Sermon by Rev. Todd Weir

May 24, 2015

Pentecost Sunday

Scriptures:
Romans 8:22-27 and Acts 2:1-21

 

This is strange stuff to us, with tongues of fire, a big rush of wind from heaven, Galileans suddenly bursting forth in multi-lingual abandon, yet people of many nations, not even involved with this prayer meeting, hearing in their own languages.   Verse 12 sums up the reaction:

12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

Did this look like the Blarney Blowout, the Patrick’s drinking binge at UMass?   Peter was quick to seize the attention and put this in the context of the Prophet Joel, who proclaimed an outpouring of God’s spirit.

For a bit of Pentecost perspective, in 1994, members of the Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship were overtaken by ecstatic experiences in worship. It began as fits of raucous laughter, with some people rolling around on the floor. A few people began to roar like a lion and some were given to heaving fits as they experienced forgiveness for their sins. This Toronto Blessing made world news and spread to other charismatic churches. What does this mean?

We may think this to be rather bizarre, but in 1734-35, here in Northampton, in the 3rd Meeting House on this site, people cried in worship with remorse for past sins, shouted with joy and laughter over the presence of God, swooning and fainting were part of worship for a time. Most sober Puritan preachers condemned this unseemly emotional fervor, but the intellectually inclined Jonathan Edwards defended this emotionalism as a genuine movement of God’s Holy Spirit. News went all over the 13 colonies, stretched to England and other preachers like George Whitfield spread the word until this Great Awakening spread across the Eastern Seaboard.

Since Edwards wrote 26 thick volumes of collected works, had a brilliant mind and keen observations about people and situations around him, this is one of the most studied religious awakenings in history.   Visitors come here for pilgrimage on a regular basis, especially evangelical Presbyterians from South Korea. I think Edwards is a patron saint there more than in New England. Two weeks ago a busload of 40 Korean pastors arranged a visit and came and prayed and preached and sang hymns we deep reverence in the sanctuary.

So the question that forms in my mind on Pentecost Sunday, is what can we learn of the work of the Holy Spirit from a time nearer to us in history, closer to us culturally and actually happened in our front yard? My attention focused on a short article written by Edwards, entitled, “A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God.” Here are a few insights from this 1737 essay.

 

The great Northampton and Connecticut River Valley Awakening was not a sudden event, but rather a confluence of several spiritual occurrences in the prior two years. Edwards was especially aware of two key deaths in 1734. A young man in “the full bloom of youth” was afflicted with pleurisy, a lung infection, and was delirious and died within two days. Not long after a young married woman died after an illness, and she had struggled with the nature of her soul and salvation, but came to a great spiritual peace in the last days of her illness. Edwards speculated that the youth of the town were especially effected by this, and took a greater spiritual interest in church life. This makes sense to me, I had five high school classmates die before graduation, which is a lot in a class of 33, and I imagine coming to terms with this accelerated my spiritual development.

Edwards observed the awakening starting among young people, and it took off when a young woman whom he described as the greatest “company-keeper” in town experienced a spiritual awakening. Edwards noted that he had always thought her to be frivolous, but discovered she was wise and serious about life, and had great spiritual awareness. I’m fascinated that despite his stern Puritan moralism, Edwards had great empathy and respect for people. I imagine this set a tone for the congregation. He notes that he thought the town might look negatively at the church welcoming this company-keeping woman, but she actually brought many others into the life of the church. It sounds like, “whoever you are and wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” In this two year awakening 300 souls joined Edwards church, and he remarks how many were in their 50s and 60s, people whom he thought set in their ways.

 

What strikes me in the narrative is the lack of strangeness. Edwards downplays the ecstatic, emotional side of things. He believed that emotions in church were important to stimulate and reach the heart, the intensity of the reaction was not a sign of more of the Spirit of God. Whether people awakened quietly or with great drama, what mattered to Edwards were the fruits of the spiritual awakening in their lives. Did it lead them to love, joy, peace, kindness and of course, good moral behavior.   People were going through life, confronting their challenges and anxieties, and finding spiritual resources that help then find strength and inner peace. When this happens in community, there is a multiplier effect, as people join together in their stories.

 

Edwards describes the effects on the whole community, noting a sweetness of spirit in the town, an unusual flexibility in thinking, a strong concern for neighbors and their circumstances, that people gathered in homes to talk about scriptures and their spiritual lives. After reading all this I felt a sweetness of spirit in my own heart, a spiritual kinship with the congregation that worshiped here 280 years ago. They are still here in our DNA. I believe things get passed on through the generations in congregational life. Churches that quarrel with their pastors often do so for 200 years. Churches that live in peace and are willing to adapt and change, pass that along in their congregational DNA too.

 

Much of what I read in “A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God” applies to things happening in this congregation now. There are many signs of spiritual yearnings and growth. Our Lenten house church groups that read Rob Bell keeps bearing fruit, because he gave us some new ways to think about who God is and God’s presence in the world. Three people quoted Rob Bell to me last week, so we are still mulling it over.   Tuesday I joined the peace prayer vigil in the sanctuary, which has gathered weekly for over two years now. There is a spiritual richness among this group of activists that comes from sustained prayer. I feel the compassion of the congregation as I listened last week to the David, Heidi and Pauline share about their mission trip to Haiti, and the congregation has been generous in support of Syrian refugees, the CROP walk, and serving meals at Cathedral and the cot shelter. Our children’s ministry and Sunday School is much more vital this year and Common Ground has been such a blessing to our congregation in the past year. Sarah sent me a text message last week from the garden, with a picture of nine people working, and she said that people were talking a building community and gardening is great for the church.

 

All this makes me wonder if we are in a time not so different from what Edwards experienced and recorded. When I see warm hearts, open minds, a willingness to try new things, well…what would you call it? That does not mean I think you are all going to start wailing or laughing uncontrollably in church. It may seem bold or even brash or self-serving to talk of a new Awakening. My perspective is that an Awakening is not something we do or accomplish, because we are so good, but rather it is a willing response to God’s spirit pouring out among us. Are we willing to believe that the Pentecost spirit, the Holy Spirit that flowed in the Great Awakening, and the stirrings in our hearts and in our community are one and the same Spirit? What might happen if we were to believe God is working among us? What might we write of our faithful narrative of the surprising works of God?