“Be Brave”

June 4, 2017 – Pentecost Sunday: May God’s words alone be spoken, may God’s words alone be heard.  Amen.

I love the story we celebrate on Pentecost Sunday – you can’t get more dramatic than this – rush of violent winds, tongues of fire (which always sounded to me like the name of a rock band), people thinking folks are drunk.  And on Pentecost Sunday, some churches pull out all the stops – wind chimes, balloons, you name it.  I heard somebody jokingly (I hope) suggest the ushers carry leaf blowers…and then (wisely) say – “but you might want to avoid flame throwers – just sayin’.”  Welcome to Pentecost!

But while I love the drama of the story in the Acts account, where we hear that the Holy Spirit alit upon the disciples, carrying them into their life in Christ, it is in the gospel where we get an even more deeper understanding of what is happening.  The NRSV that we read says that Jesus “breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” But here’s the twist.  The Greek verb used for the breathing Jesus is doing is the same one used in Genesis when God breathed life into the human creation of Adam.  Jesus is breathing the life – his divine life – into the apostles.  And very much the same thing happened in the Pentecost moment in Acts too.  The divine breath of God was poured into the earliest apostles that Pentecost – the indwelling of God in the fully human. 

I think that is why this is known as the birthday of the church, because it is, like that other birthday we celebrate in December, a moment when the divine and the human intersect and create a new life.  No – the apostles weren’t suddenly transfigured into different identities.  They were still Peter, Mary, James, Martha, John…and all the rest.  But this divine breath of God, this indwelling of the Holy Spirit in, on, and around them, was transformative in such a way that they were no longer the same – and never would be.  They were given a new life…and it wasn’t going to be an easy one either. 

Yesterday, I was privileged to lead the annual retreat for those in the process toward ordination as priests and deacons in our church.  We met at the Community of St. John Baptist – the Episcopal convent in Mendham where I am an Associate.  The bishop joined us for part of it too.  It was a day of soul tending – of listening to God who seeks us.  Here was this group of men and women, some just made postulants (those called to ordination go through stages: Nominee, Postulant, Candidate, Ordinand, Deacon or Priest).  Some were nearing the end of that part of their journey and the beginning of another. 

What I got from this experience was great hope for the future of the church – our future – because I heard in their reflections people with discerning hearts – Spirit led people.  They came from all walks of life – some with prior careers, some with families, some younger and just starting out – in other words…people just like you – just like the apostles, and the prophets before them. 

One of the key themes of the retreat was a focus on the spiritual life through the work of the late Henri Nouwen, the renowned theologian and professor at Yale Divinity School.  Nouwen once wrote, “When we speak about the Holy Spirit, we speak about the breath of God, breathing in us. The Greek word for “spirit” is pneuma, which means “breath.” [and…is a feminine noun by the way] We are seldom aware of our breathing. It is so essential for life that we only think about it when something is wrong with it. The Spirit of God is like our breath. God’s spirit is more intimate to us than we are to ourselves. We might not often be aware of it, but without it we cannot live a “spiritual life.” It is the Holy Spirit of God who prays in us, who offers us the gifts of love, forgiveness, kindness, goodness, gentleness, peace, and joy. It is the Holy Spirit who offers us to the life that death cannot destroy. Let us always pray: “Come, Holy Spirit, come.”

“Come, Holy Spirit, come.”  Or, as we sing whenever we process to the font for a baptism, as we will do for our little twins Brennan and Sean Boyd this morning, the Latin: Veni Sancte Spiritus – Come Holy Spirit. 

Notice the words “Come Holy Spirit.”  It is an intentional invitation of the divine into our lives, into our hearts.  That is why it is also chanted at ordinations to the priesthood at the moment when the bishop, and all the clergy gathered, lay their hands on the ordinand.  It is a profound part of any priest’s life – a time when we experience what is called ontological change.

Someone once posted this question on a website dedicated to church matters “What is this ontological change we hear about in ordinations?”  The answer “If I could explain it, it wouldn’t be what it is.”  True, but that is kinda like when our parents would respond with “Because I said so,” right?  But, suffice it to say, it is something that changes us indelibly, that marks us inwardly.  And – it happens not only at ordinations, but at baptism and confirmation too. It will happen to Brennan and Sean – and to everyone of us who invites it.  It is the very essence of Pentecost.

We are transformed – ontologically changed – by the indwelling of the Spirit – the breath of God in us…but for what?

At Pentecost we celebrate the breathing in of the Spirit in us – birthing us to new life as the church that we are, not the birth of an institution.  When we forget that, we become a people that has stopped inviting the Spirit – because the one thing we will find out when we invite Her in is that this divine breath of God refuses to be confined to our nice neat churches.  The Spirit is on the move all around the world.  In fact, it is the Holy Spirit that is always inviting US really, not the other way around.  Always calling us to follow Her in the work God is doing in the world – a world that is filled with all of God’s creation – a world filled with a divinely created mosaic of diversity – of people, of creatures, and of the earth they inhabit.

And so that is why this Pentecost story is so very powerful.  When the apostles in Acts were filled with the Holy Spirit, they began to speak in other languages.  Now there are some folks today who believe that the point of Pentecost is to speak in tongues, or at least in some other languages.  There is nothing wrong with that, but that, I think, misses the larger point.  It isn’t about languages really, or at least not JUST about that, but about drawing the circle wider – being inclusive.

Gathered in the city were people from all over because Pentecost was, and is, the Jewish Festival of Weeks, or Shavu’ot.  They were from differing nations, cultures, and languages.  And the Spirit was directing the earliest followers of Jesus to throw wide the doors – not by making all of them become like the apostles, but by giving the apostles the ability to communicate directly with those who were different.  God was making it clear that the first step for any newly birthed church was to break down the barriers between people – not expect them to figure out how to be more like us – but allow them to be their uniquely created selves – inviting them in just the way they are. Because all of them – no matter what language they speak – are beloved by God. 

Sadly for many centuries, the church seemed to want to put that part of the Spirit into a bottle and shelve it.  We valued dogma over compassion, doctrine over justice, tradition over love.  We could not imagine that God might consider others worthy of the same relationship we had through Christ.  We became like the elders in the text from Numbers in which they were with Moses on the mountaintop and are given the gift of prophesy.  They thought that was awesome…until they found out folks down below also were given that gift too.  They complain to Moses about it, and he said “Are you jealous…? Would that all [God’s] people were prophets, and that God’s spirit would be in them!” 

Oh, so I wish this were true today, because we need more prophets in the world today – lay prophets, clergy prophets, anybody willing to stand up and be heard.

Because today, this exclusion, this selfishness, isn’t limited to the church – in fact, we have begun a long journey of atonement, reconciliation, and invitation – with much more work to do to be sure.  No, today it is our nation’s elected leaders who claim to be people of faith, but their heart is far from it. They are the ones who should set an example in a country that has every reason to be gracious and grateful.  And yet, they believe that the way to be great is to be small.  That our planets resources are to be ravaged and monetized for the sake of a single country at the expense of the world.  [And just on the subject, can we please stop treating Climate Change like it’s a religion? You don’t “believe” or “not believe” in it. You are either educated on the facts, or ignorant of them. Period.]  Honestly, the level of exclusivity, of selfishness, of ignorance to our purpose in this life is incomprehensible.  It is inhumane, and devoid of the Holy Spirit working in them – not because She isn’t trying – but because their hearts are hardened to what God is offering. 

Pentecost is our wake up call – our birth – that implores us all to breathe deeply the divine breath of God – breathe the divine Spirit into our hearts – and let God birth us into being agents of transformation in the world.  See, that’s the catch of this whole Pentecost thing.  It doesn’t make life easy.  No, it draws us into a life that will challenge us to the core – but it will be a life worth living, a life worthy of the divine breath coursing through us.

“New York Times columnist David Brooks recently challenged new college graduates to eschew the American obsession with self-fulfillment and instead find themselves in service to others by making and keeping what he described as sacred commitments and by rising to the challenges they discover all around and outside of them. “Most successful […] people,” he writes, “don’t look inside and then plan a life. They look outside and find a problem, which summons their life…. Most people don’t form a self and then lead a life. They are called by a problem, and the self is constructed gradually by their calling.”[1]

To put this in focus for the church – the church, to be alive in Christ, cannot look inside and plan how to be the church.  We must be guided by the Holy Spirit who summons our lives and calls us to look outside – and to get out there too.  The earliest apostles certainly did not expect to take their gospel to those who were so different than they – but that is where they were led.  They did not originally think it was a gospel for anyone but Jews, but Paul and Peter were led by God to show them otherwise. 

And because of that message of Pentecost, it is appropriate that today we will dedicate our Peace Pole.  A Peace Pole is a hand-crafted monument that displays the message and prayer May Peace Prevail on Earth on each of its sides, usually in different languages. Ours has the following languages of the people and faiths in our community: English, Arabic, Creole, German, Hebrew, Korean, Portuguese, Spanish, and Braille. There are tens of thousands of Peace Poles in 180 countries all over the world serving as constant reminders for us to visualize and pray for world peace.  This one will also remind us of our calling to inclusivity in our Spirit led work in the world – essentially our speaking in the languages of those around us a Pentecost message of hope for the world.  And God knows, we need peace in the world now, more than ever – as we pray once more for London – yet another community shattered by violence.

We are in a Pentecost moment – we can choose to shutter the doors of this meeting room we call the church and ignore the Spirit’s thundering at the windows, imploring us out into the world, or we can throw open the doors, and proclaim loudly in whatever language of love we can find that everyone is beloved of God – that our planet is for all God’s people, not a select few – and to truly work for peace among all people. 

I want to share with you my parting words to the postulants yesterday – be brave.  Be brave. 

Be brave enough to open your hearts, to invite the Spirit at work in the world in – to breathe deeply that holy breath of God. 

Be brave enough to stand up for the rights of all people to drink clean water, breath fresh air, eat food not filled with toxins, and live without fear of violence.

Be brave to tell the world that God loves everyone – gay, straight, Muslim, Jew, black, white, male, female – everyone – no exceptions.

Be brave – because the world cannot wait anymore for someone else to be a prophet, or rely on only a select few.

So, breathe in, breathe deeply, and be the divinity bearing, Spirit led, Pentecost people we are  – in a world longing to be seen, to be heard, to feel

peace, to be loved.


For the audio from the 10:30am service, click here:

[1] Sourced by David Lose from WorkingPreacher.

Rev. Diana L. Wilcox
Christ Church in Bloomfield & Glen Ridge
June 4, 2017
Pentecost Sunday
1st Reading – Numbers 11:24-30
Psalm 104:25-35, 37
2nd Reading – Acts 2:1-21
Gospel –  John 20:19-23