“Holy Troublemakers and Unconventional Saints
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
June 5, 2022

Joel 2:27-29
God’s Spirit Poured Out
You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel,
and that I, the Lord, am your God and there is no other.
And my people shall never again
be put to shame.

Then afterwards
I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh;
your children shall prophesy,
your elders shall dream dreams,
and your young people shall see visions.
Even those you consider most lowly, the most unexpected messengers of my holy and just love –
in those days, on them I will pour out my spirit.

Acts 2:1-18
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.

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 these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them: ‘People of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
“In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
your children shall prophesy,
your elders shall dream dreams,
and your young people shall see visions.
Even those you consider most lowly, the most unexpected messengers of my holy and just love –
in those days, on them I will pour out my spirit,
and they shall prophesy.

– – –

As you will hear in a minute from our confirmands, we had a thoughtful and opinionated group this year, each of whom are at different places in their spiritual journeys. Some are ready to claim the Christian faith as their own through confirmation; some are ready to officially make PACC their church home as members; some want to learn more; some have affirmed through confirmation that Christianity is not their path, or that while they value the teachings of Jesus, they do not believe in God. 

With this diverse and passionate group, we spent our confirmation classes talking about Christian values like Incarnation, Beloved Community, and Original Blessing (as opposed to Original Sin) – and then thinking about ways that those values translate into our lives, regardless of what faith we claim for ourselves or whether we claim any faith at all. One way we did this was to read stories from the book we shared at All Ages Together this morning, the cover illustration of which is on the front of your bulletin: Daneen Akers’ Holy Troublemakers and Unconventional Saints, stories of people of faith who have lived out their beliefs in ways that challenge and change those around them to be more loving, just, and inclusive. 

We learned about holy troublemakers like Bayard Rustin, the Black Quaker activist who convinced Dr. King to embrace non-violence and who organized down to the last detail the pivotal March on Washington where Dr. King gave his famous “I Have a Dream Speech.” As one civil rights activist put it, without him, the march would have been “like a bird without wings”; yet Bayard never made headlines because he was gay at a time when that would have threatened the success of the civil rights movement. 

We learned about Gustavo Gutiérrez, the Peruvian priest whose story I told several weeks ago during All Ages Together, who teaches that God has a preferential option for the poor – a special concern for those exploited by the rich and powerful – and that we must honor God’s special concern with our actions and our policies, our votes and our ministries and our giving.

We learned about Kaitlin Curtice, the Native American Christian writer who teaches her children and all those who read her work to see the stories of the Bible as she also sees her Potawatomi origin stories – not as facts to be disproved, but as rich narratives that teach us larger truths about who God is and who we are to be, without obsessing about whether they “actually happened.” 

We learned about Rachel Held Evans, the white evangelical writer who learned early from her pastor father that it was okay to have questions about God, and who spent her career making room for people the church had excluded, including those whose questions and wonderings had caused those in power to ostracize or silence them.

And we learned about Lisbeth Meléndez Rivera, whose story you heard during All Ages Together.

From this wide rainbow of saints and “holy troublemakers,” we learned that following Jesus often means creating new understandings of what God’s kindom looks like, and that God meets each of us where we are on our journeys and gives us gifts to help enrich and expand that kindom of justice and mercy. 

That message echoes down through the ages as we celebrate Pentecost, the day when God’s Spirit spoke to each person in their very own language, and when God’s people were reminded that everyone, from wizened elders to fresh-faced youth, have dreams and visions that speak to the whole, pointing the way forward.

– – –

To that point, our confirmands have been honest and open about their beliefs and questions, and the fact that although it has served us well for many decades, the membership covenant we have used for over a hundred years does not reflect their faith. 

Now before you assume that well, youth are generally unconcerned with tradition or allergic to old-fashioned language and those of us who are more seasoned will have a more measured perspective, I want to tell you that this is a conversation I’ve actually had many times since I’ve become your pastor, and always, until now, with adults, including elders. In fact, I first spoke to our moderator, Tim Durning, about developing a new covenant back in December, before confirmation class had really gotten underway, because so many folks who joined years ago have told me they joined in spite of the language of the covenant, almost crossing their fingers, while several people who haven’t yet joined have told me that they would deeply love to officially cement the sacred bonds of fellowship and spiritual growth they’ve experienced here, but that they cannot in good conscience assent to language that doesn’t reflect their image of or relationship to God or to the church. 

Language in our covenant like “submit to the orderly administration of the church’s affairs” and “to guard carefully the honor of the church”, for example, speaks to church as a hierarchical, infallible institution to which we owe our allegiance, an image that doesn’t ring true for many in our congregation – or, to be honest, for our faith tradition, which for hundreds of years has cherished freedom of conscience and the right to hold one’s own beliefs, up to even defying church leadership. And language like “Lord and Savior,” while comforting to many, to others evokes faith as a matter of believing correctly and obeying without question so you will be saved in the afterlife, instead of as a matter of a living, growing relationship with the Christ who has shown us how to embody God’s love and justice now, so that the compassion, grace, and equity of that afterlife might be lived here on earth.

To that end, the council has asked a volunteer group of deacons to research what other churches use as covenants – many of whom, you may be reassured to know, are exactly in the same position we are, living with a covenant that is old and cherished yet no longer reflects who they are, and working to develop something new. In addition to research at other churches, this group has been primarily charged with reaching out to you all to hear what is important to you in a covenant, that they might craft a new membership covenant for the approval of the entire congregation at the annual meeting in January. I hope you’ll join me in praying for them as they do this work, in sharing your thoughts with them when the time comes, and in responding with grace and gratitude to our confirmands and others who have shared and will share honestly about their faith, so that together we might create a new vision, a new dream about what it means for us to follow in Jesus’ way as a body freely committed to God and to one another in love and in grace.

What a good thing – to have people, confirmands and not, elders and youth, who are so honest and who take membership so seriously! And what a gift, to have an opportunity to expand and reshape our ideas of what it means to be the church, as so many of these holy troublemakers and unconventional saints have done, and as the disciples and those gathered to hear them speak did almost 2,000 years ago! 

And yet it can be unsettling – many of the folks who heard the rush of wind, saw the tongues of flame, and heard God’s message being spoken in entirely new ways were so unsettled by it, in fact, that they dismissed those gathered as “drunk on new wine” rather than face what a new way of experiencing God might mean for them. 

That’s the continual challenge we face, isn’t it? Whether it’s at Pentecost, or a few chapters later in Acts where Peter has a vision of God chastising him for excluding Gentiles, who belong in the church just as much as Jews do; whether it’s the church evolving to catch up with where the Holy Spirit has long been at work in the ministries of women or in the lives and loves of LGBTQ folks; whether it’s with a class of confirmands who, rooted in the love of their church family, feel confident charting their own faith journeys; whether it’s in envisioning new ways of doing ministry where we get comfortable with failure and with the uncertainty of reaching out beyond our doors or the risks of speaking out against white supremacy or gun violence; whether it’s rewriting our membership covenant – not to dismiss our history or the legacy of those who came before us but to honor and make space for where God is working among us now – it can be uncomfortable, at first, to open ourselves to the Spirit moving in new and (to us) mysterious ways. 

But I think that’s exactly why Jesus gave us the Spirit, and why we celebrate this day of strange and wonderful miracles every year – to remind us not to turn away from what is new and uncertain, but to look to God’s powerful presence to guide us as we navigate the changes before us, that through them we might ever and even more fully realize God’s kindom here on earth. 

May it be so. Amen.