When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 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 proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’
Peter Addresses the Crowd But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them: ‘Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
“In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
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.
And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
Although it would probably work as an activity for a group of adults, one of my favorite ideas for a group of youth involves popsicle sticks. The larger the group, the more popsicle sticks you need.
The idea is to dump a big box of popsicle sticks on a table and have each person in the group take approximately the same number of sticks. In addition, each person in the group takes a magic marker, some glue or a glue stick, and a roll of tape. Then I ask each person in the group to think for a few minutes about what it takes to build a church.
After some time for thinking, one by one people in the group take their magic markers and being writing words on the popsicle sticks. Words that describe what you need in order to build a church.
However, this exercise is not designed to be an individual exercise. One of the rules is that you cannot duplicate any of the words on the popsicle sticks. So the group has to work together, taking turns calling out words, perhaps debating about whether each word is in fact crucial to building a church, and writing words down on sticks.
At first, the pile of sticks looks intimidating. But after a little while, the words begin to flow freely and people in the group begin to feed off each other, building momentum until there are more sticks with words on them than sticks that are blank.
On the sticks are words like “fellowship” and “Jesus Christ” and “justice” and “music.” Some of the words are tangible things you need to build a church. Words like “bricks” or “wood” or a “Bible” or a “communion table.” And some words are less tangible. Words like “trust” and “faith” and “commitment.”
When all the popsicle sticks are filled with words, the group moves on to phase two of the project. It helps to tape a couple of poster boards together to serve as the base. And then the group has to think together and work together to build a church out of the popsicle sticks. Using every single one of the sticks with church words on them.
In the times I have done popsicle sticks with a group, there’s always a point where there is a flurry of activity. And in the entire process, this is that point. Everyone starts throwing out ideas. Do we want to build our church in two dimensions or in three dimensions? Do we want to sketch the outline of the church on the poster board before we start or just dive right in? Do we want our popsicle stick church to look like the church in which we are doing the activity? In which case someone might go and get a painting or a photograph or a model of the church. Or do we want the popsicle stick church to resemble some other church or a church the group imagines as it goes along?
It’s fascinating to watch people create a church together. I love watching people in a group fashion doors and window and crosses and landscaping around the church building. I’ve even seen groups break large popsicle sticks into smaller pieces so they can make them fit. Thank goodness there are all kinds of small and wonderful church words that fit on broken pospsicle sticks like “joy” and “love” and “hope.”
Even more, I love watching people blend their ideas and negotiate and compromise and work towards a shared vision. In so many ways, the popsicle church activity is symbolic of what it means for people to build and to be the actual church in our world.
One time I did this project with a Confirmation class and we came all the way to the end only to find one blank stick that had somehow been lost in the shuffle. So the group of us stepped back for a moment, weighed a few different options, and chose a church word that made sense to all of us. “Teamwork.”
Once it’s all done, you come out with a finished product that is worth displaying. Not only because it looks like a model of a church. At least hopefully. But also because people can look at all the words on the sticks and think about what church means. Or maybe come up with church words that no one in the group considered…
Today is Pentecost Sunday and I think it’s a good day to think about popsicle sticks…
The Pentecost story in the Book of Acts tells us that people from all over the ancient world came to Jerusalem and gathered in one place. The Parthians and the Elamites. The Judeans and the Cappodocians. The Phrygians and the Libyans and the Cretans. From all points on the map, near and far, they traveled en masse from their own lands. Everyone was waiting for something to happen. And everyone was speaking in their own language. Sort of like a huge United Nations gathering minus all the interpreters.
Then the Holy Spirit came upon them like the rush of a mighty wind…and tongues of fire came down from the heavens and swept around them…and suddenly all those people began to talk at once in their own tongues. And just as suddenly everyone began to hear and understand in one common tongue. A shared language filled with words that described the wonderful deeds of God.
Like hundreds of words written on popsicle sticks, the Holy Spirit interpreted and translated all those languages in such a way that there was no duplication. Until there was one unified God language. But the Holy Spirit didn’t stop there. Like a great architect, the Holy Spirit began to bring people together. And the Holy Spirit only had one rule. You can’t do it all by yourself. You have to cooperate. You need to use all the popsicle sticks in order to get the model done.
So the Holy Spirit empowered people to listen to one another and to work together. United people in common purpose and common mission. Put people side by side to create a team. And the nucleus that formed on the day of Pentecost would indeed become the earliest Christian church.
If you look around this sanctuary, the Holy Spirit is still interpreting and building on this Pentecost Sunday. Because all of us come to Wapping Community Church bringing different experiences, different gifts, different opinions, and different visions. Each one of us is a unique human being leading a unique life. And based on who we are and where we’ve been and what we’ve done over our lifetimes, we all speak different languages.
Without the Holy Spirit, Wapping Communtiy Church would be nothing more than a messy pile of popsicle sticks. We’d be scattered and spread out all over the place. We’d all have confused and disbelieving looks on our faces wondering why we come here every week. Each person would be trying to do their own thing and we wouldn’t share anything in common.
But the Holy Spirit takes our individual languages and translates them into one God language. Then the Holy Spirit takes our visions and our commitments and our hopes and our joys and our prayers…and the Holy Spirit gathers them into a pile and begins gluing them together. One by one. Popsicle stick by popsicle stick. Until we begin to look like a church. Until we begin to look like Wapping Community Church. And the Holy Spirit doesn’t stop building until all our popsicle sticks have been put to use.
Reflecting on the activity, it’s always amazing to me that the initial pile of blank popsicle sticks amounts to anything. But when a group is done, it emerges with wonderful anecdotes and a lasting visual model of what it takes to build a church. The group emerges with a fresh sense and a striking metaphor for what happened on the day of Pentecost long ago. And the group discovers how the Holy Spirit works among us to help us be the Christian church week in a week out.
One of these days I might just come into the sanctuary on a Sunday morning and dump a big pile of popsicle sticks on the chancel floor. I guarantee that pile won’t look much like a church when we start. But I have a lot of faith in the Holy Spirit to take us where we need to go. Amen.