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The Rugged Remnant of Hope

“The Rugged Remnant of Hope”

June 5, 2022 - Cobleskill United Methodist Church - Pastor Anna Blinn Cole

Pentecost Sunday

Acts 2:1-21

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them: ‘Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through 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 men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

Today is Pentecost and I’m going to say out loud what a lot of you may be thinking in your head. What even is Pentecost, anyway? It’s one of those holidays that only the church celebrates…Hallmark hasn’t caught on yet, because honestly, it’s all a little confusing and mystifying. If you were listening to the scripture lesson you probably are even more confused. Flame on people’s heads? People speaking in languages that were not their own? Visions and prophecies? Blood, fire and smoky mist?

No wonder Hallmark hasn’t gotten on board. I can imagine the card right now: “May you have a Spirit-filled Pentecost, when all your prophecies are fulfilled and the fire burns brightly on your head! Yay! Happy Pentecost!”

Just because Hallmark isn’t on board doesn’t mean we can’t get really into it thought. Pentecost is one of the very best holidays in the church year and it doesn’t matter if the world understands it, what matters is that you understand it because you are the church and today is your day. So let’s make this a little less weird by breaking it down and then translating it into a language that makes sense in 2022.

Quick recap: Jesus had died, risen, visited with the disciples, and finally he had taken his bodily self up to heaven in what we call the Ascension. In our church calendar, that happened last week and we talked about how there was this long moment of the disciples being left behind just looking up at the sky as Jesus disappeared, wondering what now? They had just devoted multiple years to following Jesus, literally following the man around, sharing meals, sitting in boats, laughing, crying, doing things that humans do together when they have a deep connection. Jesus had taught them what unconditional love looked like through his actions and his words. Jesus had showed them what true hope looked like when his death was reversed and his resurrection rewrote the narrative to say that love and good will always find a way to out maneuver evil and death.

But then everything changed. Suddenly the disciples who had loved a human, in-the-flesh God in the person of Jesus were left behind when Jesus ascended to heaven. When would he come back? What would happen now? They were left wondering, did God send Jesus to earth to start an amazing movement and then just let the movement end with Jesus’ time on earth?

Cue the Holy Spirit. You know, that third part of the trinity that is intangible, mysterious and ever-present. God knew living without Jesus in the flesh would be difficult, so God sent the Holy Spirit as a helper…as a kind of energy and motivator that stirs in the inner most part of your being when you can’t see God but you still feel like God is calling you to be someone and do something rooted in love. The Holy Spirit fills in the gap when Jesus can’t be with us in person.

Our tradition says that the Holy Spirit made a grand appearance in the lives of the disciples after Jesus’ ascension. They were all gathered in one place and the wind began to blow and fire burned in and on each person. Barriers between them were broken down and they could understand each other even though they didn’t speak the same language. The energy was so high and the joy so palpable, some wondered if they’d been drinking too much! But it wasn’t alcohol, it was the Holy Spirit. It was effervescence. It was hope. It was the answer to questions that had barely left their lips. That day it is reported that 3000 people were baptized into the church and therefore we think about that first Pentecost as the birthday of the church.

So, that was the first Pentecost, a day when the church began with an explosion of energy and new people and visions for the future of a church that could stand on its own two feet as the hands and feet of Christ in the world. And so here we still stand, mostly on two feet, almost 2000 years later. By some miracle, the Church is still here. It’s not because we’ve been perfect. We’ve made a lot of mistakes. Over the course of 2000 years we’ve had our share of distractions… money, power, violence. We’ve focused for too long on doctrines and creeds that worked too hard to twist Jesus’ message into one of exclusion. We’ve abused our power and manipulated people with fear. There have been some really dark seasons for the Church in these 2000 years. Should it surprise any of us that less people in 2022 consider themselves part of a church than at any other point in recent centuries?

I was at a meeting this week that wasn’t at church or about church (shocking, I know). It was a village meeting. And the topic of churches came up. Someone said, “Yeah, it seems the only way churches are even open any more is when they are all about entertainment. I mean, that’s all people want, right?” It’s true, in some ways. These days some people might prefer to come to church just for the spectacle of seeing flame on people’s heads, rather than the spiritual experience of feeling part of something bigger than themselves. It’s no coincidence that as our society has seen church numbers decline, studies say that we have become more isolated, we turn inward when things start to fall apart. Virtual communities have attempted to replace in-person communities but the connection and the energy is often not strong enough to actually support people through difficult times. Depression rates are rising, differences between people are resulting in ever-stronger polarization and violence, and apathy- that lack of energy to do anything that might make a difference- is becoming widespread.

What happened to that room full of spirit-filled people breaking down barriers of difference and proclaiming hopeful visions of the future? Where is the energy of the Holy Spirit working in a world that feels weighed down by hurt and pain? What is the Church supposed to be in 2022?

In Bible Study this week, which by the way is always a meaningful circle of conversation and support at 10:00 each Tuesday, we were talking about how the Church has aged over the years. How it seems like it’s gotten smaller, worn down with problems and institutionalism and stress and worry. But someone there reminded us of a child’s blankie

The beloved blanket that gets carried everywhere and through everything. Loved and squeezed and dragged through the mud. Washed over and over, the blankie gets smaller, frayed around the edges maybe, thread bare and faded. Eventually it is just a remnant of what it once was. But does the child love it any less? Does the child need it any less?

The church in 2022 is a remnant of what it was at the first Pentecost. It has been through a lot, loved a lot, and also worn down a lot. Yet we are loved by God despite the ways we have changed through time. And just like a child still needs that blankie no matter how much of a remnant it becomes, we are still needed by the world in spite of our imperfections.

We have inherited the conviction that just because Jesus isn’t with us in person, doesn’t mean his movement died. This is what makes us the Church. The stories of Jesus’ unconditional love have been passed down from generation to generation and now it’s our turn to translate them to a world that feels only conditionally loved most of the time. We are a remnant, but we are a rugged remnant because we have a story to tell that needs to be told. Somewhere in our community there’s a gay teenager that needs to know that God doesn’t hate them. Somewhere in our community there’s a person who thinks alcohol is the only answer who needs to know where they can find help. Somewhere in our community there’s a child who is scared to go to leave their home because they think there are no safe places anymore. Somewhere there is someone who needs a place where they don’t have to cry alone. Everywhere the world is hurting and the Church was born to be in the business of giving hope. It is the very essence of why we were brought together as a community on that first Pentecost and why, by the grace of God, we are still here today. We are the rugged 2000-year-old remnant of hope and the world needs that scrappy remnant now more than ever.

I learned the song Blessed Assurance as a four-year-old sitting on the organ bench with the organist while my mother led worship. Maybe there’s an old hymn that has lodged itself within you like that. For me, this hymn has a tune that will always be a source of comfort and familiarity for me, but as an adult now the words also convict me. We have a story, we have a song, we have a purpose for being here. We have been given the gift of unconditional love, and Jesus stopped at nothing to make sure we knew this love at the depths of our very being. This is our Blessed Assurance. Now it’s our turn to tell the others who do not yet know that God loves them. This our story to tell, this is our song to sing. And by sharing this good news, we carry the movement forward, praising our savior all the day long.

Grace and Peace,

Pastor Anna

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