You know in cartoons and comics how ideas are indicated by a lightbulb above the head? Well, you may have heard this before, but it’s still worth a smile.
How many Christians does it take to change a light bulb?
--For Charismatics, it takes only one – hands are already in the air.
--For Pentecostals, it takes ten. One to change the bulb and nine to pray against the spirit of darkness.
--For Presbyterians, it doesn’t take any. Lights will go on and off at predestined times.
--For Roman Catholics, it doesn’t take any either. It’s candles only.
--For Baptists, it takes at least 15. One to change the bulb, and three committees to approve the change and decide who brings the potato salad.
--For Mormons, it takes five. One man to change the bulb and four wives to tell him how to do it.
--For Unitarians – Well, that depends. Quoting an anonymous Unitarian: We choose not to make a statement either in favor of or against the need for a light bulb. However, if in your own journey you have found that light bulbs work for you, that’s fine. You’re invited to write a poem or compose a dance about your personal relationship with your light bulb and present it next month at our annual light bulb Sunday service. At that time we will explore a number of light bulb traditions, including incandescent, fluorescent, three-way, and tinted, all of which are equally valid paths to luminescence.
--For Methodists, the number is undetermined. Whether your light bulb is bright, dull, or completely burned out, you are loved. You can be a light bulb, a tulip bulb, or a turnip bulb.
--For Nazarenes, you need one woman to replace the bulb while five men review the church lighting policy.
--For Lutherans, you don’t need any. Lutherans don’t believe in change.
--For Episcopalians (you didn’t think I’d leave us out, did you?) it takes eight. One to call the electrician (or Kevin), and seven to say how much we liked the old one better.
--For the Amish, the question is simply, “What’s a light bulb?”
In our living room, which never seems to have sufficiently bright light bulbs, there’s a set of cupboards, almost floor to ceiling. Four or five years ago Karl attached to the top of one of the cupboard doors a basketball hoop. Jarrod wasn’t all that tall then, and he spent hours shooting baskets with a nerf ball. He’s thirteen now, and taller. And he’s a basketball fanatic. One morning during spring break he was shooting basket after basket with a ball more “grown-up” than a nerf ball, rarely missing, not stopping. He’d shoot, toss the ball against the wall or cupboard door, to simulate a rebound, shoot again – and again and again and again.
So I asked him, “What’s gotten into you?” His reply? “I’m on fire. I can’t miss.”
There were no flames dancing on his head. The sound of the ball crashing against the cupboard repeatedly wasn’t exactly like a rushing wind. But that “I’m on fire” caught me. Like the disciples, he was on fire, hot and rarin’ to go. Couldn’t miss. Couldn’t be stopped.
What does he do with all that “on fire” energy? Whether it’s in the living room, on the basketball court, or on the soccer field, he goes all out. I’ve seen it in games – his enthusiasm spurs on others. I remember the time of his “deranged” knee. When he was on crutches on the sidelines at soccer games his enthusiasm as – enthusiastic -- as ever.
The enthusiasm of one can ignite a whole team.
Rather like this mouse, who earned its own newspaper article. “A mouse got its revenge against a homeowner who tried to dispose of it in a pile of burning leaves. Luciano Mares, 81, said he caught the mouse inside his house and wanted to get rid of it. From his motel room he said, ‘I had some leaves burning outside, so I threw [the mouse] into the fire, and the mouse was on fire and ran back at the house.’ Fire chief Juan Chavez said the burning mouse ran to just beneath a window of the home; the flames spread up to the window and throughout the house. All contents of the home were destroyed. No injuries were reported.” [except, of course, to the mouse . . . .]
That’s almost worthy of Aesop’s Fables: never underestimate the smallest of forces; the spark of the fire might spread and cause a conflagration unlike any other.
What pushes the conflagration is the wind; the pushiness, the strength of the wind explains how the Holy Spirit works. To deal with the wreckage of the world in any substantive way and save people from their sins, God offers the extraordinary power of the Spirit. God breathes life into the church through a mighty rush of wind because nothing less will work. The surge of the Spirit pushed the church out of the upper room in Jerusalem and into the board room, the courtroom, and the surgery waiting room.
When the wind blows, things happen. If the wind’s really getting with it, broken branches sometimes land on our roof. Garbage cans and basketballs end up in the neighbors’ yards.
In God’s backyard the breath of God brings new worlds into being. Dry bones come to life. Principalities and powers fall. Churches are born.
One source I used in preparing this quoted John Courtney Murray, a Jesuit priest and theologian and author who opposed censorship on the part of the Vatican. When John F. Kennedy ran for president, it was a time (this blew me away) that faithful Roman Catholics were supposed to work for changing the constitution of any country that didn’t have Roman Catholicism as the established religion. Murray worked to defend our US Constitution.
He liked to use the term “conspiracy,” which means literally “breathing together (con = with; spire = breathe). Sounds positive. And that’s what Pentecost was – a conspiracy not in the sense of some evil design or sinister gathering, but as a consensus for good. The rush of wind broke down barriers. The Spirit of God permitted different people to begin breathing together. A beautiful and powerful conspiracy was underway. The Spirit of God had begun to reconfigure lives.
No matter how bitterly divided the world, the Spirit-swept church persists with the wondrous claim that even people who are completely different from one another can come to understand one another. The breath of the Spirit of God makes for vigorous forms of new life.
Understanding one another. Talking together. Remember your mother telling you not to talk to strangers? Remember telling your kids the same thing? Well, cancel that. It’s Pentecost! Pentecost is about when it’s really good to speak to strangers.
The Pentecost we’re commemorating today happened in the city of Jerusalem, but our story from Acts brings to mind another earlier city as well, the city of Babel. [babble]
It’s not actually mentioned in Acts, but the early readers of Acts of the Apostles wouldn’t have missed it. From Genesis 11 comes the story told by the ancient Hebrews of Babel to explain the multiplicity of peoples and languages and nations. Why, since human beings had one common beginning in the Garden of Eden, did people speak so many languages and appear in so many colors and just be so different from one another?
Way back when everyone still had one language, if you said “bird,” everyone knew “bird.” And rock was rock and sun was sun.
Also, way back then, people were feeling tired of trusting in God. Why should God be the source of their identity and security? They wanted to be their own people. So, they built themselves a city. And in the middle of it they began building a tower to reach up to the heavens. That would secure their identity.
God heard about this plan and said “Uh-uh. This isn’t good. Mankind is pushing beyond itself. And since they all can communicate clearly with one another, they’ll be able to do this thing that they’re planning. Not good,” says God.
So, to save people from themselves, God scrambled up their language. That’s why the city is called Babel – because that’s what it sounded like. Bird became pajaro and oiseau and avis. Sun became sol and soleil and helios. People could no longer communicate with each other; they became strangers to one another and they scattered, babbling as they went.
The second city in our lesson is Jerusalem. It’s 50 days after Passover, 50 days after Jesus’ resurrection. Jesus has told his followers to wait together in the city; he will send the Holy Spirit to be with them, to comfort and strengthen and guide them into all truth. Just like today. That’s our Pentecost blessing.
Jesus’ followers aren’t the only ones in Jerusalem. Faithful Jewish pilgrims from all over the known world have come to celebrate the Pentecost festival; the city’s buzzing with the sounds of so many languages that it sounds like – babbling.
Suddenly, to the followers of Jesus comes the Holy Spirit. First, the rush of a violent wind. Then tongues of fire resting on each of them. As they are filled with the Holy Spirit, they begin to speak in other languages. Galileans speaking Persian and Latin, Aramaic and [long E, long I] Elamite. They can understand all these strangers from all over the world. And the strangers can understand them.
If you’ve ever traveled to a place where they don’t speak your language, you’ll know what a grace that is.
Like – this young couple touring with a study group in Europe. They got fascinated by and curious about the German city they were in; they were so confident in their grasp of the German language that they decided to leave the group to go exploring on their own. It started to rain and they wandered off the edge of their map. They had no idea where they were. It got dark and cold, and the rain became a downpour. They could find no one to ask directions from. At last they came across a little restaurant that offered light and warmth.
None of the people inside spoke English. Surprisingly, none of the people inside spoke German either. Someone in the restaurant motioned the shivering, dripping couple, with their soggy map, to a table. You know how people are – if I just raise my voice and speak very clearly, they’ll understand me. CAN YOU TELL US WHERE WE ARE? Maybe they didn’t share a common language, but in that restaurant, hospitality was spoken. Someone brought towels. Someone else pressed hot drinks into their hands. They made sympathetic sounds and obviously shared their dismay at not having the right words to communicate. Two men left, holding jackets over their heads as they dashed out into the downpour. When they returned, they brought with them a third man who spoke enough English to tell them that they were in a Hungarian family restaurant, that the drinks were on the house, and how to get back to where they needed to be. Communication is a gift.
In Jerusalem on Pentecost, through the power of the Holy Spirit and the gift of being able to communicate, God undoes the obstacle that was built up in the city of Babel. On that day of Pentecost, the diversity of languages becomes not a curse but a marvel. And here’s what’s important. God undoes Babel, not by bringing the whole world back into speaking one language, but instead, by affirming the diversity, the rich multiplicity, of peoples and languages.
Today throughout the church we celebrate the gifts of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. We recognize that we can – we believe that we must – communicate, speaking and listening and making friends of strangers. As the baptized, we make promises to seek and serve Christ in all persons, not just people who look like us or talk like us or believe like us. We promise to respect the dignity of every human being. We promise to love our neighbors – even people strange to us – as ourselves. That’s a major part of the vision and mission of the Episcopal Church, not just St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Montesano, but the Episcopal Church worldwide – at least since the 1979 Prayer Book.
This kind of love, this kind of welcoming others, this speaking to and listening to others, may look very strange to people outside our family. It did on that first Pentecost. How strange this harmony among strangers and communication across seemingly unbreachable barriers. How strange this love flying around like tongues of fire caught by the wind, onlookers saying, “What’s going on here? They must be drunk! And the sun’s not even over the yardarm yet!” When we’re living with the reckless joy God makes possible, when we’re inspired to work for justice and peace among all people, when we delight so much in diversity that no one, ultimately, will be a stranger, some may think we’re a little odd.
Or perhaps they’ll want to join us as we bring them into love and harmony with God, with ourselves, with our neighbors, and with all creation.