The Rev. Canon Jan Naylor Cope
Transcribed from the audio.
In the name of the living God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Today we celebrate the Feast of Pentecost, the giving of the Holy Spirit and the founding of the early church, acknowledging the ongoing, life-giving, life-empowering, life-transforming presence of God in Christ in our lives. Today is a day for great celebration—separate and apart from the fact that in Washington, D.C. the sun is finally out—we have much to celebrate today.
Longtime pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, John Buchanan, loved to tell this story about the Spirit. In a mainline Protestant denomination church that prided itself on worship in, as it’s called, decency and good order— maybe a little bit like this church, one day, on a Sunday, the preacher got up to preach. And after he made his first really important point, a woman in the very back of the church shouted, “Amen!” The people sort of looked around a little bit nervously, there was a little bit of a twitter going on. The preacher pressed on; gets, to point two. She shouts, “Preach it, brother!” People are really nervous now; there’s lots of looking at one another. He presses on. After the third big point she stands up and shouts, “Thank you, Jesus!” An usher goes over to her, leans over, “Madam, is something wrong?” At which point she looks at him and says, “Well, no, I have the Spirit.” And he says, “You certainly didn’t get it here!”
The Spirit blows and goes where it will. It’s intended to be a little bit unruly and unpredictable. Annie Dillard, in writing about it, if we really dealt with the power of the Spirit openly and honestly, we would come to church wearing crash helmets and the ushers would issue us life preservers and signal flares and strap us to our pews.
That’s what happened 2000 years ago. We know from the first chapter of Acts that Jesus, before he ascended, tells Peter and the disciples to stay in Jerusalem, to stay together because not many days from now they are going to be baptized by the Holy Spirit. That John baptized with water, but they were going to be baptized by the Holy Spirit and that they would be empowered to go out and to share the Good News for the entire known world. Now what can you imagine the disciples thought about all of that? Scripture tends to record that they were regularly surprised. Jesus told them that he would be crucified, they were surprised. Jesus said he wouldn’t be in the tomb, they were surprised. Jesus said he would rise in three days, they were surprised. And now they’re all huddled together wondering what in the heck is going to happen.
And then powerfully, magically, it seems, the Holy Spirit descended on each person gathered—not a few—all 120. And they were gifted with the ability to share the good news of the resurrected Christ in every known language of the world. It was a movement of the Holy Spirit that was so strong, so powerful, so complete, that it changed the course of human history. 3000 people are recorded to been baptized that day. Can you imagine? And that’s why we’re here today still speaking of this power that’s available to you and to me—not just yesterday, not just today but forever.
I think over the centuries we’ve tended to domesticate the Holy Spirit, water the Holy Spirit down a little bit. Frederick Buechner says that the Spirit has come to mean something plain and shapeless, like an unmade bed. That the Spirit, at its root, means breath: spiritus, in Latin. Breath, the very breath that symbolizes our life. That spirit equals breath equals life. And that when someone has great breath of spirit in their life that it’s infectious. They can literally breathe life into others, inspire, give life. The Holy Spirit was always intended to be infectious and we know from our own experience and the history of faith that that empowering life-giving, transforming Spirit didn’t die 2000 years ago.
This Cathedral is filled with the Saints who were made extraordinary from being ordinary people by the gift and the living into the power of the Spirit. They are in stone and glass and iron all over this Cathedral. Some Saints known, most not: ordinary people empowered to do the extraordinary.
As I was thinking about Saints lesser-known, I was reminded of a book I read some years ago called Sisters of the Spirit. It chronicles the lives of three African American women in the 19th century who became itinerant preachers and evangelists: Zilpha Elaw, Jarena Lee, Julia Foote. Zilpha Elaw was born in 1790. By the time she was 12, her mother died. Her father died two years later and she was reared in a Quaker family and she was born into a free family in Pennsylvania. Her spirituality waned in that timeframe until, as a teenager, she started to attend Methodist camp meetings that were near where she was living. And she describes how slowly but surely this light began to grow in her heart and she felt that God was calling her to do something, something with her life—her otherwise ordinary life.
And then one day at a camp meeting she saw a vision, just like Peter proclaims in his speech and preaching that day on Pentecost. She saw visions, she dreamed dreams. She was so powerfully touched by the movement of the Holy Spirit that she left the tent and preached the sermon of her lifetime. And people were touched and people were changed and people were healed, just like they talk about in the Bible. She went on because she felt led to do so and empowered to do so by the Holy Spirit, as an African American woman in the 1800s going around the New England states preaching the Good News of the resurrected Christ, the Holy Spirit that she had personally experienced in her life. She made history preaching, teaching, transforming. At the age of 50 she felt led to go across the Atlantic to England where she preached over 1000 sermons in the few years that she was there. Can you imagine the courage that took a free woman, an African-American woman in the 1800s, preaching in slave states— Maryland, Virginia—risking her own freedom, in doing so?
The Holy Spirit is available to each one of us to move us from the ordinary to the extraordinary, to make our lives not one of marking time but making meaning. That’s the gift, the gift available to you and to me. And as we look around this country and as we look around the world, surely this is the time for Christians to live into that call to be bold on behalf of God, to claim that Holy Spirit that is yours and is mine, to make a difference in this world, to touch, to transform, to heal, to bring healing and wholeness and peace and reconciliation to a world that so badly needs it.
I leave you with one question, quoting Mary Oliver, “Tell me, what do you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
Glory to God whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. Glory to God from generation to generation in the church and to Jesus Christ, forever. Amen.