[Delivered at St. Barts, NYC, May 20, 2018]
Pentecost! The onrush of wind, divided tongues of fire, the disciples and the disciples speaking the languages of all who were gathered there!
The birthday of the Church, the coming upon the crowd of the Holy Spirit, fulfilling Jesus’s promise that he would send upon them, as he calls her, the Advocate.
You don’t get much bigger than this. Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost could be called the big three joyful feasts of the Church.
Christmas. The beginning of Jesus’s life, the birth of new hope in the frail baby cradled in his young mother’s arms.
Easter. The shocking reversal of the story that had seemingly ended in tragedy and futility.
And now Pentecost. The new courage of the disciples, who are now out in the world preaching in every tomgue known to the ancient world, and the sudden proof that the Spirit would lead the Jesus Movement to every corner of the globe.
But we live in an age where the very nature of the Christian faith is up for debate. Where the name of Jesus is claimed by those who defend white nationalism, misogyny, anti-semitism, and who display contemptuous indifference to the poor, the refugee, the sick and suffering.
The problem has gotten so widespread that a wide group of religious elders from many Christian denominations, including our own Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry—who you might have noticed had a good day yesterday—have released a statement and an accompanying video [above] of them each reading portions of the statement in turn, declaring the need to “Reclaim the name of Jesus,” by returning to his words, and the example of his earliest followers. I commend the letter and the video to you. I’ve watched it several times, and think hearing these very different elders speak real biblical truth is an act worthy of our notice and admiration.
But what about our emulation?
How do we reclaim the name of Jesus? After all, we’re not high-ranking religious leaders. I can tweet the video out, and tell you about it, but that’s clearly not going to make much of a ripple, let alone the world-changing wave the apostles began so many years ago on their Pentecost.
And then I read the Epistle for today.
Now, I’m going to read part to you again, because, for reasons that I don’t quite get, the Lectionary cuts off the last, and most critical verse.
And, since you’ve heard it once before, I’m going to read in the Authorized Version—the so-called King James version—because the NRSV sacrifices some of the emotive power of the passage in creating the most accurate translation. The 17th Century language conveys the intensity in a way that the NRSV just doesn't.
So here goes, back to the language of Shakespeare:
For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now.Now there’s a lot here we could unpack. But let’s start with the high points.
And not only they, but ourselves also, which have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body. For we are saved by hope: but hope that is seen is not hope: for what [one] seeth, why doth he [or she] yet hope for?
But if we hope for that we see not, then do we with patience wait for it.
Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.
And he that searcheth the hearts knoweth what is the mind of the Spirit, because he maketh intercession for the saints according to the will of God.
And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.
First: The conflict, division, and pain that is currently afflicting the world is not God’s will for us, or for the rest of creation. Cruelty, waste, the abandonment of people to poverty, war or homelessness—the whole tragic litany of our species’ willingness to exploit or ignore the suffering of our fellow living creatures is not how God made the world.
It’s how we have made the world.
Second: Hope. In Hesiod’s Works and Days, which includes the earliest version of the Pandora myth, after Pandora releases all of the ills and pains we suffer, hope remains behind. It’s unclear whether hope is a good thing, or the last, most subtle torment of all—that we are denied the ability to come to terms with the human condition because of our persistent belief in hope.
St Paul, who, as a Roman citizen, would have known this story, and its ambiguities, squarely rejects this reading. We are saved by hope, he writes, with absolute certainty. And not by realistic hope, that we can plan or plot to bring to fruition. No, no—if you see it coming, or can help make it happen—that’s not hope. It’s not salvation.
No, hope is the unexpected. The surprise from God, not the salvation you work out for yourself. It’s finding your partner, your other half, the person who completes you, after giving up on the search.
It’s God calling you into a new way of life, not dramatically, but in the still, small voice that is liberated in your heart, and, after years of not even knowing it was there, points you in the new direction.
To just put a little flesh on that, when, 12 years ago, I stood alone and gazed around, bidding farewell to home I had thought would be mine for the rest of my life, and asked myself what now? The answer rose out of some long-hidden corner of my heart: You’re free to be a deacon now. Free to be something I didn’t even know I wanted. Until I knew, among the ruins of an old life.
Those inarticulate, seemingly unfocused yearnings, that we all have, those moments when you grasp in the dark knowing there’s a name just out of reach, a desire for a more authentic, truer you—that’s the Spirit, uttering groanings on our behalf, because we’ve lost touch with exactly what that more authentic self, that truer life is. We can’t formulate it into words, but deep within our souls, that truth is laboring to give birth to realization.
And now the most important part. And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God. Read that the wrong way, and it’s unbearably smug; “Oh, everything works out for the best. It’ll all be ok.”
No. That’s absolute rubbish.
Susan Howatch in her novel Absolute Truths suggests that the translation of this passage is slightly off. The Greek verb, she argues should read not “all things work together for good,” but rather “all things intermingle for good.” The bad things remain bad. The good remains good. But together, she says, they make a pattern.
Bad things happen to us, to the ones we love. Even to the ones we struggle to love, struggle to not hate.
Those sufferings are not from God.
But the question is what God does with them, and us. What we do with our anger and pain.
I knew, many years ago, a woman who had been abusive to her children, one of whom was close to me. She had spent decades putting off the reckoning, keeping a glossy front, and playing the part of the good mother. When she was diagnosed with terminal cancer, she could have continued playing a part, but instead she suddenly realized that, with regard to the relationships she had so damaged, it was now or never. So she reached out to her children, admitted the wrongs had done to them, and asked their forgiveness.
She died not all that long afterwards. But she died reconciled with her family, having used the last months of her life to care about them, and for them.
Her cancer was terrible. Her reaction to it was of God. She seized the opportunity while she still could, and did what she could to achieve healing.
And the final pattern of her life, the one her children, and even me, the outsider, all looked back on after her death, painted a portrait of a person who had made very grievous errors, but had loved the ones she hurt enough to try to heal the wounds she inflicted, an to try in her last days, when selfishness or fear could have led her.
And yet, had the sudden recognition of her impending mortality not come, would she had ever taken those steps?
That pattern echoes in each of our lives, though rarely so dramatically. Every mistake we make, every time we are betrayed by those we trust, every hurt we inflict—leads to something. They become a part of us, of our story.
How do we react? Do we try to play our part in the work of redemption by learning to forgive, and, what’s even harder, to seek and accept forgiveness ourselves.
Do we listen for that still, small voice of the Advocate inside, leading us to where we are needed, what we can do?
Do we welcome the stranger, receive each guest as Christ, as the Rule of St. Benedict, hanging outside these church walls for as long as I can remember, require?
Do we reclaim the name of Jesus, by modeling in our own lives exemplifying what he taught us?
Do we become more open, more loving?
Do we embrace the life of abundance and abundant love Jesus promises us, and toward which the Advocate urges us?
Well, that may sound like a lot.
In fact, it is.
And I’m not here to pretend that I live up this goal every day.
Especially on days when I’m under-caffeinated.
So start small.
Embrace life in abundance.
Use the time you have, because it’s finite, and we don’t know when it will run out.
Still daunting? OK. Try it this way; I’ll steal a dictum from Steven Moffat, a secular writer as a good staring point.
Because if we try to do these things, then the pattern of our own lives will be one in which we can affirm, with St. Paul, that all things work together for good to them that love God, and that we—you and I—have been called according to his purpose, and that we have done our best, in our own small way, to make our answer “yes.”
In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.