I speak fluent Cat. I informed my niece of this fact some years ago. One of my cats promptly entered the room and meowed. My niece turned to me. “What did he say?” I had to explain that translating from Cat wasn’t a word-for-word proposition. It’s all about context and body language, tone of voice. So yesterday, I’m holding one of my cats and I start singing to her. And she reached up and put her paw over my mouth. I think there was a message communicated in that moment.
Have you ever been in a worship service where the music swept you away? And maybe it wasn’t even the words, just something about the energy, the rhythms, the mood conveyed that just took you somewhere, made you feel something that you might not even be able to describe. And maybe you looked around the room and saw that everyone else was having that experience in their own way, too. Maybe a few people even started to move, or dance, or put their hands high in the air. Something was happening there—something beyond words.
Have you ever traveled in a country where you don’t speak the language? And yet somehow you have whole extensive interactions with people using lots of pointing and charades, nodding, smiling.
Speaking Cat, experiencing music, communicating with a foreigner—these are all examples of being together and connecting in ways that are beyond language. We read in today’s passage from Acts that Spirit enters the room where the disciples are gathered and sweeps them out into the street, where they convey something extraordinary to all who hear them. Everybody catches that energy, that fire, and understands in their own words—in their own language—something about the amazing God at work in this moment. It is a moment of connection and in-spiration that transcends boundaries of language, that unites people from many geographical origins and so fills them with exuberance that people think they’re drunk at 9am.
They’re not drunk. They’re filled with the Spirit. These people who may be exhausted from their travels, who may have experienced a lifetime of oppression, who may live in soul-numbing poverty, are dancing, singing, shouting, halleluia-ing in the streets, filled to overflowing with joy.
Someone told me recently that they find my sermons exhausting because then they feel as if they have to go out and save the world. Yeah, that is exhausting work. It’s overwhelming. But what if we got to start not from a place of “should” and “ought” but from this place of intense, abundant joy? What if the work we were called to do to save the world was the work that made our hearts sing so loud we could not keep it to ourselves but felt compelled every so often to go dance in the streets at 9am and grab all the neighbors to join in? Because if we start from a place of obligation and “should,” we’re just going to burn out. Let’s start instead from a place of great joy.
Perhaps you remember the quote from Howard Thurman, which goes something like this: “Don't ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” [https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/6273-don-t-ask-what-the-world-needs-ask-what-makes-you]
As Peter preaches to the crowd on this Pentecost morning, he bears witness to what it means to come alive in the Spirit, to live a life on fire. He quotes from the prophet Joel:
In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young shall see visions,
and your old shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy. [Acts 2:17-18]
Did you catch that God is pouring out Spirit on sons and daughters, young and old, free and slaves? This is not just for the well-educated, or the men, or the rich—it’s for everybody. It’s for all languages, all people.
Maybe you noticed that at the start of this reading, the disciples are all gathered together in one house. They’re looking inward, to each other. What the coming of Spirit does is push them out into the street so infused with the exuberant presence of the Divine that they can’t help but shout and dance and make some noise! Grab your neighbor and do-si-do!
So when the Church starts rejecting people because they’re gay, or they’ve had an abortion, or they have a prison record, or they’re an undocumented immigrant, or they don’t speak English—then the Church is missing this message that God’s Spirit is for everybody. And part of our job is to spread that Good News. Not God’s judgment is for everybody—God’s Spirit is for everybody. Come find out what it feels like to come fully alive.
How do we spread that Good News in an organized, intentional way? We start by figuring out what our vision is. What makes us dance in the streets? What makes us turn out for rallies because we are passionate about something or other? What prompts us to make some noise? Or to gather with a group and work on a project? To change the world for the better in some way?
Over the past week I’ve been asking people, “What is your vision? What is your dream for the future?” And you wrote them out on the silhouettes for birds, which are now posted around this sanctuary. I know, in this passage Spirit is portrayed not as a dove but as a great wind and tongues of fire. But I’m tossing birds in there, too. They’re easier to draw. Anyway, it turns out that you had some ideas about vision and dreams for the future:
These are our visions, our dreams. We get to own them. We get to show up for them brimming with Spirit—overflowing with Sprit—dancing in the street with Spirit.
Two weeks ago I talked about Bishop Dwayne Royster, our guest speaker at Annual Meeting in Yakima in April. Bishop Royster said that community organizing is the new evangelizing. Get to know our neighbors, know what they care about, know what keeps them up at night, know what gets them dancing—or marching—in the streets. This means that, like the disciples, we have to get out of our gathering place and let Spirit push us into the streets. We get to make some noise.
The other day, our office administrator Karen showed me some materials about the founding of Claremont UCC in California. Over a century ago, that church was founded by 35 people from the community who had an idea, a vision—who were on fire about becoming a Christian presence in that place. Thirty-five people is a lot less than what we have now—our membership rolls are somewhere around 80. Those 35 people spread the word, and after some years there were hundreds of members of that church. Sounds kind of like Prospect, doesn’t it?
But there are some churches that have shrunk to 35. Their glory days are over; these few are the remnant. Their motto is the seven last words of a dying church: “We’ve never done it that way before.” No new energy, no new ideas, no Spirit getting them out dancing in the streets. You can imagine Ezekiel coming to preach at that church and saying, “Oh my God, look at these dry bones.” And he would not be referring to age; he’d be noticing the lack of Spirit in their midst. Because Spirit, you recall, is poured out on young and old, male and female, slave and free—all people.
We are not the church of dry bones. There is energy in these bones. There is vision. There is fire. There is the will to make this world a better place. There is compassion and love. There are people in our midst who are already living their vision out there by feeding the hungry, adding solar panels, taking people into their homes who need a place to live, taking working vacations to build onto a cinderblock medical clinic in Guatemala, telling their legislators what is important about being community, working for a just and peaceful planet for all. There are so many ways in which we are already doing the work.
And here are a few more ways in which we are moving forward:
I have to say, the most vibrant, Spirit-filled worship service I can remember attending was at City of Refuge UCC in the Bay Area. This is a congregation made up of gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender people, many of whom have been kicked to the curb by their former congregations. They have a trans choir; imagine the vocal demands there. This is a church with people coming out of abusive relationships and domestic violence. People who have suffered under racism, sexism, and all the other isms that can so cripple us. People experiencing homelessness, mental illness, severe poverty. Yet here they were, anyhow and everyhow, clapping, singing, raising their hands in praise, one woman getting so swept up in the Spirit that she had to run laps around the congregation and then roll on the ground to work it all out. People of all colors and educational backgrounds and life experiences embracing, clapping, dancing, and rejoicing in the Spirit. And I understood, not just in my head but in my whole being, that if all of these people were free, despite the best efforts of our culture to tell them otherwise, if all of them were liberated by the Spirit of God (which never rejected them in the first place), if all of them were free, then I was too.
And that was a great feeling. That was worth some dancing in the streets.
I speak fluent Cat. I love hanging out with my cats, learning to read them, communicating with them. My hope is that next I will learn how to speak fluent Neighbor. Get to know my neighbors around this community, hang out with them, learn what they love, what they fear. I invite all of us to spread the Good News of abundant Spirit, of dancing in the streets, of God throwing a party to celebrate the founding of the church, of God inviting everybody to the feast and the fun. Fling the doors open wide, and let’s go. Amen.