up in the Spirit means reaching out to those around us in love. It means reaching out into our neighborhood to help each person realize their giftedness, too. It means, as our new mission statement proclaims, honoring God by sharing his gifts. Can we get fired up? Let’s get fired up! Amen.

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Our Savior’s Lutheran,
Racine, WI, June 8, 2003

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