PENTECOST! DON’T MISS IT
Sermon preached by Alex Patchin McNeill
at Arlington Presbyterian Church
June 9, 2019
There has only been one time in my life I’ve ever been mistaken for being a Pentecostal Christian. Earlier this year I was serving as a chaplain at a VA hospital. I’m still the executive director of More Light, but I was there to finish my last requirement before ordination in the Presbyterian Church USA. I was sitting with a Veteran who was telling me his life’s story. I remember nodding along, and offering the occasional verbal affirmation of “oh interesting!” “Mmm hmm” “wow!.” At one point in his story he pauses and asks me what denomination I belong to. I answered, Oh I’m a Presbyterian.
He turned, looked me up and down and said, “Oh you’re one of those PENTECOSTALS!” He said it in a way that expressed a kinship of our tradition. I didn’t have the heart to correct him and say that actually, Presbyterian means that I’m one of the frozen chosen. Growing up in church, rarely did we clap, or testify, or burst into song outside of what had been programmed for us to do in the bulletin. Sit, stand, sing.
But I always did love Pentecost. I have many memories of church sanctuaries coming alive with color for one brief Sunday, processionals with streamers, doves, glittering symbols of fire, all to commemorate a nearly impossible miracle that happened long ago. Each Pentecost we wondered, what would it be like if the Spirit should break forth in such spectacular fashion right now? And then looked around at each other.
However the conversation I had with the Veteran who believed I was Pentecostal, and the reading from Acts today has me wondering, What do I miss because of the belief that Pentecost was a one-time event? What do we miss when we celebrate Pentecost as a memory rather than as an ongoing action of the Holy Spirit?
Reading the account of what happened on the day of Pentecost in Acts, it seems as if the wonder of the Pentecost experience was almost a near miss for the disciples and all those who were gathered. In the text it says that once the Spirit had given each the power to speak all the languages under heaven, the crowd was “perplexed and amazed” wondering “what did this mean?” It wasn’t immediately obvious to anyone what the significance was of this event. In other words, the crowd kind of freaked out.
Some were amazed, and of course, some were skeptical, “this couldn’t be a miracle, it’s just that they are drunk….at 9am….” What if the moment had ended there? The crowd reacts: Wow! Boooo! And scene. Perhaps people would have talked about this really strange thing they witnessed, like a freak weather phenomenon. (As a former resident of the DMV, I still talk about the day the soaking, terrifying, Derecho hit DC). Pentecost, the Jewish festival of weeks didn’t become Pentecost the day of tongues of fire until Peter stood up and made meaning out of what happened.
Peter, who you might recall, just a short time ago, had been privy to his own anti-miracle as he denied Jesus 3 times before the cock crowed after Jesus’ arrest, just as Jesus told him he would. Perhaps that revelation taught him, nothing is a coincidence. If the Spirit rushes in, it’s not by accident. In the midst of the hubbub about what just happened, Peter stands up and reminds those gathered, “this is not new wine, this is the Holy Spirit, just as it was foretold by the prophet Joel!” Furthermore the prophet Joel is clear that God will pour out God’s spirit on everyone: Son’s and daughters, young and old, slaves – both women and men. God’s spirit is not limited to a few, every single person will have the power to see visions and prophesy. In fact, God’s spirit is not just for the wealthy, for the religious leaders, or those in power. God’s spirit is for all.
Indeed the writer of Acts confirms that this was true, EVERYONE had this ability on the day of Pentecost. Remember that long list of nations earlier? The writer put those nations in order methodically moving east to west to demonstrate that the Pentecost event was truly universal.
I don’t know if you’re like me, but if someone asked me, “what is Pentecost?” I might focus on the spectacle of tongues of fire, of rushing wind, explaining Pentecost in the grandeur of the moment, and forget to mention entirely that the true miracle of Pentecost is that people were speaking in the native languages representing the diversity of nations gathered not just as a diverse spectacle, but so that all might hear in their own tongue of God’s deeds of power. When we think of Pentecost as a one-time event, or just a lot of pageantry to find evidence of another Pentecost, it would be tempting to look for a big sign, rather than the speaking of native tongues. If we think of Pentecost as a single event, do we miss other Pentecost moments as well? What do we miss when we confine the Holy Spirit to one kind of action or demonstration of her presence? All tongues of fire, or nothing?
Perhaps it is not such a coincidence that this weekend is the Pride celebration for the DMV and the month of June has turned into a Pride celebration for the country, and even many parts of the world. We celebrate Pride in June to commemorate the historic event of the riots at the Stonewall Inn on June 28 1969. The first Pride was a march on June 28, 1970 to mark the one-year anniversary of the riots and to vow never to go back to the way things were. Holding the events of the night of June 28 1969 and what came after alongside the text in Acts, I believe Stonewall was a Pentecost event. The protest at the Stonewall Inn was catalyzed by a police raid to round up the patrons and arrest those whose gender presentation did not match their driver’s license. To the police, having a mis-matched gender presentation and driver’s license was one of the more visible signs that someone was verifiably homosexual. Why do we commemorate the fight back against this particular police raid on the bar? There had been many police raids before, at the Stonewall Inn and in other bars across the country. However, the Stonewall Inn, a dive bar in Greenwich Village on Christopher Street in NYC was a lot like the setting during the Jewish celebration of Pentecost in Acts, every nation under heaven gathered there. According to the first-hand account by Dick Leitch who was the executive director of an early gay organization called the Mattachine Society, The Stonewall Inn “was more than a dance bar, more than just a gay gathering place. It catered largely to a group of people who were not welcome in, or cannot afford, other places of homosexual social gathering. The ‘drags’ and the ‘queens’ two groups which would find a chill reception or a barred door at most other gay bars and clubs formed the regulars at the Stonewall. Another group was even more dependent…the very young homosexuals and those with no homes. The Stonewall became home for these kids, once it was raided, they fought for it. That and the fact that they had nothing to lose other than the most tolerant and broad minded place in town, explains why the Stonewall riots were begun, led, and spearheaded by ‘queens.”
This Spirit will be poured out unto all.
June 28 1969 was almost just another dehumanizing police raid until Marsha P. Johnson, a black transgender woman threw a shot glass to signify she WOULD not show her license to the police, emboldening others inside the bar to refuse to comply with the police order. Outside a crowd of other LGBTQ folks started to gather in the small park across the street because they heard what was happening inside the bar. Then as drag king Stormie DeLarverie was being dragged to a police car under arrest she yelled to the crowd, “Do Something!” Those who were present that night later remember, “it all happened in a flash.” Perhaps the Spirit rushed in. Suddenly the crowd started to push back against the terrorization by the police. One person present said that it was if the crowd had a collective will, no one was speaking but suddenly they all understood, we won’t take this any more. That same night a few stood up and started to form a new organization called the Gay Liberation Front, the first LGBTQ group to advocate for equal rights, and it was GLF that organized the first Pride March a year after Stonewall. The second night of the riots, members of the Gay Liberation Front stood on the steps of the Stonewall Inn to speak to those assembled and make meaning about the significance of what was happening. Mark Segal, one of the founders of the Gay Liberation Front said, “Before Stonewall, you had organizations that only allowed white people who were properly dressed to ‘represent’ the community. We, the members of the GLF, were Black, Brown, and every other stripe in the American quilt.” On the one year anniversary of Stonewall, the GLF carried a banner in the first Pride March that read, “Stonewall means Fight Back, Smash Gay Oppression.” Without the GLF, the amazing night where LGBTQ people resisted arrest, victimization, and dehumanization might have faded into memory, The Gay Liberation front insisted that Pride was an ongoing ever unfolding event. As Lin Manuel Miranda sung in the musical, Hamilton, “it’s not a moment, it’s a movement.”
Stonewall was a Pentecost moment because the Spirit was poured out unto all who had been told you don’t belong here. Please know, I’m not trying to glorify or romanticize violence at all, but I do know revolutions are often sparked by a marginalized group saying ENOUGH. It’s also not a coincidence that the very site of Greenwich Village in lower Manhattan is where many early battles of the American revolution took place, another act of violence we don’t glorify but rather celebrate the result.
Now, you and I might not spark a revolution in our lives, but the miracle of Pentecost is not it’s BIGNESS, but its specificity. Acts says clearly that the REASON the Spirit allowed each person to speak these different languages is so that “each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.” There is a reason we call our first language our mother-tongue. Language learned in infancy becomes innate, instinctual. It’s often the language of our dreams and visions, our prophecies. If you’ve ever been traveling or living in a land that doesn’t speak your first language, but then you hear the cadences of your most familiar speech —it’s like a great relief washes over you. Yes! I
can finally be understood! That’s what happened on Pentecost, the Holy Spirit rushed in and made sure everyone knew that God understands them too. God’s love is for them – specifically, not just generally.
In the course of preparing for this sermon, I’ve come to believe that there are big Pentecost’s with a capital P and then there are everyday pentecosts. The story in Acts reminds us the Holy Spirit is capable of resting on us individually. Are we paying attention to when the Spirit comes to us? Do we ever miss it when it happens?
Have you ever had the sensation that you were called to say something, or do something for someone that felt totally out of the blue? Perhaps offering a word of comfort and solidarity for the expectant mother at the grocery store, or calling a friend you may have lost touch with, or turning to your spouse or family member and offering an apology or a word of gratitude. If you’ve ever done anything like that, have you ever had the person to whom you spoke tell you that they REALLY needed to hear what you said. That they felt seen by what you said to them. This is an everyday Pentecost moment. Why? Because you have shared a little of God’s love with them. It can be a very vulnerable and courageous thing to speak from the Spirit’s nudge seemingly out of the blue. When I was working as a chaplain, sometimes it felt like all I had was the Spirit’s nudge at 3am when someone’s beloved spouse or parent was dying. Sometimes before I said what I was nudged to say I’d wonder, am I way off base here? What do I have to offer that’s unique in this situation? How will what I have to say be received? Sometimes the thing I was most worried to say ended up being what someone remembered and even cherished. In those cases I know, it wasn’t my brain that came up with that, it was the Holy Spirit. We definitely can’t always know in advance how someone will receive the word we are called to say. But if we squander the opportunity to act on a Spirit’s nudge in our heart or in our gut, we will miss our own experience of Pentecost.
I’ve come to believe Pentecost is a practice. Allowing the Holy Spirit to animate our words and our care for another is a practice of paying attention, and noticing in our bodies when we are compelled to say or do something for another. We participate in the ongoing Pentecost of the Holy Spirit when we speak in the native tongue of another, saying the very thing they needed to hear that reminds them they are loved and that God loves them unconditionally. And the TRUTH is, people still need to hear this word.
Though we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots this month, I speak with LGBTQ people daily who still haven’t experienced the truth that God loves them as made manifest in a welcoming faith community. They don’t know there is a church that will love them as God does. Now, I know that here at Arlington Presbyterian Church, you are practiced at following the extravagant, upending wonder of the Holy Spirit. Over the course of this Pride weekend when people have asked me where I’m preaching on Sunday, I’ve shared with them your story of selling your building to help build affordable housing. They have been amazed. They didn’t know church could pay such close attention to their neighbors to feel their hurting and fear over insecure housing. After worship we’ll be talking about what it means to be a More Light church,
what it means to say to our communities specifically, and in a native tongue, God’s beloved gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer children are thoughtfully and intentionally welcomed here. This is a Pentecost word. It speaks clearly and directly to a community who rarely hears in their native tongue. However becoming More Light is also an ongoing action and commitment to paying attention to where the Spirit is leading the community and to noticing who might be left out. Who among us is hurting and neglected.
Today in our confession we spoke words that we have neglected to say, about something that was on our heart we had trouble sharing with someone else. In communion today we will practice offering these words out loud because Communion is much like Pentecost. In Communion, we remember a sacred night of Jesus sharing a meal with his disciples, and in Communion we also commit to extending the meal of Jesus with others. The meal Jesus shared with his disciples helped them to practice what would be required of them by the Pentecost experience, you must share beyond yourselves, beyond those gathered here. This meal is not for the chosen, it is for the beloved, and we are all God’s beloved. Take, eat, share Pentecost with others and do this in remembrance of Jesus.