Splashes of the Spirit: A Reflection for Pentecost Week

A sermon based on Acts 2:1-21 


“When you make the effort to speak someone else’s language… you are saying to them… I see you as a human being.”

Those words are from the memoir, “Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood,” by comedian Trevor Noah. As the title suggests, Trevor Noah’s very existence was a punishable crime under South African apartheid. His father was Swedish, his mother black South African, and neither culture had any room for a child like Trevor Noah.

There are eleven official languages in the nation of South Africa, and Noah talked a lot in his book about the challenges and gifts of language in his childhood.

At home, the Noah family spoke Xhosa, a native South African tongue.  When it came time to pray, though, they always prayed in English. Trevor’s grandmother asked him to pray, because his English was the best. “The Bible is in English,” she told him, “so English prayers get answered first.”  

It’s funny, but I can imagine how Trevor’s grandmother came to that conclusion, even if no one ever explicitly said it: she first heard the Bible in English, verses of freedom from the lips of people who oppressed her. She saw white people in their comfortable lives, without the curfew or travel restrictions that she and other black South Africans faced. She prayed, certainly, but God must have been busy answering English prayers first.

Of course, we know that the Bible was not written in English. We know that, intellectually. But I can’t help but worry about whether we, whether I, have carried on the hurtful assumptions that white South African Christians taught to Trevor Noah’s grandmother. Are we still making the same mistakes as James and John, imagining English speakers–imagining America–at the right and left hand of Jesus? Have we been saying “God bless America” for so long that we’ve forgotten that God blesses other nations, too?

Deep down, do we think our prayers are answered first?

God must have thought of those questions before the church even came to be. God saw our failures coming, saw our pride and limited worldview, and answered our questions in the form of a drama.

The apostles are gathered in a house, praying and waiting for God to make the next move. A violent wind fills the house, a wind that is unmistakably God. The Spirit moves them outside the house to preach of God’s power, and a crowd gathers, Jews from every nation. I imagine them like a scene from Trevor Noah’s book, a street full of people speaking eleven languages. When the apostles start speaking, everyone hears the words, all at the same time, all in their own native tongues.

On that first Pentecost day, the Spirit could have come with any miracle under the sun; the apostles could have been miraculously healed of their ailments, or lifted off the ground, or given a power that any superhero would envy.

But instead, the Spirit gives them the gift of communication across languages.

If those first apostles found themselves tempted to think that God answered their prayers first, the Spirit burst on the scene and blew their assumptions out of the water.

God will pour out God’s Spirit, the scripture says, on men and women, young and old, slave and free, that all will prophesy and all will be saved.

That’s the thing about the Holy Spirit: she does not have patience for the structures of our world. She does not care who holds the cards, who has the curfew and who has free reign. The Spirit is a leveling power, and the wind blows where she chooses.

I am a Presbyterian pastor, and Presbyterians talk a lot about the spirit. Every Sunday, we pray for the spirit to be present in our service. Before we read the holy scriptures, we pray for the spirit to illumine their words. When we celebrate the sacraments, we pray for the Spirit to make the elements holy. Then, at the end of every service, a pastor stands before the congregation with arms raised, praying for the spirit to travel with them in the week to come. We love spirit talk during the week, too, working in the word “discernment” whenever a decision has to be made.

The Spirit is the presence of God, gifted to the church, witnessed in the powerful Pentecost story. It is good and right that we lean on the Spirit the way do.

But we have to be careful not to domesticate the wild wind of our God. The Pentecost story comes as if with a warning label: When the Spirit comes, she comes with fire. If we are going to pray for Spirit’s presence, we better mean it.

A friend of mine [oh hey, Jamie] spent a summer working at Montreat Conference Center, and I will never forget the first time she led worship there. The congregation in Montreat worships in their 1200 seat auditorium in the summers. In a church that big, everything on the chancel has to be big, too. The table is twice the size of most, and the baptismal font has a shallow, clear bowl roughly the size of a bathtub.

It came time for the Assurance of Pardon, and my friend picked up the ceramic pitcher of water, to pour into the baptismal font. The pitcher was the size of her torso, and once she started pouring, gravity took effect and she could not stop. The water went into the font with a gush, created a wave out the other side, and soaked the front of the church with a splash.  

Maybe that is something like the way the Holy Spirit came to the apostles: not a conservative drip, carried out decently and in order, but a baptismal tidal wave across the world, with splashes of the Spirit everywhere.

I have been hearing the Pentecost story my whole life, but I noticed something this year that I had never really heard before. When the spirit comes to the apostles, and they start speaking in tongues, it is the crowd outside the house who hears and understands the words.

The Spirit comes to the church, of course, but she is not bound by our walls.

When we see a place where differences are respected, and barriers are shattered, surely that is a splash of the spirit.

When we see a place where differences justify division, where barriers are built high and strong, surely the spirit is calling us there to find unity in our diversity.

This week, we Christians whose God came as a Palestinian Jew cannot ignore the bloodshed at the Gaza border. We Christians whose God promises life even for dry bones cannot ignore the lives lost to gun violence. We Christians whose God speaks every language cannot pretend that we do not contribute to global injustice, or to the myth of white supremacy, or to the devastating assumption that God answers our prayers first.

“God will pour out God’s Spirit on all flesh,” Peter said, and even he did not realize the implication of those words.

Last week, 24 prominent clergy came together to write a new confession, which they titled “A Confession of Faith in A Time of Crisis.”

“We believe Jesus when he tells us to go into all nations making disciples,” they say. “Therefore we reject ‘America first’ as a theological heresy for followers of Christ… Serving our own communities is essential,” they write,“but the global connections between us are undeniable.”

Church, the holy spirit is not our mascot, not a name to be said flippantly, or a prayer to be offered only when it is convenient. The Holy Spirit is God is in our midst, calling us out of the church and into the world, making waves in places we would rather keep dry.

Hear this good news of the Pentecost story:

The Spirit hears all our prayers. The miracle is when we each other. 


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Dry Bones: Pentecost Liturgy 2018

It was an honor to have my liturgy published for the 2018 Presbyterian (USA) Pentecost Offering, and I’m happy to share it with you. Happy birthday, church. There is plenty of life in these bones.


Image courtesy of the 2018 PC(USA) Pentecost Offering

*Call to Worship

The winds of the Spirit are starting to move!

The dry bones are beginning to rattle!

Be ready to be amazed and astonished,

for God’s presence will fill this house of worship.

The Spirit is here, speaking to us and through us,

drawing us into God’s praise.


*Hymn 280 Come, O Spirit, Dwell Among Us


Call to Confession

As we celebrate the birth of the church today,

we take a moment to be honest with God and ourselves about our failings.

Knowing that our prayers will be met with God’s love,

let us confess our sins together.


Prayer of Confession

O God,

we have heard your Pentecost story:

your Spirit is here, your church is born, and the day of the Lord is coming.

You have gathered all people together in your Spirit,

and you have brought life to all valleys of death.

Still, O Lord, we cannot trust, for we fear our bones are beyond repair.

Still, O Lord, we turn away, for we fear our hope is lost.

Still, O Lord, we imagine isolation, for we fear we are cut off from your presence.

Forgive us, Holy One.

As you did for your first church, breathe the fire of life into us.

As you did for your prophet Ezekiel, reveal to us your life-giving presence.






*Assurance of Pardon

God brings us new life when our bones are dry,

and hope when we are hopeless.

God washes us in mercy and ignites us with the Spirit.

In the grace of God through Jesus Christ,

we are forgiven and freed to try again. Amen.


*Passing of the Peace

As forgiven people, let us share forgiveness with one another,

pointing beyond our reality to the peace of God’s reign.

The peace of Christ be with you. And also with you.


*Sung Response, Hymn 283 Come, O Holy Spirit, Come


Prayer for Illumination

Come, Holy Spirit, and fill this space with the noise of your boundary-breaking love.

Come, Holy Spirit, and fill our reading with the fire of your call to the church.

Come, Holy Spirit, and fill our hearing with the mystery of our faith.



Old Testament Reading Ezekiel 37:1-14


New Testament Reading Acts 2:1-21




*Hymn 292 As the Wind Song


*Affirmation of Faith Adapted from Brief Statement of Faith (PCUSA), 10.4

We trust in God the Holy Spirit,

everywhere the giver and renewer of life.

The Spirit justifies us by grace through faith,

sets us free to accept ourselves and to love God and neighbor,

and binds us together with all believers

in the one body of Christ, the Church.

The same Spirit who inspired the prophets and apostles

rules our faith and life in Christ through Scripture,

engages us through the Word proclaimed,

claims us in the waters of baptism,

feeds us with the bread of life and the cup of salvation,

and calls women, men, and people to all ministries of the Church.

In a broken and fearful world

the Spirit gives us courage

to pray without ceasing,

to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior,

to unmask idolatries in Church and culture,

to hear the voices of peoples long silenced,

and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.

In gratitude to God, empowered by the Spirit,

we strive to serve Christ in our daily tasks

and to live holy and joyful lives,

even as we watch for God’s new heaven and new earth,

praying, “Come, Lord Jesus!”



Invitation to Offering

“Your sons and daughters shall prophesy. Your young shall see visions and your old shall dream dreams.” (Acts 2:17; Joel 2:28)

As we collect the Pentecost Offering for the faith development of children, youth, and young adults, we give thanks for the way God calls and empowers young people for leadership in the church and the world.




*Offertory Response, Hymn 300, Stanza 1 We Are One in the Spirit


*Prayer of Thanksgiving and Dedication

O Holy One, take the gifts that we have offered this day,

and use them to ignite the world with the fire of your presence.

Take the prayers that we have offered this day,

and use them to breathe life into the valleys of dry bones.

Take the gifts of the Pentecost Offering,

and use them to teach and nurture young people,

that they might share their visions with the world

and proclaim to us all your wondrous deeds.



Prayers of the People or Lord’s Supper


*Hymn 66 Every Time I Feel the Spirit


*Charge and Benediction

Go into the world that God so loves,

ready to be amazed and astonished,

for the winds of the Spirit are starting to move,

and the dry bones are beginning to rattle!

Go knowing that the Spirit goes behind and before you,

drawing you into the heart of God and into the presence of our savior.



*Congregational Response, Hymn 539 We Will Go Out with Joy

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Good News: Prayers of the People

These prayers were written with last week’s lectionary texts in mind: Jonah 3:1-10 and Mark 1:14-20.



Liturgy writing is a very colorful process.

Holy God, living word,

hear the prayers of your people.

We give you thanks for wonders great and small:

for warmth in winter,

for peace in chaos,

for family, for health,

for words of hope,

and showers of mercy.


Proclaim your good news to us once more,

and help us to repent, believe, and follow.


We give you thanks for the stories of faith:

for the scriptures that point to your love for us.

For John, Simon, Andrew, and James,

who left their nets to follow you;

For the story of Jonah, Ninevah, and the king,

who bear witness to your loving mercy;

For all the saints of our lives today,

who have entrusted the faith to us.

Move us, O God, from prayers of thanksgiving

to lives of thanksgiving.

Move us, O God, from breathing with every prayer

to praying with every breath.


Proclaim your good news to us once more,

and help us to repent, believe, and follow.


As we lift a prayer in thanksgiving, O God,

we lift another in worry.

God whose mercy knows no end,

hear the prayers of your people.

We pray for all who are ill this day:

whose bodies are weary with disease or injury.

Breathe healing upon them, O God,

Breathe healing upon us, O God.


Proclaim your good news to us once more,

and help us to repent, believe, and follow.


You created the world good,

and we pray for the places where news is bad.

For countries, cities, neighborhoods, and families

torn apart by violence or fear:

Breathe peace, O God.

For your church around world,

seeking to serve you in a new way:

Breathe new life, O God.

For all who are seeking hope, direction, or community:

Breathe your spirit, O God.


Proclaim your good news to us once more,

and help us to repent, believe, and follow.


In the name of the one who embodied your love,

the one who always invites us to follow,


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Completely: Prayers of the People based on Psalm 139

Psalm 139 has always been one of my favorites, and today’s lectionary gave me a chance to reflect on it. May these prayers remind us all that we are known and loved, completely. 

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Oh Lord, you have searched us and known us.

  You know when we sit down and when we rise up;

you discern our thoughts from far away.

  You search out our path and our lying down,

and are acquainted with all our ways.


We praise you, O living God,

For you know us completely and love us completely.


You have created us good and holy,

lending your image in the act of creation.

Again and again, we have fallen away,

and you have brought us back with words of grace.

We have hidden from mystery of your presence,

and you have found us, again and again,

and repeated the call, “Follow me.”


You bring peace into the chaos we create;

You bring hope into the webs of doubt we spin;

You bring your holy spirit into the corners of our lives.


Even before a word is on our tongues,

  O Lord, you know it completely.

You hem us in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon us.


We praise you, O living God,

for you know us completely and love us completely.


We pray for the world wrapped in your love,

for the people and places dear to our hearts,

and for the ones known only to yours.


For those who are cold, whether in body or in spirit:

Bring the warmth only you can provide,

and move us to us to share the warmth we can provide.

For those who are hungry, thirsty, grieving or ill:

Bring the comfort only you can provide,

and help us to share the comfort we can provide.

(Continue with prayers for your specific community.) 


Hear our prayers, O Living God,

for you know us completely and love us completely.


On this weekend of marches and commemoration,

we give thanks for the life of your prophet Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

As we celebrate his legacy, O God, let us recognize yours.

Convict us of the ways we support injustice through our action or inaction,

and empower us to work for your reign of justice, peace, and dignity for all.


Where can we go from your spirit?

  Or where can we flee from your presence?

If we take the wings of the morning

  and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,

even there your hand shall lead us,

  and your right hand shall hold us fast.


In the name of the one who was Love made flesh,




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A Mighty Love: Prayers for Reformation Sunday

A mighty fortress are you, O God,

Creator, redeemer,

Protector, provider.


The earth is yours, and all that is in it.

We give you thanks for the bounty of our lives,

and the abundance of your creation.

Move us to recognize your gifts, O Lord,

and challenge us to share them.


A mighty fortress are you, O God,

Creator, redeemer,

Protector, provider.


A mighty love are you, O God,

Parent, teacher,

Comforter, friend.


You walk with us through joy and heartbreak,

and you bind us together in holy community.

You poured out your grace in the life of Christ,

and we witnessed your love in his resurrection.


Move us to know the depth of your love,

and challenge us to share it.


A mighty love are you, O God,

Parent, teacher,

Comforter, friend.


A mighty Spirit are you, O God,

Reformer, sustainer,

Challenger, change-agent.


On this Reformation Day,

we give you thanks for the saints of our faith,

who have followed your leading at any cost:

For Mary, John, and Peter,

who were there to tell the news of the first Easter Day;

For Paul, Lydia, and Chloe,

who built the church on the foundation you laid;

For Martin, John, and Marie,

who dared to lead your people in Reforming;

For all the reformers since,

who have dared to challenge the status quo.


A mighty Spirit are you, O God,

Reformer, sustainer,

Challenger, change-agent.


As we remember the Reformation 500 years ago,

do not let us sit idly and reflect on the past.

Move us to follow your Holy Spirit

into the leading of the future.


Help us to be your church, reformed and still being reformed.

Help us to be your people, formed and still being formed.


Glory be to you alone,

Soli deo Gloria.


Move us to be people reformed and reforming,

standing on the cornerstones of our faith:

Scripture alone, Christ alone,

Faith alone, Grace alone,

Glory always, to you alone,

Knowing that we are never alone.


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Awaken Us: A Confession for Romans 13:8-14

Living God,

You beckon us to wake from our sleep,

to open our eyes to the goodness of your reign,

the injustice of our world, and the gap in between.

You call us to follow in the path of your love.

Forgive us, O God, when we choose the easy way.

Forgive us, O God, when we choose the selfish way, the fast way,

the successful way, the nice way,

the friendly way, the comfortable way.

Convict us, awaken us, empower us, and enliven us

to follow the Way of justice and love.


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Prayers of the People: Our Help.

These prayers of the people are based on two lectionary texts for today: Psalm 124 and Exodus 1: 8-22.

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Refrain: Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.

Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.

Heaven and earth, O holy God, cannot contain your boundless glory.

Heaven and earth, O holy God, cannot contain your everlasting love.

You are gracious, compassionate, and good.

You are loving, patient, and kind.

You are parent, mother, and father.

You are God, and we are not.

Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.


We give you thanks for your holy story, illumined for us this day.

You call us to be faithful at all costs,

especially when the powers of the world turn their backs

on people who are vulnerable or oppressed.

In the spirit of Shiphrah and the courage of Puah,

enliven and empower us to mean the words we often pray:

Thy kingdom, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Make us hear the truth of your calling,

and move us to follow with bold faithfulness.

Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.


We give you thanks, O God, for the signs of your goodness all around:

For the sounds of newborn babies,

who cry that you are making all things new.

For the hands of compassionate doctors and nurses,

whose care is an extension of your own.

For the voices of prophets, old and new,

whose stories attest to the challenge of your call.

For the church, your body in this place;

in our struggle and in our song, may we witness to your love.


Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.


Help, O Lord; Help, we pray.

As we pray to you from the depths of our hearts,

humble us to ask for your help,

and make us wise enough to recognize it.

We pray for the people and places who are hurting this day:

[Name the concerns of your community.]


Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.


For the people of the Sudan, suffering great violence.

For all in the path of tropical storm Harvey,

preparing for the worst and hoping for the best.

For marginalized people everywhere,

who suffer in the same system in which benefit.

Bring your spirit of comfort, O God:

your spirit of healing, in your time and your way;

your spirit of companionship, in fostering community;

your spirit of justice, in creating change;

your spirit of love, stronger than death itself.


Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.


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