Baptism of Elinor Smith Allen
Who Do They Think They Are, Anyway?
Pentecost is a feast day that celebrates the Spirit of God—a Spirit that has moved over the face of the deep, the earth and Her people for millennia. Pentecost is a feast day full of joy, fire, wind, many languages that are all God’s language, and unexpected gifts. Yet it is the unexpected direction of the Spirit that is often viewed with uneasiness—even suspicion. In the book of Numbers, Moses—the leader—is burned out, depressed, out of his depth. In desperation, he cries out to God, saying that he would rather be dead if leadership was going to be like this. God responds by telling Moses to call together seventy elders of the people, so that God’s Spirit can grow beyond Moses.
Yet there’s a hitch in this plan for leadership development. Two of the invited leaders—Eldad and Medad—decide to sleep in late that morning, maybe enjoy a cup of coffee at the entrance of their tents, just enjoy the spring sunshine. So they don’t show up for church. God’s Spirit does not seem to care all that much. The Spirit makes a little side trip beyond the Tent of Meeting. She fills Eldad and Medad, as well as the others who have done what they’ve been asked to do.
Of course, it isn’t long before someone runs out of the camp to Moses in the Tent and tattles.”Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” Immediately, the church folks get mad and start to complain. Who do they think they are, anyway? Eldad and Medad didn’t even bother to dress right or come to worship or make any attempt to be like the rest of us. They didn’t do the liturgy right or pray the prayers or sing hymns. They can’t be leaders if all they don’t do things right, the way we’ve always done them!
Joshua, son of Nun, really gets his feathers ruffled. He seems to be afraid that if someone “out there” gets a healthy dose of God’s Spirit and Power, then there won’t be enough to go around for the others who hold legitimate authority. Moses immediately disabuses Joshua of this Scarcity Theology. “Good Lord,” Moses says. “I am so tired and so burned out by leading this Back To Egypt Committee, I wish the Lord would put the Spirit on ALL of them. Let them all prophesy! Let them all lead! God knows I could use all the help I could get right now.”
God’s people simply cannot control God’s Spirit. No matter how hard the Church has tried throughout the millennia, it just never works. Again and again—through the times of prophets, sages, kings—the holy chaos of God’s Spirit rushes, tumbles, blows apart human institutional structures. God’s Spirit creates new things, in every time and every age. When Jesus of Nazareth comes onto the scene of history, his very being is like the Spirit of God coming to life again in a world that has been controlled, tightly held and oppressed by political, economic and religious authorities. When these authorities realize that God’s divine spirit has been unleashed in the world again, threatening the status quo, they crucify him. There. That takes care of him. Who did he think he was anyway?
Yet that crucifixion and death does not, will not, cannot stifle or restrain or destroy the power of God. Out of God’s Spirit bursts resurrection and new life. And when the risen Christ returns to God, the promise of the Holy Spirit keeps the disciples in Jerusalem. On Pentecost, this Holy Spirit who has moved over the face of the deep at the beginning of time now rushes, tumbles and once again, She changes God’s people in ways they never expected. Wind. Fire. New understandings. New members of the family. The gospel now expands to the whole world, well beyond Jesus’ immediate circle of followers.
In the midst of this explosion of God’s Spirit, some people are amazed and astonished. Some are amazed and perplexed. And some are amazed and very suspicious. Who do these people think they are—chattering away in foreign tongues with all the strangers in the square–pretending to be filled with God’s spirit? They’ve got spirits all right. I’ll bet those spirits came from a wine-skin, not God. Once again, God’s “fresh and life-giving Spirit” has transformed a group of people. She has given them new gifts. She has pushed them out of the Church into the world to tell complete strangers, through Jesus the risen Christ, how much God loves them.
I wonder what God’s Holy Spirit is doing today, June 8, 2014. Recently, I have read a number of articles posted on Facebook and blogs about the supposed death of the Church. Official attendance numbers are dwindling. What church folks call “regular attendance” is not what it used to be (in times past, you had to attend weekly to classify your attendance as regular; now it’s two or three times a month, if that). Due to public fights over doctrine, thousands of people—especially young people—equate Christianity with a bad virus. To avoid getting infected, they would rather go sit in Starbucks with their laptop, or sit on their front porch with the Sunday paper, than be associated with Christians. Yet I do not believe that the Holy Spirit’s Pentecost winds have died down. As Mark Twain once said—and I paraphrase—“The rumor of [our] death is greatly exaggerated.” What I do believe is that we in the institutional Church run a risk of getting too comfortable with our rules and our rituals. I do believe that we may be boxed in by our expectations of how people should dress and act, and our insistence on doing things the way we have done them for years.
We must be warned that just when you and I think we have contained God in our prayer, our worship, our historic buildings, the Holy Spirit may just blow through and change everything around us.
Thirty years ago, the author Annie Dillard wrote a book entitled Teaching a Stone to Talk. Using the imagery of someone on an expedition, Dillard makes some cogent—and, I think, truthful—observations about Christianity and Church people: “Why do we people in churches seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? The tourists are having coffee and doughnuts on Deck C. Presumably someone is minding the ship, correcting the course, avoiding icebergs and shoals, fueling the engines, watching the radar screen, noting weather reports radioed in from shore. No one would dream of asking the tourists to do these things. Alas, among the tourists on Deck C, drinking coffee and eating doughnuts, we find the captain, and all the ship’s officers, and all the ship’s crew. The officers chat; they swear; they wink a bit at slightly raw jokes, just like regular people. The crew members have funny accents. The wind seems to be picking up.
“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”
If God’s Holy Spirit runs through our Tent of Meeting and our camp out in the wilderness, God only knows what will happen. The tents may be up-ended. God’s people may spill out onto the streets, passing out crash helmets and telling complete strangers that God loves them and at St. Philip’s, so do we—no matter what.
Someone who colors outside the lines may very well get ordained and start to baptize people. She will say that child’s name and trace an invisible cross with blessed oil on her forehead. She will look into that baby’s eyes and say “Elinor Smith Allen, you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.” And that priest will hold, deep in her heart, a wild, rushing Pentecostal hope that someday, somewhere, someone will look at that child of God and ask, “Who does she think she is, anyway?” Amen.
© The Rev. Dr. Sheila N. McJilton
 David M. Bender in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 3, (Louisville: John Knox Press, 2011), 16.
 Annie Dillard, Teaching A Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters, (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, Inc., 1982), 40-41.