“With Groans too Deep for Words” Sermon for Pentecost, May 19, 2024

Rev. Dr. Jenny Shultz-Thomas
Sunday, May 19, Pentecost 2024
Acts 2:1-21 / Romans 8:22-27

With Groans Too Deep for Words

My first paid job, where I received a paycheck and paystub, was the summer after graduating from High School in Louisville, KY. I decided I wanted a real job before going off to college in the Fall at The University of Kentucky in Lexington- just a couple hours away. It was time to roll up my sleeves— so I walked into that kitchen at my house, opened up the pantry drawer, and pulled out the phone book. Yes, it was a bound book of a thousand pages, with a bright yellow cover that read, “The Real Yellow Pages,” and had a big Bell South logo on the front cover. For those born in the digital age, this book included publicly listed phone numbers for businesses and residences across the city.

I started scrolling the business section for places where I might work, circling possibilities with my yellow highlighter as I flipped through the pages. My mom said the most obvious place would be food service, as they are always looking for employees. All you have to do is work hard, show up on time, and smile when the time is right.

As I was thinking about how a high school graduate today might go about looking for a job, this process is entirely different. First of all, the internet, second of all—  the internet. A teenager may or may not ask their mom for advice. Still, they will search online for the businesses they are interested in, read their reviews, and then immediately chat with an online bot about the benefits of said organization. There is no book, no yellow highlighters, and probably no occasion to smile pretty!

I had five or six restaurants circled, starting with my favorite high school burrito spot and others I liked. So, I picked up the home phone and began dialing numbers. Notice I didn’t say “cell phone.” I was 18 before I got a cell phone. My mom was dropping me off in my dorm room, and just before she left, my pocket started ringing—she had dropped the phone into my pocket as a surprise.

Dialing these restaurants, I had a few “no’s” and “call back later” responses, and even got hung up on before I made it to the last restaurant on the list—Cracker Barrel Old Country Store—- my first employer! And yes, I had the long, blonde, braided hair & the 1-gold star apron to prove it.

Church— In these quickly changing times, with the emergence of the digital age and now the newest iteration of AI taking over the world, I think about this example a lot, especially as a parent, because it points to the difference time makes in our lives.  How we communicated in the 1980s and 90s is no longer how we communicate today. Not only has our society become more global, but our language and how we use it have shifted dramatically. I have entered the era of parenting where my children are coming home with slang I’ve never heard, and I can only pretend I know what it means —I am officially “uncool.”

Today, most people text rather than talk, FaceTime, or Zoom rather than sit at a cafe over coffee to chat. Some are still wearing their Zoom mullets—nicely dressed from the waist up—but they forget to wear pants when they leave the house—yikes! Even dating has become a phone sport! There is no longer a need to print a 2,000-page yellow book, deliver it to area residents, and use it as a resource for communicating with others.

Time makes all the difference, and things have indeed changed.

Pentecost is a season that marks time and the difference it makes.

The reading for today begins with “When the day of Pentecost had come” and ends with, “Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

We can’t begin even to grasp, let alone name, all that has taken place between those two times and visions of God’s realm.

But what we can do is name our place in this passage of time, and look ahead to what is coming and IMAGINE MORE for God’s church, Imagine More for God’s people… IMAGINE MORE for our world…And our little piece of the universe right here in Omaha!

To begin to IMAGINE MORE, we have to understand what has been.

One New Testament Scholar writes, “The Book of Acts is a story about space and place—the story of a nascent movement and its expansion and movement from humble beginnings in Judea into some of the most important places in the ancient Mediterranean, like Rome. Pentecost plays with the theme of space and place, but it’s a story about time,” and how things inevitably change with its passing.”[1]

Two thousand years ago, Jesus’ followers gathered for the festival of Weeks. While Pentecost is a meaningful day for Christians, it is a significant festival day that did not originate with the Christian church. It is a Jewish festival, Shavuot, commemorating the giving of God’s Law to Moses. Its occurrence fifty days after Passover corresponds with the tradition that Moses received the Ten Commandments fifty days after the Exodus.[2]

Sitting in the room together on Pentecost, the disciples have just experienced the acute effects of time’s passing in 3 dramatic ways:

  1. — The state has just brutally executed their leader, friend, and teacher; as if that wasn’t enough to bury the ship— he has shown up again with the bloody scars to prove it. And now he’s promising them some kind of gift “from the Father…” baptism by Spirit? In 3 days? I’m not sure I’d want to open that present, Jesus if it looks anything like you!
  2. — One of their best friends is responsible for everything. BETRAYAL is still thick in the air, and they’re already on the prowl to find another guy. It’s as if the trauma is so great that to anesthetize themselves from the pain of it all, they dive in head first into an executive search for Judas’ replacement.
  3. — The disciples, still shell-shocked by the events of late, are now trying to absorb what in the world Jesus could be talking about– promising a gift? They can’t see two feet in front of their faces, let alone IMAGINE MORE is possible. So they blurt out what’s really on their minds: “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”

To which Jesus basically responds, it’s not your business. But he adds, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

To bring even more clarity to the situation, Jesus vanishes above the clouds in pure Superman form.

And we wonder why the disciples failed to put the pieces together?!

Time makes all the difference. While these events perplexed Jesus’ followers, 2,000 years later, at 2,000 feet, we can experience expectation and hope from this story because we know what comes next.

When the fires of Pentecost burned in Jerusalem, the city was packed to the brim with even more people from even more places than usual.  Hebrew Scholar Dr. Will Gafney explains, “There were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem…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 converts, Cretans, and Arabs. There were those who were born Jews, those who became Jews, and those who were neither Jewish nor interested in conversion.

Jerusalem, the place where the church was birthed in the fires of Pentecost, has been a multi-ethnic city for more than three thousand years. It was multi-ethnic when David conquered it. It was multi-ethnic after David conquered it and made it his capital. It was multi-ethnic when the Babylonians captured it. It was multi-ethnic when the Persians took it from the Babylonians. Jerusalem was multi-ethnic when Jesus walked its

streets, and it was a blessed cacophony of languages and cultures on Pentecost, even before the Holy Spirit added new languages to the mix.

And since it was a convention, there were vendors–selling everything from sacrificial animals to souvenirs to kebabs, and there were pickpockets and thieves and every segment of humanity, rich and poor and everything in between. Some were nativeborn, some were permanent residents, some were visitors, some were immigrants, and none of them were anything less than God’s beloved children created in the image of God.”[3]

As the disciples sat together in a room once again, this time on Pentecost, the promised unexpected gift erupted into their presence. What had been would be no more; something too powerful for words would change everything.

Time and the boundlessness of God’s time show up. Just like her hovering presence over the waters, Ruach ( רוח) —which in Hebrew is a feminine noun used for God’s Spirit who was present in the swirling waters of uncreation at the beginning of time— shows up here again as time invites God’s people to another new beginning when Spirit showers those in the room with a unifying mystery we can only attempt to define.[4]

A violent wind, yet we read of no damage; rushing gusts and the tongues dance steadily atop their heads. There were visions, dreams, and prophecies fulfilled, barriers incinerated instantly, collapsing what had been, instantaneously, as the power of God intervened with winds too great to resist and toppled over amidst this scene?— the tower of Babel once again, crashing down into the rubble of human confusion. And what arose from the chaff? GOD’s Spirit IMAGINING MORE FOR GOD’S PEOPLE.

When THE SPIRIT CAME BLOWING THROUGH THEM LIKE “a light in this world,” said Mother Theresa, it was a healing spirit more powerful than any darkness we may encounter.”[5] The people suddenly moved from confusion to understanding, from seeing the foreign to seeing family, from distant tongues to local language, and a unifying presence overcame everything in the room.

This week, I sat in a room just below us in Mary’s Hall with members from various religious and ethnic backgrounds: Jews- reformed and conservative, Christians- of all kinds, Muslims- some more orthodox, others more liberal, and everywhere in between, Secular Humanists, agnostics, and probably others with native languages and shared language, with religious similarities and shared values, with deep wounds from old and new battles, with questions more alike than the pain that separated them, with little answers yet an insatiable appetite and deep longing for connection filled the air.

On the Tri-Faith commons, the USDA’s Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships worked with the Tri-Faith Initiative to convene a Pentecost-like gathering to turn what has been into what can be— to IMAGINE MORE is possible than what the world would have us believe as missiles still fly across the sky. Children still die without warning. People are still starving for something more than just their bellies to be filled.

What occurred on this campus this week comes from the same power and prophecy of Pentecost, the transformative beauty the likes this world is longing to see and experience.

As the Tri-Faith Center filled with faith leaders on Wednesday evening, each committed to countering Antisemitism and Islamophobia, with civic and political leaders, with those entrenched in the work: body, mind, and soul, with those new to understanding the possibilities that lie in collaboration, as peace lies in the hands of hatred, and the world’s mantra sounds more like “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” rather than “love your neighbor as yourself”—those gathered were ALL hungry to IMAGINE MORE together.

Just like at Pentecost 2000 years ago, all who were gathered here this week were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”

In one of my conversations with a guest who’d traveled from the coast, I asked them about their experiences, and they looked at me and responded with tears in their eyes: “I needed this more than I could have imagined.” Another echoed that sentiment: “It was just amazing, so amazing… I am going to be thinking about this for days and days to come.” And finally, another new friend shared as he was leaving, “This is what the world needs to look and feel like…this is the world we all need!”

Over a span of 48 hours, we listened deeply to the groans of Spirit within each other, the ones Paul writes about in Romans, the kind of communication that eludes our lingual tongues but seeps through our poor. The listening that opens our eyes to see ourselves in the eyes of our neighbors and to listen not for the pause indicating that it’s our turn to speak, but to listen instead for the power of Spirit to turn our confusion into understanding and our understanding into action. Action that can transform the hatred of the world into the healing of God’s people.

Church, time is moving and passing, yet God’s timeless promise and abiding presence are ever-constant and never-changing: from Babel to Pentecost, from scattered to gathered, from the Exodus story of bondage to liberation, to the work of countering

Antisemitism and Islamophobia on our lands and across our shores.

Spirit is calling us to IMAGINE MORE for our world, MORE for our neighbors, More for our children, more for God’s beloved kin-dom come.

Come, Holy Spirit, Come.

[1] Smith, Eric C. “The Cusps of Things.” The Cusps of Things – by Eric C. Smith, A Lover’s Quarrel, 13 May 2024, ericcsmith.substack.com/p/the-cusps-of-things.

[2] Wasserman, Tina. “Shavuot.” Reform Judaism, 10 May 2024, reformjudaism.org/jewishholidays/shavuot.

[3] WilBiblical scholar in Hebrew and Hebrew Bible: special interest in translation textual plurality, et al. “Holy Fire.” The Rev. Wil Gafney, Ph.D. | Womanists Wading in the WordTM, 19 Nov. 2020, www.wilgafney.com/2018/05/20/holy-fire/.

[4] “Rev. Wil Gafney.” Holy Troublemakers & Unconventional Saints, www.holytroublemakers.com/revgafney. Accessed 19 May 2024.

[5] Gaia, Laurelle. “Mother Teresa and Compassionate Action.” Reiki, 11 July 2019, www.reiki.org/articles/mother-teresa-and-compassionate-action.