One of my favorite theological movies is a movie called “Cowboys and Aliens.” The movie takes place in the old West and it begins with a guy in the desert who has amnesia and a strange shackle on his wrist. He wanders into a small town called Absolution where he has a run-in with a kid named Percy who likes to terrorize the town and gets away with it because his daddy is very rich and influential. Amnesia guy and Percy are arrested by the sheriff who recognizes amnesia guy as being a wanted outlaw named Jake. Percy’s father shows up demanding that Percy be released and Jake be strung up, and everyone gets mad and wants to kill each other when all of a sudden alien spaceships begin attacking the town and Percy, along with a bunch of other people are abducted. Everyone left winds up forming a posse and Jake’s memory returns reminding him that he and his wife had been abducted and he got away, while she remained a prisoner.
As the posse is riding out to locate the aliens and rescue their loved ones, they are attacked by a gang of outlaws. But during the fight, the aliens show up again and abduct more people, forcing the posse and the outlaws put aside their differences so that they can go after the aliens together. So now the posse and the outlaws are working together and searching for the aliens, but before they can find them they are attacked by the Apaches. Well, as you probably have already guessed, the aliens show up again and take more people, causing the Apaches to team up with the outlaws and the posse so that they can defeat the aliens and recover their loved ones. Ultimately, by working together, they get their people back, eject the aliens from the planet and go home as friends.
Now at first it may sound like a rather questionable parallel that I have drawn between “Cowboys and Aliens” and the Pentecost, but consider if you will how alien the whole experience with the Holy Spirit must have been on that strange day when it came roaring through town like a tornado on fire. Two thousand years later the story has been read and reread so many times that it has kind of lost its punch, but imagine for a minute the scene I just read to you from the book of Acts suddenly taking place right here and now… Imagine that crazy wind bearing down on us and flames appearing and the terror we might feel as we try to wrap our heads around what is going on around us. The scripture says that those who observed this Pentecost visitation from outside the house were bewildered, amazed, astonished and perplexed. Of course we know that the Holy Spirit did not come to abduct people, but what do you suppose those experiencing it were thinking as it touched them with flames and gave them the ability to speak every language in existence? I imagine it had to be a strange mixture of terror and awe that they were feeling as the chaos intensified and they clung to each other. Then they began to speak, and everybody could understand everybody else, and commonalities began to emerge – much the same as what the posse, the outlaws and the Apaches experienced. There emerged a strong sense of unity. Relationships were formed that previously had been ruled impossible.
Now maybe the aliens weren’t trying to unify people, but it sure was on the agenda of the Holy Spirit. As bridges were built between differences, people were enlightened and enriched as they shared information and ideas – understanding not just syllables and vocabulary, but each other as fellow beings made in God’s image. Different languages are spoken in both the literal and figurative sense, yet there is a common language; and when people are communicating and listening to each other, we are all in a much better position to hear what our still-speaking God is saying – to hear a new call that may gather us into something more effective and amazing than ever before.
I remember at this time last year I was in the city of San Cristobal in Chiapas Mexico with twelve other people from my church where we were immersing ourselves in the Mayan culture and learning about ways that are far different from what we are used to. None of us spoke the language and we had to have an interpreter along with us wherever we went, but on Sunday, which was Pentecost Sunday, our interpreter had the day off and so we were on our own. Well, of course we wanted to go to church, so we headed for the main cathedral in the town square, but to my shock everyone in my group took a seat in the very last row – apart from everyone else. I wasn’t about to set myself apart from everyone else…I wanted to be right in the middle of everything where I could hear, see, smell and participate. I wasn’t Catholic and I didn’t understand the words that were spoken, but I was a Christian same as everyone else – not an observer. And you know, what I learned that day is that there is a common language beneath the surface of all of the different languages that we speak. I don’t know if it’s left over from that long ago visit by the Holy Spirit, but as I sat among the people of San Cristobal, I knew that I was worshiping the same creator and using the same language as everyone else on the planet – the language of love.
On Pentecost the Spirit leveled the playing field and completely dismantled all of our carefully constructed concepts of hierarchies and pecking orders because God doesn’t care about such things. Those are things that exist only in our collective imaginations. And those things go out the window pretty fast when people are thrown together in a common purpose. God’s constant movement toward new creation reveals that God is capable of reaching far deeper than the isolations we create by our divisions into cultures, nationalities, and languages. God speaks through our words and actions and does not even recognize what we see as insurmountable barriers. On that Pentecost day, those who were touched by the Holy Spirit were driven out into the streets to make a very public scene in every conceivable language so that everyone would know that the person the crowds had put to death was alive through the power of God. God’s message was loud and clear and no one was excluded from hearing it. And even that was only a forerunner of the greater unity for humanity that God had in mind. It was just a taste to demonstrate that what Jesus had done was not a local event but global, cosmic event, for all people and for every people.
Well I hate to be the one to throw a bucket of water on my own sermon, but it’s kind of hard to ignore the reality that here we are, celebrating Pentecost in the shadow of events that highlight how ugly racial and ethnic divides still are in this world. Ferguson, Baltimore, Staten Island, Cleveland, South Carolina, Brooklyn, Madison… Each incident lights up differences among people like fireworks in the sky. Meanwhile Muslims and Christians are slaughtering each other in Nigeria while ISIS intensifies every religious tension it can exploit, and the list goes on and on leading me to wonder what happened? Why did the walls go back up; why did the bridges crumble? Why is the world such a complete mess???
Yet the Spirit lingers because people are speaking out. A roar of protest is gaining momentum and can be heard all over the world. As we re-remember Pentecost, we remember that the Holy Spirit does its finest work as an agitator, a disruptor and a pot-stirrer. And that is exactly the kind of Holy Spirit the world needs to bring us together so that we can collectively recall the inward hopes, desires, and longings that are characteristic of those who wait for God’s redemption. Sometimes the groaning of creation is incredibly overwhelming, and it takes a major disruption of cosmic proportions in order for us to regain our common language and collectively raise our voices in expression of our deepest needs. The disruptive language of the Holy Spirit, is the language we need to push us beyond what we imagine into what God imagines for us. Oftentimes we tend to think of the Holy Spirit as the answer to a problem, but perhaps the real work of the Spirit is to create for us a new problem: one that involves a story to tell, mercy to share, love to spread, and no rest until we’ve done so!
Pentecost is a time to remember the Holy Spirit coming down in tongues of fire and igniting people in a moment of absolute connection and power. It was an event of epic proportions — sights, sounds, and sensations — happening all at once. Some people say it was the birth and baptism of Christianity — an enormous multisensory event like nothing we’ve seen since. But that event is something that can and “should” — continue to spark action today. As people of faith, we are compelled, by the blowing winds of God’s desire for humanity to care for one another and to act to make the world a better place. And through the power of the Holy Spirit — we are given the ability to impact the world in profound and important ways. Amen