Acts 2:1-21 and Romans 8:22-27

what do we do now? Pentecost  May 27, 2012

Roy W. Howard

When Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, were commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson to find a transcontinental waterway to the Pacific Coast they did not know what they would find. They did know their commission: find a waterway to the Pacific. It was called the Corps of Discovery Expedition, and the two Virginians were ready to lead the adventure into the wilderness, with the help of their young Indian guide Sacagawea. The adventure was grand and difficult but no more difficult than when they reached the mountains that the Mandino Indians had told them they would have to cross. You have to understand Lewis and Clark were from Virginia, the only mountains they knew were the Appalachian Mountains that they could cross in few days, carrying their canoes with them over the mountains. When their Indians friends told them about the difficult mountain crossing, they imagined only what they knew; they didn’t imagine what they had never experienced. They knew a lot about rivers and canoeing. They knew much less about mountains, and nothing about what they were soon to face.

They left Saint Louis expecting one thing. When they arrived at the base of the Rocky Mountains they experienced something they never imagined – literally. When the Indians said mountains, Lewis and Clark had one image in mind – the lush Appalachian Mountains that they could cross in a few days carrying their canoes. They didn’t look anything like the massive peaks of the Rocky Mountains. They had never seen mountains like these. I would love to have seen their faces. One commentator has said about that pivotal moment in their Discovery Expedition, that the question they may have asked wide-eyed with fear is “how do we canoe over mountains?”  It’s an absurd question of course but one that is often asked when we are faced with what appears to be an impossible task with the skills we know best.

For instance, the Church has found itself many times in history asking the same kind of question. On these occasions, there are those who insist on turning around or settling down with what is well known. Galileo comes along with his shocking defense of Copernicus and the response is to shun him down and deny reality, literally. This strategy of denial and defense in the face of mountains beyond ones imagination is a strategy of decline and evidence of a lack of faith. One does what one has always done, whether it is working or not. Galileo and Copernicus can’t possibly be right; the bible tells us so! Here is something else: did you know the primary reason President James Garfield was not from his assassin’s bullet? The principal reason he died is because his doctor didn’t believe in germs – a new concept at the time being promoted by Dr. Joseph Lister who urgently told the told to sterilize his medical instruments. Garfield’s doctor did not believe in this new thing called germs nor did the medical establishment. So they declared it false, and that is the reason the President died. (You can read about this in Destiny of the Republic.)

These mountains are too daunting we must turn back because we only know canoeing. It’s a somewhat understandable response to what is unknown and seemingly impossible – crossing mountains or perceiving the alignment of the planets differently.

One crowd deploys a variety of responses: it’s too hard; we are fine as we are, why change what we know for what we don’t understand; we don’t have the funds; we know the sun revolves around the earth and besides we can’t canoe over these mountains anyway so why are we even having this conversation?

But there is another crowd that when faced with the daunting challenges recalls the biblical narratives that describe the mighty power of the Spirit to do, as the Apostle Paul says, immeasurably more than we can ask or think or even imagine. (Ephesians 3:20) They recall the story when Jesus breathed his Spirit upon his disciples declaring: greater works shall you do, when I am gone.

And yes, this crowd recalls that band of fearful disciples gathered in a locked room unsure of whether they even had a future now that Jesus had left them. Praying and waiting in that room, they were facing their own “canoe over mountains” moment – namely, what do we do now? – when the Holy Spirit came upon them like a hurricane sending them into the streets with so much joy that they appeared drunk to the bystanders. Some things remained unknown but what became clear immediately was that the ordinary barriers that divided people were being taken away: race, class and tongue. Each was hearing about the astonishing God who in Jesus Christ is making all things new.

In the history of the Church those who recall the biblical stories of the Holy Spirit leading the people of God are the ones who do not turn aside from impassable mountains. They are not content with merely staying put in the face of challenge; rather they are the ones who believe the Spirit of Christ who descended upon those gathered believers on the first Pentecost is among us still, always doing a new thing that is beautiful to behold.

We are in such a time now, and not only for the Church. The writer Phyliss Tickle calls it the Great Reformation occurring in the midst of so much turmoil and uncertainty. Some perceive the challenges of our time as insurmountable mountains – uncivil discourse, global climate change, dying congregations, shifting economic patterns along with new patterns of marriage and new demographics. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were more black, Hispanic and other ethnic newborns than white births in 2011. The new figures make minorities the majority among America’s youth for the first time on record.  The future will be very different than the past.

The prophet Ezekiel reminds us that even into valleys of dry bones the Spirit of God moves among us to form and reform the people of God for the proclamation of God’s saving love in word and in deed.

Our own congregation has seen a new surge of vitality in our life together with increased diversity of members. On a recent Sunday we had in attendance persons ranging from 97 to 1 month old; immigrants from Congo, Madagascar, Togo and Cameroon, new Christians and mature Christians alongside earnest Seekers, with a variety of political opinions, and gender status and sexual orientation. Some have come from no-Church background while others come from a variety of denominations other than Presbyterian. This is the face of the new congregation that is coming into being and we give thanks to God.

Something like this is described when the mighty wind of the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples at Pentecost and people from everywhere heard the gospel of Jesus Christ in their own language. The Spirit is still calling diverse people into a community of believers who seeking to follow Jesus in a broken world.

How do we canoe over mountains? I think we open our lives to God that we may rightly discern the work of the Holy Spirit, to expect such work and allow this same Spirit who prays within us with sighs too deep for words to do through us that which is pleasing to God.

Alleluia!  Amen.