Sermon: Invisible Fences
Scripture: Acts 2:1-14, 22-24, 40-47
Date: June 4, 2017
Some of you have heard me talk about Lambeau the Wonder dog. Several years ago we rescued Lambeau from the Humane Society in Jessamine County. We were living in Ashland at the time and I was traveling a lot as District Superintendent so we were looking for a dog that could provide some measure of security for Karen. It really turned out to be the other way around. The Wonder Dog turned out to be the most insecure dog we have ever had. She talks a good game (barks a lot) but when push comes to shove she is the first to hide from danger. After people broke into our house last year in the middle of the night, several asked where was Lambeau when all this was happening. Sound asleep. Now to be able to adopt her we had to promise to provide a fenced in environment. But we were living in the Ashland District Parsonage which had a huge back yard that would have cost most of the District’s Annual budget to fence. So we opted for an invisible fence. I found one which didn’t require burying any wires. The cheap skates invisible fence. It was basically a transmitter that sent signals to a collar that the dog wore which emitted an unpleasant noise for the dog when she had wandered too far from the transmitter. And then if the dog didn’t pay attention to the noise and return to safety within the established perimeter, it would send a mild shock through the collar to get the dog’s attention. Now, I wasn’t sure that this invisible fence would work on the wonder dog, because, and please don’t tell her I said this, but she is not very bright. I wasn’t sure that she could make the connection between the unpleasant noise and the urge to roam. But she took to it pretty quickly.
Now I know what you’re thinking. What does all of this have to do with Pentecost? I’m glad you asked. You see, it seems to me that after Jesus ascended, when the Disciples returned to Jerusalem and the upper room, they found themselves in a highly charged situation. And though they were certainly free to roam, I think there were some “invisible fences” that kept them confined to the Upper Room. There was a lot of noise that kept them from traveling beyond their hiding place.
First, there was the invisible fence of fear.
They had to be thinking that it was just a matter of time before the authorities would come after them and they would die as Jesus did. After all, Jesus had made no secret of the fact that His disciples would be able to do all that He had done and so if they had crucified Jesus for those things, wouldn‘t they be next?
And then there was the invisible fence of guilt. After all, their failures and denials and betrayals had unfolded for all to see. Peter denying Him three times in the midst of a crowd. The others (with the exception of John) hiding in the shadows during those last hours of Jesus‘ life. How could they now preach faith when their faith had failed so utterly and completely. They were fenced in by their guilt.
And then I suspect that there was the invisible fence of confusion.
What were they to do now? Jesus had told them to go back to Jerusalem and wait. But what were they waiting for? Who would be their leader now? Tell them where to go and what to do. I think they had assumed that it would be Peter, but just like them, he was cowering in his grief and guilt. Or would it be Jesus? He had bid them farewell before in the hours before He was arrested and crucified, but then He came back. Now they had watched Him ascend into heaven, but surely He was going to come back again. Was that what they were waiting for? The circumstances of their lives, the events of the last fifty days had left them dazed and confused and afraid to go beyond the Upper Room.
It took an act of great intensity to make them shed those things that had them collared and take the gospel of Jesus Christ beyond the invisible fences into all of the world. At Pentecost the message was clear. God cannot be fenced in. There are to be no boundaries when it comes to faith. And no matter what in our life that seeks to hold us, to fence us in, invisible or otherwise, those things are no match for the wind of God‘s Spirit when it is unleashed in our lives.
For a few minutes this morning I wanted to think about the invisible fences that hold us in sometimes as a church that can be broken down by the wind of God’s spirit.
The first invisible fence is poor communications. Often times the biggest hindrance to the Gospel is in the way we communicate it. We fence in our faith when we fail to communicate in a language that everyone can understand.
Luke tells us in this 2d chapter of Acts that part of the miracle of Pentecost is that though people had gathered from all parts of the world, everyone
heard the Gospel in their own language. In commenting on this, one writer has
We need to make one thing perfectly clear, Jesus‘ followers were not speaking in unknown tongues at Pentecost. Just the opposite. They were speaking in the exact tongues of the people who were listening. The communication was not restricted to a few. It was opened up to as many people as possible.
Often times communication becomes an invisible fence in the church.
It is almost as though there is an exclusive Christian language which we speak. Those of us who have grown up in the church, are familiar with the language of church, but those who have not grown up with it, may not understand terms we take for granted. If we are not careful, the language of worship can sound like a foreign language and cause confusion and even alienation. We need to communicate the Gospel in ways that make it accessible to people. I know there were some who were not excited a couple of years ago when we announced that we were starting a new worship opportunity at St. Luke and that the service would be in Swahili. But the reality is that there are regularly about 100 people worshipping at St. Luke every week who wouldn’t be here if they couldn’t worship in their native language. And I know that there are some in the church who continue to get upset when we choose to sing modern choruses rather than the old hymns. But the truth is that many of those choruses communicate the gospel in ways that everyone can understand while the hymns often contain more obscure references. Many of us may find great inspiration in singing about cherubim and seraphim, and God‘s celestial shore, and marching to Zion, and raising our ebeneezer because we know what those are, but to those who have not been in the church, and in today’s culture that’s better than 50% of us, those terms are like a foreign tongue they do not understand. And they can cause people to feel uncomfortable and even unwelcome. Many avoid the church because we fail to effectively communicate what the church has to say and what it offers.
The story is told of a man and woman who called for a taxi to come and pick them up at their house. The taxi arrived, but when they opened the front door to meet it, the cat darted into the house. They didn‘t want the cat to be shut in the house, so the man went back into the house to get the cat. Well, the woman did not want the cab driver to know the house would be empty, so as she got in the cab, she said: “My husband’s just going upstairs to say good bye to my mother.”
Well, a few minutes later the husband climbed into the cab and said: “Stupid old thing was hiding under the bed and I had to poke her with a coat hanger to her to come out!“
And the cab driver gave him the oddest look, and said “I could never get away with talking about my mother in law that way.”
At Pentecost, the Gospel was communicated in languages that everyone understood and became accessible to the whole world. We must make sure that the way we communicate does not become an invisible fence. If we open ourselves to God‘s spirit, He will speak through us in understandable ways. Mary Louise Bringle expresses this in a most beautiful way when she writes:
Just as God‘s Holy Spirit can speak to us in our many native languages, so also God‘s Spirit works to give each of us a language of our own. Whether it descends upon us in a mighty rush or ascends with quiet stillness in our lives, the work of the Spirit is to help us find our tongues-find those distinctive words that we are intended to speak to the world through the witness of our living.
Sometimes I fear that the church of Jesus Christ today is becoming more and more like the pre-pentecost church. Fenced in and silenced by forces that are sometimes visible and sometimes invisible. Afraid to
take the Gospel beyond our familiar boundaries of church and maybe home, because we are afraid of getting zapped by those invisible fences. It is time for us to allow God‘s spirit to shake off those things
which collar us, so that the church can move without boundaries. Too often we keep silent because we don‘t think we have anything to say or know how to say it. But scripture tells us that all we need do is speak the name of Jesus because at His name every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. His name knows no boundaries, except those we erect.
And then secondly, at Pentecost the Holy Spirit transformed disciples from hearers of the word to those who truly listened. It was a miracle of listening. We get so excited about the fact that God spoke to all these people through the Apostle’s and that 3000 people were saved on that one day, that we sometimes forget that there were those there who heard but did not listen. On those occasions when the wonder dog broke through the boundary of the invisible fence, it was not because she did not hear the noise the collar was emitting, it was that she chose not to listen. There was something beyond the boundary that was so enticing that she didn’t listen when the collar went off. In this world we are exposed to a lot of noises, but not every one of them is worth listening to. In Jesus’ time there were many who heard Jesus. But only a few chose to listen. Everyone who was there at Pentecost heard the same thing, but they didn’t all choose to listen. And so rather than respond to the Spirit, they made fun of the disciples and accused them of being drunk. And the disciples had a hard time listening. Jesus told them everything that was going to happen, but when the events unfolded they always seemed shocked and amazed and bewildered. At Pentecost, God‘s Spirit not only opened their mouths, but also their ears. And suddenly, they could listen to what Jesus had been telling them. So often, especially in the midst of our fear and doubt and tragedy, we strain to hear, but we fail to listen.
And then one more thing that I want us to see, and that is that Pentecost is a miracle of community. God‘s Spirit came and broke down the barriers, the fences that divided them, and turned this diverse group of people into a community of faith. Some misinterpret what happened at Pentecost as a miracle of conformity, that all the believers were made the same, that the imposition of God‘s Spirit eliminated diversity from the early church. That everyone believed in the same way. But Luke tells us that the people heard in the midst of their diversity and then molded that diversity into community. The strength of the early church was in everyone sharing their individual gifts, not denying their individuality. The Apostle Paul writes frequently about the diversity of the gifts that we received and how all of them are molded together to make one body. The church gains strength from its diversity. But yet almost from the day after Pentecost the church began to erect the invisible fence of conformity. The Jewish converts said to the Gentiles, If you want to be a Christian you must first conform to the Jewish faith. And the Gentiles said, Judaism is the old way. You’ve got to reject Judaism to follow Christ. And sadly, today , the church is one of the least diverse institutions in society. We continue to place great value in conformity. We need the wind of God‘s Spirit to blow through us and knock down that invisible fence of conformity which seeks to collar us with the same beliefs and background and social and ethnic classes, and embrace the diversity of God’s world. Draw strength from it until everyone, Jew and Greek and Roman and Ethiopian, and man, woman and child, and slave and master, feel the wind of God‘s Spirit and hear God speak to them. The miracle of Pentecost is that no longer will prejudices and fears and differences bind us and fence in the Gospel. At Pentecost the good news of Jesus Christ became the gospel for all the world and for all people. And so as His church, we must let the wind of Pentecost, the wind of God‘s spirit blow through us until there are no longer any barriers, any boundaries, to contain it.