A Sermon preached by the
Rev. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, May 20, 2018
Text: Acts 2:1-13 (The Message); Romans 8:22-27 (NRSV)
This has been a tough week. More than once my sighs have been too deep for words, punctuated by a number of guttural groans, for good measure. From the 5.5 hour City Council meeting Monday night, in which we tried to make our case to continue to be the First Baptist Church, operating at this site, to a difficult Church Council meeting Tuesday night to trying to figure out and explain all that is happening to friends and colleagues as well as to myself, it has been a tough week. I am not eager for another like it any time soon, if ever. I am guessing that this is the kind of week when a heavy dose of patience and a cultivated capacity for letting go of fear, distrust, and anxiety comes in handy. God knows I could use some peace today.
So, let’s turn again to things that make for peace – patience and letting of fear, distrust, and anxiety are up this week. Last week we didn’t really do anything with the Ascension, except acknowledge that it was Ascension Sunday. But, in reality, that text sets the stage for today’s Pentecost story in the Acts of the Apostles. Remember, the risen Christ leads the disciples outside the city. “When they were together for the last time they asked, ‘Teacher, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now? Is this the time?’ He told them, ‘You don’t get to know the time. Timing is God’s business. What you’ll get is the Holy Spirit. And when the Holy Spirit comes on you, you will be able to be my witnesses in Jerusalem, all over Judea and Samaria, even to the ends of the world.’ These were his last words. As they watched, he was taken up and disappeared in a cloud. They stood there, staring into the empty sky. Suddenly two men appeared—in white robes! They said, ‘You Galileans!—why do you just stand here looking up at an empty sky? This very Jesus who was taken up from among you to heaven will come as certainly—and mysteriously—as he left.’ So, they left the mountain called Olives and returned to Jerusalem. It was a little over half a mile. They went to the upper room they had been using as a meeting place…” (Acts 1:6-13).
There are several things to note about this scene-setting text. The disciples were full of fear, distrust, and anxiety. There was so much about the future, in particular their future, that was unknown. There is still that nagging hope that maybe Jesus is going to restore the kingdom of Israel to that Davidic glory that will drive out the oppressors and might elevate them to positions of power. Jesus does not offer to allay their anxiety by assuring them with what they want to hear. Instead, “You don’t get to know the time. Timing is God’s business. What you’ll get is the Holy Spirit.” At this point, they are not at all sure what that means. It sounds a lot as if Jesus is encouraging patience, something that they are not very good at. And then they’re chastised for “looking up at an empty sky” and told “This very Jesus who was taken up from among you to heaven will come as certainly—and mysteriously—as he left.” I’m not sure how reassuring that “mysteriously” part is.
So, it is understandable that patience would not come easily for this collection of anxiety-ridden Galileans. Country folk, they have left everything behind to follow Jesus. Now he is leaving them alone in the big city, an unfamiliar environment, to wait for something called the Holy Spirit. How will they recognize him or her or it? Oh, and by the way, this Holy Spirit is going somehow to carry them further afield – from “Jerusalem, all over Judea and Samaria, even to the ends of the world.” Not home to Galilee, but here in Judea, among the hated Samaritans, and to the ends of the earth, wherever that may be. You can see how, sitting once more in that locked upper room, their temporary refuge from all that had come together to create a pretty tough and uncertain time for them, they might be feeling a little fearful, distrustful of the future and their marching orders, and anxious about all the uncertainty in which they were immersed. It’s difficult to wait patiently for the future, even if it is God’s future, promised by Jesus and empowered by the Holy Spirit, unless they find ways to let go of their fear, distrust, and anxiety.
You know how difficult it is to wait patiently for the dawn when the night has been filled with threats, real and imagined, with uncertainty, with panic that is constantly reinforcing itself. Will the morning ever come? What can I do to let go of all that troubles me? Will I ever again know peace, tranquility, the well-being of God’s shalom?
And beyond the longing for personal peace…will children ever feel safe in school again? Will we ever move beyond labeling children of God as “animals” in the most derogatory sense and throwing up walls in a futile attempt to keep those out whom we don’t judge to be enough “like us” to share our space (as if God’s good earth actually belongs to us)? Will we ever trust one another enough to lay our weapons down and live together in the harmony that God intended from the creation of the world? Will we ever learn to let go of our fear, distrust, and anxiety? There can never be peace, shalom, the well-being promised for God’s Beloved Community, as long as we hold on to that unholy trio.
“Easier said than done,” you argue. And I don’t disagree. Letting go of fear, distrust, and anxiety, then waiting patiently for the fulfillment of the Beloved Community is not easy work. But, then, no one ever said it was. This requires spiritual discipline, the real challenge of following the living Christ, the good work of building up God’s Beloved Community, a willingness to let the Spirit blow us about a bit. It takes the right tools, the exercise of skill, the proper training, and, above all, practice. What if, every time you felt a little fear come creeping around the corner, when you sensed distrust coming between you and another, when you became aware of anxiety rising within you, you sat down, took a few deep breaths – you’d be amazed at the power of breathing to engender and sustain peace – and maybe even uttered a prayer. If the prayer doesn’t come easily, maybe you could just sit there, letting your longing call forth the Spirit that’s always ready and waiting to breathe a prayer in you, through you, even for you, if necessary.
Moving again beyond the purely personal, the other night I caught part of an interview on NPR between two people clearly interested in diplomacy and the state of the U. S. State Department. I didn’t catch the names of the participants or what exactly had led to the discussion, but what caught my attention were their comments contrasting diplomatic and military solutions to world conflicts. In particular, they were referencing the dismantling of the State Department by the current administration. Their view was that there is a move in Washington today toward favoring the advice of a few celebrity military leaders over the work of career diplomats. I cannot say to what degree their assessment is accurate. It certainly sounded right to me.
But, in principle, what they were saying fit with the focus of today’s sermon. Conflict in the world, whether organic or manufactured by outside interests, is real, and conflict usually leads to fear, distrust, and anxiety. How, on the world stage, do we learn to let go and live in peace and harmony? Military solutions are too often the result of impatience. “Let’s drop a few bombs and be home in time for dinner. Civilian casualties? Well, yes, but it is in the service of the greater good. Well, at least our greater good. We wouldn’t want our dinner to get cold. Sorry, if a little blood runs in the streets of Gaza or Fallujah, Aleppos or Rohingya. Better than on our own streets.” (Of course, ignoring the blood that actually does run in our own streets.) The curse of the military solution is that it is most likely to enhance fear, distrust, and anxiety. It does little, if anything, to allay them. “Let’s get this over with now.” Impatience reigns and peace has no chance to prosper.
On the other hand, diplomacy is hard work – not exactly spiritual discipline but showing some kinship. Diplomacy certainly takes patience and requires a significant degree of empathy, a realization that peace requires a willingness to enter the other’s world view and that it takes both patience and practice. At some level, diplomacy is the very work of letting go of fear, distrust, and anxiety – maybe not absolutely, but certainly to the degree that accord may be reached that allows the parties to step away from the brink of destruction and agree to let the other be. Maybe these descriptions are simplistic and a bit romantic, but it is what I took from what I heard the other night.
I know that peace doesn’t come easily. That’s why disciplines like breathing, especially breathing in the Spirit, and praying and practicing letting go and cultivating patience are so important. Paul writes to the church in Rome, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” Since we do hope for what we do not see or at least see only dimly on the far horizon or envision at a deep place in our imagination, we must learn to wait for its fulfillment with patience. I don’t mean this to say that there is never a time to spring into action. Never a time to step up and roar our “no” to injustice and shout our “yes” to righteousness. But the discipline of patience is a valuable tool that will prevent more grief than it causes. Remember how grateful you were to wait until the next day to send that angry email or counted to 10 before you punched your sibling or friend or rival? Patience is clearly a virtue and it goes hand in hand with hope.
You see, we always have the Spirit to help us in our weakness, in our impatience, in our fear, distrust, and anxiety. It isn’t all up to us. As today’s Words of Preparation say, “The actual work of the Spirit in the mission of the Church often begins with a gestation period, a time of uncertainty, of unrest, of searching…Then comes some fresh apprehension of Christ, breaking in upon the group or the individual with the force and often the form of a vision” (Simon Barrington-Ward).
“When the Feast of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Without warning there was a sound like a strong wind, gale force—no one could tell where it came from. It filled the whole building. Then, like a wildfire, the Holy Spirit spread through their ranks…” The form and the force of a vision on which the church is founded and in which true peace is possible. The power of the Spirit made real in you and me and all the world. Hope realized.
We are gathered here together just to celebrate the union,
the coming together of our souls in time and space.
Well, we know God’s reign is coming and we know it won’t come easy,
but still we trust our vision of the smile on Future’s face.
We’re traveling on a road we’ve never seen before,
and, oh, it’s hard to know which way to go.
But somewhere there’s a promise ‘bout a distant shore
that those who seek will someday know. Amen.
(Doris Ellzey Blesoff, “We Are Gathered”)