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Thursday, June 16, 2011

What's the best that could happen?

Pentecost, Yr. A

Numbers 11:24-30

Acts 2:1-21


Guys with great names who forget to set the alarm clock and can't find their shoes to get to the tent on time, prophesying without a permit, a tattletale and a whiner…really, what's not to love about today's reading from Numbers? As you can tell by looking at the scripture insert, I had a few choices about the lessons, but as soon as I saw the Numbers passage, I knew what we'd use. This is such a wonderfully human story!

The Spirit descends upon a bunch of officially-sanctioned elders that Moses has gathered together, and they burst forth in prophecy. Eldad and Medad for some reason don't make it to the tent, but unexpectedly the Spirit also comes to them, and they too begin to prophesy. A horrified young man hears them and goes running to tell Moses. When Joshua, Moses's right hand guy, overhears, he complains to Moses, "Don't just stand there; do something! Make them stop!" And much to everyone's surprise, Moses doesn't condemn Eldad and Medad or banish them or even command them to quit. Instead, he rejoices in their gift and says he wishes everyone was so blessed.

I think the bottom line here is that there were people—maybe lots of people, since the story made it into scripture—who were terrified by this unexpected outburst of the power of God's Spirit, and probably by a host of similar incidents of unauthorized prophesying. It felt out-of-control, unpredictable, dangerous and disorderly. Who knew what might happen? They wanted Moses to take back control, to rein in these rogue prophets, to restore order.

I can sympathize, because I like order and control too. I think I've admitted before that I favor lists, and plans, and even contingency plans, because I want to know what's going to happen next. I guess it makes me feel secure and gives me some illusion of safety; if I can keep the smaller stuff in line, then maybe I can ward off the wild side of life's Really Big Things…and yes, I realize that's a complete pipe dream. But I suspect that's what was going on with Joshua and his companions: they wanted a sense of safe predictability, everything being done the "right" way, in hopes of keeping God's fierce power contained.

One of my internet acquaintances is the interim pastor in a church; she only began a few weeks ago. One of the first things she discovered upon her arrival was that on the liturgical schedule, those doing the advance planning had cancelled Pentecost. Not even re-scheduled…they'd simply called it off in the interests of fitting in another theme. Now I realize that Hallmark hasn't yet gotten ahold of Pentecost so maybe it's not quite as obvious, but that's like canceling Christmas or Easter; our faith just doesn't make sense without it. But whereas the Christmas story feels lovely and Easter is joyous, Pentecost is sort of scary and confusing, and even at a subconscious level, canceling it may feel safer than facing the Spirit unleashed.

The reading from the Book of Acts is the story of Pentecost. Jesus's resurrection was 50 days before—that's where the "Pente-" in Pentecost comes from—and 10 days earlier he'd ascended, mysteriously, into heaven, but not before promising to send them a Friend, Advocate, Helper, Spirit. You can imagine it from their perspective. For the first couple of days, maybe they sat around thinking the Helper would show up at any moment, talking excitedly about what the Advocate would be like, not bothering to grocery shop or mow the lawn or take out the trash, because everything was about to change. A few more days, and it's like an overdue baby: is this thing ever going to come? A few more days and they've started to get really antsy. What if this Friend never shows up? What if the Helper isn't very helpful? What if the Advocate has already come and they missed the news conference? What was Jesus thinking, anyway?

And then the Spirit arrives. Oh, boy, does the Spirit ever arrive, with violent wind and flames and such gusto that the neighbors think the disciples all must be drunk. They're speaking in every language, ones they don't even know, and more amazingly, they're being understood. God's name and Word are proclaimed and heard. Talk about out of control; even in their wildest dreams they certainly couldn't have anticipated this, nor what it would mean for their future.

When the wind settled down and the flames died out and the gift of languages receded, the disciples had two choices. They could, like Joshua, complain in fear that this wasn't how it was supposed to be…or they could choose Moses's response, rejoicing in the outpouring of the Spirit and embracing the possibilities for all humanity. Had they chosen the former, we presumably wouldn't be here today; the Church would've died before it even got off the ground.

Instead, with courage, hope, and a sense of reckless adventure, they moved forward. Just as they'd had to let go of their preconceptions to accept a Messiah born in poverty to ordinary parents, just as they'd had to face the terror of a crucified Savior and the puzzle of his resurrection, now they had to figure out this new way of being disciples to which God was calling them. They were able to find, within the wind and flame, a Spirit of love that filled them and set their hearts on fire and blew away their fear, at least for long enough to embark on a crazy mission to tell and show the world about Jesus.

God's call to us on this Pentecost is exactly the same: set out on a crazy mission to tell and show the world about Jesus. Demonstrate his love, his justice for those the world misjudges, his healing, his compassion for those whose language is rarely spoken with care. We don't have to touch every single person all at once; we can do it the same way Jesus so often did, one person, one friend, one stranger, one need at a time. One box of cereal in the food basket, one invitation to a person who's lonely, one batch of cookies for Door of Hope, one note of encouragement to someone who's struggling.

The caveat, however, is that we have to give up control and instead dream without knowing how it's going to turn out. What would you do, by the power of the Spirit, if you weren't afraid of goofing up, of being rejected, of looking foolish, of not being able to predict the outcome? If you simply saw a need and responded as an expression of the Spirit in the world? If you didn't get to the tent in time but felt the Spirit moving within you in another place or way?

A number of years ago, I heard Tom Horner ask a question of a person who was frozen in fear at the top of the high ropes course at our Community Camp, and it's stuck with me. What I expected was, "What's the worst that could happen?"…a question that begins with a premise of fearfulness. But instead, Tom asked, "What's the best that could happen?," operating from a position of openness and hope. That's the Spirit of this feast, calling us to imagine a day without fear of embarrassment or disaster, when God invites us to throw caution to the Pentecost wind, to burn with the Pentecost flame, and be, love, speak, act, and dream with all the power of the risen Lord.

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