I never wear my clergy collar on airplanes.
Even so, I sometimes have chatty seatmates who find out what I do, and then want to spend the rest of the flight talking to me about what churches do wrong, their own specific interpretation of the Bible, or sexuality and religion.
Now, some of those conversations have turned out to be pretty interesting and fun, but once I’m “out” as a pastor, I wonder if people will judge me differently if I take my shoes off, or read a racy romance novel. Or if it will seem like another rejection by the church (or the decadent failure of the church) if I say “I just don’t want to talk about Leviticus and sex today.”
The thing is, for that hour or four, stuck in a metal tube hurtling through the sky, I am the church for my seatmate, for good or for ill.
But I’m a cradle Episcopalian, and I don’t get on planes to evangelize.
Neither did the disciples.
Leaving aside the question of planes, the hundred and twenty of Jesus’ followers who gathered in Jerusalem during the spring harvest festival were no more interested in evangelism than me in seat 21A.
They were still disturbed and uncertain about this death and resurrection thing Jesus had done, and were probably too nervous to go out in the streets where people might ask them about that dead rabbi they had followed.
And then the Holy Spirit comes to them,
like a stormy wind and fierce fire,
and they find themselves out on the street, preaching the gospel to all comers in languages they’ve never spoken in their lives.
I’ve always tended to imagine that evangelism would be easier that way, set on fire by the Spirit. That if you’re caught up in the Holy Spirit, all the anxiety and embarrassment and awkwardness would disappear; that you’d be confident and convincing without having to figure it out, and that people would believe right away.
It is a great idea, but I’m willing to bet that if we could get inside the heads of those disciples, they would be full of questions instead of tidy triumph. I’m willing to bet that on that day, those disciples in Jerusalem were wildly conscious of being far outside their comfort zone.
Because God does that to us. The Holy Spirit is a big fan of pushing us out of our comfort zones into new and unfamiliar places.
I learned that from Calvary’s Vestry, by the way. In our Vestry Bible Study at last week’s meeting, we read today’s Genesis story about the tower, and language, and babble. And right away, someone noted that God takes one look at the people building the city and pushes them out of their comfort zone.
In fact, God does for them exactly what they were trying to avoid by building their big, strong city and tower: scatters the people over the face of the earth.
And that happens so that the story can go on.
If there’s no diversity among us, if we stay in one safe fortified place, we lose the wonder of discovery, the inspiration for change and invention, and – most of all – the need and desire for a relationship with God that transforms lives.
That’s what Pentecost is about.
That’s the gift of the Holy Spirit to the church.
Not something as simple and spectacular as a miracle of language,
but the stormy, fierce Spirit that keeps on pushing us out of safe places, out of our comfort zones, so that God’s story can go on.
If that little community of disciples – a congregation the size of Calvary on a good Sunday – had stayed in their safe room, wondering and talking amongst themselves, the story of resurrection and redemption would have faded and died,
and you and I wouldn’t be here today.
We wouldn’t be here, praying and living our relationship with God, taking the chance on being inspired to tell God’s story somewhere way the heck out of your comfort zone.
Lillian Daniel, a popular Christian writer and a UCC pastor next door to us in Glen Ellyn, talks about the times when one of us church folk is in a place with others who don’t know much about church, don’t feel confident about their relationship with God, and suddenly wonder.*
Say you’re in a hospital room with a friend or family member who’s never seemed interested in religion, but suddenly asks if you believe in heaven.
Or a friend tells you about a personal tragedy, and wonders out loud how God can let bad things happen.
Or your niece, or your daughter’s boyfriend, asks how you can go to church when Christians are so judgmental.
All of a sudden,
like a pastor on an airplane,
you stand for the church. The whole church.
And you kind of stand for Jesus, too.
You make the church real in that time and place, for better or worse.
These things don’t happen to you everyday. But they do happen, or something like them, and usually when we are least prepared to talk Bible or Doctrine.
And Lillian Daniel points out that in fact, that’s not what we need to do.
You don’t need to quote scripture. You don’t need to know how to preach the gospel. What matters in those moments is just that you tell your own story.
Your beliefs, your hopes, and your own questions about heaven, whatever they may be.
The time you, too, wondered if God was mad at you, or didn’t exist, because you were drowning in tragedy…and how you survived, still believing in God, or at least in your friends from church.
Or just taking the time to listen to the one who thinks the church is judging them unfairly.
When we stand for the church, it’s not a polished, convincing sermon that matters. It’s taking a chance on telling your own story, offering your testimony that God has something to do with you, even if you couldn’t exactly explain what that is.
It’s letting the Holy Spirit nudge you out of your comfort zone to tell your own story, so that God’s story can go on.
I’ll bet that when those disciples found themselves on the Jerusalem streets speaking languages they didn’t know, it wasn’t a creed, or a smart, well-crafted sermon that they offered.
I’ll bet they stammered a bit and lost their train of thought occasionally, as they told their own personal stories.
Stories about being healed, or loved, or found. About a rabbi whose words changed them. Stories told way out of their comfort zone, unpracticed, untaught, and unplanned,
and that day three thousand people were baptized, and God’s story could go on.
Pentecost isn’t just a holiday to remember. Pentecost keeps happening, over and over.
And the Holy Spirit doesn’t necessarily make it easy, but she does make it happen.
When God is ready, the Spirit makes those times when someone is ready to listen, and invites you out of your comfort zone,
to tell a story, or act with love, so that one more time, God’s story can go on.
*"The Stand-In Church", in When "Spiritual But Not Religious" Is Not Enough" Jericho Books, 2013