Sermon for Day of Pentecost, May 23, 2021
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Ezekiel 37:1–14 | Acts 2:1–21 | John 15:2627, 4b15
The chaos had started long before the wind and tongues of fire: The people who traced themselves back to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob or Israel, were now spread among ALL these places you heard today. Interestingly, many had returned to live in Jerusalem full-time, and of course still knew the languages of their countries of origin. In some ways this is no surprise: The story of humanity is a story of movement. There was also this group of people staying more temporarily in Jerusalem—as they were from Galilee, a couple days walk up north in a less-chic part of the country and closer to the border countries and people—who were still reeling from their encounter with this extraordinary man who had deeply moved them, but not knowing what this really meant for them. And today, add to the mix the spring festival of Pentecost in Jerusalem and something called the “Holy Spirit.”
This last month, I heard an interesting perspective about how this all unfolds: The surprise is not just in the wind and fire, but also in who’s speaking and who’s listening. That is, the disbelief not just in “how are we hearing in our native languages?” but also “are not all these who are speaking Galileans.” There is the predictable attempt to discredit them—they must be drunk. But there can be no mistake: The elite residents of The City are hearing and seeing what God can do and wills to do with a vastly greater audience through the voices of people who live by the lake and on the land. And, darn it, the words make sense! They are about God’s deeds of power. And the audience that day—unless they are really good at denial—cannot help but FEEL God’s power in the way the Spirit breaks out into speech through thee ordinary.
Spirit—wind, breath. This is how the bones live in Ezekiel. This is how we, too, live: By breathing in and out; but also by the grace of God.
The word that John uses for this Spirit is a good one: “Paraclete”—which means nothing to us in English, but is the technical word for a legal advisor or advocate. It can also be used as a comforter, helper, guide, companion. Of course in my opinion, the best is the exact literal meaning which paints a wonderful picture as the One-who-calls-from-alongside. (parakaleo). Speaking out on our behalf and on behalf of what’s in us is important. It may be that we can’t always do that for ourselves- individually or collectively—and so this aspect of God’s presence with us (part two, “Another” paraclete, as Jesus is the first) is a boon—a strength we didn’t know we had, and yet flows through us by the grace of God… I think the Holy Spirit feels a bit evasive, and she IS, by nature: We won’t pin this power down words, but we can feel her.
Maybe a bit like the chaos of the past months: What we thought would always be taken for granted—relative health with one another—was thrown into question and we took measures to change our behavior. There is still the grappling with what this means: We don’t want things to be out of our control. We turn on each other with our frustration and sense of loss. But even then, we learn again today, we are not outside of the reach of the gospel. It can and will be communicated anyway with the Spirit next to us, calling out.
Imagine the gathering in Jerusalem. After so many moments of just trying to get by, of having to flee and adapt and now a moment of connection. A moment when God announces good news to all of them, through the ones they think unlikely. Maybe even their sons and daughters will speak the truth that God wants to convey: considered unlikely! And yet this came down through the prophet Joel as a sign that God IS speaking and to look for the unlikely—and Peter speaks it again. Slaves, too, will receive the Spirit and speak- which constituted much of society back then. Men and Women. They have opportunity to remember that being dispersed does not mean being adrift or alienated. In fact, hearing these languages of their time in-between could be a way of processing the stories anew: How did we get here? What is really happening now? Where are we going and where do we want to go?
The book of Ruth from the Bible is read on the celebration of the Jewish Pentecost (50 days after Passover), which is also a reminder of human movement and loss: An Israelite living abroad marries a foreigner whose greatest trait, it turns out, is not her ethnicity, but her loyalty—first to her mother-in-law, in order to care for someone who will be disenfranchised—and then to the ongoing story of God’s interactions with humans in the nitty-gritty things of life: Ruth will be the ancestor of King David, and therefor to the father of Jesus as well. Every year, the story of Ruth is read to remember loss, isolation, scarcity, generosity, re-connection, new life; and above all, God’s abiding over-story to our own.
It’s the story of the cross and resurrection again: In Ruth. In Pentecost. In almost-post-Covid living. In new beginnings, like going off to college; starting any new chapter in life- or renewing the old one. We are not so different after all. That does not mean that we don’t HAVE differences and look at the world differently, but we humans share this experience more than we think. We create problems by trying to change one another into what we think SHOULD be, when what is, IS. Note that the Holy Spirit doesn’t change everyone’s language: She speaks THEIR languages. ALL of them. What we think is “normal” in terms of people being the same never was nor will be. But that doesn’t deter the Holy Spirit from bringing the love and bringing us together! We can try to resist, but contempt and division are not God’s way. Neither can be be one unless the truth is spoken- so there is not false unity without honesty and truth. We are left to trusting that the Spirit can take us beyond ourselves…
Here’s the thing: The church can start to think that it is in possession of God’s Spirit when it’s God’s Spirit that possesses the church. There may be a time when wine is drunk together, the feast shared and all will be welcome.
Thanks be to God. Amen.