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The Power of Breath

Sermon 5/15/05
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Acts 2:1-4

1When 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.

The following statement was made as an introduction to this text, by a church member:

Acts 2, verse 1, states that when the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.  Significantly, the empowerment of the Holy Spirit took place only after the people were all together.  A divided community undermines the credibility of a message that is to break the barriers of language and nation, gender and race, religion and social class, to unify all of God's creation in one human family.  However, it is also important to note that both unity and difference themes are built into the reality of Pentecost.  

Standing together in one place did not mean that all were singing the same song, or even from the same page.  The Pentecost experience revealed that each spoke in their own language, maintaining individual linguistic identities and selfhood.  What is important to note here is that they were able to understand each other.  This is a partnership model, built upon the recognition that others also know, and must be heard.  The presence of the Holy Spirit is an imperative to go out for the sake of inclusivity.  In the West, we have often reduced the cross, and the Holy Spirit, to introversion and exclusivity.  Even when we have been extroverted in our missionary activity, we have not empowered people to understand the message and the power of the gospel in their own languages, but forced them to speak our language as a precondition for their understanding.  

Standing together in one place can be interpreted as people working together, speaking together, in order to understand as to be understood.  And engaging in covenants for moving toward the city that God intends for all of creation.  This is truly the new space called forth by Jesus.  As we hear the Pentecost story again, let us be united in all of our differences by the breath of God in this one place.

[Dan Bryant's sermon comments now follow]

Pentecost, I realize, has not been one of the bigger events in the life of the church and I think that's probably because Hallmark hasn't figured out a way yet to capitalize on it, with Pentecost cards we'd all have to go out and buy and send to one another J.  What do you do for Pentecost?  For Christmas, you know, you buy gifts.  You have special treats for birthdays, you have birthday cake and a party.  For Thanksgiving you have a big meal.  For Easter you buy new dresses and a new hat I suppose, and color Easter eggs and buy chocolate bunnies.  But what are you going to do for Pentecost -- go out and set fire to something?!

We're trying to make it a bigger event in the life of the church by having this combined service today, bringing together both of our worship services into this one service.  Celebrating the unity in our diversity.  Standing together in one place at one church, as Lorette read for us.  And that's not always an easy thing to do, given the great diversity that we have in our worship styles with our two services, and the different styles of music.  And just to illustrate that difference, I found this cute little story that explains the difference between praise music and hymns:

An old farmer went to the city one weekend and attended the big city
church. He came home and his wide asked him how it was.
"Well", said the farmer, "It was good. They did something different,
however. They sung praise choruses instead of hymns".

"Praise choruses?", asked the wife. "What are those?"

"Oh they're okay. They're sort of like hymns, only different", said the

"Well, what's the difference?", asked the wife.

The farmer said "Well its like this if I were to say to you "Martha,
the cows are in the corn" well that would be a hymn. If, on the other
hand, I were to say to you,

Martha, Martha, Martha,
Oh Martha, MARTHA, MARTHA!!!!
The cows, the big cows, the brown cows,
The black cows, the white cows, the black and white cows
The Cows, the COWS, the COWS are in the corn
Are in the corn
Are in the corn

then if I was to repeat the whole thing two or three times, well that
would be a praise chorus"!"

Amen?!  Well, just wait. . . . 

As luck would have it, the exact same Sunday a young, new Christian
from the city church attended the small town church. He came home and
his wife asked him how it was.

"Well", said the young man, "It was good. They did something different,
however. They sung hymns instead of regular songs".

"Hymns?", asked the wife. "What are those?"

"Oh they're okay. They're sort of like regular songs, only different",
said the farmer.

"Well, what's the difference?", asked the wife.

The Young man said "Well, its like this if I were to say to you
"Martha, the cows are in the corn", well that would be a regular song.
If, on the other hand, I were to say to you,

Oh Martha, dear Martha, hear thou my cry
Inclinest thine ear to the words of my mouth.
Turn thou thy whole wondrous ear by and by
To the righteous, glorious truth.

For the way of the animals who can explain
There in their head is no shadow of sense
Hearkenest they in Gods sun or His rain
Unless from the mild tempting corn they are fenced.

Yea those cows in glad bovine, rebellious delight,
Have broken free their shackles, their warm pens eschewed.
Then goaded by minions of darkness and night
They all my mild Chilliwack sweet corn chewed.

So look to that bright shining day by and by,
Where all foul corruptions of earth and reborn
Where no vicious animal makes me soul cry
And I no longer see those foul cows in the corn.

then if I were to do only verses one, three and four and change keys on
the last verse, well that would be a hymn.!".  

So, now are we all clear on that, on the difference?

Well, the moral of the story, of course, if music is sung to praise God from the heart then it is pleasing to the Lord and it is welcome here.

The beauty of the Pentecost story is that it brings together all kinds of folk.  People who sing all kinds of music and have all kinds of different styles and speak all kinds of different languages and wear all kinds of different clothes and have all kinds of different skin complexions.  And they are united on Pentecost by the spirit of God and all receive the spirit equally.

Pentecost may not be the biggest holiday of the church, but maybe it should be.  When nation wages war against nation, Pentecost reveals that we are one world, that those that we see as our enemies are in fact our brothers and sisters.  When people are divided by race, national identity, language and culture, Pentecost shows us that we are not as divided as we sometimes think.  And when the church is divided over matters of doctrine or styles of worship and music, Pentecost reminds us that there is only one spirit, one Lord, one baptism.

There is much therefore for us to learn from the story of Pentecost.  Pentecost teaches that God is not satisfied with the status quo.  In fact that's the message throughout much of scripture, is it not?  Isaiah speaks of the deserts that will bloom and crooked roads that will be made straight to prepare the way of the Lord.  Jesus speaks of the oppressed who will be set free and the blind given sight as a sign of the acceptable year of the Lord.  Revelation speaks of the new Jerusalem and an end to pain and suffering and death itself.

Pentecost is about the transformation of our world into God's vision.  And it begins with a small, scared, secluded group of disciples who become a powerful force for the gospel.  What they accomplished in their lifetimes -- spreading the gospel across the face of the Roman Empire, establishing communities of faith in every region -- was nothing short of phenomenal.   This is the transforming power of the breath of God.  

Now, Easter is the story of transformation.  But it's one thing for God to restore the life of Jesus and it's another thing altogether for God to give that kind of new life to an entire population.  So is there any reason to believe that the transforming power of Easter is also available to us?  Yes indeed!  You see, that is what Pentecost is about.  The power that is poured out on all flesh.

Benjamin Franklin discovered electricity 200 years ago, Thomas Edison created the light bulb some 100 or more years ago, yet in some rural areas of our country electricity did not come until after the second world war.  The Reverend Mark Trotter describes this experience of a man in rural Kentucky who had wired his house in preparation for that day, and waited.  Until finally one day the light bulb, the single light bulb hanging there in his living room, filled the room with such a brilliant light as he had never experienced before.  He was so excited he ran out of the house and down the street, yelling, announcing to the entire community that the "Power is on, the power is on!".  

You see, that's Pentecost.  That's the story of Pentecost, when the power came on among the followers of Jesus, filling that house with the sound of the mighty rush of wind, and the tongues aflame, and each began speaking in various languages so that people from all around the world could understand.  In the gospel of John, there's another image that Bill Pifer read for us, where Jesus simply breathes upon his followers.  There are no tongues aflame, there's no dramatic wind, no ecstatic experience, no great preaching, just the breath of Jesus breathing new life into the disciples just as God breathed new life into the first human beings.  

This notion of wind and breath to bring new life is combined in the Ezekiel passage that Eliza read for us, where God instructs the prophet to prophesy to the breath, saying "Come forth from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these dry bones that they may live".  The spirit of God is that breath of life.

In the ancient Coptic church there is a tradition when someone is ordained, the patriarch of Alexandria breathes upon the candidate.  That the new minister will receive the spirit of God for their ministry.

Pentecost, however, is not about certain individuals who receive the spirit, rather it is about the community that receives the spirit.  The people of God, the body of Christ.  We are the recipients of God's life-giving, transforming spirit.  Pentecost is the church's story, it's our story, it's the story of how the first group of working-class men and women receive that spirit.  It's the story of Saul, persecutor of the church, who became Paul, missionary to the Gentiles.  It's the story of Francis of Assisi, who rid himself of all of his father's things, all of his belongings, took on the monk's robe and became the greatest saint of our tradition.  It's the story of Thomas and Alexander Campbell who left behind their Scottish homeland to come to a new mission on the American frontier and established what is now the Christian Church, Disciples of Christ.  It's the story of the Reverend Gilmore Callison, member of the Oregon legislature in 1864, who came to Pleasant Hill in 1852 and began holding services in the courthouse here in Eugene twice a month during the civil war to bring a message of peace and hope to the people, and established, in 1866, this congregation.

All of these folk are part of the church that was born on Pentecost, and they are those who have kept the church living and breathing by bringing new life into it.  Starting new groups like the Franciscans, or new denominations like the Disciples, or new congregations like this.  They are part of what we call 'organized' religion.  Indeed, they, like the first disciples of Pentecost, are the ones who helped bring organization to religion.  Now I recognize that "organized religion" is not always a popular or positive concept these days.  Rick Dancer, our scholarship speaker a few weeks ago, began his presentation to us with a critique of organized religion, of all the things the church has not done.  And that critique, I must confess, at times is valid.  But you know what, Rick is not a part of organized religion -- he's one of those who's chosen to profess his faith separately, independently.  Personally I find it strange when people say that they can find God just as much under a tree, or up in the mountains as they can find God sitting in a pew.  Why would we choose to search for God where there are no other human beings?  Is it not in human beings that that breath of God is given?

That's not to say that we do not find God in those other places, indeed I do as much as I think that you do, but that God is here where the flesh and blood of humanity is filled with that breath of God.  God brings people together from all walks of life, all nationalities, all ages, all sexes and sexual orientations, shapes and sizes, rich and poor, conservative and liberal, republican and democrat, you name it.  God brings all that together, organizes it, and fills it with the spirit to do God's work.

We have 40 people sleeping in the basement of our church this last week and next week.  26 of them are children between the ages of 0 and 16, who can find here for these two weeks a safe, secure place where they can stay because there is no other place in this community for them.  And I don't know how many people it took -- 40 or 50 people, volunteers of our church.  If you participated in that Interfaith shelter, would you just stand up?  If you helped prepare a meal, if you stayed overnight, if you drove the van, if you helped with the kids.  I want you to look around -- see that, see that because you know what we call this?  This is organized religion.  This is organized religion making a difference, in concrete and tangible ways in the lives of people who have a need.  Thank these people for what they do in your name [applause from the congregation].  

You see that's the power of God's breath bringing people together to share the gospel in tangible, concrete ways that make a difference in someone's life.  So don't talk to me about the problems of organized religion.  Because I see also the great benefits, the incredible work that it does in our community.

Kathleen Norris, author of Amazing Grace, says this about a similar ministry in another church.  On a Sunday when she was attending, a woman at the microphone called upon the volunteers from the AIDS support group to come forward.  Throughout the church, people stood up, young men and women, middle-aged and old, straight and gay, and all of them shy of being called, and yet they came forward, assembled in the sanctuary facing the congregation.  A lady with a plastic candy cane pinned to her label.  A Castro clone with a red bandana exploding from his hip pocket.  A perfume counter lady with a scarf mantled upon her shoulder.  A black man in a checkered sports coat.  The pink-haired punkess with a jewel in her nose.  Here too is the gay couple in middle age, interchangeable plaid shirts and corduroy pants.  This, she says, is pure holiness.  This is the face of organized religion.  Certainly organized enough to keep a city church going, one that offers an AIDS support group, perhaps a soup kitchen, services to the elderly, and wonder of wonders, the Eucharist itself.  In the rural area where I live, she writes, churches are still the only institutions capable of sustaining community ministries such as a food pantry and a domestic violence program.  That even the most well-intentioned social service agency cannot replace.  It's called 'salvation'.  But it begins small at the local level in a church that provides a time and a space for people to gather to meet a God who has promised to be there.  People are encouraged to sing whether they can or not.  And they receive a blessing just for showing up.

Pentecost is the story of God's breath, the Holy Spirit that gives life and power to the church to get organized.  To bring that life-giving power to the people of this community and to every community of the world.  This then is the blessing given to you for showing up this day.  

Receive the Holy Spirit, the breath of God's life, the fire of God's spirit, the wind of God's power.  Let it be a blessing not only for you, but also for others, that we might bring love and life, hope and good news, the very salvation of God, to our community and our world.  May it be.  


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