2024 05 19: Pentecost 2024

Posted on 20 May 2024

Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Nearly 40 years ago, American author and pastor Robert Fulghum wrote a book of short essays titled “All I Really Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten.”  In his chapter, Fulghum listed the lessons normally learned in kindergarten and explained how the world would be improved if adults adhered to the same basic rules as children.  If I were to write a book now of my past 65 years, it would be titled, “All I Really Need to Know About Ministry, I learned at the Norwegian Lutheran Church of My Childhood.”  It was there that I was baptized and where I first heard the call to ministry. Coincidentally, it is also where I preached my first sermon in Norwegian.

St. Olaf Lutheran Church in Austin was a congregation of private, stoic Norwegian-Americans who took their faith seriously. Frankly, the members were a lot like the comic strip characters in Hagar the Horrible. When the Viking father Hagar was asked by his son Hamlet, if people questioned him about his ethnic heritage what he should answer. Could he say that he was Norwegian? Hagar replied, “No, that wouldn’t be necessary. It might sound like bragging.” At St. Olaf in Austin, bragging was frowned upon, as was applause in church.  Music was all for the glory of God.  You didn’t even applaud for the children’s choir in fear that they might grow conceited and haughty.

There were two memorable hallways in the church. The most exotic was outside the Sunday School classrooms where the memorabilia of the congregation’s missionaries was kept.  In long glass cases, butterflies from Brazil, silk from China, drums from Africa, and pictures of the missionary’s homes in distant lands, enchanted the eyes of impressionable children.  The second hallway was just behind the chancel and contained the gallery of faithful Norwegian pastors who had founded the congregation and then tended to the flock.  They were stern looking men with gray beards and ruffled collars.

Oh, of course, there were jokes about these stiff, Norwegian pastors, as there always are.  One preacher proposed that the church should purchase a new chandelier.  This caused a great stir at the annual meeting.   The Church Council president thoroughly disagreed with the pastor.  “Pastor, we don’t need no chandelier.  First of all, nobody knows how to play it.  Second, nobody knows how to spell it.  And third, what we really need is light.”

Those two hallways at St. Olaf Church captivated my imagination as a child and then defined my professional career as an adult.  Months after I graduated from Luther Seminary, my wife and I were sent off to serve as ELCA missionaries to re-establish and strengthen the Lutheran Church in Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia and in Germany. But Norway, Norwegians and Norwegian-Americans have always remained close to my heart, and that is the spiritual heritage that I would like to share with you today, “All I Really Needed to Know about Ministry, I Learned in the Norwegian Lutheran Church of My Childhood.” And it all began with the giving of the Holy Spirit.

In our gospel, Jesus promised his disciples, that he would send the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, and when the Spirit comes, he will guide them. “But beware,” as the late Presiding Bishop of the ELCA and Luther College President, H. George Anderson, once said, “When you pray for the Holy Spirit to come, you better be prepared to move aside, because it will not leave you the same.”

That is what the apostles discovered on that first Pentecost morning. We may focus on the roaring winds, the tongues of fire and speaking of new languages in the Upper Room in Jerusalem, but what I believe is most important is the story hidden between the lines. Pentecost was about the dramatic change in the life of Peter and the eleven apostles.  Seven weeks earlier when a woman at a fire questioned Peter, the cowardly disciple was frightened and scared.  He lied to save his own skin and denied Jesus.  When Jesus was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane by the Roman soldiers, the remaining disciples scattered like sheep. But now when Peter and the eleven were surrounded by a crowd of over three thousand curious and scoffing onlookers, they had a strength which they had never known before.  Yes, for the very first time, the disciples were acting on their own. Before they had stood under the shadow of Jesus, but now the Holy Spirit had come to guide them, and they were called courageously to establish the church of Jesus Christ in the world.

Although the Protestant Reformation was still 15 hundred years in the making, there were obviously Lutherans in Jerusalem at the time of Pentecost.  As the crowds were scoffing at the joy of the disciples, chiding, “They must be filled with new wine,” the Norwegian Lutherans were raising the important theological question, “What does this mean?”  And confirmation would never be the same again.

My friends, the Holy Spirit is still knocking on doors and entering rooms, and inspiring men and women to speak with passion and commitment even when it is completely out of character for them. So let me offer you three lessons I learned from the old Norwegians of my home church in Austin about the movement of the Holy Spirit and what it means to me today.

First of all, the Holy Spirit promises to challenge you in new and marvelous ways.  Several years ago, I was invited by the pastor St. Olaf to translate the early records of our Norwegian speaking congregation.  It was heartening to read of the early struggles with pastors and parishioners.  But I was struck in one report with the loss of vision and Pentecostal challenge.  The Church record included this paragraph.  St. Olaf Church, 125 souls and three Swedes.  It wasn’t that the early Norwegian pioneers considered their Swedish neighbors, as less than divine or human.  They merely felt that the Swedes weren’t their responsibility.  When you allow yourself to be filled and changed by the Holy Spirit, you will discover that there is no barrier, no border, no social institution, no hardship that will prevent you them from opening their mouths and proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ.

Second, when you open yourself to the Holy Spirit, you will discover that in the darkest hours of faith, that God will be present to comfort them.  Life would be so much easier if choosing faith eliminated all of life’s struggles.  It doesn’t.  But in those dark nights of the soul, the disciples discovered that when they allowed the Holy Spirit to fill them with courage, hope and strength, that they were changed.  The Norwegian immigrants embodied that trust in the hopes they had for the old country and all they left behind, and for all the dreams for their new life in a new land.

And finally, when you open yourself to the Holy Spirit, you will discover that you need the community of fellow believers more and more to nurture and strengthen your faith.  For many of the old Norwegian-American at St. Olaf, it was difficult to show any gesture of faith in public.  As the saying goes, you can always tell an outgoing Norwegian. He’s the one looking down at your shoes. They knew Jesus and they trusted in his promises. But it was hard to pray in public, teach Sunday School or volunteer to read, but they knew that they needed the company of fellow believers.  It was true of the disciples as well. In the Book of Acts, we read that they devoted themselves to teaching, fellowship and breaking of bread.  It was no surprise that early Norwegian immigrants immediately established churches and schools.  They needed the company of believers on the journey.

The Norwegians and Norwegian-American Lutherans of my childhood were open to the challenges of Holy Spirit, sometimes reluctantly and sometimes eagerly. And with thankfulness each spring wearing the color of red on Pentecost, they celebrated the heritage of faith that had been passed on to them from an earlier generation by the Holy Spirit.  For most of the men this meant donning the red vests they wore to the monthly Sons of Norway meeting or when they marched in the parade. And each May, with krumkake and coffee in hand they modesty celebrated the Seventeenth of May, the Norwegian Constitution Day – after all, they wouldn’t want to sound like they were bragging.  Amen.

May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.