When Sony released the Walk-Man and later the Disc-Man, and when Steve Jobs put thousands of songs right in our pockets with the iPod, together they created a personal electronics revolution that has seen communal singing nearly disappear. Rarely anymore do families or dinner parties gather around a piano for a sing along as if it were a Charles Dickens Christmas carol. No more is there a corpus of common tunes that everybody knows. And if the idea of singing comes up, most people, myself included, often retort that we couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket.
Nowadays we are inclined to plug in our earbuds or just leave the signing—which most everybody enjoys—to those who have a talent for it. Certainly, music and song are of utmost value to us today, we just like it at a more private level.
But though this may be true, there do remain a few common tunes in America’s repertoire that we will all still sing, openly and publicly. The national anthem is one. “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” is another. And even more familiar and more widely sung is a little ditty we’ve all known since we were kids: “Happy Birthday to You.” With four simple lines, three of them exactly the same, originating in the United States, but spreading to countless countries, and translated into a host of languages —it just may be the most universally recognized song in the world.
“Happy Birthday to You” actually began as a song with different lyrics, titled, “Good Morning to You.” It was composed in 1893 by two sisters, teachers from Kentucky, Mildred and Patty Hill, who wrote it as a cheery way to start the school day. Early in the 20th century, someone thought up the “Happy Birthday” version that became an instant classic. Until last fall, the song was under copyright, which meant it was proprietary and private, and was held by Warner/Chappell Music, who bought the rights from the original publisher, which meant that the music company held the rights to both “Good Morning to You” as well as “Happy Birthday to You.”
Consequently the music company raked in royalties from anyone who used the song in a commercial setting: film studios, radio and TV stations, other music companies. However, all this abruptly ended in September of 2015, when a Judge in the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles invalidated the copyright. The judge decided the two songs were different and Warner/Chappell should never have been permitted to transfer the “Good Morning to All” copyright to the birthday version. And because of that ruling, the “Happy Birthday” song is now public domain—it belongs to the ages.
Pentecost is the day the church of Jesus Christ entered the public domain, and it’s today that we can also say to the church, “Happy birthday to you!”
Until Jesus’ little band of disciples experienced the descending dove, the tongues of fire and the babble of ecstatic voices, they weren’t ready for prime time. Their faith was proprietary and private. After those remarkable events, however, their old song suddenly became new. After the dove descended their lives were refocused. After the tongues of fire, their mission was clear. After the different languages interpreted, their voices were set. They were to be a public body. They were all to belong to the ages.
Pentecost is the third biggest celebration of the Christian year, but it runs far behind Christmas and Easter in popularity. In the case of the other two holidays, secular culture has embraced the religious feast. There’s secular Christmas, with its blatant consumerism and secular Easter which is nothing more than a rite of spring—and both are just an excuse to over indulge in sweets.
No one has trouble finding decorations and greeting cards for secular Christmas or secular Easter, all featuring the familiar mascots of the holidays, Santa and the Easter Bunny. Those symbolic figures have high name-recognition, even among people who’ve never stepped foot into a church. But have you ever seen a rack of Pentecost cards at Wal-Greens? Have you ever savored a special candy that commemorates Pentecost? Have you ever baked Pentecost cookies, given a Pentecost gift, gone on a Pentecost hunt of any kind? The Church rallies to “Keep Christ in Christmas”, but there’s never a call to “Keep the Holy Spirit in Pentecost” because nobody’s trying to hijack the rights to this holiday. Pentecost is ours alone. But unfortunately even Christians often just leave Pentecost alone. Except for Pastors. We love Pentecost. It is a rich feast for us preachers. The Pentecost story in Acts 2 offers a host of possible sermon angles, including…
The significance of the Holy Spirit as wind— that essential breath that is the very life-force itself…
There’s the Spirit as fire, a vital force whose very nature is to consume and transform all that goes before it…
There’s God breaking down the barriers between nations and cultures when the disciples are miraculously given the gift of comprehending other languages…
There’s the scorn heaped on those who encounter the living God, but are dismissed by scoffers who charge that “They are filled with new wine!”…
There’s the Holy Spirit lighting a fire under the disciples, and how, at that precise point in history, there was a unique mix of combustibles that caused the church to explode into the Roman Empire— eventually burning its way into the very palace of the Caesars.
There’s so much for a preacher to preach on, on Pentecost, but perhaps the most important is the miracle of Pentecost and the fact that the Pentecost miracle could easily not have happened at all. And while thankfully it did, the danger remains that it all might still fade away, the miracle will go unnoticed, or worse—people will notice that it all goes public, but the people will be indifferent to it.
Pentecost is the birthday of the church—the third biggest celebration of the Christian year—but Christians barely recognize it. It’s time for that to change.
After Jesus’ crucifixion, the disciples scattered out of fear. Fortunately the good news of Easter gathered them back together to enjoy a few brief weeks of wonder in the presence of their risen Lord. But what about after the ascension? What next?
Their experience and time with Jesus was incredible, lives were impacted for sure, but who would have blamed them if they’d simply turned around and returned home after all that? No one. Which means, were it not for the miracle of Pentecost, the church might never have been born.
Without Pentecost, the ascension would have been like a high-school graduation, which we all know how such a rite of passage goes—You sign each other’s yearbooks, vow undying friendship, embrace one another and say, “Yes, yes, we’ll always be friends, always stay in touch,”— and then, you don’t. But after the roaring wind and the tongues of fire, everything’s different. The followers of Jesus have become apostles, and because they have, their story is no longer just their story of good times with Jesus. Their story has entered the public domain, it belongs to the ages. And we all know what happens next.
The Church is birthed and born. It grows and evolves. It is nurtured to the point of walking on its own, speaking in full sentences, taking actions—all in a journey to become the church of the ages. The very place that would now be the hands and feet of Christ. The very place where any and all would be welcomed, embraced, fed, clothed, loved. The very place where any and all would find grace and forgiveness, value and purpose. The very place where any and all would be led and nurtured in a relationship with the divine who calls them son, daughter, holy and beloved child—that’s the Church being church.
So how are we to be the kind of church that belongs to the ages, today?
In 1955, famed TV newsman Edward R. Murrow interviewed Dr. Jonas Salk, inventor of the vaccine for infantile paralysis, or polio. Until that time, polio had been a dreaded scourge, striking down teenagers and young adults at the prime of their lives. Some survivors spent the rest of their lives lying on their backs in “iron lungs”— crude respiratory machines that did their breathing for them. Others, like President Franklin D. Roosevelt, lost forever the ability to walk. But then came Dr. Salk with his miraculous vaccine that was cheap, easy to produce and oh so effective. It promised to rid the world of polio— which it soon did. It was during the first rush of enthusiasm for the new treatment that Murrow interviewed Salk, asking, “Who owns the patent on this vaccine?” Dr. Salk replied, “Well, the people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”
Dr. Salk could have been a very rich man, had he applied for a patent on his vaccine—which he would have easily received. But he decided not to. He knew a patent would have slowed down production. It would have hiked the medicine’s price out of reach of many. It would have meant more young people would have been permanently paralyzed, or die of the disease. Dr. Salk knew in his head, heart, and soul that something rare and special and life changing had been birthed through him and his life work. And so he sought to share it—to give it away—to all who needed it. He knew it didn’t belong to him alone. He knew it belonged to the ages.
“Could you patent the sun?” No more than we can confine the good news of Jesus Christ.
What about us? We have our own faith stories, based on our own spiritual experiences, but for many of us, the subject of our relationship with God seems intensely proprietary and private, and we may continue to imagine it is, but after Pentecost, it can never be that way. The work of the Holy Spirit is to loose God’s people on the world to witness to the good news. We aren’t meant to hum our hymns under our breath. The resounding strains of Christian praise are meant to echo off the walls of cities and towns large and small, across the globe. The mission of the Church is to touch lives who need grace, hope, and joy. The apostles realized this in a powerful way on the day of Pentecost, and they sought to share it, to give it away to all who needed it—all because they knew that because of that day of Pentecost the Church didn’t belong to just them—it belonged to the ages.
The question is: do we still believe the church belongs to the ages?
Happy Birthday to you, church. Amen.
Pastoral Prayer, Pentecost Sunday
O God we have gathered here at Pentecost, and pray for your Spirit to again descend and build well the fire in our hearts that all will see the Christ presence of love blazing in our lives. For truly, it is a gift to be your church.
Almighty God, we confess that all too often, we feel depleted; we run out of energy, out of time, out of patience, out of love—out of breath.
So on this day of Pentecost, come to us just as you did on that first Pentecost, and give us the courage to breathe out the petty grievances we know we need to let go of, the resentments that linger and the hurts that have found a place to live.
Let us breathe in the breath of new life, new love, new chances, new selves so that we can continue to be the Church you call us to be. But when the church fails, give us grace. And when we succeed, move us to give you all the glory. For truly, it is a gift to be your church. It is a role we do not take lightly, which is why we want and need unity; we want and need your guidance so that we can represent you well to a broken world. May all that we do and say be only for your sake and for the healing of this fragmented world.
Spirit God, we are your church, so we pray your fire and wind blow into our lives, move us to action, break down the walls that separate us.
Where our language divides, offer us translation. Where our fear overcomes, fill us with the fire of courage. Where our lives are becalmed, fill our sails with wind, moving us forward into the unknown future. Fill us with the hope and power and promise of Pentecost! For truly, it is a gift to be your church.
Hear now, we ask, the prayers that come from deep within our very souls, shared with you, in this time of Holy Silence.
All this we pray in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ, who taught us to pray saying, “Our…”