May 23, 2021
Pentecost Sunday, Pastor Lois Pallmeyer
Dear Friends in Christ, God’s grace and peace be with you. Amen
On the summers we visited my grandmother in New York, we would often make a trip out to Fire Island on the southern shore of Long Island. There, we could swim and play in the ocean and celebrate the wind and surf, and the tides were fantastic. I remember how we would plant our feet solidly in the sand, waiting for a wave to come in, and when it swept over our legs, it felt like the whole world shifted. The water zoomed out from under us off to one side, while the sand underneath shifted over to another, and you couldn’t tell if you were even standing in the same place. It was the best! —this wild, breathtaking blast of the strength of the sea, washing over us, and carrying us into a place we hadn’t know we were headed.
Happy Pentecost Sunday! We find ourselves with the early followers of Jesus, standing in a place we thought we knew, only to discover a power splashing over us and moving us in places we hadn’t anticipated. It’s been quite a ride. While last year’s Pentecost found us in closed houses, with no sense of how we would ever find our ways back out into public places to gather with others, this year comes to us with new plans or expectations every day.
In the last few months, our worship planning committee and staff have been proposing plans for ways to safely begin worshiping in person, again. We thought we had a workable plan in place to open up in a limited basis, in two weeks. But three days after we settled on a design, the CDC and the governor told us things had changed. Mask mandates and social distancing recommendations were relaxed, and some of our plans already seemed obsolete. Of course, just as we try to adjust to the new ideas, Dr. Fauci tells us to hold on to those masks for a while. We’ll have to wear them when we’re singing, for instance, and in fact, we probably shouldn’t be singing, but maybe we’ll be able to soon. In reality, nationally only about 50% of people are vaccinated[i], and the others aren’t sure they’re going to bother, and that’s not counting the children, so families with kids, we really don’t know what to tell you.
Yikes. Try making plans with that kind of information. The winds of changes are shifting and we’re not sure where we stand. We’re wading into a surf and we’re not sure which way it will send us. How do we continue to be the church when the waves of information keep knocking us off balance and changing our expectations?
The earliest disciples must have wondered how they could ever move forward. Things had seemed so hopeful when Jesus entered Jerusalem just a few months before. He seemed clear about his goals, his means, their potential. The message of reconciliation, of justice, of inclusion and love he enacted seemed so tangible and possible.
Only a few days later, he was hanging from a cross, humiliated and publicly shamed. Their dreams felt crushed. Then, just when all seemed lost, Jesus unfathomably reenters their story, a resurrected presence, offering new life, new peace, new understanding, only to leave them again, days later, ascending into the beyond.
Their whiplash they must have been feeling — of hope to despair, of presence to absence to manifestation again, of understanding to bewilderment to bafflement– must have been intense. Try making plans with that kind of instability. There’s no way to predict what’s next.
What happened that Pentecost day in Jerusalem catches them off guard[ii]. Those from varied backgrounds and cultures, diverse experiences and expectations, suddenly share a common message and mission. A spirit of understanding and a genuine willingness to work together arrives seemingly out of nowhere, and it must have taken their breath away.
Why does is always seem to surprise us? Why does it sound like a drunken tale that strangers can listen to each other, that hope can spring from hopelessness? Why do we disregard as an idle message the promise that young men will see visions, and old women will prophecy? Why do we find it hard to believe that God hasn’t finished with us?
Here we are again, dear church, discovering that God is coming in power to carry us into an unforeseen future. Still today, God comes to remind us of the power of life over hate, of love over death, of community over the despair of isolation.
In Jewish practice, the feast of Pentecost is still observed fifty days after Passover. In that tradition, the story of Ruth is normally read[iii]. I won’t tell you the whole story, but if you have the time, it’s only four chapters, and it’s easy to read. From poverty, isolation, grief, despair and bitterness, comes the sweet hope of new life, a gift from an unexpected neighbor, a willingness to trust the love of companionship, and God’s power to offer us a future and a purpose.
Dear friends, I know it’s been a tough fifteen months. We thought one Pentecost in isolation and separation was enough. It’s hard to still be meeting like this, and still very confusing to understand what it will mean to come together. But God has never allowed our fears and our bewilderment with what the future holds to be the last word.
Pentecost is our annual chance to remember well the future God has called us to receive[iv]. You felt the Spirit last week at our meeting when you so strongly supported our plans to replace our failing pipe organ and refresh this space. The Spirit empowered you to lean into the promise that somehow, someday, God will gather us again in this homeland, and we will stand, without masks, shoulder to shoulder and join our voices with one another being led by an instrument that will move us to tears. Good Lord, Yes, Let it be so! Please!
But it’s not just that amazing project where the Spirit has been working in us. You felt the Spirit throughout this pandemic as you so faithfully worked to feed the students of Highland Elementary and High School. The Spirit inspired you to continue serving meals at Loaves and Fishes, making quilts, and knitting prayer shawls, sending cards and making phone calls. You felt the Spirit every Sunday that you followed a link to worship and against any of our original desires, experienced a profoundly new and unexpected form of community through this strange medium, week after week. The Spirit moved you every time you signed on to Zoom for Sunday School or forum, or a new member gathering, or a small group discussion, a council or committee meetings, in spite of technological snags and frozen screens, and forgetting to unmute, and the dreaded “unstable internet connections,” found community here. Talk about “hearing God’s message each in the language of each!”
You continue to respond to the Spirit who is sending us dreams of housing immigrants who seek a safe haven, right here in this building, of advocating for racial justice in St. Paul, of building relationships with partners in Tanzania and Guatemala, of working alongside our young people as we learn about food insecurity, of planting gardens to grow fresh food for our neighbors, of adding books about caring for the earth in our Gloria Dei library, and hiding books of racial justice in Little Free Libraries in our neighborhoods. Talk about finding ways to anticipate the Great and Glorious Day!
And when it’s been too hard? When you’ve been too lonely, or the grief has swept over you too deeply, when you’ve had to bury someone alone without the support of the multitude who would normally have comforted you, when you’ve had to work too hard for any one person yet another day, another week, another semester, and couldn’t hold on another moment, or when you cried yourself to sleep after another day of depression or anxiety, yes, even then, the Spirit was interceding for you[v]. The Spirit was groaning with you, pushing for the redemption of the whole creation, for the relief and comfort and reconciliation of our lives, to come. Even then, the Advocate, with sighs too deep for words, carried your sorrows, your fatigue, and your tears into the very heart of God.
The future is still so confusing and unsure. We see infection rates falling here, but still rising terribly in other places, and we know that variants can still trigger another spike in disease even at home. We read one piece of guidance here, and something contradictory over there. Some of us will worship here in a few weeks, but we don’t exactly know what to expect. Our plans will continue to evolve.
But we do know this: Our feet are planted in the solid love of God in Christ Jesus. And though the Spirit’s power may wash over us with unsettling twist and changes leaving us as breathless as a kid on the beach on Fire Island, we will be filled with the Spirit of Life.
Hold on to your hats, it could get wild. But trust this, this blast of grace will be the best, no matter where it takes us. Happy Pentecost.
Thanks be to God. Amen
[i] https://www.beckershospitalreview.com/public-health/states-ranked-by-percentage-of-population-vaccinated-march-15.html#:~:text=As%20of%206%20a.m.%20EDT,according%20to%20the%20CDC’s%20data. As of 6 a.m. EDT May 19, a total of 125,453,423 Americans had been fully vaccinated, or 37.8 percent of the country’s population, according to the CDC’s data.
[ii] Acts 2:1-21
[iii] https://blog.israelbiblicalstudies.com/holy-land-studies/read-ruth-pentecost/. Thanks to Rolf Jacobson for this insight, Working Preacher’s Sermon Brainwave, Brainwave 785: Day of Pentecost – May 23, 2021 https://www.workingpreacher.org/podcast-type/sermon-brainwave.
[iv]Rise, O Church, Like Christ Arisen, Text © 1997 Susan Palo Cherwien, admin. Augsburg Fortress, Music © 1997 Timothy J. Strand, Augsburg Fortress.
[v] Romans 8:22-27