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‘Surprise, surprise, surprise!’

Worship & Music conference preacher cites an unexpected theologian — Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Worship and Music conference co-director Meg Granum Gurtcheff leads worshipers through a hymn during Sunday’s opening worship. (Screenshot)

LOUISVILLE — When he portrayed Private Gomer Pyle during the mid-1960s, actor Jim Nabors employed a number of catch phrases, including “Go-o-o-o-llee!” and “Shazam.” But Pyle, who hailed from fictional Mayberry, North Carolina, which is in the same state as the very real Montreat Conference Center, the setting the Presbyterian Association of MusiciansWorship and Music Conference, was best known for recounting mixed-up stories punctuated by this phrase: “Surprise, surprise, surprise!”

“Gomer Pyle was sweet but not too smart,” said the Rev. CeCe Armstrong, associate pastor at St. James Presbyterian Church in Charleston, S.C., who preached Sunday during opening worship for the conference’s second week, which is being held both in-person and online. “He was awestruck by the simplest of things.”

Armstrong was preaching on one of the most surprising texts in the New Testament, Acts 2:1-21, the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

The first surprise we notice? “The flaming tongues of fire sitting on top of someone’s head,” Armstrong said. “Even for biblical times, it would seem a little weird.”

the Rev. CeCe Armstrong

The pandemic brought us plenty of surprises, Armstrong said, including people being told to get themselves to vaccination sites even if they didn’t have reliable transportation. “Say ‘ouch’ if you can’t say ‘amen,’” Armstrong advised. “Surprise, surprise, surprise! Things in society may look weird. But look long enough and it’s God moving God’s people in a better direction. It happened in Scripture and it ought to be happening here. I’m just saying.”

What the nascent church heard that day — a variety of languages all heard in one’s native tongue — was also surprising. They must be filled with new wine, the crowd sneered, but Peter set them straight: God’s Spirit is being poured out on all flesh.

We can be just as guilty as the sneering crowd, Armstrong said.

“Sadly, we do this in society. There’s a Black Lives Matter march or a Pride parade going on. Hmmm. They must be drunk. They must be filled with new wine. I know I’m talking to the choir literally, right?” Armstrong told the gathered musicians. “I’m talking to folks who know better. Y’all better start talking … When do we stop doing that as the body of Christ, judging what we see because it doesn’t fit our mode of how it’s supposed to be? I know the Holy Spirit is alive and well and She will speak tonight.”

“I’m telling you tonight,” Armstrong said. “If we don’t pay attention to the Holy Spirit, we will miss out on what God is calling us to do.”

“You’re not doing something new, friends — God is,” Armstrong said. “Pay attention to the internal testimony of the Spirit, to stand, clap your hands or just cry because you need a cleansing in your life. It’s our responsibility to burn right where we are. That’s what fire does, right?”

Zeroing in on Peter’s quotes from the prophet Joel — our sons and daughters will prophesy, our young men will see visions and our old men will dream dreams — Armstrong urged those in worship to “stop dismissing our young people” and “quit throwing away the folks we want to call old.”

“My challenge to you this week is to look out for the surprises that God has in store for you … Maybe God is telling you to look for and listen to the Holy Spirit being poured out for many to tell the story of God’s redemptive grace. Look for smoke and fire, listen for dreams and visions. And when you find them this week, hear the testimony of the Holy Spirit say, ‘Surprise, surprise, surprise!’ In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.”

Conference liturgist the Rev. Anna George Traynham, center, is interviewed after worship in the Newsroom by Kaitlyn Davros and Will Breytspraak. (Screenshot)

As one might expect, worship was punctuated with lively and beautiful musical offerings and thoughtful liturgy by the Rev. Anna George Traynham, senior pastor at Shallowford Presbyterian Church in Atlanta.

“We’re tired, O God, of making it up as we go,” Traynham prayed near the end of the hour-long service. “We lift our weary hearts to you. Equip us with your Spirit as you always do. Surprise us with your grace.”

Earlier, worshipers made this confession: “Your Holy Spirit is an agent of justice and peace,” they told the Almighty, “but we would recast her as a fixture in the status quo. Your Holy Spirit is full of surprises, but we would prefer to stick to our comfortable plans.”

“It is my hope,” Armstrong said during the benediction, “that sometime this week you will catch on fire for the Lord.”

The conference resumes Monday and continues through Friday.

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