Living with Faith in a Secular Age; Acts 1: 1-12; Delivered June 4, 2017

Happy Pentecost!  This is the day in the Jewish calendar, that Jews celebrate the giving of the 10 commandments to Moses—50 days after the Exodus.  The Hebrew name for this day is Shavuot, which early on in Christianity was translated into the Greek as Pente (50) koste—eth-- 50th.    The fiftieth day after God’s giving of the 10 commandments.   

Approximately 2000 years ago, faithful Jews are gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate Shavuot or Pentecost.  Among them are also some 120 of Jesus’ followers.  Jesus has been crucified, and there have been reports of him being back from the dead. In the early morning hours of Shavuot, these Jesus followers are together in one house, praying and communing together.  No doubt the common feeling among them is sadness at the loss of their leader, depression, anxiety but also disbelief and confusion over the Jesus sightings.   

Then all of a sudden, we read that there is a sound like that of rushing wind. “Tongues as of fire, appear among them and a tongue lands on each of them.”  They shout out, “Hallelujah!” or at least I imagine they did.  Let’s say that together, right now, “Hallelujah!” 

As I said, there are tongues of fire—In the Bible, fire is shorthand for the spirit of God. These 120 followers receive the holy spirit just as Jesus said they would—again, hallelujah!  

They are pumped with adrenaline and feelings of joy and excitement.  The walls can’t contain them.  They spill out onto the streets of Jerusalem. What do they do?  They dance, they clap, they sing, and they shout their Hallelujahs!

The people already in the streets, maybe on their way to worship at the Temple, or to buy some breakfast--  these people, though—they don’t get it.   It’s not right; it’s not normal that these Christ-followers are being so disruptive.  Instead of joining in the excitement, people in the crowd push back, not violently—but they make their disapproval known.  They sneer. They roll their eyes; they complain loudly.  They accuse the Christ followers of being drunk. The social pressure to stop their celebrating is intense. Let it be known: Shame is a powerful weapon.

 And that’s where I want to stop in our unpacking of scripture and consider.   Not much has changed, has it?  Still today, shame is a weapon.  It is used to shut people up; get them to conform; keep them from speaking their religious truth.  Still today in this country; a country that prides itself in being religiously tolerant, people are condemned for wearing a hijab, maybe; airline attendants are suspicious if you bring a Bible with you on an airplane—I got searched for making THAT mistake;  We are made to feel out of step if we offer a blessing over food in a restaurant.  And we would never, ever offer OUR Hallelujahs in public.

 I don’t think it used to be that way, in this country, but it is today.  In today’s world, in our drive to be tolerant of all religions, we are actually increasingly IN-tolerant. Religious fervor; religious displays of our faith are NOT appreciated.  And that is the thesis of today’s sermon. Religious INtolerance as it was experienced by the early followers of Christ, and as it is experienced by us.  Let me give you some contemporary examples:

Last week I officiated at a wedding at Ashlawn-Highlands. As the violinist and cellist played the recessional and the last of the wedding party processed out, the first raindrops fell.  On my drive home, the rain became more intense.  Then, on Route 20 actually, the traffic slowed.  A car wreck.  A one-vehicle car wreck, but a serious one.  I could see the car, off the shoulder-in the woods.  It was upside down.  Did it hydroplane maybe?  (Shrug).  It must have just happened.  Several cars in front of me pulled over. Good people definitely.  They braved the rain and mud to help.  Now in the Walter Mitty super-pastor version of this story, I pull over, too.  I grab my bright yellow slicker raincoat from the backseat, kick off my high heels, and leap from my red Toyota.  Then, since I am a feather-weight, so probably not much help in the turning-over car, or wounded-person extraction department, I stand on the sidelines and pray.   

Again, that is the fantasy version.  In reality, I drive on by, offering my silent prayers for everyone at the scene and feeling small and helpless. The would’ves, could’ves, should’ves nibbled at my sorry soul the rest of the evening.

There was a time, when a pastor’s prayers at a scene like that would have been appreciated—right?  When my super-pastor actions would have been considered heroic, even, but now? “WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU ARE DOING?  YOU ARE GETTING IN THE WAY.  Please leave.”

“Please leave.”  My retired pastor friend, Tina, was told to, “please leave.”  It happened before I moved to this area and we became friends, so maybe fifteen years ago.  Her husband was suffering chest pains.  She was frantic, of course, but she kept her wits about her long enough to drive him to UVA hospital’s ER.  It was a heart attack.  A medical team stormed into Irv’s corner of the ER.   Tina’s husband’s name is Irv.  Tina was sitting in a chair praying, when the medical team asked to leave.  She refused. “I will NOT leave,” she said. “I am a pastor.   I will sit here in this chair, and out of your way, AND I will continue to pray for you and for my husband.”  And glory be, they ALLOWED her to stay.  And just so you know, her husband survived heart surgery, he exercises and watches his diet and he is now in the pink of health. 

What I am getting at though, is that Tina’s prayers were not appreciated, were not considered necessary or important. The medical team simply allowed Tina to stay because they didn’t have the time or energy maybe, to pick her up and carry her out.     

 I used to serve at Cove Church.  It houses a day-care center—not associated with the church.  In other words, the child care center pays rent to the church. That means the parents of the children who attend aren’t necessarily Christian, not necessarily religious at all. And I knew for a fact that some of the parents were against, suspicious of, allergic to religion.  

Taking a break from my computer when I was at work at the church, I often visited the children and teachers at the center—at lunchtime, the children’s snack time, or at playtime out on the playground.  But I knew my place. I was careful to keep my faith to myself.  Again, shame is a powerful weapon. So is anger, as in angry parents.         

The church and its playground are close to Route 29.  Some trees and a hill are all that separate the church from that well-traveled highway.  One sunny spring day, the teachers, children and I are on the playground.   It is clear to us that, as Ms. Clavelle says in the children’s storybook, Madeleine,   “Something is not right.” 

Yes, something is definitely not right on Route 29.  We  hear trucks racing past the church; sirens scream.  Then, a helicopter appears in the sky.   Imagine twenty 3, 4 and 5 year olds, their eyes wide with wonder; imagine the teachers and my eyes, too, also wide with wonder, as a helicopter lands ON OUR CHURCH PROPERTY.   The children line up, like birds on a wire, only in this case, they stand on the first rung of the playground fence.  Before long we see firefighters—first their heads, then the rest of them, as they climb that hill.  They are carrying a stretcher filled with something--a human body. And then, while we continue to look on, the scene turns horrific.  The person on the stretcher seizes.  He flails his arms and legs as we watch the firefighters load him onto the aircraft.

It’s a jumble of emotions for us, for sure. And so, after the helicopter takes off, while we are still on the playground, silent and solemn now, I gather us in a circle.  “Let’s hold hands and close our eyes,” I say.  “Let us pray. O Lord, God of mercy, grace and healing, today we pray for the person who is in the helicopter on his way to the hospital; we pray that you take good care of him.  We give thanks for the fire fighters and police officers; we give thanks, too, for the doctors and nurses and all those who will be tending to this person’s needs. We ask that you care for us, too, Lord as we go about the rest of our day.  Keep us safe.  This we ask in your good name.   Amen” —or something like that.

And then I waited.  For sure the children told their parents about the excitement of the day.  Did they also mention the prayer?  Would I hear from an angry mother or father?  I never heard a thing—no “How could you’s?” but sadly, no “Thank you’s” either.  Ah, well.     

Finally, you know, of course, I am a wedding officiant.  I officiate at religious weddings and secular weddings.

Now don’t get me wrong.  I love officiating at weddings.  This is maybe a self-delusion—but I like to imagine, anyway, that when I officiate at a secular wedding—I am putting a fair face on religion.  For some non-religious couples, I am the first pastor they have ever met.  AT any rate, I was working with a non-religious couple to plan their wedding service. There is a line I use for the exchange of rings.  It goes like this:  I say to the groom,  Repeat after me:  “Sarah (or whoever) this ring I give you as a sign of our constant faith and abiding love.”  And then we do a repeat for the bride. 

The  soon-to-be-bride said to me, “Can you drop the word faith in the ring exchange?  I mean we don’t have faith.”

Yes, let’s scrub and scour and bleach our language clean of offensive words like “faith.”   We don’t need faith in each other, in life, and certainly not in God or Jesus or Allah, or Buddha.  In fact, let’s take a brillo pad to our entire English vocabulary.  Let’s scrub out words like grace and mercy and sin and repentance, benevolence, blessing, and of course, yes certainly, FAITH.  

I replaced the word faith with trust.   Shame on me.   

That day in Jerusalem, stoked by the fires of Pentecost, Christ’s followers refused to be shamed into silence.  Religious intolerance would not prevail.  Peter spoke and low-and-behold, people listened, and a new religion was born.  In Chapter 2, verse 41 we read that 3,000 Jews were baptized after Peter’s testimony. 

Could that still happen today?  What do you think?  Amen