I’ve always loved Pentecost. The drama of it all, the new beginning of this thing called church, the presence of the Holy Spirit. As I reflect on the years, my favorite Pentecost was also the most frightening.
I was serving a two point charge on an emergency basis after the pastor of a nearby church resigned unexpectedly a week before Christmas. The churches were about three miles apart, and I would start at the new church and then rush to my home church each Sunday. At the time, I had two of the greatest pastoral interns ever: J & M. M was preaching at both churches that day. My (now) husband had the Sunday off from his church for reasons I can’t exactly remember. He was driving, M was in the front seat and I was in the back.
About three blocks from the church, J texted: Something in the basement is on fire. Firemen are here.
We got stopped at the next stop light, and we could see the firetrucks descending on the church. I grabbed my bag, jumped out of the car, and ran towards the church in the red, faux snake-skin 4” stilettos that I always wear for Pentecost. Apparently my husband looked at M and said, “Um, you should probably go too” and she came running after me.
|Church about 1915|
J met me on the corner. Everyone was safe. She told me what had happened. I took a breath and took in the scene. Thick, black smoke was billowing out the side door, firemen were climbing ladders to inspect the roof of the 115 year old building, police cars were blocking off the streets. Would the fire spread and damage the original stained glass windows, which had just been restored the year before? Would the historic bibles be damaged? Would we lose the church entirely? Who do I call first? What about insurance?
We had an industrial gas stove with pilot lights in the kitchen where we cooked breakfast for about 150 homeless every Sunday. Someone had accidentally left a plastic jug on top of the stove and over the course of an hour, it had melted, caught fire and spread. The visiting volunteers had gone back to their home church and the church volunteers had gone up to the sanctuary to prepare for worship. The fire alarm had gone off downstairs, but it was not loud enough to be heard over the musicians warming up. Thankfully, we had a system linked to the fire department so they were pulling up as J opened a door to basement, only to be overcome by the thick, black smoke. Like the Boss she is, J evacuated the building and directed the first responders.
Yes, we set the church on fire on Pentecost.
It was now about 15 minutes before worship and church members were parking around the block and walking to the building. J & M were directing people to our parking lot while my husband gave building information to the firemen. We had to worship, but the building was off limits. Our lay leader had grabbed the bulletins as everyone was evacuating, but we had no hymnals or instruments.
The fire chief gave us permission to worship in the parking lot, surrounded by firetrucks and firemen doing their work. By this time, they were wrapping up and the fire was out. We could celebrate that the fire was not worse and everyone was safe. We prayed, we laughed at the irony as I explained what Pentecost is, we recited our fire-themed Pentecost call to worship, our musicians guided us acapella in the first few verses of Amazing Grace. And while we sang, I leaned over to M, who was preaching, and said “You need to cut 10 minutes from your sermon. We can’t stand out here all fucking day.” She laughed, and did a fantastic job of tailoring her sermon to the events that had just transpired, sharing the fear of that first Pentecost and all the transformative work of God that came as a result and the cleansing power of fire.
We do tend to treat Pentecost as a joyful event, but read the scripture from the perspective of those who lived through it. The Jews had gathered for the festival of Shavuot, a festival celebrating the early harvest, found five times in the Torah. It was a pilgrim festival, so Jewish men would come to Jerusalem from far and wide to celebrate the goodness of God and the wheat harvest. And by celebrate, I mean c e l e b r a t e.
So imagine the apostles, hanging out at the Holy Spirit Hostel, recovering from a night of partying, sipping their coffee and talking about how much Jesus would have loved to have been here, when suddenly there is a noise…..like a train or a tornado…and fire like fingers grabs each person, and they begin speaking in languages they couldn't possibly know…..What was happening, when would it stop…..imagine the panic…imagine the fear….
It was not a joyful event. It was a terrifying event.
And when it was over, I impinge they took some time to reflect, probably in shock, before realizing that what it meant was that God was present in the world in a new way, no longer confined to the Temple, calling the people to go out, speaking all languages, spreading the word of God to all cultures.
The church fire was a terrifying event. After the congregation thanked the firemen and went home, my (now) husband and I were given a tour by the firemen. The fire was confined to the kitchen, but the thick, black smoke had filled the building and left residue on about everything. I talked with the fire chief and the arson investigator (standard), filed out paperwork, made calls. I went home, and for the first time that day, cried. And cried, and cried. Shock that it happened, relief no one was hurt and that we had not lost the church, exhaustion at having kept it together all day, overwhelmed at all that was now in front of our little church to recover.
It was a terrifying event. And we took some time to reflect, in shock. And we prayed, and we knew that while this was a terrible accident, the Holy Spirit was present and we were living in a new reality. We came back stronger, more clear in our mission, and with a great restoration of our Fellowship Hall and kitchen thanks to the insurance company.
Pentecost was a new beginning for the life of the Universal Church, and it was a new beginning for our little church. Has your church had a “Pentecost moment”? A moment when reality changes, when the presence of God if felt, and it might not have been a positive moment. As you prepare your Pentecost sermon, consider a Pentecost moment of your congregation. It might be from last year or 50 years ago. Is there a moment when the Holy Spirit touched your congregation in a way that profoundly changed them and the way they saw the presence of God in their community?
Pentecost is not the happy little birthday of the church, complete with a cake and candles. Pentecost is a powerful, frightening, transformative event that changed the path of world history. Honor it as such.
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