Sunday, June 4, 2017
"Hail Thee, Festival Day!": A Sermon
[The text of my Sermon on John 20:19-23 & 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13, delivered at St. Bartholomew's Church, June 4, 2017.]
Hail thee, festival day!
blest day that art hallowed forever,
Day when the Holy Ghost shone
In the world with God’s grace!
I admit it, I’m a sucker for this hymn. All three versions. You heard me. We get to sing “Hail Thee Festival Day” for Easter, of course (that’s Hymn number 175), where it’s Christ our Lord breaking the Kingdom of Death. Then we get to hear it again then again for the Ascension (now it’s Hymn 216, where it’s about Christ our Lord ascending, high in the heavens to reign.
But we get this hymn one last time, today, for Pentecost. (Hymn number 225). And today—
Well, today, I could shave five minutes off the sermon by having us just sing the hymn again, and, you know, if the lyrics to this version were not so dense with meaning that in singing them, we can miss some of the implications, I’d do just that.
Pentecost is often called the Church’s birthday, and between tongues of flame, and the miracle of the Apostle’s teaching being heard in all the languages of the globe, and understood—well, there’s a lot. Quite a lot, and I haven’t even mentioned the Gospel, or the reading from First Corinthians.
But our opening hymn reminds us that Pentecost is a day of joy, literally a banner day, on which we wear red, unfurl actual banners, and let our flags fly.
Did you ever wonder why?
Let’s begin with something that’s easy to overlook.
In the other two versions of “Hail Thee, Festival Day,” we celebrate Jesus’s resurrection, and his Ascension. We celebrate our Savior, our teacher, our rabbi, who gave his life for us, and that his life did not just end on the Cross. We celebrate that Jesus returned to his friends, his community, and that his death was the beginning, not the end.
But today’s version of the hymn celebrates a different gift to us, a gift that enables us to live in this world as it is, in the day-to-day world. The Holy Spirit, the Advocate, has come. And the Spirit has done something to transform the way in which we are called to live.
There’s a symbolic, a mythic, meaning of the Pentecost story in Acts of the Apostles. When I say the mythic, I don’t mean the miraculous, exactly. I mean that, apart from its historical content, the Pentecost story expresses through its narrative a profound truth that would stand even if you reject the notion that anything like this account occurred. It fits into Biblical history and resonates with its very beginning.
Early in the Book of Genesis—chapter 11—we are told the story of the Tower of Babel. In that story, God, seeing a united humanity, with no division between them, all eager to make a name for themselves, begin to build the tower as a focal point of their ambition. Their mighty building will reflect their might as a people. It’s the first example, as far as I know, of the Edifice Complex.
Seeing these fallen children of Adam and Eve building their monument to themselves, Genesis tells us, God says to Himself, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” So God goes down among them, “and confuse[s] their language,” and they are scattered. The tower and the City are never built, and the remnants of the unfinished building are called Babel—divided.
Not after today.
Pentecost is when the healing begins. The gift of speech is no longer to a threat to us and the rest of Creation. We don’t have to be forcibly divided, so that our fallen nature won’t get out of control. On Pentecost, after the onrush of the Holy Spirit, the gift of shared speech comes back, for the first time since long before Abraham left Haram. The divisions separating God’s children have outlived their usefulness, and it’s time for them to come down.
And that’s just what Paul tells us today in First Corinthians—“For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” Or, as Paul would later tell the Galatians, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
So, apart from the fact that the apostles’ preaching was able to be understood by those who did not speak their language, Pentecost is the end of the epoch in which our divisions were meant to protect us and the rest of Creation from human arrogance, selfishness, and stupidity. For the members of the early Jesus Movement, something has reached a culmination—these disciples are reaching beyond their own people to strangers, and the Holy Spirit is enabling them to do so, confirming to them that the time for division is over.
As we look out at our world, it doesn’t feel that way, though, does it?
We are divided, at home, and abroad. The time for division may have ended, but the curse still lingers, and in some ways seems to be growing worse.
Greater ease in communication has not made our divisions cease; the internet and the 24 hour news cycle may make them seem worse than ever.
Worse still, we seem to have gotten used to division, and it’s not fading away. We are still trying to catch up to Paul’s finest insight, that the labels we have long used to separate ourselves from each other aren’t made for that at all.
But Pentecost tells us that those divisions aren’t right. They do not reflect the destiny of the daughters and sons of God.
Our divisions are to be overcome.
When I used to lead theological reflections in our EFM group, I always used to call the last stage the “so what?” How does whatever we are reflecting on affect our lives, our faith, our approach to being Christians here and now.
In terms of these readings, this Pentecost, this festival day, here’s how:
We’re not alone. We have each other—here, in this congregation, other followers of Jesus, even the ones who we don’t get and who don’t get us, but also in people across a variety of traditions and beliefs who are all seeking to better love their fellow women and men.
Better still, we are told that the Holy Spirit, meaning God, is working to bind up and heal all of creation. We aren’t in charge. John Lennon wisely reminded us not to carry the world upon our shoulders. God’s already doing that, ceaselessly pouring out that Holy Spirit upon all of us, calling us to play our part in healing divisions, restoring the health of the world God created.
So the ultimate healing of divisions is not going to be my project, or your project alone. We each have a piece of that larger project, and are not responsible for the whole thing ourselves.
But how do we know how to play our part?
Paul writes that “there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.” He reminds us that “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”
The gifts of the Spirit are in all of us. What is it that the inmost promptings of the heart are calling you to do? Because we can find our part in the work if we can open ourselves to discovering where our “deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Now, I’ve borrowed those words. They’re from Frederick Buechner, and they’re the best translation I’ve come upon for what theologians mean when they talk about God calling each of us, clergy and lay, to a special ministry. It’s finding that place, he wrote, “where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
And some of us find ourselves led to ordained ministry, as priests, or, like me, to the vocational diaconate. But all the people who serve here, lay ministers and volunteers, our altar guild, the incredible group of talented musicians who create beauty here every week, are responding to that call. And so are many people whose responses we don’t see, because they pursue that calling outside the church walls, and we’re here as a community and sustenance for them.
The gifts of the Spirit have been given to us for us to use them in the building up of creation, not as a Babel Tower so we can declare our might, but so that we can each of us play that part we are called to in redeeming all the mess and pain in this world.
And the Good News of Pentecost is that the work that calls to our heart, that speaks to each of us, individually, where our deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet, is right where we are supposed to be.
Hail Thee, Festival Day,
Blest day that art hallowed forever,