The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
The Day of Pentecost: Whitsunday
May 15, 2016
In 1836, two brothers, the Allen brothers, purchased about 6,000 acres of swamp in southeast Texas. They were real estate moguls, and they thought they could develop this mosquito ridden subtropic bog into this our fair city. In later years, when trying to attract new people to Houston, real estate developers would show pictures of green meadows and snow-capped mountains as the backdrop to Houston. Needless to say, when newcomers got off the boat in Brays Bayou, they were sorely disappointed.
It’s difficult describing Houston to my friends across the country. I usually put it like this: “well, it’s a swamp that only became profitable after NASA made it space city and industrial air conditioning made it livable.” “But actually,” I say,” without Houston, you wouldn’t have gas in your car. The port of Houston is the busiest port for foreign shipping in the United States. And, and, Houston is the most culturally and ethnically diverse urban area in the country.”
Did you know that? The Houston area is the most culturally and ethnically diverse urban area in the country. Not New York, not Chicago, not Los Angeles, not Miami. Houston is the cultural melting pot of the United States. Not so different, then, from ancient Jerusalem.
The disciples are gathered together in Jerusalem. And it’s not just them, there are Jews from all across the ancient world. It’s the melting pot of the ancient world: Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Mesopotamians, Judeans, Cappadocians, people from Pontus, Asia, Phyrgia, Pamphylia, Egypt, parts of Libya, Rome, Crete, and Arabia. See, in the Jewish calendar, Pentecost was a festival day. A day on which pilgrims would come to the Temple in Jerusalem to offer sacrifices and give thanks to God. So Jews from all around the Mediterranean world have gathered there. Houston is a twenty-first century hustling and bustling diverse metropolis in the middle of a swamp. Jerusalem was a first century hustling and bustling city set on a hill in the middle of the desert.
And then something happens when all those pilgrims are there in Jerusalem. The Holy Spirit comes upon the apostles, giving courage and energy to Peter to stand up and preach the first Christian sermon. Notice that the Acts of the Apostles has a hard time describing what exactly took place. There came a sound like the rush of a violent wind. Divided tongue, as of fire, appeared among them. Like. As of. These are metaphorical words, words attempting to describe something that is happening beyond words. Because what happens is beyond words, it is beyond believing.
Suddenly, because of the Holy Spirt and because of Peter’s sermon, the masses start following Jesus. Think of it, at the beginning of this story, the followers of Jesus numbered about one hundred and twenty, mostly from Galilee. That’s like saying that if Jerusalem is like Houston, then Galilee was like Woodville. Then, people from all over the ancient world commit themselves to Jesus. Acts of the Apostles later says that three thousand people were baptized on that day. Geez. We’re only baptizing one person today. I’m feeling a little inadequate.
But think of the transformation. The followers of Jesus are no longer just fishermen from the Sea of Galilee, they diverse people from Parthia, Mede, Elam, Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Egypt, Rome. This is unbelievable.
But perhaps not. Perhaps Pentecost is simply indicative of the nature of God and God’s people. Perhaps the difference is that where the world says “or,” God says, “and.” It’s not Parthians or Medes. Elamites or Judeans or Cappadocians or Egyptians or Romans or Arabs. It’s and. As Peter says, “God pours our the Spirit upon all flesh.” Not some flesh, all flesh.
This, to me, sums of the history of the Church. At every moment in time, in every generation, the Church bumps up against a new population. A new people. And the question is always asked, “can we let them in, too?” The answer is yes. God is not the God of “or.” God is the God of “and.”
And just as something powerful and indescribable happened two thousand years ago among all those people in Jerusalem, something is happening here in Spring. Just think of it. We are smack dab in the midst of a great pilgrimage site, as people continue to move to Harris county from around the world. And think of what the Holy Spirit has done in this church. Over the past four years, the number of people coming to this church has doubled. The question has always been, “can we let them in, too?” Even this morning when we baptize Carson, the question will be asked of the congregation, “can we let him in, too?” The answer, as it has always been, is that God pours out his Spirit upon all flesh. That’s what Peter says, God pours out his Spirit upon all flesh.
What happened on that Pentecost Day two thousand years ago is not only the history of the church. It is a vision for the future of our church. A church that preaches with the power of the Holy Spirit. A church that welcomes those who are far off and those who are near. A church that baptizes and prays and worships without ceasing. A church that is so joyful that the only logical explanation is that they must be drunk. But no, it’s the joy of the Spirit.
My friends, I believe that Holy Comforter is that church. I believe that our parish is but one small corner of Christianity in which God’s vision is being worked out. Pentecost is not just a one-time event that happened long ago in a city on a hill. It is every moment when the Holy Spirit burns in our hearts.
So what does this mean for Holy Comforter? What does it mean for our future? It means that we will continue to do what the Holy Spirit leads us to do. We will not be the church of “or,” we will be the church of “and.” All flesh, all people – regardless of where they’re from are welcome here.
And we will not be complacent. We will not permit sentimentality or nostalgia to be our core values. This is not to say that we are abandoning our past. Heavens no, we cannot abandon what happened on that Pentecost Day. Instead, we are embracing our past. What Peter says on that Pentecost day is what we too say, “your young men shall see visions, your old men shall dream dreams.”
And what I hear from you, is that you feel that Holy Comforter is home, not only because it is a safe place, but because it is a place with a vision for the future. A dream for something not yet realized. To dream of a church, to envision a place that is a home for all of us, and a place where we can reconnect with each other and with the Holy Spirit. A space that is beautiful, accessible, and visible. Or, as one parishioner puts it, “I dream one day that we are not the little church next to HEB, I dream that HEB is that grocery store next to that awesome Episcopal church.” And it’s not just a building, is it? God is the God of “and.” It is our buildings and our ministries. It is a church in which the hungry are fed, and children feel at home, and where all people are invited to meet Jesus. A church that sends out as well as draws in. That is the Pentecost dream, that is the dream for Holy Comforter.
This vision, this dream, it gets me going. It wakes me up in the morning and drives me through the day. This vision, this dream of a Pentecost church is beautiful, but, but, it comes with a cost.
When you open your heart to the Holy Spirit, when you allow the Spirit of Jesus to move in your life, be careful. Because your life will not be the same. The life of the church will not be the same. It comes with a cost. Those twelve disciples who receive the Holy Spirit on that Pentecost Day, well, eleven of them are killed for their faith. The last one dies in lonely exile. In other words, when the Holy Spirit comes into your life, don’t expect everything to work out like you want it to work out.
As Jesus says, “where our treasure is, there our heart will be also.” If you want to see where your heart really is, take a look at your credit card statement. That will tell you how the Spirit is moving in your life. And more than money, what Jesus requires of us is our lives, our souls and bodies. So when you ask the Holy Spirit into your life, expect everything to catch on fire. Because that’s what the Holy Spirit is like. A fire. A fire that burns away our old divisions and creates something new in its place. Like a refiners’ fire, the Holy Spirit takes what is bad and consumes it, and takes what is good and makes it beautiful.
We are in the most culturally and ethnically diverse urban area in the country. I am not intimidated by that. In fact, that is our strength. It was the strength of the early church as well. And our future as Holy Comforter looks like our past. We will be the church of “and.” We will be old and young. We will be rich and poor. We will be white and black and brown. But most of all, we will be followers of Jesus. We will be receive our power, and our courage from the Holy Spirit.