Sunday, May 19, 2013

Pentecost Sermon


Holy Trinity, Danville--Acts 2:1-21

The story of the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, recorded for us in the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, is very familiar to most of us. We’ve heard it or read it dozens and dozens of times, or more. We could hit the high points from memory, without even cracking open a Bible: fifty days after the resurrection of Jesus, ten days after watching the risen Jesus disappear into a cloud, all the disciples are gathered together in one place, in Jerusalem. There’s a loud noise, like the rushing wind; I’ve already imagined it sounded like a tornado, but what do I know? I’ve never heard a tornado! Then something that looked like tongues of flame appeared over each one’s head. Do you know something? This funny pointed hat that I wear is supposed to be a reminder of those tongues of flame, because one hopes that bishops operate under the authority and in the power of the Holy Spirit. One hopes. And then these disciples started to speak in languages that they had never studied, never learned the old-fashioned way. But people from all over the Mediterranean world were suddenly hearing Palestinian Jews—relatively uneducated Palestinian Jews, at that—speaking fluently in an array of languages.

St Luke the Evangelist, through whose good graces we have this account, of course, is at pains to point out that all these signs—the sound of wind, the tongues of flame, and the speaking and hearing of diverse languages—all these signs are the work of the Holy Spirit. These aren’t just random acts; God is up to something really big here. Luke goes on to quote from the Old Testament prophet Joel:
And in the last days it shall be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
  and your young men shall see visions,
  and your old men shall dream dreams;

  in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.
And I will show wonders in the heavens above
  and signs on the earth below…
This has also become a very familiar passage to many of us, myself included. But as I sat with these words yet again, in anticipation of being with you all here today, what struck me was the expression “pour out”—“I will pour out my Spirit,” God says. Is this not a rather arresting image? I mean, Luke, giving voice to the Lord, could have said “pass out” or “distribute” or merely “give.” Any of those expressions would have reminded us of something rather more orderly than what happened at Pentecost. But what we have is “pour out,” which is an image, not of scarcity or caution, or even prudence, but of abundance and abandon. When you pour something out, it’s with the understanding that the event might get a little sloppy, and not all of whatever it is you’re pouring will necessarily stay right where you poured it. It will slosh around, and go other places, and that’s OK. 
There’s an old evangelical gospel song from the 1880s that I’m reminded of here. I used to sing it in my misspent Baptist youth—though, considerably later than the 1880s! It’s called Showers of Blessing—which is actually a biblical image; it comes from Ezekiel 34—and this gospel hymn has it in the chorus after each verse:
Showers of blessing,
Showers of blessing we need:
Mercy-drops round us are falling,
But for the showers we plead. 
In other words, we want—we need—God’s blessing, God’s Holy Spirit, to be poured out on us. These “mercy drops” that we see everywhere … they’re alright, they’re nice, we’re not going to refuse them. But mere “drops” of divine mercy just make us thirsty for more. We want to be drenched; we want to be soaked—“mercy drops round us are falling, but for the showers we plead”—and “in those days, I will pour out my Sprit”—yeah, that’s what we want! Showers of blessing; God’s Spirit poured out on us.

So the question in front of us on this Day of Pentecost 2013, my friends, is this: Are we going to settle for “mercy-drops” of God’s blessing, little “tokens” of God’s power and presence.” It’s hard not to argue that it sometimes looks like we do. Nearly forty years ago, I remember arriving at church early one Sunday morning. Our regular priest was away that week, and we had a supply priest—a supply bishop, a retired bishop who was part of the congregation—and he was talking to the family of a toddler who was going to be baptized that morning. The parents were expressing concern that their son was a little headstrong, and might actually try to bolt right at the moment of baptism. And the bishop’s reply, in an attempt to be re-assuring, was something like, “Don’t worry. As long as one drop of water gets on him, it’ll be valid.” Valid. Well, yes. I’m not going to argue with the bishop’s theology. If one drop reached the nape of his neck or even the cuff of his trousers, there’s a “valid” baptism. Valid, perhaps, but how does it even begin to resemble a bath, let alone death and burial with Christ if the kid is running off screaming? That’s settling for a mercy-drop, when what we need is a shower! And I’m probably stepping on a sacred cow here, but … these communion wafers that we use in most of our churches … they’re awfully convenient, and we take them for granted. But, seriously, doesn’t it require at least as much faith to believe that they’re really bread as to believe that, in the Mass, they become the Body of Christ?!

My brothers and sisters, the gift of the Holy Spirit is a powerful sign of the superabundance with which God wants to bless us. God wants to send us showers of blessing, not just a few scattered mercy-drops. So let us pray, let us pray earnestly, for the manifestation of the Holy Spirit’s power and presence in abundance—poured out.  
And let’s not be bashful about it. Let’s go right for the good stuff, those things that are spoken of nowadays as the “power gifts” of the Holy Spirit, the kind of stuff we read about in Acts—speaking in tongues, prophecy, healing. No mercy-drops on this list! Why? It’s obvious.  Because these things get people’s attention.  These things arouse faith. These things lead people to Jesus, and cause them to be open to becoming disciples of Jesus in the company of his church. The fact of the matter is, wherever the Church is growing and thriving, these signs are present. Where the Church is under persecution, these signs are present. Go to many parts of Africa. Go to parts of the Middle East. You will see signs and wonders, and you’ll wonder whatever made you settle for mercy-drops.

But let us pray as well—indeed, let us pray earnestly—for the other gifts of the Holy Spirit, the non-flashy gifts such as teaching and pastoring and evangelizing and administration and hospitality and craftsmanship. Why? Because these are the things that stabilize and nourish and support the people of God in their baptismal ministry of reconciliation. Our mission, you know, according to our own Prayer Book catechism, is to reconcile all people to God and one another in Christ. That’s a big job, and we need pastors and teachers and administrators and people who can fix things in order for this to happen.

Finally, let us pray, and pray earnestly, for the fruits of the Spirit. It’s a familiar list from St Paul’s epistle to the Galatians: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Why pray for the fruits? Because these are the things that make us holy; these are the things that, gradually, bit by bit, day by day, fit and fashion us for heaven, prepare us to live in the unfiltered presence of God, which is our destiny as those who are made in his image.

So I hope what we take away from this celebration of Pentecost is the knowledge that there is nothing to be gained by shyness or modesty in what we ask of God, in what we ask of the Holy Spirit of God. Yes, we love those mercy-drops, but let’s keep expecting showers, let’s keep expecting God’s Spirit not to be doled out in neat little pieces, like there’s a limited quantity, but poured out in abundance, sloshing around with abandon into all the nooks and crannies and cracks and crevices and peaks and valleys of our lives. 

Come, Holy Spirit, come. Fill the hearts of your faithful people, and kindle in us the fire of your love. Amen. 

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