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Sunday, June 04, 2017

Pentecost: New ears, new heart, new spirit

Steve Wickham

A Sermon for Pentecost  - June 4, 2017
St. Philip's Episcopal Church, Laurel, Delaware
(the Rev'd Dr. Elizabeth Kaeton)

What can I say about Pentecost that you haven’t heard before? Maybe 10 times before?

That it’s the birthday of the church? Well, that has always struck me as a little too Hallmark-card sentimental by a half. When we listen to the story of Pentecost in the Book of Acts, I don’t see anything there that even remotely looks like the church today.

People talking in different languages and yet everyone understands?

Nope. Not in any Episcopal church I’ve ever attended.

Are there Medes handing out bulletins in the back of the church, while the Parthians prepare for the coffee hour and the Cretans and Arabs warm up in the choir? Are there Elamites, Cappadocians and Asians puting on their cassocks and light their torches?

Um, I don’t think so.

It’s also said that this is the day when God’s people received the gift of the Holy Spirit. St. Paul wrote to the ancient church in Corinth that, No one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit.”

But, that was back in the day when saying “Jesus is Lord” meant that you were denying the sovereignty of Caesar – a very dangerous thing to do. Seriously dangerous. It could get you killed. So, only by the grace of the Holy Spirit would you even dare to say such a thing. There are still places in the world where saying “Jesus is Lord” can get you killed or tortured or jailed.

But, not here. Not in the United States of America, despite what some people might want to tell you about “religious freedom” by which they mean having the liberty to discriminate against certain people because they claim “the Bible tells them so”.

It’s also a day when preachers like to riff on the themes of peace and forgiveness which we heard in John’s gospel this morning. We also like to sing songs about the Holy Spirit which have lyrics that invite the Holy Spirit with “the murmur of the dove’s song,” and talk about the Third Person of the Trinity as a “Sweet, spirit, sweet heavenly dove.”

Which is not untrue.

The Holy Spirit can be like a dove bringing peace and love and forgiveness and gentleness and sweetness. It’s been my experience, however, that those are the gifts of the spirit. 

We heard some of them in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians: 

wisdom, understanding, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment, talking in and understanding spiritual tongues – spiritual expressions that seem foreign to us.

In my experience, gifts of the spirit come after the ground is broken open and rocks and old roots are removed and the seed is planted deep in rich, fertilized soil where the seed has to break itself open before new growth can spring forth.

Then, that new growth has to push its way through the hard, dark soil where it must be warmed by the sun and watered by storms that may also bring thunder and lightening and high winds that swirl all around it and above it. And yet, still it pushes its way toward another breakthrough and poke its head above the ground and into a strange new world.

But, that’s not the whole journey. It is still far from bearing fruit. For some plants, it must further transform itself from that small, safe contained seed that put forth a new, green shoot only to go through another yet transformation into a plant. 

That plant must continue to grow and mature, still reliant upon the soil and the sun and the rain to even further dependence upon other creatures like bees to pollinate its flowers. That calls for yet another transformation from flower to fruit or vegetable. 

Sometimes, the fruit or vegetable grows differently. It doesn’t look like the others. Still, it is the same inside. It just looks different. And, it has more work to do, still.

That fruit or vegetable then has to ripen on the vine or tree before it can finally be picked so that it may provide nourishment and sustenance – not for the seed which gave it birth, or the vine which brought it to maturity or the tree on which it ripened.

No, the fruits are to be picked by others and given to others so they might grow and be nourished and sustained. 

Doesn’t seem quite fair, does it? That provides, perhaps, one of the first and most important lessons in life: Life is not fair. That’s not “nice” or “gentle” or “sweet”, but it’s what I know to be true. And, somewhere inside you, in your place of knowing, you know it, too.

So it is with the gifts or fruits of the Spirit. They don’t often just fall into your lap, gently descending like manna from heaven. Oh, they may seem to arrive that way, but that’s the seed of the gift. In order to open and use the gift, you’ve got some hard work ahead of you.

It’s more like what the disciples experienced on Pentecost – something like the combination of the strong winds of a tornado mixed in with the teeth-chattering, bone-shaking effect of an earthquake. It can leave you so thoroughly disoriented that you may appear inebriated and intoxicated. Or, at least, you may find that some will seriously question your sanity.

I’m about ¾ of the way through reading “Always Kristen,” a book by one of your former rectors, Rita Beauchamp Nelson. It’s her story of the journey she made with her transgender daughter as she traveled from, in her words, “It’s a boy!” to “Mom, I’m a girl!”

Now, I don't know about you, but I can't even begin to imagine such an event in my life. I would hope that I would act with as much honesty and authenticity, courage and compassion, love and grace as Rita has. 

There’s one moment in the book that strikes me as “Pentecostal” – well, there are a few (life is like that) but I want to talk about the first time her son Christopher came to dinner as Kristen (at the time she called herself Wendy) – dressed as a woman – because that’s how she understood herself to be. A woman.

Everyone at the table tried very hard to keep it light and not too deep but finally, Kristen blurted out, “Mom, I’m a girl.” There followed some very difficult moments with hard-to-ask questions and harder-to-hear answers. And then, Rita writes:

“Finally, we rain out of questions and answers, and the uncomfortable silence around the table was our signal that it was time for us to say goodbye. We walked down the walkway to the elevator and I hugged Christopher especially long and tight as we said our goodbyes and I love you’s this strange night. I desperately wanted this beautiful boy to know that I loved him and that this turn of events would never change that. I wanted him to know that he would be accepted, always. But loving him and accepting him as a girl still had to be sorted out in my heart. I guess I am still sorting it out, because, to this day, I sometimes question if I have accepted his being a girl or am simply resigned to it.

The elevator doors opened, and I watched Christopher walk in and the doors close. Then William and I fell into each other’s arms and, in the solitude of the empty walkway with only the stars to watch, I quietly broke down and cried as he comforted me. It no longer mattered to me whether anyone was watching. I had started out years before with a concern Christopher might be gay, then a cross dresser, both of which were mild compared to what I had learned this evening. Where, I wondered, would we go from here? Where would Christopher go from here? Even now, when I least expect it, a tear will silently slip down my cheek for the son I lost and the son I wish I still had but never will again.”

I know. That’s probably not the Pentecost story you were expecting to hear this morning. It’s probably not a Pentecost story you’ve ever heard before - or, will hear again.

I stand before you to say that this story, for me, is evidence of the presence of the Holy Spirit. If you take some time to look back over your life with this new lens, you may discover that the Holy Spirit has often appeared in moments that, at the time, neither felt holy or sacred.

But, in that moment, something happened. Something that left you with no more questions to ask - no more answers to give. 

Something that broke your heart, but broke it open so that there was more room than you could have ever asked for or imagined. 

Something that stretched your mind past self-imposed and formerly sacred boundaries. 

Something so strange you didn’t have the words or even a language to express it. 

Something that made you sound crazy or inebriated or intoxicated to others.

Love can do that to you. Love can change you and transform your life. Love is a gift of the Holy Spirit that you don’t always seek much less choose but it, rather it seeks and finds you.

And though you may still have some question – some doubt – about what really happened and why it happened, there is no question that it happened and that your life has been forever changed by it.

That’s not the question. The question is, “What will you choose to do about this moment? With this moment?” 

Will you allow yourself to surrender to the process so that you might continue to grow and be transformed by it so that it might bear fruit? Or, will you let it die?

I will leave you to consider these things and offer a prayer that came to me from a friend. She meant it to celebrate the Feast of the Visitation which, this year, was May 31st

I think it’s an especially appropriate – if not a wee bit unorthodox – prayer for Pentecost. I think it echoes the prayer of Jesus who appeared in that upper room and said to his disciples, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

Here’s my Pentecost prayer for you. May you hear it with new ears, a new heart, a new spirit.

“May you never be subservient. May you never fall prey to fitting in. May you always swirl in all the directions the sacred winds want to take you. May you never hush your laughter nor your tears. May you breathe without restriction. May you show up every single day to the calling that is you and may you always know the courage of your own heart.”           


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