The Day of Pentecost
Watch the sermon here.
Well, things have changed over this last week. You can feel it – the city is coming awake and alive again. More people out in the sun, more people talking and laughing with one another on the street, more people here at church over the week getting ready for today, and now, so gloriously, PEOPLE here in church together, celebrating! Happy Pentecost everyone, this day we call the ‘birthday of the church’ – happy first day of the new world, the world God is forever making new.
The New Yorker magazine had an evocative cover this week – a great door opening, and a little group of people standing at it, looking out from the darkness to the bright city beyond. This reopening time feels a little like that, like stepping out into the light.
And it might feel, too, like the dry bones Ezekiel talks about in that valley, lying in despair, God’s people without hope, saying ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ The four winds come and bring our breath, bring the Spirit that is our breath, one and the same – and we stand and live.
And it might feel like the caged bird of Maya Angelou’s poem, wings clipped and feet tied, who “sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom”…while the free bird “on the back of the wind” “names the sky his own.” We’re flying out of the cage into the open air.
We have been shut up in darkness, dried up in despair, longing for the soft winds and dreaming of freedom. We are ripe for the Holy Spirit’s sudden, swooping arrival. And today, so blessedly, here she comes – just as it happened on all those disciples years ago, gathered together to pray and feeling the whoosh of wind and the fire of flame and everything turning all topsy turvy around them…here comes the Spirit, the sweet, sweet Spirit, the wild and woolly Spirit breathing life and opening doors and bringing us together…
Whoa whoa whoa! Put that mask back on, stand six feet away, I don’t know if you’ve been vaccinated or not. And even more – I’ve been inside and by myself so long and I’m not comfortable anymore outside, it’s convenient working in my sweatpants every day, why does that have to change, I’m not so sure about mixing with all those people on the subway, this is all moving too fast, look at India.
This stage of the pandemic – isn’t it just like Pentecost. It’s all the excitement of the Spirit and songs about freedom and preaching about big change, and secretly inside, or not so secretly, we aren’t having any of it. I’m not talking about the sensible kind of caution for those who can’t yet be vaccinated or have health risks or whatnot. I mean the existential dread that has seemed to cling to so many of us that is so hard to let go now – and the dogged resistance to change that clings to all of us, always. We might want to feel free, but really, we don’t.
If you’ve ever seen a bird get trapped inside a room you know that it’s challenging sometimes to get them out. Sometimes birds can get themselves stuck inside, panicking and fleeing from anyone who might help. Your former priests Liz Maxwell and Susan Hill told me of a bird caught here in our sacristy one Sunday that they had a terrible time getting back out the door – and I remember as a kid a time when somehow a bird came in through our sliding glass door and flew all around the living room, pooping on things and driving the cat wild until finally, somehow, my mom managed to get it back out the door. And then there was the baby squirrel that other time, and our neighbor Larry had to come over with his big work gloves and try to get that speed demon cornered before the cat did. These creatures desperately longed to be outside, but being inside got them so confused they could no longer work their own way back out the exit. They couldn’t even sense just where that exit was. And isn’t that just like us sometimes.
What is the Spirit doing? God wants to break us free. How’s that going for us? Do we insist on bringing our chains along with us? Are we truly welcoming freedom or are we staying in our cages? Does our confusion keep us flying round and round instead of up and out? Are we wishing we could shut the door again and stay safe in our darkness? The world is a scary place, and we can point to so many things going wrong – the pandemic is only one in a long list. And we just feel better holding back from this too-risky feeling of trust. Because maybe we’re not sure we believe all that. Maybe we’re happier the way things are. Maybe we’re just too scared to let things change.
Jesus knows all about that. In the gospel today Jesus winds up his farewell discourse – his very long ‘so long’ speech to his disciples – by telling that even though he, Jesus, will go through suffering and death and resurrection and everything will change, the Spirit will come. Jesus promises that God’s Spirit will be with us and never leave us forsaken. And when the Spirit comes, he says, truth will be revealed – truth, over against the lies that we hold onto about how the world works, and about what we really can trust in this world.
Sometimes John’s gospel can spin us round too far to follow the meaning. And this long speech of Jesus is one of those times, when he goes on about the Spirit proving the world wrong about sin, righteousness and judgment. What is he trying to say here? Well, first, it’s that sin, that loaded word that describes our alienation from God, isn’t about doing or not doing a list of things; sin is lack of belief in God as revealed in Jesus. This is not belief as in “agree to these following statements of doctrine”; this is belief as in trust. We struggle in this world to truly trust and live the way Jesus shows us. And that separates us from God.
Then, Jesus goes on about righteousness – it’s not about living perfect pious lives. Instead the question is, do we live in such a way that we show Jesus to others? Isn’t that what righteousness should be: not being so amazing ourselves, but being transparent windows to Jesus. When people look at us and the way we live, do we show them Jesus?
And finally, judgment: this world runs counter to God’s ways. Evil corrupts this life-giving world God created into one that brings pain and suffering. Do we go along with that corruption, or do we try to change it, do we live differently, bringing life to others?
In other words, do we trust God and live the way of Jesus? Do we show that, even when the world around us embraces a whole different set of priorities? Do we let the Spirit free us from all that keeps us in thrall – our money; our prejudices; our lifestyles; our comfortable selfishness; our ideological righteousness; our suffering and struggles?
The free bird flies on the currents of the wind, trusting those currents to carry it. In the deepest parts of our souls, we long for that kind of freedom, that radical trust. In the deepest parts of our souls we feel it flicker in moments of joy, of ecstasy, of beauty. But we find so many reasons not to believe it’s really true.
You may not feel ready for this great reopening of American society going on around us. You may not feel free the way Jesus promises. You might think you have to have a few more questions answered, a little more certainty and knowledge, an improvement in your circumstances, more time to fix the problems of the world. But it’s Pentecost. The Spirit calls to that deepest part of you – deep calls to deep, saying, the cage door is open. The chains are undone. You can breathe. Let the soft winds in, even now. Even now God lifts up your head. So let us fly out together and see where this takes us.