Pentecost! Another day for stretching yourself. Another day for bringing some life into the sanctuary for worship. Of course, every time we gather as the people of God, there is life. But celebrations like Pentecost are opportunities for stepping out and going even further, trying to recapture the experience of being empowered by the Spirit for the task of building the church, making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Pentecost is one day when such a thing doesn’t feel quite so outlandish, but it might just be within the realm of possibility —at least in the Spirit-breathed possibility.
Pentecost was originally an agricultural festival celebrating the first harvest of the growing season. Later, it became a commemoration of the giving of the land of Canaan to the people of Israel; and even later, it morphed into an observance of the giving of the law to Moses on Mount Sinai. All these are important times of celebration, but nothing in those celebrations indicates the power that was unleashed on this day. It certainly caught the disciples by surprise. They were used to a low-key holiday (not like Yom Kippur or even Rosh Hashana), but instead found themselves in an encounter with God that literally blew them away.
This is a day for playing with fire, for opening the windows and letting the wind blow through. (Well, maybe not literally; the trustees might get nervous.) Certainly, offer something that suggests that there is power in what we are doing. Annie Dillard attempted to capture something of this power in her famous quote about worship in Teaching a Stone to Talk:
Why do people in church seem like cheerful brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? … Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping God may wake someday and take offense, or the waking God may draw us to where we can never return. - Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters (New York: Harper & Row, 1982), 40-41.
How can we capture an experience of power? How can the worship experience “enliven” the congregation? Because that is what happened; there was life given, life poured out, life shared in that Pentecost moment that caught everyone by surprise. This is a great day for something new, a song to learn as a congregation, a movement to do as we sing together. Bring a teacher to share this something new, encourage the congregation to step out of their comfort zones for just a little bit on this Pentecost celebration day. You can be assured that the disciples who were spouting forth in languages they never knew before were outside their comfort zones! Sing in Spanish today. Our United Methodist Hymnal is full of songs we could learn, even if we aren’t quite sure what we are saying. Find someone with some fluency in another language to pray something familiar, such as the Lord’s Prayer, in another language. We can hear the rhythms of the prayer, even if the words are unintelligible. We might be surprised at how understanding comes. And even if understanding doesn’t come, entering into that space where we aren’t always in control of what is happening or our understanding of it, makes us readier to receive the Spirit when it comes.
Let there be red! Red is the color of Spirit and the color of flame. It is a reminder of that first startling presence that came and rested on them. Did you catch that, the resting? What does that mean? This amazing moment, this throbbing with power moment, is … comfortable? It fits, somehow; it fits, and we are in the right place at the right time. So, send out the word, “Come wearing red.” Give everyone red ribbons as they enter, drop red confetti when the worship begins, bind everyone together in red yarn, fly red kites. Do something dramatic, something memorable, something that might—let’s be honest—upset some of those who gather as not being “proper” for church. We have tamed worship, tamed Pentecost, trying to be proper and reserved. There is a time and place for proper, and for calm and reserved. But Pentecost is not that time or place.
Rev. Dr. Derek Weber, Director of Preaching Ministries, served churches in Indiana and Arkansas and the British Methodist Church. His PhD is from University of Edinburgh in preaching and media. He has taught preaching in seminary and conference settings for more than 20 years.