Years ago, I was serving a congregation and I will never forget one Pentecost Sunday. Pentecost is considered the birthday of the church. The time the Holy Spirit rested on the people after Jesus ascended. The life of the Church began. So, I thought I would bring a cake down to the children during the worship service for the children’s sermon and let them blow the candles out as we sang Happy Birthday to the Church.
What could go wrong, right? So, a local baker made the cake, someone from the choir helped me light the candles, I carried the cake in front and sat down holding the cake as the children came down and gathered around. I asked them to blow out the candles after we sang Happy Birthday to the Church. One little girl with Down’s Syndrome slung her whole head over the cake in her excitement to blow out the candles. She had long black hair and her hair caught on fire. I was horrified!! The children’s leader was sitting behind her and reached around and damped it out within seconds. She was so fast; the little girl didn’t even know what happened to her. But the little girl saw my frantic expression and she let out a blood-curdling scream. She screamed all the way down the aisle: “Cake, Cake”! She was only worried that she wasn’t going to get to eat a piece of cake. The children left with the cake and all was well.
The person who lit the candles was in the choir behind the pulpit. The choir could not see what happened, but they smelled it. And oh, could they smell it! If you have ever smelled burning hair, it is a bad smell. She sniffed and said, “Am I on fire?” Someone from the choir asked, “I don’t know, are you hot?” Her husband piped up, “She’s always hot.”
I sat down with a sigh and the choir director said, “That is one for the books, Coach.” He always called me Coach. And that it was.
I was once at a Festival of Homiletics talking to a group of clergy about things that went wrong during worship. When I told this story, they stared at me for a moment then said, “You win.” After that I stopped trying so hard to make Pentecost flamboyant or over-the-top extravagant. It was an event, quite an event that first Pentecost. Churches have tried to relive it in their own way ever since.
We read about a rushing wind. Also, it was like tongues of fire resting on their heads. “Like” being the operative word! (Note to self, do not try to re-enact that one at home or church!) They understood, they understood in their own tongues. “In our own languages we hear.”
Perhaps the miracle of Pentecost is not the hype, or even the speaking, but it is in the hearing. We want to be heard. Being heard is not simply about volume. When we raise our voices, often the listener shuts down and stops hearing what we are trying to convey. Have you ever spoken louder to someone who speaks very little English? I want to know other languages, yet learning them is slow and tedious. I get impatient with myself when I am unable to articulate my thoughts in another language and I revert back to my native tongue. To be heard in their own language at Pentecost was a reversal of the story of the Tower of Babel. I remember when I was a child, we sang a song, “Hey, hey anybody listening, Hey, hey anybody care?” Children want to know someone is listening. My mother told me when she began to loser her hearing she not only wanted to hear, she wanted to be heard. No matter the age, we want to be heard and we want to hear in a way we understand. “Your young men shall see visions and your old me shall dream dreams.”
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.
p.s. – After posting I found this from a Frederick Buechner website. This is perfect for me today. As only Buechner can describe it , “don’t ham it up, that’s cheating.” Blessings to all of you this Pentecost season!!
Here is an excerpt from the novel by Frederick Buechner The Final Beast where Pastor Theodore Nicolet is trying to write a sermon for Pentecost:
HE LAY behind the barn with his jacket folded under his head. The rim of the sun had just appeared above his father’s house, and long diagonals of light came slanting down at him from the peak of the roof. “”The birthday of the church took place in the midst of terrible fire,”” he began, his thin lips barely moving. “”I’ve got this sermon to do. . .”” Don’t ham it up, Nick. That’s cheating.’