The Gospel According to Billy Joel

Inspired by Acts 2:1-21

A reoccurring “game” that I play with my girls, and I put game in quotes because it’s usually only fun for me, is Name that Song. Wherever we happen to be, if a song is playing, I’ll “ask” them to if they know that song, and I put ask in quotes because I won’t leave them alone until they at least give a guess. It’s more of a test really, than a game. And when they don’t know the song there is always a healthy dose of ridicule and public shaming. Like I said, it’s usually only fun for me.

But when they get one right, like when Grace knew a Police song the other day, there’s cause for celebration…not for them but for me, because that’s how I know I’m doing parenthood right! So, I thought, why not play this game with my congregation! I’m going to start reading some song lyrics to you and I want you to call out the name of the song as soon as you know it! Now remember, if you don’t know this, not only will you get to see my face of utter disappointment, but there will be public shaming because my sermons go on the internet! Ok, here we go, are you ready?

Don't go changing, to try and please me
You never let me down before
Don't imagine you're too familiar
And I don't see you anymore

I wouldn't leave you in times of trouble
We never could have come this far
I took the good times, I'll take the bad times
I'll take you just the way you are

Don't go trying some new fashion
Don't change the color of your hair
You always have my unspoken passion
Although I might not seem to care

I don't want clever conversation
I never want to work that hard
I just want someone that I can talk to
I want you just the way you are.

I need to know that you will always be
The same old someone that I knew
What will it take till you believe in me
The way that I believe in you.

I said I love you and that's forever
And this I promise from the heart
I could not love you any better
I love you just the way you are.

This is the song that I had in my head the whole time I was preparing this sermon. And we’ll get to the reason why in a minute. Let’s change gears for now. Today is the Day of Pentecost, the day of the church year when we awkwardly celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit. Awkward because the church has historically struggled with its language surrounding the Holy Spirit. Of the three persons in the trinity, the Spirit is the most mysterious, of whom we have the least amount of information, the least number of stories. Though present in many forms throughout scripture, the Holy Spirit doesn’t really get the spotlight until the tail-end of the Bible, relatively speaking. So, in our defense, it’s no wonder why we stumble and trip over our tongues when trying to speak of the Holy Spirit.

What might help, is instead of speaking of what or who the Holy Spirit is, let’s focus on how the Spirit relates to us. What kind of relationship does she want with us? And yes, you heard that right, I said she, not he. In Hebrew, Spirit is a feminine noun, and in Greek it’s a neuter noun, but never is it masculine. But moving on, we get a wonderful picture of this relationship in our reading from Acts today. It was Pentecost Day, a Jewish holiday, and Jesus had already left them, again, seemingly alone, when all of a sudden the Holy Spirit shows up on the scene, in dramatic fashion, and the apostles begin speaking in other languages. This causes a scene and a crowd gathers, people from all over the known world.

Let me pause the story there and share with you a meeting I attended the other day. It was a clergy meeting that Placer People of Faith Together had called, for the purpose of discussing how the Church can respond to immigration needs throughout our county. One of the leaders, Amanda Sheldon, who will be preaching here at Bethlehem this summer while I’m on vacation, began our meeting with a devotion using the Acts passage that we just heard. And she mentioned something that I thought was very profound, and not just in the context of immigration. She highlighted how the Holy Spirit, when she came on that first Christian Pentecost, spoke to people in their own languages, and didn’t ask them to conform to some common language.

The Holy Spirit came to that group of people, met them where they were at, and began to relate to them, began to form a relationship with them. The Holy Spirit did not ask them to change anything about themselves in order to have a relationship with her, did not ask them to give up their language, or their culture, or anything else that made them who they were. For the Holy Spirit, beginning that relationship, opening the line of communication with her people, was more important than anything else. Or in the words of Billy Joel, “Don't go changing, to try and please me… I took the good times, I'll take the bad times, I'll take you just the way you are.”

Now, I want to take that a step further. Because so what right? The Holy Spirit takes me just the way I am, great. Other than making us feel better, what good does that do? The work that we are called to do as Christians is hard work. It’s not only tough work but it can be very frustrating work. Frustrating for a number of reasons, it’s more often than not thankless work that we do. And more than that, we don’t always get to see the fruits of our labor.

We rarely get to see how our work is affecting the lives of others. And when we do, it takes forever! Requiring an almost inhuman amount of patience. And that’s just as individuals. As a congregation, this work can often leave us feeling like we are not doing enough. Partly because this work is hard to gauge, hard to measure, but also because as humans, and maybe as Americans, we need something big, a big service project, a big fundraiser, a big mission trip, a big something!

And all those big things are great! But they can’t sustain us. If our hope and motivation lies only in the big things, then we will often be left feeling deflated, useless, and stagnant—when that couldn’t be further from the truth. In our story from Acts, the Holy Spirit speaks to the gathered people, opens the lines of communication with them, begins the relationship with them, in spite of their different languages, different cultures, any differences at all, the Holy Spirit meets them where they are. And I truly believe that she not only continues to do that today, but that she is able to use our work, no matter how small, no matter how simple, no matter how elementary we may think it is, just the way it is, and use it to build relationships with others, through us, just the way we are.

I truly believe that. I have to, otherwise I wouldn’t last long as a baptized child of God. The big work that we do together is great, but more often than not, the rubber meets the road in the small things. In those little decisions we make to treat others with kindness, especially those different than us who are being treated unfairly. In those little decisions to return hatred with love. In those little decisions to make someone smile who looks like they could use one.

In a simple hug, a thank you card, or a text. It’s in the small things, things I know you all are doing all the time! The Holy Spirit uses us, just the way we are; uses our work, just the way it is. And not for our sakes, or to somehow love us more, but for the sake of the world. Or in the words of Billy Joel, “What will it take till you believe in me, the way that I believe in you. I said I love you and that's forever, and this I promise from the heart, I could not love you any better, I love you just the way you are.” Thanks be to God. Amen.

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