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The Great Storm

The Reverend Matt Gaventa

June 4, 2017
Acts 2:1-21

A Reading from the Acts of the Apostles

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with
the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone
who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

I precisely remember the day I stood in the longest grocery-store checkout line I have ever seen. I was coming home from church, a supply preaching gig a good drive from our New Jersey home, and so I stopped at the store, apparently just like everybody else. I needed batteries. I needed water. I needed a few granola bars and a few canned goods. Everybody there, of course, was buying batteries and water and canned goods, the line for batteries and water and canned goods stretched most of the way to the back of the store, but I stood there anyway. We all had the same information, which was that a hurricane of historic proportions was beating its path towards the New Jersey coast. New Jersey is not a place that is used to hurricanes, but we had seen enough on television, and we knew that we were going to need batteries and water and canned goods. And gas. And cell phone chargers. And snacks. You always need snacks. There was some kind of packing list for this thing, passed around on local emergency squad Facebook pages and through the idle chatter of talk radio, and everybody said make sure you get batteries and water and canned goods and gas and cell phone chargers and snacks.  And so we all stood in that line. Because we all knew the same thing, which was that a storm was coming. Sandy. They always give them a name.

The storm itself hit late on Monday night, long after all the batteries and water and canned goods were long gone from every shelf in town. And so we had one more day to prepare ourselves. We were living in the upstairs apartment of an old colonial in downtown Princeton, in the months right after my seminary graduation  seminary, and Princeton is about forty miles inland from the shore, from the closest possible point of landfall, so we knew that we weren’t on the front lines of disaster, but still. The air felt like danger, and so, just like everybody else, we got ready. We parked the cars in the safest place we could. We stocked the house with everything we thought we might need. We charged every chargeable device in  our possession, we filled the sink and the bathtub with water. And then we just sat, helpless and dumbfounded, and we waited and we watched. We watched weather radar with laptops gingerly plugged into power strips. We watched the Twitter feed of local emergency responders. We saw pictures of the rough ocean crashing against the coast, always with one insane weatherman shooting on location at the water’s edge, bracing against the winds, waves crashing around him. Finally at home, we began to hear the storm, in this old house where every nail in every beam came with its own distinctive creak and moan. We’d done all the preparation we possibly could. And then the power went out. And then it was just waiting. The wind, and the waiting, and the waiting, and the waiting.

And scripture says that suddenly there came from heaven a sound like the rush of a violent wind, but the truth is that it wasn’t that sudden. Israel had been waiting for this storm for a very long time. As Peter proclaims later in this morning’s reading, this Pentecostal storm — the rush of the violent wind, the shaking of the house, the tongues of flame — this is the storm that Israel has been waiting for ever since the words of the prophet Joel: “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh … And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist … The sun shall be turned to darkness.” This is the prophetic language of the end of days, rendered into  metaphors of weather. It’s one of those metaphors that you kind of assume is a metaphor but then one day you’re sitting in the upstairs apartment in this room outside Jerusalem and not so long ago you watched the crucifixion of a man who called himself the son of God and you’ve seen some strange things in the days since and it feels a little bit like the end is nigh and then there’s a sound like the rush of a violent wind and maybe this is the moment we’ve all been waiting for. Preparing for. Stocking up canned goods and charging our devices for. Israel has been waiting for the coming of its Messiah, the intervention of its God, the restoration of its high stature, Israel has been waiting so long for this violent storm of blood and fire and smoky mist and then here we are and the room shakes and the power goes out and then it’s just the wind and the waiting and this nagging sense that the end is nigh.

But then the Pentecost wind doesn’t bring blood or smoky mist or the end of days. It’s something quite a bit different indeed. Scripture says that tongues of fire appeared among these waiting disciples, and descended upon them, and they were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, and then this power extends to the entire waiting crowd of Israelites, gathered from the far corners of the empire, and all of a sudden they can understand each other, and see each other, and know each other, at least just for this brief, fragil moment. It doesn’t last for long. Nowhere later in the Book of Acts do we have any indication that the miraculous interpretive abilities on display on this Pentecost morning survive through to the many trials and tribulations that await our band of disciples in the days to come. Instead we just have this moment, this dreamlike moment when the walls and barriers in God’s creation seem to fade away, when Parthians and Elamites and Mesopotamians all stand side-by-side, shoulder-to-shoulder. Just for a moment. Just for a dream. While the storm rages outside, while crucifixion still echoes through the night and empire still beckons into the morning. But just for a moment. Like a dream. Like a vision. All of God’s children stand side-by-side.

I saw it, too, in the days after Sandy. Princeton of course was incredibly lucky — power outages for days, but nothing like the scale of loss that we saw along the coast and into New York harbor, and no silver lining outweighs the terrible consequence of that storm. But even so, just for a moment, I can remember poking my head outside on the morning after, sun shining in the air, tree limbs scattered gingerly down the street. I can remember walking curiously through the neighborhood and around the block, and there were so many of us. The curious. The amazed. The confused. And I remember feeling like we were in this thing together.  And indeed in the days to follow all the stories we heard were about humanity at its very best. In Lower Manhattan, extension cords were strung out of first-floor windows so that passersby could charge their cell phones when they had no power waiting at home. In Jersey, food and supplies poured towards the coast and everyone I knew with a truck was driving through the high waters to get there. We were, for a moment there, surprisingly decent to one another, surprisingly courageous for one another. Nothing like the firemen and police and National Guard who had rushed into the breach, of course, nothing like the first responders. But at least we were the second responders. With a moment of decency, with a moment of compassion. With some vision, some fleeting courage, for how things ought to be.

Of course that decency has an expiration. There’s some half-life to our crisis-induced sense of decency and eventually it just kind of expires; eventually we all just reverted back to being the cranky, selfish, ill-tempered people we had always been; eventually water finds its level. Eventually, of course, this transcendent Pentecost morning ends as well; eventually the spirit wears off; eventually the Parthians go back to being Parthians and the Elamites go back to being Elamites and eventually Jerusalem reverts to being the  divided and broken and subjugated imperial outpost it has been for so many years. Eventually even the disciples go back to normal; yes, for a while, in the book of Acts, it is as if the Holy Spirit has given them supernatural authority, but eventually, even they succumb to the normal wear and tear of being human. Eventually even the community of disciples gathered this morning will argue and fracture and break down. We celebrate Pentecost like it’s the party at the end of the movie but it’s so much more like the surreal dream sequence in the middle, this moment out of time, this moment out of space, from which nothing changes, nothing emerges, and nothing lasts.

Nothing, that is, except the dream itself. The dream of all of God’s people gathered into one place. The dream of all of the barriers of God’s people collapsing into dust. The dream of Parthians. The dream of Elamites. The dream of Mesopotamians. The dream of these disciples — the dream given to these disciples here on this Pentecost morning. And indeed the rest of the Book of Acts, in all of its fractured and broken fits and starts, the rest of this story is the story of these disciples pouring out of that upper room and going into the world as captives of this dream, a dream of bringing the grace of God to the corners of the earth, a dream of gathering all of God’s people into one sacred morning, a dream of the in-breaking of peace and joy and reconciliation. And this dream has a remarkable persistence. It survives storm clouds that gather and gather and never stop gathering. It survives mistake upon mistake. It survives prosecution and persecution. It survives despite the stubborn obstinance of a world hell-bent against it. But is survives and it will survive. It will survive because this Pentecost dream isn’t just the fleeting thought of well-meaning disciples. It survives because this Pentecost dream is the gift of God calling us into being. It survives because this Pentecost dream is the love of Jesus Christ risen from the grave. It survives because this Pentecost dream is the power of the Holy Spirit leading us, shaping us, insisting, insisting, insisting, with some vision, for how things ought to be.

The storms aren’t going away. You know as well as I do. The winds of division blow as violently now as they ever have, from Jerusalem to London to Washington to Austin. The waves of arrogance and brutality crash against the shoreline. The waters of dread and despair slowly rise, and there is no quantity of batteries or water or canned goods sufficient for the task at hand. But that does not mean that we go into this storm unprepared. To the contrary, we go into this storm equipped with the most powerful force that the world has ever known, which is the dream of God for all of God’s people. We go into this night with the most persistent illumination that the world has ever known, which is the vision of God for all of God’s people. We go into this world — we are sent into this world — we are sent into this world as children of this Pentecostal vision, as the wind rushes in with violence, and the waves crash with brutality, and as the water overflows the dam: we stand in the breach and proclaim: “Enough!” We stand in the breach and proclaim, “Peace!”  We stand in the breach with all the saints of every time and place. We stand in the breach with the Lord of all creation. We stand in the breach with Jesus Christ risen from the grave. We stand in the breach in the company of the Holy Spirit that gives us courage so here to stand. So as the storm shakes the rafters and rattles the foundations of the earth, we stand in the breach and proclaim the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. And it will come.

In just a few minutes we will celebrate one of my favorite liturgies in the life of the Presbyterian Church, the ordination and installation of new church officers, elders and deacons. And those good folks who you elected several weeks ago will stand in front of this congregation and answer the constitutional questions of ordination and then we will set them to the basic tasks of administration required of us as an institution of the church. There will be committee meetings. There will be agenda items. There will be organizational emails and reports from joint task forces and more than a few sign-up sheets to bring snacks. We always need snacks. But the call for this hour, for this moment, the call for this stormy weather is bigger and more profound and more daring and more insistent. It is not simply the regular business of doing church. It is rather the profound task of being church and dreaming this Pentecostal dream. It is rather the profound task of casting this Pentecost vision. It is rather the profound task of insisting on God’s call to the way things should be. God’s children, each alongside the other, God’s people, their barriers broken down, God’s creation, reconciled as on the last day.

This is the dream. It will survive the storm. It always has. It always will. And so when the night falls. When the power goes. When the wind comes in with violent sound. When the house begins to make its distinctive creak and moan. When the hour comes. Then you will find God’s vision, and God’s vision will find you, and we will be in that old Bob Franke song, the one that John McCutcheon made his own, where

The thunder and lightning gave voice to the night,
The lame small child cried aloud in her fright,
Hush little baby, a story I’ll tell,
Of a love that has vanquished the powers of hell.

Alleluia, the great storm is over,
Lift up your wings and fly!
Alleluia, the great storm is over,
Lift up your wings and fly!