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A Spirit of Hope

Sermon by Rev. Erin Burt, May 23rd, 2021

This week we are very pleased to have a guest Sermon by Reverend Erin Burt. Rev. Erin Burt is originally from Atlanta, Georgia but relocated to attend Union Presbyterian Seminary. She completed her M.Div. in May 2020 and now serves as the Director of Admissions for Union Presbyterian Seminary. Rev. Erin Burt has known Rev. Gary Charles since his days at Central Presbyterian Church in Atlanta where she is a member.

After Jesus’ ascension, the disciples followed Jesus’ instructions and journeyed to Jerusalem. The timing of their visit corresponded with the Jewish tradition, the Feast of Weeks. During this festival, Jews gathered at the temple to celebrate the harvest of the first fruits. Meanwhile, the apostles and other believers including Jesus’ own mother gathered in the upper room in prayer. One can only imagine that the apostles were still grieving, that their hearts were still tender. Scripture indicates they were anticipating what Jesus has prepared them for all along, the coming of the Holy Spirit. Grief and anticipation sit side by side. They were praying and hoping when they were startled by the moment they have been longing for.

As we read earlier, “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 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. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?”

The arrival of the Holy Spirit is a sensory experience. Those gathered were finding comfort in being together in the aftermath of trauma and crisis and comfort in having a familiar tradition to bring believers together. When we imagine this moment, we can hear the sudden rush of wind sweep through the heaviness of the room. Maybe a chill even runs up your spine. In the fiery tongues, God’s presence is obvious. Despite some knowing of what is coming, we too, find ourselves bewildered. The idea of people who do not share a common language suddenly being able to understand one another is incomprehensible. Or is it? This story that we know as the origin story of our church. It is often told in a way that is elevated to a point beyond our reach. Yet, this is also a story of who we still are in the world today and the Holy Spirit that remains with us.

I grew up attending Westminster Presbyterian Church where one of our annual youth group traditions was to load up the church vans and haul a group of 30-50 high schoolers to Montreat, North Carolina for a week-long youth conference. As a freshman, my dad volunteered, or more likely was “voluntold,” to accompany me on my first trip to Montreat. My thirteen year old self was preoccupied with concern that he was going to embarrass me. Unfortunately, I overlooked the generosity of my dad and other church members to take on the role of chaperoning our group. My attitude pointed to one of the many language barriers between teen and adult. For weeks in advance, we were told how amazing this trip was going to be- the mountains, the small groups, the bonding with our church community. While it all sounded alluring, it was easy to sense that there was something about this experience that couldn’t be put into words. They called Montreat a “thin place,” a place where God’s kindom feels a little closer and where the Holy Spirit is easier to sense. The week culminated in an evening worship service with teens and those who had shepherded them through the week circled around the banks of Lake Susan. Nestled in the mountains, we joined in candlelight and song. The presence of the Holy Spirit was obvious in this moment. I suspect that you hold a memory in your own life similar to this one… where God’s presence was so clear.

While I don’t think many of us had the words to describe it, we left Montreat more connected to God. My dad survived his first trip as a youth advisor, which is surely nothing short of miraculous. However, I have to think the reason he returned back for four more years was something bigger. Something like the rushing wind and the mingling of languages and the common understanding found in shared faith. Maybe even more powerful was God’s call for him to be part of the transformation that was taking place, to be a witness to the Holy Spirit.

Perhaps it is moments like these that gather us here today. You have journeyed to the comfort of this familiar place, whether in person or online, in part out of tradition. You also gathered in hope for continued transformation. It is this type of gathering that continues to make us the church. As Christians we are witnesses not only to the hope found in the resurrection, but in the hope found in the arrival of the Holy Spirit after the resurrection. Hope lures us into knowing that God is still present and active in our world today. Church, we are invited into that activity. The church points out the movement of the Holy Spirit to the world.

We meet the Holy Spirit in our corporate lives and continue to recognize the Spirit moving in our individual lives. Howard Thurman uses these words:

All around us, our Father, there are reminders of Thy Presence in our midst:

Pangs of conscience,

A spontaneous impulse to do the kind and gracious thing,

The sensitiveness to another’s needs,

The great burden of anguish which we feel as we look out upon the world.

Teach us, O Living Spirit, the wisdom to lay ourselves

Bare to Thy scrutiny- that we may reflect Thy life

In the dark places of our minds, heart, and desires;

That we may know Thy courage- and the grounds of Thy hope.

(Meditations of the Heart, 1999)

Sometimes it is easy to sense the Holy Spirit. In the words of Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon, we can feel “God’s fist at our backs.” But sometimes impatience, distraction, and the sheer stubbornness of human nature make it difficult to sense God. Especially in times when the way we interpret scripture and God’s movement in the world seems entirely different from others with whom we share a common faith. It’s as if we are speaking different languages. There are days when finding the courage to hope seems an impossible task. Our attempts to move boldly and faithfully in God’s direction can seem aimless. I wonder if that is how the disciples felt as they journeyed to Jerusalem after Jesus’ ascension. I wonder if that is how Mary, Jesus’ own mother, felt as she prayed and hoped. I wonder if despite the fact that they were following Jesus’ instructions, they felt aimless.

And yet, they put one foot in front of the other. They gathered in a familiar place. They leaned into their traditions and their spiritual practices in hopes that God might meet them in the ordinary moments of their lives. Wind and fire are ordinary elements in our world. What makes this scene so very special is that we, too, know the power of the Holy Spirit. We know what it is like to be gathered together in God’s presence. We know what it feels like when the barriers that divide us are broken down and the inbreaking of God’s kindom near. We don’t always have the words to talk about it, but we do know. Like so many sacred moments, this pentecost moment is both ordinary and extraordinary.

Perhaps you’ve met the Holy Spirit on a mountain top, in the eyes of someone in need, or in the loving embrace of a friend. Perhaps you’ve encountered the Holy Spirit in the words of a stranger or when you sit across the table from another believer who interprets the Bible differently than you. Perhaps you’ve seen the Holy Spirit present with a youth trying to discover what it means to be a part of the church. Perhaps you’ve sensed the beckoning of the Holy Spirit when responding “we will” to the call to shepherd a newly baptized member of the congregation. Perhaps you’ve been in conversation with the Holy Spirit in gathering as a congregation to make difficult decisions as a community. We do not have to go to the mountain to find the thin places. The Holy Spirit is always at work, ever ready to startle us with the moments we have been longing for.

Church, let us continue to sense and name the movement of the Holy Spirit with us now. Let us tune our minds and our hearts to know that God is still making a way for hope in the world.

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