Acts 2:121; Ps. 104:2434, 35b; Romans 8:2227
There’s an old story in my family that every now and then surfaces when we get together for reunions. It’s about my grandmother, a dignified lady who happened to be about as wide in girth as she was tall. I have vivid memories of the challenges we faced in helping her in and out of cars, up stairs, even once several of us together laboring to lower her down into a small fishing boat.
Well, many years before I had appeared on the scene, she had taken her youngest son, then five or six years old, to the state fair, and somehow he had managed to get himself on the other side of a very tall fence, six or eight feet high. She discovered this fact just as she also saw an agitated bull on that other side of the fence looking menacingly at her son. As the story goes, my grandmother, in all her girth, managed in a flash to climb the tall fence, land safely on the other side, scoop up her son, and pull him quickly to the nearest gate and to safety.
But what no one can figure is, how did she do it? It is almost as if there had been another person long buried inside her, energetic, passionately alive, that was released in that moment when she saw what she most loved in all the world threatened. And in that release she found herself capable of things she had never imagined.
The poet David Whyte describes in a poem a similar discovery when he was kayaking among the small islands of the Pacific Northwest coast and a storm blew up, and he felt the sheer terror that the waves were about to overwhelm him. He goes on to reflect on his experience this way:
And the spark behind fear, recognized as life, leaps into flame.
Always this energy smolders inside;
When it remains unlit the body fills with dense smoke.
Inside all of us is a passion, a fire, a desire to be fully alive, and it smolders there until something wakes us out of the routine fears.
This is the Feast of Pentecost, the third great feast of the church year after Christmas and Easter. It is the story of a small group of disciples who were still confused and adrift after the death and resurrection of their Lord. All they knew to do was to keep their routines, getting together, waiting, hoping that God would do something new. And of course for many of us Christians, coming together is part of the routines that keep our life going. We love the balance and order of our services. We are drawn to the grace and beauty of our building and our music. And we count on all this to give us some peace.
And yet, the Christian church, which was born on the Feast of Pentecost, erupted with a burst of untamed passion and energy. Into that quiet room where the disciples gathered, St. Luke tells us there came a sound like the rush of violent wind, tongues of fire in the air, and a startling capacity for the disciples to be able to speak in other languages. It was as if the life of the Spirit had been smoldering within them all along, waiting to be released. Now on that Pentecost morning they were filled to overflowing with a power and life far deeper than their own. People who saw the disciples said that they must be drunk.
Later they realized that the purpose of Jesus’ ministry had not been to dazzle them with what he said and did. He had come to draw them into the same life in the Spirit he knew. Jesus had assumed that as his followers received his Spirit they would do everything he did—healing, forgiving, praying for justice and peace. Just after this Pentecost event, Peter speaks to the amazed crowd attempting to explain what is going on, and he quotes the Old Testament prophet Joel: “In the days to come, says the Lord, I will pour out my spirit on all people.” And now, the moment had come for the Spirit to descend on the disciples
“Only a fool would pray for the Holy Spirit to come,” someone has said. We generally prefer quieter lives. We can calculate our risks and build the patterns around us that keep out the chaos. But the Spirit that founded the church and that stirs in you and me is restlessly creative, pressing us out into new life, seeking to connect us to what God is trying to do in the whole creation: To draw all the vast variety of life in this universe into union with God and each other.
Did you notice the first work of the Spirit at Pentecost? It was a miracle of understanding and communion. Strangers from all over the Middle East had gathered in Jerusalem for the Jewish festival, and somehow as the disciples began to speak of this new Spirit they had experienced, everyone understood what they were saying. The Spirit was creating oneness, communion, understanding.
But that isn’t only a story about the past. In fact, if you keep your eyes open, you can see signs of the Spirit all around you. Around the Cathedral we see signs of the Spirit all the time. “Something happened to me today,” someone will say after church. “I can’t explain it, but I felt close to God here. Can you tell me what to do next? I want to find out more.” That’s the Spirit at work. Or someone else says, “I keep being drawn here. I want to be part of something that’s bigger than me, that can bring us all together.” That’s the Spirit, the longing for oneness, for union, long smoldering, beginning to come alive.
The Spirit comes as groups are trying to do God’s will—just as in that first Pentecost. A couple of weeks ago, the lay and clergy leaders of the Cathedral went on a retreat to pray and reflect and seek to discern the Cathedral’s future. The room where we gathered was filled with energy, hope, even excitement, as we talked about the growing community here at the Cathedral, about the deepening sense of belonging and connection in our life, and about our mission of reconciliation across the city, across the political divides, across the clashes of faiths and cultures. Ask anyone who was there and they will tell you that the Spirit was palpably there in our midst. Sparks long smoldering were leaping into flames.
And sometimes the Spirit moves across whole nations, as it did in the 19th century to call the world to abolish slavery, as it did in the twentieth century in the movement to claim full dignity for women, in the struggle for civil rights, in the overthrow of Communism.
Two nights ago I had the chance to see the new film “An Inconvenient Truth.” In it former Vice President Al Gore carefully laid out what is happening to the earth as a result of global warming and the consequences we and our children face if we refuse to address this serious problem. In a jammed movie theater we heard some startling things. The population of the earth took tens of thousands of years to grow to the point that, when someone my age was born, it was about 2.8 billion. In my lifetime it has more than doubled to over 6 billion, and by the time I die, if I live a full life, it will have doubled again to 12 billion. And our fragile earth is already suffering under the burden of sustaining so many lives.
Add to that the rapidly expanding emissions of carbon dioxide gases and pollutants that come with life in industrialized nations, and it is no wonder that our little earth, this small planet drifting through space, is in serious trouble. And the evidence is everywhere: polar icecaps melting, water levels across the world rising, more severe weather around the globe than has ever before been recorded.
And most dismaying is that the United States, which generates far more pollutants than any other nation, has been one of the least responsive, least engaged countries in facing the mounting evidence that we humans are destroying the very nest that sustains our life.
It’s a powerful film, but what was most striking that night was the sense in the audience that we are called, all of us as people of God, as Americans, simply as human beings, to care for this fragile earth God has given us. This was the charge God gave the human race in the opening pages of the Bible—to be stewards and tenders of the earth. Sitting there you could sense our oneness, that we belong to each other as we belong to God, that we are being called to new ways of living and being. And it will take the work of God’s Spirit moving among nations and peoples to lead us human beings forward.
The Spirit of Christ is the Spirit of oneness in all this. Oneness is the basic order of creation. Scientists themselves now see the earth as a living organism of interconnectedness, a “luminous web of life,” as Barbara Brown Taylor calls it. And the work of the Spirit is to deepen our connectedness to each other.
And you and I here in this Cathedral today are intended to be part of the vanguard of this new creation, this new united, reconciled humanity. People come here from every corner of this country and often from across the world, they gather from across this divided city—to live out this Pentecost vision. We are intended to be a place where this passionate Spirit smoldering inside us can descend on us and erupt within us. Sometimes the work of the Spirit brings a sense of peace. Sometimes that passion will drive us into the streets, or into hard struggle for what we believe is God’s will.
And it starts with our desire to be fully alive. Do you ever sense that there is a deeper life smoldering within you? Do you think you have it in you to leap over a fence, to find there was more fire in you than you thought? Do you ever yearn to reach across the terrible divisions we humans face and build small bridges of peace? What drove my grandmother to leap that fence was a fiery love, and that same Godly love smolders in all of us waiting to burst into flames.
There’s an ancient story in which a young monk, Abbot Lot, goes to his wise teacher, Abbot Joseph, and says: “Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation, and contemplative silence; and according as I am able I strive to cleanse my thoughts; now what more should I do?” The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers become like ten lamps of fire. He said, “Why not be totally changed into fire?”
These are urgent times, not times for safe, small, timid lives. The Spirit is calling us to make of this time an era of healing, of new belonging, of beginning again to build an interconnected, interdependent world. In times such as these, perhaps the elder monk is right. “Why not be totally changed into fire?”
Come, Holy Spirit and kindle in us the fire of your love.
Take our minds and think through them.
Take our lips and speak through them,
Take our souls and set them on fire.