In previous entries, I’ve been writing of the Spanish Castle Youth Center, long gone, but still remembered by some neighbors in the Bon Air suburb of Richmond, Virginia. And I’ve told the story of one of those teenagers, Susan. Her story continues in these excerpts of a sermon I preached on Pentecost Sunday a few years ago:


I remember a Pentecost Sunday several years ago when I was embarrassed for the church. I was in the ministry, but not in parish work at the time. So, I sat where you are sitting–as a worshipper at an eleven o’clock Sunday morning service.

 The sanctuary was decorated for Pentecost with large banners, one flaming red, portraying tongues of fire; another depicted a dove descending, white and gentle. On the lectern and pulpit there were red paraments. Over the pastor’s shoulders, a red stole. All signs of a liturgically correct Pentecost. One red symbol remained hidden for awhile–the wine of Eucharist.

 As the prelude began, I scanned the bulletin briefly, and then began my worship in silent prayer. Then I opened my eyes and noted the ushers showing worshippers to their seats. I wasn’t surprised that there was only an average number of people on this so-called “festival” day. After all, unlike Christmas and Easter, Pentecost lacked pageants and pageantry, well-loved hymns, cultural anointing, and greeting cards. What did surprise me was “the lady in red.”

 She was walking down the aisle nearest me, her dress cardinal red and, well, stunning. It was Susan. Now an attractive young woman in her mid-twenties, she had been a teenager when I first met her. I hadn’t ever seen her in church before, although I knew she had been a child of that particular congregation.

 That morning she was alone. “Susan,” I whispered. She turned and smiled, and sat down next to me.

 “Hello,” she said quietly. “I’m so glad I recognized somebody. Do you mind if I sit here?”

 “No, of course not. I’m so glad you’ve come.”

 With the prelude nearing its conclusion, Susan explained quickly that she was home for the weekend, had promised to come to church with her mother, but her mother wasn’t feeling well now, so she had decided to come to church anyway since it was, as she put it, “the birthday of the Church–Pentecost.”

 I replied lamely that I didn’t bring any balloons or party hats, and she smiled, but only out of courtesy. Then we were called to worship.

 The leader said, “We have come to celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

The people responded, “We have come to celebrate Pentecost and to open ourselves to God’s Spirit, that it might fill us.”

 The leader said, “We gather in the renewing life the Spirit gives to us all.”

 And the people read from their bulletins, “Let us then worship God, bringing praise and song, joy and laughter. Let the world hear our voices and see our dance of new life.”

 I had found the opening hymn, and as I shared the hymnal with Susan, I found more exhilaration in her presence than in the music. Susan was in church–her home church–on Pentecost–and I was very glad…

I remember wanting that service to be especially helpful and welcoming to her. I wanted her to feel at home, to feel the presence of the Spirit in that gathering, to find spiritual food and to feel surrounded by Christ’s love. I wanted that service to be full of Pentecost excitement and inspiring proclamation. I wanted our church to live up to her expectations that morning.

 And what a promising beginning: “Let us worship God, bringing praise and song, joy and laughter. Let the world hear our voices and see our dance of new life.”

 But, near the end of the service, a rather formal Presbyterian order, just after the benediction, Susan touched my arm and said, “The Holy Spirit sure wasn’t in this service today. I really thought Pentecost would be a little more alive.”

 She was right again. And I was embarrassed for the church. Our words were lofty, but empty. Our intentions were honest, but unfulfilled. Our songs were joyless. Our worship, uninspiring. I couldn’t defend what we had done, nor could I promise that another week would have been anything more than routine.

 As far as I know, she never returned.

 + + + + +

 I don’t know where Susan’s spiritual journey has led since that Pentecost Sunday long ago. On the one hand, I hope she is still full of zeal for the Lord, holding on to the excitement of her new life, especially if she thinks about what might have been. But, I suspect also that she has discovered that there is more to the faith than her personal experience; and that there is more to life than constant joy, and laughter, and dancing. She has no doubt discovered, as have we all, that there are times–sometimes long times–when God is quiet, when the mighty wind of Pentecost quiets to the gentlest breeze, almost imperceptible…and when the raging fire of God’s presence, though never extinguished, softly glows, peacefully.

 If the Spirit speaks in the ecstasy of strange tongues, so the Spirit whispers gently at a child’s baptism in water. If the Spirit once roared violently through the community of faith like a rushing wind, surely the Spirit also speaks in the still, small voice that coaxes us to church when we’d rather enjoy the sanctuary of a  spring-time garden. If the Pentecost power of the mighty Spirit energized the Church for its mission and turned timid disciples into bold apostles who would leave their secure upper room to turn the whole world upside down with faith…that same power is behind the quiet gifts of the Spirit that have kept the Church alive generation after generation–the gifts of wisdom and knowledge, healing and discernment, varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit.

 I hope Susan’s faith has matured, so that she understands that she belongs to the Spirit and that the Spirit does not belong to her–that the Spirit blows where it wills, and it is a sign of God’s grace, unsolicited, unexpected, undeserved. (Texts For Preaching) And I hope she has come to realize it is the Holy Spirit that has taken possession of all of us, in Word and Sacrament, opening to us the wonder of life as God intended it from the very beginning. As the scriptures proclaimed this morning, the reality of the apostles’ Pentecost experience was new life, sudden, unmerited, irresistible new life. New life for the Church. New life for individuals within the Church, new life through the Spirit of God.

 While that new life may not be always evident in every element of our worship, it does breathe life into every church program, every ministry of outreach and nurture, every occasion of authentic fellowship, every opportunity for counseling, every hospital visit, every gesture of compassion for members or strangers, every bit of carpentry in the building, every note of music sung or played to the glory of God, and every prayer from the heart.

 I hope Susan’s faith journey has led to those affirmations of the Spirit’s work. But as our faith matures, we can learn something from Susan’s story. I wonder how many Susans there are out there (or in here) waiting to hear about Jesus. How many know the history of Christianity, but know nothing of its heart? How many hear words of judgment, but experience little grace? What the Spirit teaches us through Susan is that at Pentecost the Church was empowered for a purpose–and that purpose is proclamation. The Church is given the gift of speaking: the ability and the courage and the call to communicate the gospel to the ends of the earth, and to your neighbor and friend…

The gift of Pentecost is a word to speak in the brokenness and tragedy of the world–as well as in the joyful dance of new life. And that Word is Christ.

If Susan were here today, beside you in worship, would she sense the Spirit’s presence, see the Spirit’s work, or hear the Word from your lips. Or mine?

 We covet the drama of the Pentecost event for our time, for our lives, for our church. That is why we must continue to pray, “Come, Holy Spirit.” And, like the apostles, we too shall have the power of speech, the fruits of the Spirit, and new life in Jesus Christ, the Risen Lord.

Our next hymn is our prayer  from yearning hearts:  “Come, O Spirit, Dwell Among Us.”