Scripture: Acts 2:1-21
Preacher: Rev. Dr. Kristin Gill Stoneking
What a week we’ve had! This week has been a beautiful late spring week, with sunny and warmer days and cool nights. But last week, it felt like we had dropped back into winter. Last Sunday you may have worshipped wrapped up in a blanket or comforter as fog moved with visible wisps outside. I remember when our family moved to Berkeley, my daughter, unfamiliar with summer fog winding down the street said, “It moves!”
Last year as we entered into this pandemic, many people reported that they felt like they were in a fog. We then learned that the feeling was real—that situations where routines have been upended do create a fogginess as our brains look for familiar patterns and find few if any. There was a period of reorientation, as we settled into new routines in the much smaller worlds of our homes, and the fog began to lift. In its wake, we noticed new things, things we hadn’t seen before though they were there all along. We began to receive new insights, too.
But now as we come out of the pandemic and many things begin to open up, we find ourselves in a new kind of fog once again. Patterns established in the last year are now changing. And while last year may not have seemed easy, at least we were retreating to smaller and familiar spaces, our homes, where the structure, at least inside, was in our control. But this shift is outward, into the world, a vastly larger environment where most things are NOT in our control. As we return, it can often feel like everything is up for renegotiation. It can feel like the new insights we’ve gained and new wonders we’ve noticed are in jeopardy.
A few years ago, my son had an internship at the Institute for Transportation Studies at UC Davis where he got to work with a professor on research on self-driving cars. What he learned was that self-driving cars are good at structured environments where the lines on the roads are clear. But they have a much harder time in an unstructured environment where the lines go away. One day when we were heading across the Bay Bridge, he noticed as we approached the toll booths that lanes disappeared, and then they don’t reorganize until after moving through the booth, as multiple cars emerging from paying the toll had to figure out how to get into one of five lanes. “This is the kind of unstructured environment that self-driving cars have a lot of trouble with,” he said, pondering.
Actually, I’m regularly amazed that there aren’t more accidents as we come out of the various toll plazas in our areas. How can all of these cars, traveling at these speeds without clear lanes not collide? But every day nearly half a million cars navigate the Bay, Golden Gate and Carquiñez bridges with grace—well, not always with grace, but without incident. How does so much structure come out of such an unstructured environment? The complexity of our world, the awesomeness of goodness and power, is astounding.
In our scripture today from Acts, the disciples have been dealing with an unstructured environment. It had been Jesus who gave the direction and purpose to their days, but he was gone. He had been present to them—on the road to Emmaus, in the Upper Room—but they were still trying to make sense of these appearances. They were in a fog. And it is into this fog that Holy Spirit descends, like wind and fire that dissipates the mists and lack of clarity.
What is this Spirit that manifests in this way on this day? As the third person of the Trinity of God, the Holy Spirit was not created on this day, the day we celebrate when we celebrate Pentecost. We believe that the Holy Spirit, like the person of Jesus, is co-eternal and co-equal with God. But like the birth of Jesus, something new is happening here. A new way of knowing, a new wisdom, a new insight, a new way of really being God’s people has descended and is present with us in possibility and hope.
The scripture tells us that, “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” The refrain in the scripture is that “they were amazed and astonished” saying “what does this mean??”
And it was out of this openness that, that new understanding and empowerment became manifest, and the Church was born. So often, we think of the fog or confusion we experience as a negative. But it is precisely in these times when our minds let go of what we think we know, that the Holy Spirit can break through to us, giving us access to new information and awareness, or leading us in ways that can transform our lives and transform the world.
Twelve years before Rosa Parks famously refused to give up her seat on that Montgomery bus, she had had a showdown with the very same bus driver. Did you know this part of the story? She had entered through the front door of the bus. The driver was a well-known racist bigot named James Blake. He told her to get off and enter again through the rear and started to push her off the bus. Parks calmly asked him not to touch her. She said she would leave on her own. But before she exited, she sat down for a moment in a seat reserved for white passengers, an act of resistance, a testament to dignity and life. “Get off the bus!” Blake yelled. Rosa Parks exited and told herself she would never ride a bus with this man as driver again.
For twelve years, she paid attention as she waited for the bus, consciously letting a bus pass if Blake was the driver. Then one day, she was consumed by her own thoughts, maybe she was stressed about something, maybe it was something going on in her family she was preoccupied by, we don’t know what was on her mind, but she forgot to check the driver. The driver on that day, December 1, 1955, was Blake. The same scene ensued, and the rest, of course is history.
But the moment I want to call our attention to is the moment in 1955 before Parks got on the bus. This moment of fog or preoccupation, this is the moment the Holy Spirit used for good and grace to complete the action that had been begun twelve years before. This is the moment—that in spite of her intentions to the contrary, Parks boarded the bus, and through the awesome and mysterious power of the Holy Spirit, we were all offered a vision through her actions of what God’s world could look like. Amazing!
In this short scripture today from Acts, twice we have the line, “and they were amazed!” But how often do we fail to be amazed at what God is doing? How often do we miss the intricacy, the moment before the moment? That opening that Holy Spirit finds to enter? The truth is that when we are in our routines, with sunny and clear weather, going about our structured lives, staying in our lanes, we so easily miss the Holy Spirit who is trying to break through to us, empowering us to work for God’s justice, or giving us insight into exactly what confounds us, giving us the key to our chains, giving us breath that leads to life.
The great Jewish theologian of the twentieth century Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “Awe precedes faith; it is at the root of faith. We must grow in awe in order to reach faith. We must be guided by awe to be worthy of faith…Awe is more than emotion; it is a way of understanding.” “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement,” he wrote. “Get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.” This from a man who became exiled from his homeland and endured the horrific deaths of friends and family in the Holocaust. “Live life in radical amazement,” he counsels.
Now that we are coming out of this pandemic, the temptation is to return to our routines, our structures, to reclaim the life we left. But to do so is to miss all of the insights that came through the power of the Holy Spirit that entered as mist in fog, that broke through the orderliness of what we think we know. Resist the temptation to proclaim your “facts.” The message of Pentecost is that God is in our amazement. And in the acceptance rather than the resistance to, that amazement, the church is born.
Rosa Parks sparked an exceedingly significant chapter of activism for racial justice, and more than half a century later, so has George Floyd. The anniversary of George Floyd’s murder as a result of police violence is Wednesday. We often think of awe as wonderful and joyous, but awe can be terrible too, as in awe-ful. The pain and deep sorrow of last May gave way to a space—a space in which Black folks said, “I can’t keep carrying the trauma alone and white folks said, “I need to do better.” How we would affect this shift, we did not fully know, but the Holy Spirit entered into that moment of letting go, of yearning, of openness to more, and things have shifted. We’re not done, but we know some things have shifted.
The church that was born through the descent of the Holy Spirit over two thousand years ago is the same church that now responds to the empowering of the Holy Spirit as we pursue true racial justice. At Epworth, our openness to what we don’t know has led us into a process of deeper listening, researching, studying, creating, growing, and learning.
You may know that Epworth has a practice of creating art, and using art and visible expressions like our always flying rainbow flag to witness to our commitments and our hope. Last year, there was a strong desire to create an installation that would witness to our commitment to racial justice. Our artist in residence, Clark Kellogg, encouraged us to listen to the Spirit. Then Dianne Rush Woods brought to Epworth the idea of doing something similar to the installation of lament and tribute for persons who had been killed at the hands of the state that she had led at Cal State East Bay. Out of this, the Beyond February at Epworth project was born.
Through the Beyond February project, Epworth members were led to an African American individual who has been killed as a result of police violence. Then they researched their lives, their friends, their families, their hopes, their commitments, their likes and dislikes, their dreams. A tribute piece was created, and these beautiful and holy pieces were consecrated last week then installed at the Hopkins Street entrance. Member Kim Hraca memorialized Chinedu Okobi, and said, “I fell in love with him doing this project. I came to appreciate the complex person he was in life, and I grieve that his life was cut short through police violence. Working on this project penetrated some layers of white numbness or white indifference in me, and I have been much more emotionally attuned ever since to the impact of police violence on Black communities."
This is the work of the Holy Spirit through the Church, alive, breathing, breaking through our numbness or fog or despair, or lack of wonder, bringing healing, sowing wholeness, granting grace. May we stay open to her guiding wisdom. May we keep being formed and informed and reformed. And may we be the Church, open and amazed through the love of God, saved through the companionship of Jesus, and inspired and set free through the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Order of Service (Bulletin) - Sunday, May 23, 2021
Prelude: "Every Time I Feel the Spirit" - Rev. Jerry Asheim & Chris Poston
Welcome and "We Are One in the Spirit" Liturgy - Rev. Kristin Stoneking & Judy Kriege
Opening Hymn: "Spirit, Spirit of Gentleness" The Faith We Sing #2120 - Rev. Jerry Asheim & Annette Cayot
Invocation - Kelly Trego
Scripture Reading: Acts 2: 1-21 - Ruby Reeder
Children's Message: "LeBron, A Pentecost-Pandemic Story" - Susan Jardin
Anthem: "She Comes Sailing on the Wind" The Faith We Sing #2122 - Rev. Jerry Asheim & Cathryn Bruno
Message: "The Church Is" - Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Hymn of Response: "Breathe" Worship & Song #3112 - Rev. Jerry Asheim & Annette Cayot
Call for Prayer - Kelly Trego
The Prayer Jesus Taught in Many Tongues - Susan Jardin (Italian), Martin Poz-Perez (K'iche Mayan), Rafael Ferreira & Louise Junker and family (Portuguese), Justine Esomonu (Igob), Eda Naranjo (Spanish), Emory (Mandarin); Cathryn Bruno (English, arranged by Mark A. Miller).
Call for Offering - Rev. Kristin Stoneking & Becky Wheat
Offertory: "Spirit Song" UM Hymnal #347 - Rev. Jerry Asheim & Albert Sammons, Jr.
Offertory images courtesy Susan Jardin, Epworth Peace Arts Camp, & Rev. John Stuart, stushieart.com
Prayer of Dedication - Becky Wheat
Closing Hymn: “I’m Goin’ a Sing When the Spirit Says Sing" - Rev. Jerry Asheim & Jonah Arreola-Burl
Benediction - Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Postlude: "Westminster Carillon" - Rev. Jerry Asheim
Special Thanks To
Preacher: Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Contributors: Rev. Jerry Asheim, Jonah Arreola-Burl, Cathryn Bruno, Annette Cayot, Emory, Justine Esomonu, Rafael Ferreira & Louise Junker and family, Susan Jardin, Judy Kriege, Eda Naranjo, Chris Poston, Martin Poz-Perez, Ruby Reeder, Albert Sammons, Jr., Kelly Trego, Becky Wheat Video producer: Tai Jokela Podcast producer: Ethan Toven-Lindsey Livestream producer: Merrie Bunt
Liturgy and Prayer of Dedication ©2021 enfleshed, adapted with permission. The Lord's Prayer arr. by Mark Miller © 2008, Abingdon Press. Hymns reprinted/streamed with permission under ONE LICENSE # A-733809, CCLI Copyright license # 20022935, & CCLI Streaming license # 20476749. All rights reserved.