A Whole New Set of Problems

(Acts 2:1-21)

For two summers after I graduated from high school I worked at the Ovenfresh Bread Factory. We made bread, buns, and sweet rolls for various bread companies. We’d make the stuff, and put it in the packaging for whatever company had the order.

So, for instance, say Meijer ordered 50,000 hot dog buns. The buns would be proofed and baked on an assembly line. After coming out of the long oven, these suction things would come down and pull the buns off the pan and they would be bagged in a Meijer hot dog bun bag. Then we’d put those bags into stacking racks, which would be picked up by shipping and loaded onto trucks.

When Meijer had their 50,000 buns, somebody would change out the bags. Next up would be Kroger or Ovenfresh brand, or whatever. Same buns, different packaging.

It was hard, physical work. It was a factory with huge ovens and no air-conditioning in the middle of summer on 12 hour on-call shifts. Union rules said we could be called back in after 10 hours. So, there were plenty of times I’d work 12 to 18 hours, punch out, go home and go to bed at 10 o’clock in the morning, and get called back in to work at 8:00 that night.

And because we were summer help, we got all the jobs nobody else wanted to do.

But the worst job—by a long shot—was specialty breads. Rye, Pumpernickel, Potato Bread. You name it. And because they were specialty breads, the orders were smaller, which means they weren’t proofed and baked on a conveyor belt. It all had to be done by hand—just one person.

So, you’d go get a 6 foot rolling rack of bread in pans out of the proofer, where the dough had been rising. Then you’d have to roll these pans over to the oven, take them off the rack, and put them on the conveyor belt that fed them into the oven.

That doesn’t sound like too much, when I describe it like that … until you realize that the bread pans were heavy steel, and contained between four and eight loaves—depending on what kind of bread it was. They weighed between 20 and 40 pounds apiece.

You had to unload bread pans and feed the oven continuously for twelve hours—with two 15 minute breaks and a 30 minute lunch—which meant we were there for at least 13 hours. And because they only ran specialty breads during the night, we usually punched in at 6:00 at night and punched out after 7:00 the next morning. After a shift on specialty breads, it was almost impossible to lift your arms to put them on the steering wheel, or to use your fingers to zip your pants and button your shirt.

I hated specialty breads. I hated doing that physically demanding labor in an environment that had the temperature set at two degrees less than the surface of the sun.

Because we were Teamsters, there was a published seniority list that hung outside the locker room, where we changed into our uniforms. The summers I was there, there were guys working at Ovenfresh who’d started in 1946, just after returning from World War II.

The old guys—guys with names like Gus and Lou and Frank—they didn’t hardly speak to the summer help. But one time, one of the line workers pulled me aside and said, “Crib [that’s what they called the summer help].” He said, “Crib, make sure you go back to college so you don’t have to come back here and spend the rest of your life doing this.”

Standing there with arms I couldn’t lift and fingers that felt like I was 102, that sounded like sage advice to me.

A couple of times I was so tired, I would sneak the phone off the hook at bedtime, so Ovenfresh couldn’t wake me up and call me in. It was kind of the analog version of turning your phone off.

Anyway, my dad caught me doing it and got after me about being lazy or unmotivated or some other things that Dads sometimes think about “these young kids who don’t know how good they have it.”

I said, “Lazy? What’re you kidding me? Lazy, says the man who goes to work in suit everyday in an air-conditioned office. I wish I had your job. I’d change with you any day of the week.”

I was convinced, after working in a hot and dirty place for a couple of summers, that any job that didn’t call you out of bed in the middle of the night to break your back in a sauna, any job that allowed you to work in a clean, well-lit, air-conditioned space during “normal” hours was definitely something to aspire to. I figured if I could just avoid “Ovenfresh” kind of work as a career, I’d have it made.

But I’m here to tell you: After having worked in a bunch of clean, well-lit, air-conditioned environments during “normal” hours over the years—and many of you probably know this better than I do—“white-collar” work isn’t always the cakewalk I was convinced it is when I was breaking my back for Ovenfresh.

I’ve been in white-collar jobs that took more years off my life than any factory job I’ve ever had—and I’ve worked in a number of factories, warehouses, and shops (automotive and tool-and-die).

So, I know that what at first appears to be a step away from the madness can be—when the final act is written—a full on bellyflop into the very chaotic and dangerous heart of it.

I mean, think about what’s going on in our passage from Acts this morning. It’s Pentecost. You know, what we sometimes casually call the birthday of the church. Generally, it’s treated as a celebration. I’m surprised some of our co-religionists don’t serve communion with birthday cake and party hats.

But, for Jesus’ disciples, that Pentecost, with the coming of the Holy Spirit—whatever they thought of it at the time—must have seemed much darker as they looked back on it later.

Think about it. In Jerusalem and the surrounding areas on that Pentecost, there still had to have been an all-points bulletin out for the capture of Jesus’ merry band of misfits. Because remember, Jesus was executed by the Romans as a political revolutionary; which means that his disciples still had their pictures hanging on the Wanted Posters in the Jerusalem Post Office.

Their fugitive status explains why the disciples are all gathered “together in one place” as our passage opens. Strength in numbers, you know. They’re all keeping their heads down, trying to avoid drawing any attention from Caesar’s storm troopers.

And who can blame them, right?

It was terrifying watching what happened with Jesus. But, at least, it looks like the whole thing’s over. They’ve been trying to lay low until the heat dies down. Maybe then they can sneak back home and pick up their old lives. There’s nothing glamorous about getting back on the fishing boat, back behind the tax accountant’s table … but after everything calms down, at least they won’t have to sleep with one eye open anymore—waiting for the goon squad to show up and frog march them to their very public execution.

With the great animosity Jesus stirred up, I suspect that many of them were secretly relieved not to have found themselves tied to a lonely post, with nothing more than a blindfold and a cigarette to mark their final moments.

But then the Holy Spirit blows into town as Jesus promised, and maybe things are looking up. Maybe the Holy Spirit will calm things down for them.

You can imagine that this scared bunch of fugitives from the Roman conception of justice saw the advent of the Holy Spirit as a new chapter—and a whole lot more comfortable one than they’d been living out over the recent past.

Tongues of fire. Speaking in different languages. Great response from the crowd.

Peter stands up and frames the new world the Holy Spirit is leading them toward by paraphrasing 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.

See now, that’s what I’m talking about. Prophecy and dreams. “Portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist.” The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, and everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.

That’s more like it. That’s a way better gig than the one they were afraid was going to characterize the rest of their short lives, the one where they’d have to keep an ear to the ground listening for the the tell-tale sound of soldiers’ feet stomping up the front steps to take them to a deep dark dungeon, and then to a public execution as an example for the rest of Palestine—you know, lest anybody else get any revolutionary ideas.

No, the coming of the Holy Spirit is a way better twist to the story than the one they’d been living in fear of since Jesus got whacked.

Moreover, the Holy Spirit seems also to be a better a option than the one that saw them return to the fishing boats or the 9-to-5 grind down at the office. In this Pentecost picture, they’re going to be someone. Prophets and visionaries.

No more 10 Most Wanted. No more peasants and tradespeople.

On Pentecost, the future shines in their faces like the light of a thousand suns. It has to be better than the other alternatives.

But the disciples are soon going to wake up to a reality that anyone who’s been following Jesus for any length of time knows: Far from solving problems, the Holy Spirit creates new problems they never would have had if they’d packed up their nets and headed back home to Galilee.

Jesus’ disciples would soon find out that what at first appears to be a step away from the madness can be—when the final act is written—a full on bellyflop into the very chaotic and dangerous heart of it.

Why?

Because the advent of the Holy Spirit isn’t a chance to finally get rid of our problems; it’s an invitation to find a whole new set of interesting ones—problems that call us not back to ourselves and our own self-fulfillment, but toward a world that needs the kind of holy disruption the Spirit always seems to unleash.

Pentecost offers us a whole new set of problems we could otherwise have avoided by staying home and minding our own business.

But you see, that’s the good news.

Pentecost is an invitation to head out into the world, to lose ourselves in a bigger and more important set of problems than whether or not our lives give us the sense of fulfillment we thought we were looking for when we sat in the guidance counselor’s office.

God created us for community, for giving ourselves away to a world crying out for the kind of love and peace that we who’ve seen the tongues of fire, who’ve felt the breath of God can give.

The great paradox of Pentecost is that we find ourselves not by hunkering down, trying to avoid the pain of a world that feels like it will swallow us whole, but by being led by the Holy Spirit out into that world for the sake of those who need the kind of disruption the Spirit always seems to stir up.

Pentecost doesn’t necessarily solve our problems; it confronts us with a whole new set of problems.

But in a world dying for someone to care about these problems—our willingness to embrace them might just be the thing that makes the difference.

—Amen.

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