A Room Full of Friends: Anna Carter Florence

A Room Full of Friends: Anna Carter Florence

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; July 4, 2021

10th Sunday after Pentecost

Acts 2:1-7


Today we continue the sermon series, “A Room Full of Friends,” which has allowed me to introduce you to some folks who have come to reside, figuratively speaking, on the bookshelves of my study, and who have become dear friends. This morning I bring to you The Rev. Dr. Anna Carter Florence. Ordained as a PCUSA pastor, she is a preaching and worship professor at Columbia Theological Seminary who just so happened to be my doctoral project advisor. The following is a Pentecost sermon she preached a few years ago at Duke University. Now you may be thinking, “Glenda, it isn’t Pentecost.” Well, that’s true. It’s actually the 10th Sunday after Pentecost. However, since I strongly believe that Pentecost and the work of the Spirit need more attention in the church, I trust you will be enriched by Ann Carter Florence’s sermon entitled: “Wind, Fire, and Galileans.”

Pentecost—it’s a funny kind of holiday. It isn’t exactly a traditional family time for Christians, as in, “So where are you celebrating Pentecost this year?” We don’t gather in homes for big meals, we don’t exchange presents, we don’t get vacation days, and the post office isn’t closed tomorrow in commemoration of Pentecost, and then there’s the issue of what to cook. Did you inherit any treasured family recipes from your grandmothers for red Pentecost cupcakes or tongues of flamed barbeque sauce? I didn’t and the magazines and grocery store are not exactly brimming with ideas. And all this reticence seems very strange when you think about it. Pentecost is a birthday party. You’d think the church would go all out like we do for Jesus in December—but we don’t. Not really.

In most Protestant churches, Pentecost is a rather understated holiday—modest—as if the church were shy of throwing itself a party or it preferred that you not make a big fuss, please, that it is another year older. Even though—even though the story is all about a great big noisy fuss which is what makes it a really good story.

When the day of Pentecost had come, the disciples 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.

You know maybe some of us prefer to take an understated approach to Pentecost because the church has entertained such extremes in the way we celebrate it. I know a Disciples pastor, for example, who grew up in a Hispanic Pentecostal Church. He says his congregation loved that Acts 2 passage so much that the preacher read it every 2 weeks. And the people never tired of hearing it and they especially loved the joyous and raucous freedom of that vision from Joel, your young ones shall see visions and your old ones shall dream dreams and everyone would jump up and shout and give thanks to God for what God was doing in their lives. Oh, my friend says, it was awesome and from an outsider’s perspective, complete chaos.

On the other hand, I know a little congregational church in New England—it happens to be the one where I grew up that had a very different way of celebrating Pentecost. The minister wore red and we passed the peace—once a year—and that was a big deal for us because we didn’t usually leave our pews or invade another’s worship space—you know, by looking at them—or touching them.

Because shaking hands was for after church and the only other time the minister wore red was on Reformation Sunday in October when we sang “A Mighty Fortress” and thanked God for Martin Luther. Two very different approaches to Pentecost in those two churches. But I think each of them is reaching toward something I learned growing up, which is that on Pentecost we go a little wild—you know—wear red—shake hands—overflow the space—whatever going wild in your context is—it’s what we do because the Holy Spirit requires us to give more room on this day. The Holy Spirit requires that we do at least one thing in worship that makes us nervous and re-draws our boundaries.

When the day of Pentecost had come, the disciples 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.

You could say that the first nerve-wrecking thing about Pentecost—at least for the disciples—is that it is literally a birth-day. They are waiting for something to be born with no control whatsoever. Jesus told the disciples he would send the Holy Spirit. He just didn’t tell them when—he didn’t give them a due date. And what’s a due date anyhow? Every pregnant mother has one and it’s just an educated guess on the part of the medical team. Babies do not generally consult due dates. They keep their own schedules in their own time and we just have to wait until they’re ready to come—sometimes a lot longer than we had planned. And the Holy Spirit—the disciples learned—works in the same mysterious way. There is a lot of sitting around for days—unable to make plans—unable to travel—unable to think or talk about anything else. Knowing we have a ballpark but not an exact date and probably muttering that if Jesus had just scheduled the equivalent of a spiritual caesarian, they could at least point to a day and say, “Okay. We just have to hold on for one more week and then it will be here. The Spirit is a lot like a baby. It shows when it shows and our job is just to watch and wait and get moving when its time.

So the day the Spirit finally does show up, of course, is Pentecost. 50 days after Easter. And in the Bible, Pentecost is already a holiday before the Spirit comes. It’s the festival of weeks—the Jewish celebration of the first fruits of summer and the giving of the Law to Moses at Mt. Sinai. This means that the church shares its birthday like a baby born on Christmas day or New Year’s Day or the 4th of July. It also means that the Spirit interrupts a party that is going on for someone else. Listen to this:

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 of these who are speaking Galileans?’

Did you hear that? Devout Jews from every nation under heaven. They were already living there in Jerusalem, and they weren’t lapsed believers. They weren’t non-members or pagans or secular or lukewarm. They were devout. They already had a firm relationship with God and they were observing the Feast of Pentecost with all the appropriate prayers: Thank you, O Lord, for the first fruits of summer and may our harvest this year be a plentiful one. Thank you, O God, for the gift of the law, the sweetness of Torah. The learning of it is like the taste of honey to our mouths. Devout Jews, from every nation under heaven all gathered in one place to celebrate what they know and believe—that everything we know and everything we have comes from the hand of God. And the most precious of those is Torah—the gift of the law.

Now that is not a holiday that needs correction, but it does get an interruption in the form of wind and fire. What is the Spirit up to with that? Well, maybe the whole point here is the Spirit has its own timing—just like babies and due dates—and so human plans only extend so far. The disciples didn’t know when the Spirit would come so they just had to wait. And they didn’t know any more than the devout Jews knew that it would show up on Pentecost. They just had to go with it. Pentecost—go with the flow. It’s a good bumper sticker—you can read the text that way and there are good and faithful things that can come of it.

OR maybe the point here is that the Spirit interrupts what we expect—kind of like no one expects conversion—devout people do not expect to wake up from a faith that is important to them—it just happens. Pentecost happens—you could make a bumper sticker from that too—it’s not bad. And you could read the text this way also and the church could be nourished by that. But what really challenges me and maybe you, too, is something that is harder to fit on a bumper sticker—not because it isn’t succinct—it is. But because it is so hard to swallow. And that is that the Holy Spirit doesn’t just interrupt us—it interrupts what we know—devout persons gathered together in one place to worship God for what we know God has given us and the Spirit will interrupt—violently—with wind and fire and Galileans.

You know if you have a certain respect for nature, you can get your head around the wind and fire of this equation. Wildfires raging—violent interruption—or if you’ve lived through a hurricane or tornado or earthquake—you get what wind and fire can do. And you can almost fathom what the disciples and the devout Jews must have heard that day.

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.

The miracle question aside, you can conjure up an image, if only from some disaster movie. You can affirm that yes, the Holy Spirit, if it takes the forms of wind and fire—will violently interrupt what we know—absolutely. But Galileans? Galileans? That’s harder. Because it calls into question how I organize my world, how I sort people into groups that I either respect a lot or I don’t respect very much at all. It implies for a start, that there are Galileans in my life, people I might dismiss because of where they live or how they talk or where they went to school—if they went to school.

Aren’t all those who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear—each of us in our own native language.

The reason people didn’t take Jesus seriously at first is that he was from Galilee and in the New Testament, Galilean is shorthand for ‘hick’ and Jesus grew up in the center of that—Nazareth—the capitol of hick. Can anything good come out of Nazareth? That’s what Nathaniel asked of Philip. Can anything good come out of Nazareth? People really talk like that. Can anything good come out of Detroit or New York or Idaho or that end of town? Are there any progressives in the state of Mississippi? Where I come from people really talk like that which is why my family is still worried about the fact that I now live in Atlanta and my sons are growing up in Georgia. Of course, I try to tell them, yes, there are many good things, progressive things even that come out of Georgia and if you visit us you would see.

But I still, I still have Galileans of my own. I do. Most of us do—if we are honest. People we would never expect to know more than we do about certain things. People we don’t expect to relate to as peers, colleagues, equals, because of where they come from or how they talk.

But there were devout Jews living in Jerusalem—devout Jews—cultured people and when they heard the disciples speaking in other languages as the Spirit gave them ability, they said, “Aren’t all those who are speaking, Galileans? Right. We thought that’s what they were. And how is it that we hear, each of us in our own native language—how is that?” Well, that is unexpected—that is unexpected. If we can hear in our own language what a Galilean says, that totally changes the whole picture for me because if a Galilean—[some hick] can talk to me in my language and show me Jesus more clearly than I have ever seen him. If that’s what Pentecost is, well that totally changes the whole picture for me. That means I am going to have to go home and rethink everything I thought I knew about God and the world and our place in it and everything else actually. I am going to have to go back to square one and start over.

Can the Holy Spirit do that? Reshuffle the whole deck as far as life and faith are concerned? Is it allowed to do that? Because that’s not why I came to church this morning—to be violently interrupted—even by grace—even by grace. Maybe the church, maybe the church is born again every time we gather together in one place to hear what we know, only to be addressed by what we never imagined. And if that’s true, if that’s true, then heck yeah Pentecost happens, you know it, go with the flow! You might as well, since it’s going to interrupt you with the big huge noisy fuss anyway—reconfigure all your boundaries, make you overflow your space, move over for Galileans—might as well enjoy it—might as well go wild—and pass the peace.


*Cover Art by Stushie via Unsplash, used by subscription