Proving the World Wrong
First Lesson: Acts 2:1-21
Second Lesson: John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15
Rev. Scott Dickison
It was Pentecost Sunday of 1992 and Mike Mather was pastor of a United Methodist Church in downtown South Bend, Indiana. His text was the usual for that Sunday: the passage we heard earlier from the second chapter of Acts, when the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples and all those gathered in Jerusalem. His sermon focused particularly on Peter’s sermon from that passage, where he quotes from the prophet Joel:
‘In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon allflesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
At a congregational meal after the service, a member came up to Mike and said,Pastor, I’d like to talk to you about the sermon.
Mike perked up, as we pastors are known to do when we learn that someone has been listening—we’re not always sure. The church member went on, You read that line about how God will pour our the Spirit on all people.
Yes, that’s right, Mike said, at Pentecost we celebrate that God has poured out the Spirit upon all people.
The member responded, pointedly, So how come we don’t treat all people like that.
Mike was confused. The woman, who was involved in the church’s food-assistance program, went on to point out how when folks would come to their church to receive food, they were asked to fill out a government form that basically asks, “How poor are you?” But nowhere on the form were there questions about people’s gifts.
If we believe that God’s spirit is flowing down on all people, old and young, women and men -- and on the poor, the woman continued,why don’t we treat people like that’s true?
When Mike shared this story two weeks ago with a group of pastors and other church leaders in Indianapolis, Indiana, of which I had the pleasure to be a part, he said that church member’s question was a turning point in his understanding of what the church is called to do, and even more who it’s called to be in the world. And it led to some changes in their downtown ministry. They started by putting aside the government form they’d been using at the food distribution and began asking different questions. One of which was: What three things do you do well enough that you could teach others how to do it?
Do you see how different that is—inquiring about gifts instead of deficiencies? Before long these gifts began to be revealed: people emerged from within the neighborhood who could repair cars, make quilts, paint, and cook some of the best Mexican food around. Suddenly connections began to be made. Some neighbors found new livelihoods, but many more—not the least of which those within the congregation—found a new community revealed around them. Or better yet, a community was revealed to them that had been around them all this time they just never knew it was there.
Mike is now the pastor of Broadway United Methodist Church in Indianapolis, an urban congregation on the city’s north side, and over the past 14 years he and the church leaders have taken this revelation of the prophet Joel, and then the Apostle Peter, and then this beloved church member in South Bend, to heart.
“Stop helping people,” has become one of their slogans. Along with “Do less, be more.” As in, focus less on what you can do foryour neighbors, and more on how you can be a good neighbor.“The church, and me in particular,” Mike said in an interview, “has done a lot of work where we have treated the people around us as if, at worst, they are a different species and, at best, as of they are people to be pitied and helped by us.”
Instead, they’ve sought to build relationships with their neighbors and see what the Holy Spirit is already doing around them that they might be a part of and amplify where they can. To put it another way, they decided to back up and take the first step in being a good neighbor, which to simply to see people as children of God and then be interested enough in what God is doing in their lives to ask about it. To help lead in this, Broadway Church hired a man named De’Amon Harges, a local artist and resident of their neighborhood who has a rare gift of being infinitely interested in people and having the courage to get to know them. He already had a practice talking with folks around the neighborhood, entering into meaningful conversations with them, seeing and naming their gifts. De’Amon became the church’s first “roving listener,” whose job was simply to do what he’d already been doing—spending time with the church’s neighbors, not accessing their needs, but inquiring about their gifts and working to make connections. And sure enough, having these gifts seen and named started bringing people together. They learned within a few blocks of the church there were 45 backyard gardens, which means 45 backyard gardeners. De’Amon and Mike brought them together for a meal and no agenda. They found they had so much in common that they now meet monthly. As someone pointed out, they hadn’t seen their green thumbs as a gift, but when they came together there realized that had “something valuable.”
The past several years they’ve hired kids from around the neighborhood to do the same for summer internships, roving the neighborhood, meeting people, hearing their stories, learning about their gifts and talents and abilities, and making connections. Many of you are probably familiar with our brothers and sisters around the way at Centenary United Methodist who started a similar programs some years back, after spending time with Mike and De’Amon up at Broadway some years back.
Learning about the gifts that surrounded them in their neighborhood that the church had never thought to ask changed the way they approached other ministries, too. They’d run an after school tutoring program for 30 years, but when they stopped and looked, they saw that the graduation rate in the neighborhood had actually gone down in each of those years. They began to wonder what good they were doing. Nevertheless, a few years back they were looking for more teachers to help in their program, when De’Amon heard about a woman in the neighborhood named Maya, who was doing tutoring for neighborhood kids in her home. She had grown up in the neighborhood, gone away for school, but recently moved home to live in the house she’d grown up in. De’Amon went to go see one of her sessions and found children of all ages there in her living rom being tutored in any subject they could bring to her. They met everyday after school, and on Fridays, their parents were invited to join them for a party where the kids would present their work. De’Amon described the feeling in the room—the celebration, the community. They realized they didn’t need Maya to come be a part of their ministry, they needed to do whatever they could to bless her in her ministry. Sometime later they did just that in worship as part of a practice they’ve taken on to invite folks from the neighborhood doing good work to receive a blessing.
Maybe even more than that, they discovered a new guiding question which has Pentecost written all over it: Where are the parties? Where are people celebrating in then neighborhood ? What are they celebrating? Because the Holy Spirit is probably there among them.
When they hired a youth minister some years back, they told the candidate they weren’t interested in traditional youth programming—that wasn’t right for their context. What they wanted them to do was focus on celebrating the youth of the neighborhood, discover their gifts, and help the church bless those gifts. So they started throwing parties. They would organize a meal in honor of a neighborhood youth in someone’s home. The youth would get to invite some people, and the ministers would invite some folks from the church who they thought might connect with them. And they would all bring food to share, and at the end of the supper, they asked the youth to share with the group about what they thought their gifts were and how they felt called to use them. And then the question was posed to the group of adults form the neighborhood and the church who had gathered there around them:Having heard this young person speak of their gifts, what will you offer to support them? How would you meet these gifts and bless them?People would respond, thinking of their own gifts and resources. And then they would gather around the young person, and lay hands on them, and bless them.
After one of these holy, holy meals, one of the adults from the church came up to Mike and said, We need to do these for adults, too. And so they did. They started hosting these meals for all sorts of different people in the neighborhood and the church. Especially their shut in members. They would gather in their homes are places of residence, and have them share their gifts, and ask how the church might bless and support them.
Where are the parties? What a holy question. What a Pentecostal question.
Jesus tells his disciples, there on the final night he spent with them, not to worry, because when he leaves them he’ll send what our bibles translate as an Advocate.” As we noted a few weeks ago, other transactions render it Comforter, or Helper. The Greek word is Paraclete, which literally means, one who “walks alongside.” A fair translation, I think, would be a “roving listener.” Someone who walks alongside and listens and sees gifts and names them and brings and binds people together through these gifts in a spirit of celebration—isn’t that what we say the Holy Spirit does? And isn’t it in doing these things that the Spirit “proves the world” wrong as Jesus says?
And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment.
In other words, prove the world wrong about what or whom is of true importance and value. What: which is anything that gives life and causes people to grow come people together, and lifts up that which is good and worthy of praise in people. Not those things to tear people down, that divide us and have us fear and distrust or be in competition with each other. Those are the things most often celebrated by the world, but not by the Spirit, and we pray not by the church. And whom: which is all people. All people. Not just some people. People who look a certain way or dress a certain way or have a certain job or any job at all or have a certain house in a certain neighborhood or any house at all. Not people who vote a certain way or belong to a certain party or club or family or anything—but all people. This may be the most radical, controversial claim the church makes—even more radical than a man being raised from the dead. The claim that all people have had the Spirit poured out on them. All people are washed are bathed in the Spirit, given gifts and talents—involved in the workings of God in the world. And if the gospel writers are correct in their portraits of Jesus, especially those people who are not often told they are good and worthy of praise.
The Spirit will prove the world wrong about these things, and reveal the worth and gifts of all people. And Jesus says we will be the church when we do too. When we trust the promises of Scripture that the Spirit falls on all people, both inside and outside the church, and see ourselves not as thekeepersof the Spirit, but the seekersof it—when we seek out ways to involve ourselves in the work the Spirit is already doing around us—when we seek out all the parties already being thrown around us. This is how the church finds its place.
Friends, we’re not called to do all that needs to be done in the world—thank God. However, we are called to be a community anointed and animated by the same Spirit that Christ promised, carrying that same mission that Christ carried to the grave and to the sky, which is to reveal the presence and love of God here on earth. But in order to reveal it, we first have to see it. And in order to see it, we first have to be looking for it—or maybe even listening for it. And in order to look and listen for it we have to believe that it’s there to hear and see in the first place.
So my question for us this morning is simple, and it’s not something I can answer for us: Do we?
https://www.faithandleadership.com/death-and-resurrection-urban-church. Supplemented by Mike’s presentation at Broadway UMC for A Convocation of Christian Leaders, May 9, 2018.