On Fire

Scripture: Acts 2:1-21

Given on Pentecost 2014 at UPC of Amsterdam, NY


When I was 18 years old, I went on a school sponsored senior trip to Europe. While there we spent roughly a week in Italy before going to France and then finally England. During that time, my AP European history professor, who was also in the process of converting to Catholicism, took us to Rome and the Vatican. Our trip to the Vatican came at the end of the trip through many different parts of Italy and, if you have never been to Italy, it is hard to fully describe how many works of art—statues, paintings, fountains, ancient ruins that there are — both in the major cities of Italy but also in the more rural areas. And so by the time we got to Vatican City we had already seen enough major works of art and architecture for 3 or 4 lifetimes. We had seen David and the fontana di trevi, we had seen the Coliseum and Constantine’s Arch, and when you are 18 and spending almost three weeks away from home, and criss-crossing the Italian  countryside moving from town-to-town and city-to-city to see and take in as much as you can of the art and culture, it is possible that it all begins to overwhelm the senses. Also, when you are 18, it turns out that you don’t (or at least I didn’t) know my place in the world and that not everyone could say that they had spent the night in the Italian Alps, or had seen the Pietà. Thus, by the time we arrived at The Vatican, most of the senses of young adults on the trip had been overwhelmed trying to take it all in. Until, that is, we arrived at St. Peter’s basilica. That morning, and the only time in the trip this was required, we had to wear much dressier clothes than most of us were used to, the boys wore khaki pants and either button up or golf shirts, the women had to wear dresses or skirts that were of appropriate lengths. And the folks at the entrance to St. Peter’s took this seriously. The skirt of one of the women on the trip was deemed to be too short and the female chaperones spent what seemed like forever trying to figure out some creative was to make her skirt line drop an additional inch or so. One of the things I remember most about the trip through St. Peter’s basilica is the incredible line of people that they move through the Sistine Chapel. The day we were there, it took something like an hour and a half to get from the back of the line and into the chapel but then there is the moment that you move from one side of the wall to the other and you begin to take in the enormity of the ceiling of the Sistine chapel. If you spent a lifetime in that room you could never fully take in each of the intricacies and details that make up that fresco. From the moment that you enter the room until the last few seconds in a line that is in constant motion, your eyes dart from one minute detail to the next trying desperately to take mental pictures of the images unfolding in front of your face. There is of course the Creation Of Adam that is probably the most used portion of the fresco and you immediately try to find that on the ceiling but what you discover is that it is just one of roughly 50 different biblical scenes and hundreds of characters on the ceilings. In a world where we often use hyperbolic language to underscore the greatness or the immensity or the specialness of a moment, there are no words to adequately describe this work of art and there is no doubt in my mind that it was divinely inspired and the crazy part of the whole thing is that Michelangelo didn’t want to do it. 

As the story goes, when Michelangelo was approached by Pope Julius II, he at first declined the commission. He considered himself much more of a sculpture than a painter and the job was going to be very time consuming and the restrictions on the project were, at first, quite limiting on the artist’s ability to freely produce that which he wanted to. Also, it should be noted, he was busily preparing the Pope’s tomb and didn’t have a lot of time to put to such an immense project. It was originally conceived as being a space for an artistic rendering of the 12 disciples but in the midst of much back-and-forth between the artist and the pontiff, a decision was reached to allow Michelangelo to do as he wanted with the massive canvas before him until ultimately 343 figures and 50 biblical scenes were created. Next became the issue of how does one spend 4 years high above the ground painting with such exacting detail. Here, it turns out, the onus fell on artist himself to conceive of scaffolding that would allow him the free range of motion that such a project would entail. The scenes themselves arise primarily from Genesis and other stories from the Hebrew tradition with the most iconic being the last scene the artist painted—that of God touching the finger of Adam and bringing life to him, a scene that was, after a 4 year project, painted in a day. Let that wash over you. Also included was the genealogy of Christ and other prophetic figures from the time following the completion of the Bible. The enormity of the project captured by the writer, Johann Wolfgang Goethe some three hundred years later noting, “Without having seen the Sistine Chapel one can form no appreciable idea of what one man is capable of achieving.”  

Today is Pentecost, 50 days after the Jewish holiday of Passover, and the day when tradition holds that the disciples were touched by the flames of the holy spirit and sent on their mission in full force. In thinking about how to talk about Pentecost today, I was struck by the manner in which Michelangelo, like the disciples, experienced the holy spirit descending on him in the midst of his painting. Michelangelo, didn’t want to paint the chapel, he didn’t consider himself a painter as much as a sculptor, but he opened himself up the spirit to move through him, to be his muse, to inspire him to paint images that have been universally celebrated for over 500 years. He was willing to move a single inch in the grand scheme of creation, and God used that willingness to, through the artist, create art that would endure forever. Michelangelo, like the disciples, changed the course of history.

As the disciples gathered together on the day of Pentecost, one gets the idea that they are in some kind of a holding pattern. When last we saw them, they had received a final commissioning from Jesus before he ascended into the heavens and they had headed back to Jerusalem to begin the work that Jesus had given them. In the Gospel of John we are told that they are to wait until the gift of the holy spirit has come to them and perhaps that is what they are doing. But they are, after all Jewish men, and Jews come together to celebrate Pentecost and so we find them gathered this morning. And you have to wonder if the whole episode happened in the blink of an eye or if it took time to build, the sound of something like a rushing wind coming to them the way that you can often hear wind blowing through a long valley or over the top of a mountain so that you know it is coming before it actually gets there. And the touch of the holy spirit, often described as something like tongues of fire touching each one of them in the room. What must that experience have been like for each one gathered? To see these divided flames touching each of those with whom they were closest. Surely more than anything they must have been petrified by the experience there seems little about supernatural fire engulfing a room that can be comforting and yet, soon thereafter they each become filled with strange languages and words that had to be from some other realm. No one can possibly begin to reach so many different people in their native tongues. And the effect of the spirit coming upon them was almost immediate. A rush of energy the same as the rush of fire pushing each one out into the streets to excitedly use their new skill of language to reach as many persons as possible with the message of God’s love and Jesus’s redemption. And the crowds don’t know what to make of this, these men of Galilee speaking in foreign tongues, reaching the visitors from all over the Empire exactly where they are and using their own language to do so. We are told that many in the crowd were amazed, though it should also be pointed out that some believed that the disciples had just started hitting the bottle a little early and were filled with a different sort of spirit. And Peter, the rock, the one on whom Jesus will build his church, perhaps for the first time, finds the voice that Jesus had always sensed within him, buried under all the layers of uncertainty and fear, “People listen up, these men before you are not drunk, but rather an amazing thing is transpiring before your eyes, that which the prophet Joel spoke of, the spirit of God is being poured out over all flesh, young men and women will have visions, your old will dream dreams, even those in the lowliest stations of life will be given the ability to envision the world of tomorrow, a world of peace in the valley and an end to war. A world of shared sacrifice and shared reward. A world in which each child of God is treated with the dignity afforded to her simply because she is a child of God. The reconciliation of the world has begun and you are witnessing only the beginning of everything that God is about within creation. Hear and believe!” We are told later in the chapter that on that day some 3,000 new souls were added to their following and that which was a minuscule sect of Judaism began to grow into something else. And the world was set ablaze. 

On the door to my office is one of my favorite quotes, often misattributed to Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” I don’t know if whoever said that originally was thinking of the disciples on that day of Pentecost when everything change and the movement that was begun by Jesus began to explode into the world but it certainly confirms the truth of such a statement. Those 12 followers, gathered together to celebrate the Jewish holiday could never have expected to be touched by the spirit in the manner in which they were, they could never have expected to be thrust out into the streets speaking languages foreign and strange to them, they could never have expected to grow their tiny group into the size that it did, there is no way they could have anticipated any of this, and yet, the most important part, the most crucial part of the whole experience, besides the work of the spirit, was that they were a small group of faithful followers, who never doubted, not for a second, that they could change the course of history, that they could change the world. And I suppose that it is possible to set that event off somewhere in the recesses of time and space, to a place where most of us will never go and to a time to which none of us can return. To look back on that time as the good old days, to look back and say those were the times when the spirit of God was really present, lighting folks on fire and sending them out into the streets with purpose and with zeal, but that is no longer now. Now is different. Now is a different era in the life of the church in which our message, our traditions are often met with curious looks and even more curious words. But at the heart of all persons, I am convinced is still a burning desire to touch the face of the divine, to be moved by the holy spirit to do and be great, to walk in the footsteps of those who came before us with a message of love and hope that enlivens generations of persons. In each time and in each place are persons who cast their visions over the world and see things as they could be and not how they are. In each time and in each place are persons who gather a handful of people together and declare that they are going to change the course of history. In each time and in each place are persons who draw lines in the sand and say, “here I stand, I can do no other!” On this day of Pentecost, when we mark they descending of the spirit onto our spiritual forebearers, let us not miss the spirit in our own midst, still calling, still pulling, still demanding that we be about the work of reconciliation in the world. Still gifting us with the ability to dream dreams and have visions. Still giving us eyes to see and ears to hear a world crying out for someone, anyone to care. Still entrusting us with the message of reconciliation for a world that has been torn asunder in a billion ways. Still calling us to never doubt that a small gathering of people can come together, can create a unified vision, and can make it happen, because throughout history, it is the only thing that ever has. 

Friends, we are the disciples who sat in that room on that morning some 2,000 years ago. We are the people who have been entrusted both with the message but also with the mission of going out into our world, and using whatever language we have, to reach as many people as with can with the love of God. We are the ones we are waiting for when we cast our eyes over the world and say, “I wish this was different. I wish someone would change it.” We are those people. And we have a sacred duty, a sacred responsibility to simply be open to the movement of the spirit, simply be willing to move one inch, simply stop struggling against the pull of the spirit to be closer to God, simply be God’s beloved, and inviting all those we meet to be God’s beloved as well. And glory be to God in the highest and on earth peace amongst all God’s peoples. Alleluia, Amen. 

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