Page last updated



What Do We Do When the Spirit Starts Messing With our Worship?
A sermon based on Acts 2:1-21
by Rev. Thomas Hall

The title of my words this morning is lengthier than usual and reflects what a lot of people think about Pentecost Sunday: “Overcoming Pentecost or What Do We Do When the Spirit Starts Messing With our Worship?” Because this Sunday is Pentecost Sunday and because the day has much to do with the Holy Spirit, I want to shift gears. Instead of the usual homily format, let me offer you a Q/A session. These are going to be real questions and I hope that the answers will reflect not only the church in general but us here at ___________. The answers to these questions are given by Dr. William Willimon, the chaplain at The Divinity School, Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. I warn you ahead of time that this United Methodist chaplain speaks tongue in cheek. But his teasing with us also reflects a deep concern that he has for the Church. So don’t be offended or shocked by his answers, but do be listening to what the Spirit is saying to us.

Question: “Why do I hear so little about the Holy Spirit?” The man had noted how seldom the Holy Spirit had appeared in his preaching.

Willimon’s Answer: “Because this man is a layperson, a professor of chemistry, and voted for Bush, how was I to explain? The risks and pitfalls of working with the Holy Spirit are so great that it is better not to pray, “Open our hearts and minds by the power of your Holy Spirit so that as the Scriptures are read and proclaimed, we may hear what you say to us today.” This petition, often requested, and in my experience, he says, seldom fulfilled, is an invitation to trouble. The Holy Spirit, in my dealings with him, or her, tends to be pushy, assertive, antagonistic, and imperialistic. It is the nature of the Holy Spirit to want to take over wherever he, or she, intrudes. The Holy Spirit seems to abhor a vacuum, and frankly, many churches on Sunday morning are vacuous.”

Question: “Why do we follow an Order of Worship, or read from a bulletin on Sunday morning in our worship?” many laypersons have asked that one.

Willimon’s Answer: We need to keep all of the empty spaces filled-keep talking, keep people going through the motions, keep their noses in the bulletins-in order that there be a minimum of open space, gaps, or dead air. The Holy Spirit takes unplanned gaps as personal invitations to push into our liturgy. If that happens, it is difficult to predict where we might be by noon. And we preachers have a solemn duty always to stay with the flow, to assure our congregations that a chief pastoral role is to protect them from unwarranted intrusions of the Divine that might keep them past the hour of worship.

In personal experience, he goes on to say, I have seen cautious, well-ordered congregations get loose, lurch to the left, even begin to shout and raise their little spirit-filled hands in prayer , just because the Holy Spirit has come to church. I don’t have to tell you why this sort of thing is to be avoided. Control is one of the main functions of clergy. And the Holy Spirit likes nothing better than to take a perfectly decent and decorous Service of Worship and transform it into some sort of heart-happy, out of control hootenanny. If congregations cannot trust their pastors to protect them from the Holy Spirit, whom can they trust?

What I’m hearing in Willimon’s responses has to do with the intrusive quality of the Spirit and the issue of control. He raises several questions that need some thinking about on Pentecost Sunday. Have we become so professional in our service, so comfortable with the way things are done that we no longer really need the Holy Spirit to get through a worship service? That is, are we so comfortable with our worship, that we could coast through on auto pilot whether the Spirit showed up or not? Are we afraid of how our worship would look like should we make a choice to invite the Holy Spirit to be much more a part of what we’re doing here? Let me tell you this morning, William Willimon is not the only thinking person around here who wonders about the Spirit and our congregations.

Let me take you to one other person, Walter Brueggemann, a top-rate theologian; he writes the books that everyone else reads. He’s been raised in what he calls a “Euro-American” church, that is, a “mainline” church. He has always followed a reformed order of worship with little variation. He has invested much energy and life into the liturgical and sacramental side of worship. But he too, wonders why the Spirit is not intrusive in our congregations.

“The absence of the spirit in the church does not refer to an absence of excitement or novelty or experiences; the absence, moreover, cannot be adequately overcome by innovation and experimentation. The absence, rather, refers to the recognition that matters are kept tightly under human control-by liturgical precision or by other means.

“Not for nothing is Pentecost more plausible in storefront churches. Not without reason does the Spirit surge in the churches to the South while Euro-American churches bask in untroubled exhaustion.

“What our affluence, intellectual sophistication, and technology share is a capacity to control. And control in a thousand forms, makes the intrusion of the Spirit impossible.

This morning church, listen to me. The story of Pentecost and our stories in the 21st century have grown apart. There was an urgency and intensity among the Pentecost crowd to gather for prayer. And they did. But the Spirit did the rest. Notice the language Luke uses to describe their worship experience: “sound from heaven like the roaring of a mighty windstorm,” flames or tongues of fire, and everyone was filled and empowered by the Spirit.

The Spirit continues to blow where it will. It may blowing among us . . . out of control, out beyond liturgies that have settled in, out beyond our little packages of truth. As Brueggemann says, it’s the blowing, the not being in control that scares us. As pastor I preside over a congregation where the wind blows. And I’m paid to keep the storm windows up and in place when it happens.

But hear this: where the Spirit blows, there will emerge people that have extraordinary power to turn the world right side up; there will arise a people who can heal without silver and gold, there will arise a generosity that will far exceed our wealth, we will enjoy a “negotiated sacrifice” in worship that will free all of us to worship God in a variety of ways. Where the Spirit blows, there will emerge a new hunger for God, a new hunger for Scripture and small groups . Where the Spirit intrudes, people become unified in their vision, and the church will begin to grow in number and spiritual strength.

Imagine what would happen if we invited that kind of Spirit into our congregation each Sunday.

We are praying and preparing for God to renew this pastor and congregation. We’re forming a mid-week prayer and praise service, a Sundays at 7 outreach later this summer, and Bible study following morning worship later this summer.

It’s Pentecost Sunday and Holy Communion this morning. What a great time to yield to the Spirit, to be filled with the Spirit and to be nourished through the Spirit as we celebrate the Bread and Cup. Amen.