May 30, 2023
• Rev. Rob Fuquay
In his commentary on the Book of the Acts, Will Willimon reminds us of a line from poet T.S. Eliot who wrote: “In my beginning is my end.” What he means is that there is something about beginning stories that foreshadows what becomes of a person or organization. What are your beginning stories? Do any of you have traditions, say on your birthdays, when you go back and remember how you came into the world?
We do this with our girls who all grown now. On their birthdays we like to recall their birth stories. We remember how our oldest, Julie, came into the world through a long, arduous delivery, and consider how she has always been an independent and faces the world on her terms. Or our daughter, Sarah, was born just the opposite. We walked through the doors of the hospital and 30 minutes later Susan was holding Sarah in her arms. Sarah is quick acting and decisive. And then there is our youngest Anna, whose birth was somewhere in between, not in a hurry, but once she was ready there was no waiting. Anna is a deliberate person, but once she decides to do something she wastes no time looking back.
I just turned 60 less than 2 weeks ago. I was born breech, back end first. So literally, in my beginning was my end! Whenever I acted up as a kid, which was quite often, my father would remind me of my birth story and say, “You came into the world showing your backside and not much has changed!”
For those who are a part of this thing called church, we share the same birth story. It goes back to Acts chapter 2, the Day of Pentecost. This was a Jewish pilgrimage festival celebrated on the 50th day after Passover. This meant that Jews were encouraged to travel to the temple in Jerusalem which is why there would have been so many nationalities and various languages being spoken in the city during this festival.
Now Jesus told the disciples when he ascended into heaven to wait in Jerusalem for the coming of the Holy Spirit upon them. So they did. And that promised sign happened on the Day of Pentecost, and so this day, fifty days after Easter, we celebrate a the birthday of the church. So what is in our beginning that foreshadows our end? Or to put it in less gloomy terms, what can we learn about our spiritual birth story that reminds us what we are called to do and be as the Church today? Let’s honor our birthday today by giving some thought to that.
First, notice how the story begins. “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.”(2:1) Now what were they doing? We learn that from chapter one. After Jesus ascended into heaven they went to an Upper Room, maybe the same room where they shared the Last Supper. Today in Jerusalem there is a place called the Cenacle that commemorates the site of the Upper Room. When Christian tourists visit there they typically remember one of two things, the Last Supper or Pentecost where the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples in spectacular fashion.
Ten years ago I was there filming for a resource. We were able to record over groups sharing communion in the space, because that tends to be a very quiet, somber experience. But then a group of Christians from South America started worshipping. At first they were praying in a low hum of different voices at the same time, but then it started getting louder and louder and louder. And I realized they weren’t celebrating communion. They were remembering Pentecost, and they were a Pentecostal group of Christians. They started shouting and speaking in tongues and falling out on the floor. And I knew we weren’t going to be filming for awhile.
My production group were Israelis. So we pulled out water and snacks and just watched all this. One of the guys said, “Rob, does your church do this in Indianapolis?” I said, “Just the second Sundays of the month, not every week.”
That has nothing to do with my sermon today, I always remember that experience when I read this story. But back to what the disciples were doing in the Upper Room. Look at what it says in 1:14: “They all joined together constantly in prayer.” What does our birth story have to teach us as a church? We are to be praying.
The act of praying is fundamentally an act of surrender. It is a recognition of our dependence on God and submitting ourselves to God. When we pray routinely we stay humble and aware, realizing our ongoing need for God’s help.
This past week we had the funeral for a 21 year-old member of our staff who was shot to death in Indianapolis last week in what appears to be a fairly random event. Its another reason to be angry that this is happening in our country. And it leaves me asking what can be done?
So last Sunday I represented our church along with some other advocates from St. Luke’s and attended a Prayer for Peace service at New Era Church, an African American church located in a neighborhood where there is much violence. Church members from lots of different congregations came together, and Pastor Clarence Moore started by dividing us into groups of seven, and we spent the next hour praying in our group for different petitions.
My activistic self wanted to say, “We should be doing more. We should be rallying for action and planning a strategy to do something about gun violence.” By my wiser self, my spiritual self, knew we were right where we needed to be. The most important work we could be doing was to pray, because this is not a problem that will be fixed protests, or policies or laws. It will take God’s intervention. And the experience of being with different Christians, different races, denominations, all praying together was a beautiful thing.
And when we pray we nt only admit we need God’s help, we become more aware of what God is doing.
Adam Hamilton tells in one of his books he tells how their church delivered Christmas baskets to members who were unemployed. They just wanted people to know they are not forgotten and God is with them. One Sunday after the last service, Adam called a woman on his list, saying who he was and that he wanted to stop by to drop off this gift. The woman started crying. She said,
“I was so discouraged this morning I couldn’t bring myself to come to church. I watched online and as the service ended I wrote a prayer. I had just finished writing this prayer asking for God to show me he still loved me and to wrap his arms around me and then the phone rang and I hear your voice and you said, “We just want you to know you are not forgotten and God loves you. I was speechless. I have never had a prayer answered so quickly!”
I wonder if we sometimes miss God’s answers and what is doing all around us, because we haven’t taken time to ask God our questions.
So here is our assignment for this Pentecost Sunday. I want to encourage you to write out your own prayer. You might use these three questions to guide what you write:
• What do I need?
• What does our world need?
• What does God need from me?
So our spiritual birth story shows us that when we pray, we experience more of God. But, notice next what happened as a result of the disciples’ praying. “Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and… All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit…” (2:2,4) They received the Holy Spirit.
We don’t spend as much time as we should talking about the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is that part of God that empowers us to carry on the work of Jesus. This is the purpose of our praying, to experience the power of God to act. As an old saying goes, “Act as if everything depends on you but pray as if everything depends on God.”
Now this makes an assumption, that if we seek the Holy Spirit, it means we are willing to serve and be used by God. That’s what happened to the disciples. They immediately started speaking in languages they shouldn’t have been able to speak. They didn’t know these languages. God gave them ability beyond their ability.
That’s what we discover when we pray for God to use us. But we have to be willing to be used!
Have you ever googled your family name to see if there was anyone famous in your family. There aren’t a lot of Fuquays around, so I was surprised one day doing some searching to discover that I have an ancestor who apparently was somewhat famous. At least he won a Guinness Book of World Records. The record was for doing nothing. You see his picture here. Do you think there is a resemblance?
I did learn this is Bill Fuqua, without the y on the end, so maybe its not the same family. I hope so. I don’t know that I would want my claim to fame to be setting a record for doing anything. I think that’s the problem in too many churches. They go too long without doing anything. They worship. They have pitch-ins and care for each other. But they aren’t talking about racism. They aren’t addressing homophobia. They are rolling up their sleeves to serve the poor.
That’s what makes me proud to be a part of St. Luke’s. Every time I am around non-profit leaders and pastors around the city and introduce myself as the pastor of St. Luke’s, they don’t usually know me but they know you! They say, “Thank you for what you are doing. Thank you for your courageous stands. Thank you for your involvement in the city.
I know we might not always agree on the stands and actions we take, but I hope we can at least be proud of that fact that we aren’t doing nothing! We are active and serving in our city and I believe we are being true to our birth story.
But one final thing to look at on this Pentecost, and that is what the Holy Spirit empowered the church to do. The apostles began speaking in the many languages of people in Jerusalem. “We hear them declaring the wonders of God in our tongues.” (v.11)
We live in a culture that I believe gets an adrenaline rush out of division. We kind of enjoy seeing if we can shut down people we disagree with, even embarrass them in the process. We thrive on disunity. We don’t seem to know how to come together.
But God does! As Paul said, “For God is not a God of disorder but of peace.” (1 Cor. 14:33) God builds bridges not dams. God spanned the chasm of the university to step from heaven to earth in order to be with us. God loves it when people try to find a way to be with each other.
That’s what we learn from our birth story. God empowered the disciples to harmonize. Now pay attention to what that meant. They didn’t speak just one language and force everyone to learn it. That’s not what harmony means. That’s what oppression means. Unity and unanimity are different things!
No, God gave the disciples the power to speak in others’ languages so they felt understood. God gives us, if we will seek it and offer ourselves for it, the ability to understand each other.
That’s what the church is supposed to do. To say to people of different races, “You don’t have to learn different customs and cultures. No, bring your culture with you. Bring your history. You are understood. You have a place here.
To say to people of different sexual identities, “You don’t have to come into this community and hide. No hiding here! You can be who you are. You are understood. You have a place here.
To say to people who know nothing of the faith, nothing of the Bible, nothing of the traditions of the church, you do not need to feel embarrassed or shamed here. No shaming here. You are understood. You have a place here.
***Normandy experience of Carver visiting both American cemetery and German cemetery…
American Cemetery description first
German Cemetery description