I have been reminded recently on more than one occasion that God answers prayer. But I would be the first to tell you that life experience has, for the most part, taught me exactly the opposite. God does not answer prayer most of the time—or, at least God does not answer prayer in the way I want God to answer or on the timetable I had expected. In fact, life can be so brutal that I forget to pray at all for loss of faith. Or I choose not to pray for fear of being disappointed.
Sometimes I re-choose prayer by a sheer effort of my will. I discipline my practices in hopes that my faith will catch up. But other times I remember to pray because suddenly Grace plops down in my life like a bounding Tigger, as if to say, “I can’t believe you didn’t see me coming,” and I am surprised all over again that Grace is real.
On the Day of Pentecost, Grace plopped down with a flourish and shocked the socks off everyone—so much so that you couldn’t tell a Spirit-filled apostle from a drunken fool on the street, so the story goes. It was a confusing, throbbing, magnificent mess in which the Spirit of God was so conspicuous, so alive, so mobile, so awake and irresistible that the author of our text could only describe it by saying that the Spirit was like fire and like wind. All consuming, it sounded like the blowing of a violent wind that filled the whole house and it looked like tongues of fire that rested on each of them.
I read this story and feel either hungry for God or frustrated at God, but I never feel satisfied. I am either hungry to experience God like that or frustrated because God never seems to show up that way anymore, and I am not the only one who feels this way. I see people reacting to hunger/frustration all the time. They either leave faith behind, because they are fed up with God’s seeming absence. Or, they reduce faith down to something akin to spotting fairies—that is, they see the hand of God every time they get a good parking spot (Praise the Lord!) or when they pass a wreck on the highway (Praise the Lord! I’ve been spared!). Our tendency is to reject faith or mythologize faith—anything to escape the real life collision of prayer and reality, where you seldom get what you ask for and occasionally get just what you need before you even think to ask.
Acts chapter 2 makes it all seem so easy, like the Holy Spirit will just fly right down and baptize us by fire. The three-year cycle of the lectionary (which I’ll have you know leaves out certain biblical texts entirely) does us the great disservice of forcing us to read this very text every stinking year. It is exasperating, because it makes you want the Spirit of God to show up powerfully, which of course it won’t because everyone knows that the Spirit of God never cooperates with our calendars. It does its own thing—the wind blows where it will, the expression goes—and for all our manipulative tricks we cannot get that thing under our control. We want the Spirit at our beck and call. The Spirit becks and calls at us instead, but you’d have to be listening close to know it.
Madeleine L’Engle tells the story of being in a church service on a Pentecost Sunday in which the youth of the church were tasked with the leading the entire worship experience. But the radical religious notions of the youth actually drove some people to stand up and walk out of an already small crowd in a sort of reverse-Pentecost experience. The adults could not understand the language of the youth, whether the Spirit resided in their tongues or not, and so there was a scattering rather than a gathering. But I would venture to guess that most church services on most Pentecost Sundays are not nearly that dramatic. Most Pentecost Sundays pass by usual smusual. Nobody gets up and walks out in a huff. Nobody is overcome by the Spirit of the Living God. We all go home, eat our Sunday meals, take our Sunday naps, and try not to think about our Monday mornings around the bend. Same. Story. As. Always.
But the preacher in me wants this to be a real Pentecost Sunday. If we are going to observe Pentecost, I want to see some spiritual fireworks. It isn’t fair, if you ask me, for the Church Calendar to impose Pentecost Sunday on us, mere humans who don’t get to choose when God moves.
But of course, the disciples in Jerusalem that day weren’t responsible for God’s movement either. The only thing they were responsible for was showing up. They were responsible for gathering together, for waiting, and for praying, and those were the only meaningful jobs they had, which must have been maddening because there was no guarantee that Waiting for the Lord was ever going to pay off, or take off, or whatever. They could cling to faith or they could abandon faith, but there was not much they could be sure about and nothing concrete to do and no way to control the outcome, and so they just huddled together and hoped.
“When the day of Pentecost came,” says the text, “they were all together in one place.” You get the sense that the only choice they were given ahead of time was either to be in that room or not be in that room, and apparently they all chose to be there, and when the Spirit arrived it passed up no one and the rest is history.
I don’t mean to suggest that the life of faith is a passive one. Choosing God, choosing faith, choosing love again and again are some of the hardest decisions and biggest steps you will ever take. But we work ourselves into an anxious muddle when we start believing that our action causes God’s movement. You will either plague yourself with guilt or lavish yourself with praise depending on the direction of the Wind. Most of the spiritual choices we make in life are simply about showing up in those places where God is most likely to move. God is more likely to show up when I am extending hospitality to my neighbor than when I am gossiping to a friend. God is more likely to show up when I am praying than when I am watching commercials. God is more likely to show up when it is silent than when my ipod is blaring. Even still, the Spirit of God is so alive it might just show when you least expect and when you weren’t trying to listen at all. Even still, the discipline of showing up in the right places is worth it in the long run.
Last week, I shared with you this quote by Euguene Peterson that “Worship does not satisfy our hunger for God—it whets our appetite,” and that quote continues to haunt me. It suggests to me that this Pentecost story is not intended to be a satisfying story in any way. It is meant to make us hunger, to make us burn, to make us want. Because on an average day, I simmer down my need for God as much as possible because I’d rather get by on my own. I turn down the volume on my want because I don’t want to be disappointed. I hide from my hunger for God because I’m just not sure He’s all that interested in me anyway.
But on Pentecost Sunday, I let the tears of my longing flow. I open myself back up to hunger. I gather together with all of you. We huddle together and we hope and it’s sort of maddening because there is not much we can be sure about and nothing concrete to do and no way for us to control the outcome, but even still we show up. We wait. We tell stories, because everyone has at least one story where Grace caught them by surprise.
There is a line from noonday prayer in Macrina Wiederkehr’s Seven Sacred Pauses that says, “Before we share our noonday meal, our deepest hungers let us feel.” In a well-fed country like this one, we don’t like to feel our hunger. We are accustomed to feeding our bellies as soon as they begin to grumble, or we just go ahead and eat before we’re hungry, just to stay on top of things. We will all be feasting at the church picnic within the hour, and I wonder how many stomachs have started growling, just thinking about it. But before we share our noonday meal, our deepest hungers let us feel. What I mean is, what if we quit being afraid of our need for God? What if we weren’t so skittish about being disappointed by God? Like, as if, every disappointment was in fact getting us closer to the truth of God, and though it is painful to have your idols shattered, it isn’t exactly a bad thing. But more importantly, what if we weren’t so convinced that Grace has gone and hidden from us for good? Like, what if we expected it to plop down in our lives at any moment, as if to say, “Didn’t you see me coming?” What if hope isn’t a waste? What if Grace is on its way, and we just don’t know it yet? What if our everyday troubles and the looming tragedies don’t get the last word in our lives and in our world, and what if prayer is something God hears, and what if it’s not time for you to give up, and what if the people around here will actually wait with you and not pass judgment, and what if all this will be worth it in the end? You never know when the winds of the Spirit are going to start blowing, but I sure want to be there when it happens. And I hope we’re all together in the same room when it does.
I’d like to watch how Carolyn would jump and then laugh for joy when a tongue of fire rested on her head, and I’d like to see Isabel’s hair blowing in the rushing wind, and I’d like to hear Taty speaking in another language, though come to think of it, maybe the Spirit already visits us here more than we realize. Either way, you’re the people I want to wait and pray and hope and dream with. Oh Spirit of the Living God, fall on us, we pray. Amen.
 Madeleine L’Engle, The Irrational Season.
 Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction (Intervarsity 2000), Second ed., 56.
 Macrina Wiederkehr, Seven Sacred Pauses, (Sorin 2008), 102.