At 9 o’clock this evening, a number of people I know will sit down and finally figure out what it all means. The story is coming to an end…or is it?
The television show “Lost” is coming to an end, with a final episode appropriately enough called “The End.”
I’m not a true “Lost” fanatic, although I’ve watched it occasionally. I do have some friends who are, who get lost in the plots and subplots, the shifts in time, the various roles played by the different characters. If you’re a fan of the show, you know what I’m talking about. For those of you who are not, I’ll try to give you a brief synopsis of what this show is about.
A plane crashes on a seemingly deserted tropical island. The survivors of the crash are a mixed bunch: a doctor, a fugitive, the child of an industrialist, a construction worker, a lottery winner, a former Iraqi soldier. The 71 survivors discover that their little world is more complex than they first thought. There are others on the island, there is a mysterious malevolent force, there are constant questions of who is in charge, what they should do, who is good and who is bad, and if they will ever be saved.
Some characters bear the names of philosophers like Locke, Hume, Bentham, Bakunin and Rousseau. Others bear the names of famous scientists, like Hawking and Faraday. The storyline reflects that as it touches on a number of the “big questions” – what is our purpose in life, are human beings essentially good or evil, is there something other than us in the universe, and perhaps most importantly, how do we respond to disorienting change?
Over the six seasons of the show, the plot twists and turns have become ever more complex, the time shifts more radical, and the end point more obscure. So those who have followed it faithfully are hoping that this final episode tonight will make it all clear, that suddenly the crash and its aftermath will all make sense.
The producers of the show couldn’t have picked a more perfect Sunday for this final chapter.
It is, after all, Pentecost.
And what is the story of Pentecost? It is the story of the aftermath of disorienting change.
The disciples of Christ have survived a horrific and seismic shift in their world: Their beloved teacher and Lord, Jesus, has been killed. Just as they are struggling with their grief and confusion, Jesus reappears, risen from the dead, comforting them, praying with them, giving them final instructions before he departs from them for good, to be with his heavenly father. Those who had thought that Jesus would be a secular king and save them from Roman oppression have been sorely disappointed. The story doesn’t play out that way. His kingdom is not an earthly one. His promise is of something much different, much harder to understand…an eternal and heavenly kingdom that seems beyond our comprehension.
The shifts between the living Jesus to the dead one, and then to the risen Christ, and then the ascended Christ in heaven…it’s too hard for the disciples to wrap their heads around. So Jesus gives them a gift. He sends them the Holy Spirit, to help them to understand, to give them the skills they need to carry on the work. The disciples had felt like they were lost, but the Holy Spirit has helped them find their way, their mission, to lead more people to an understanding of the teachings of Christ.
In case they don’t get the message, the Holy Spirit gives them a visual aid: she comes down in tongues of fire, little flames of knowledge and strength above each disciples’ head. And then there is the auditory aid: they start speaking, in their own Aramaic, because that is the language of their native Galilee. But those from other places hear it as if the disciples were speaking in their own native language. They say, “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." The gift of understanding, that great transformation, comes from God, and affects not only the disciples, but also those who hear those disciples. In the midst of disorienting change, the Spirit comes to bring some measure of understanding and the strength to continue the journey.
In a sense, these survivors in their small world are given the roadmap for finding their way through the disorienting change, and they are given the tools to lead others on that journey. That is a gift of the Holy Spirit.
But the world is distrustful of those gifts. What happens when the disciples receive this gift of speaking in a way that all can hear? Some disbelievers say that they are simply drunk and babbling…they’ve had too much of the new wine. Peter, unable to contain himself, snaps at them: it’s 9 in the morning. Of course they’re not drunk. It’s something else, something from God, just as the prophet Joel said:
`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. ‘
As an aside, for those who think that women can’t preach, look to those words from the prophet Joel!
No, these strange and wonderful gifts that God sends through the Holy Spirit have the power to bring us through times of disorienting change. No longer lost, but found.
I’ve been talking a lot about change over these past few weeks, and we have begun an adult education series on the subject. We at Epiphany have survived many changes in recent years, large and small. Some have felt seismic, big changes, such as loss of someone we loved, departure of old friends from this parish family. Some have been the little changes that sometimes feel like thorns in our sides – taking out the Doxology from the worship service, changes in the bulletin. All change can be disorienting, can’t it? But my hope is that we can use this time of change to be something other than mere disorientation.
If we look at what has happened and what is to come not as change, but as transformation, then we move it to the realm of the spiritual, and we open ourselves to the Holy Spirit. It becomes something other than a shift in situation, it becomes a chance for the Holy Spirit to come into our hearts and fill us with what we need to do things differently, to be different. It becomes the necessary evolution of our understanding of God, and our relationship with God, that informs how we live our lives. It is both wonderful and a little bit frightening.
In a recent episode of “Lost,” one of the characters, Jacob, passes on the responsibility for the survivors to another one, a reluctant one. Jack is understandably nervous about this new role and says, “How long am I supposed to do this?” Jacob replies, “As long as you can.”
That’s the thing about the gift of understanding, and of transformation in the midst of disorienting change. It is a responsibility. But a certain grace comes with it as well.
God knows our limitations.
God asks us to open ourselves to the transformation and the responsibility that goes with it.
But God also gives us help, and even relief, if that is what we need.
So on this day of Pentecost, when we wear our red clothing to remind us of the flames of the Holy Spirit descending on the heads of the disciples, we remember how they were transformed in unimaginable ways, and took on new responsibilities.
We hope that we, too, will be transformed.
Not changed, but transformed.
Not lost, but found.
Not alone, never alone, for the Spirit is with us always, and the flame always burns.