The Rev. Canon Jan Naylor Cope
Transcribed from the audio
Loving God, fill us with your holy and life-giving Spirit and embolden us to proclaim by word and example the Good News of the resurrected Christ. Amen.
One of the things I loved most about growing up in a very small Episcopal Church is that everyone had a job; everyone had a role to play—adults and children alike. In fact, this was really the case; because there were so few of us, it really took all of us to make church happen on a Sunday. But it was also a wonderful expression of God giving us, each one of us—no exceptions—gifts to be the body of Christ, to reach out into the community, to help bring about the kingdom of God. And people were pretty good about volunteering to do things in the church, with one notable exception. About this time every year some brave person would say, “Who would like to volunteer to read the lessons for Pentecost?” Everyone would immediately break eye contact and look at their shoes, because no one, but no one, wanted to tackle reading that lesson from the second chapter of Acts—strange names, strange places, and let’s face it, pretty strange happenings. And to make it worse, in those days we referred to the third person of the Trinity as Holy Ghost. So that added the spook sort of quality to the whole enterprise. And I think that the net effect for many of us, I can only speak for myself, was that I didn’t connect really with that story. It seemed otherworldly, sort of out there—too different people, strange people, strange places. And that’s really a shame. I think that many people viewed it as something so strange that just happened 2000 years ago.
But the truth is, Pentecost is our story. It’s not a story that just happened 2000 years ago. If in fact it weren’t a living story we wouldn’t be here today. So I invite you to join with me for a few minutes to put that story in context, to invite yourself into the story and to hear how it’s speaking to you today. We know from the gospel of John, a portion of which you just heard, that a part of Jesus’ instruction to the disciples before he was going to be crucified was that he told them he would have to leave. He was going to be crucified; he was going to return to God the Father but that he wouldn’t leave them orphaned. He wouldn’t leave them abandoned; that he would ask God and God would send another Advocate, the Holy Spirit to be with them, to abide in them, to remind them of everything that Jesus had said and to teach them all things. Now the gift of the Holy Spirit that is translated in the version you heard today of the Bible as “Advocate” has different translated names: Advocate, Comforter, Counselor. The actual word is Paraclete and it doesn’t easily translate to one word. It’s better understood as “one to come alongside you.” God’s own spirit living, breathing, teaching, guiding, advocating, comforting, empowering each one of us to live out the gifts that God has given us to be agents of change in the kingdom of God.
And then in the Acts of the Apostles, in the first chapter, Jesus is appearing to the disciples and the faithful after his resurrection, once again instructing them, telling them that John baptized with water but that in not very many days they were going to be baptized by the Holy Spirit. And with that would come power and that they were to be God’s witnesses—Jesus the resurrected Christ’s witnesses—throughout Judea and Samaria to the ends of the earth. But they were to go to Jerusalem and wait and wait for God’s gift of the Holy Spirit. So you heard in the reading of that miraculous gift of the Holy Spirit and what ensued from that was the ability to speak in every known language of the world. In essence they were given the very tools they needed to tell the story, to have it heard, to have it understood, to have it acted upon.
I invite you to consider this: if the Holy Spirit had descended on just one disciple that day, it would have been a powerful personal experience, probably nothing more and nothing less. The fact that the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples and the 120 faithful who were gathered gave birth to the church. It was a movement of the Holy Spirit that was so powerful, so vibrant, so complete, that it changed the course of human history. That’s why we’re still gathering as Christians some 2000 years later. The disciples and the faithful did exactly what Jesus told them to do; they were his witnesses throughout the entire known world.
Now the Holy Spirit in our lives doesn’t always appear quite as dramatically as you heard it in the second chapter of Acts. Sometimes the Holy Spirit comes to us in silence, sometimes in prayer, sometimes in Scripture, sometimes in music–the universal language. I was recently the recipient of a YouTube clip from a very dear friend of mine that was entitled “Landfill Harmonic.” And it tells the story of how music spoke to a community—and speaks to communities—that desperately need that word of hope and promise and meaning and transformation. In Paraguay, a renowned composer and musician by the name of Maestro Luis Szarán says that through music he’s able to reach people’s souls. And Maestro Szarán had the idea to go back a few hundred years into Paraguay’s history at a time when the Jesuits in the colonial period helped introduce certain values in community through music. They taught music education and taught people to play; taught people to express themselves through music and in the process they instilled the values of respect and discipline and teamwork and community and what it means to love one another as Christ loves us.
And in looking at his country today, like many countries around the world, he sees that times have changed. The country has been ravaged by conflict and war and poverty and he decided to try and do something about. He started something called Sonidos de la Tierra—sounds of the earth. And it’s a movement through which he’s gone to over 100 communities in the country and taught teenagers music—taking in music and instilling in these communities new hope, new purpose, new promise, new meaning in their lives. It’s gone extremely well and then one of the members of Sonidos de la Tierra came up with the idea of going to one of the poorest communities in Paraguay, Cateura. Cateura is distinguished in that country by being the site of the largest landfill for the country. As they say, they receive the country’s garbage. And the people in that community try and scratch out a living recycling other people’s garbage in some usable capacity that they can sell. And as you might imagine, that community is also known as a place where teenagers basically look into the future and see no future. They’ve gotten involved in drugs and alcohol; they live in darkness; know no purpose, no meaning, no future.
So they took Sonidos de la Tierra to Cateura and the response was overwhelming. But the resources were limited; they brought five violins but fifty teenagers signed up. Not to be deterred by that, but inspired by it, they teamed up with some of the locals who seemed to be particularly ingenious at re-purposing the garbage that their slums sat atop. And slowly but surely they started to create instruments out of trash. Packing crates became guitars. Pieces of house gutter along with spoons and buttons became saxophones. Water pipes became flutes and soon the Landfill Harmonic came to be. And when you look on that video clip you hear these young people talk about how before, their life had been worthless; that they’d been caught up in the dark vestiges of life but that that had changed; that they now had new meaning, new purpose, new life in their lives.
The community is changing and I was particularly taken by one teenage boy in the clip who proudly lifts up his cello and explains that it’s made from an oil can. The tuning pegs come from a spoon, a meat tenderizer, a pasta maker. And after introducing and explaining the substance of his cello, he sits down, gets a big smile on his face, pulls back the bow, and begins to play the Prelude of Bach’s Cello Suite Number One with breathtaking beauty and grace and life and light. And if that doesn’t move you to tears about the power of the human spirit particularly when it’s infused with God’s own life-giving Spirit, I don’t know what will.
Maestro Szarán’s soul language is music. What’s yours? What gift has God given you to reach out and proclaim by word and example the good news of the resurrected Christ? What soul language has God given this gathered community? If the people of Cateura could make music out of trash and transform lives just imagine what we could unleash with God’s holy and life-giving Spirit as a community of faith. In a few minutes we’re going to renew our baptismal vows. We are going to recommit ourselves to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ. We are going to recommit ourselves to strive for justice and peace and respecting every human being. We are going to recommit ourselves to seek and serve Christ, loving our neighbors as ourselves. The newly baptized will receive a lit candle and we will say to them as we hand them the candle, “Receive the light of Christ and take it out into the world.” Each one of us have been given gifts; each one of us have been given those gifts by God to make a difference. On this day pray to have those gifts of God rekindled in you so that when you leave this place you, too, carry the light of Christ—the message of hope and purpose and meaning and transformation to a world that desperately needs to receive it. Amen.