The Sunday Sermon: Learning to Listen to Pentecost

What is the good of your stars and trees, your sunrise and the wind, if they do not enter into our daily lives? E.M. Forster

This quote from author E.M. Forster is one I remember every Pentecost. Because really, what good is this day of Pentecost if we don’t let it get into our lives, our very souls? What difference does it really make if we don’t put ourselves in that room with the disciples and allow ourselves to feel the rush, disorientation, absolute terror and exhilaration of it all, and allow our lives to be changed forever.

Think for a moment what it must have felt to Jesus’ disciples right after the rush of the violent wind left? You can imagine them looking at each other and asking “What just happened? Did we really speak in languages we don’t know? How could we do that? What are we to make of this? What do we do now?”
Of course when we hear the account from the Book of Acts, it sounds as if Peter instantly knew what had just happened, and was able to not only explain its theological significance but throw in some pretty good Biblical exegesis as well.

But I suspect he probably didn’t understand it quite that fast and the author of the Book of Acts may have taken some creative license in telling this story because the Holy Spirit often doesn’t operate quite that way. Things happen, and while we may somehow know they are significant, it can take a lifetime to even begin understand their meaning.

Jesus described the Holy Spirit to his disciples as the Advocate, the Spirit of Truth, who comes from God and will testify on his behalf. The one who would guide them into truth.

And as the disciples spiritual descendants, the Holy Spirit moves in our lives in the same way.
So Pentecost is the day in the Christian year in which we recall and celebrate this gift, the receiving of the Spirit of Truth, for what it really is, an entrance into a new life, an invitation to look at what happens to us, and the world we see with Pentecost eyes—for this wind is blowing all around us.
But as of late I have come to see that in order to enter into this new life, and to see with Pentecost eyes, this day also calls us to listen, to hear in new ways as well.

In what may seem contradictory on this day of rushing wind, cacophony of voices, and emphasis on the birth of the church, in order for the Spirit of Truth to not just be seen and heard but taken in, transforming us from the very core of our being, we must adopt a spirit (as it were) and practice of contemplation.

Or to put it another way, using a term we seem to hear quite a bit right now, adopting a practice of mindfulness—an awareness of the present moment.

To stop, to be quiet, and allow the Spirit of Truth to take root; to not try and immediately interpret what it is telling us or where it is leading us, but rather sit with it; let its message unfold over time. As is said in the Gospel of John, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8 NRSV).

So if there is a mantra for today, it might very well be, “Be curious.
Be curious.
What are those voices we don’t understand trying to tell us? What lessons are there in situations that catch us seriously off-guard? Or even dismay us?
What wisdom are we to glean from people we find if not necessarily unacceptable—after all we are supposed to love everyone, not necessarily like them—but certainly find their actions and what they say unacceptable?

Bishop Mathes recently sent out two reflections on the state of public discourse in our country in which he take issue with the manner in which one presidential candidate in particular, Donald Trump, has been quite divisive in his rhetoric regarding race relations, women, undocumented immigrants, and frankly just about every other candidate.

But in truth, regardless of what side we are on, what candidate (if any) we support, the rhetoric of this presidential campaign as been particularly divisive on all sides.

Thus, the Bishop argues, the candidates themselves, and the language being used, may not the problem per se, but rather, a symptom of what is going on around us.

So the question becomes, “what is going on?” What is going on that is causing so many people to be so fearful and resentful of others that this kind of divisive rhetoric resonates with them? What is this resentment and fear telling us, for certainly it goes beyond any particular political candidate, party, or political solution.

Or to put it into the context of this day, what are the winds of the Spirit of Truth telling us we should be paying attention to? How are we being called to enter into that profound contemplative place and sit with the message that’s unfolding before us? What are we to be curious about?

How are we being called to leave our places of safety, of being in a room so to speak with like-minded people, and leave that room in order to engage the world in a new way? To not let fear and resentment rule, but rather point us, as followers of Jesus, to the ways in which the world needs to be healed?
Now I know I am kinda preaching to the choir here—this Cathedral has always been a place in which justice and mercy is not only proclaimed but acted upon. Where inclusion is more than a catchphrase but a way of being church.

A place where people believe Jesus, not just believe in Jesus, when he says to care for and love one’s neighbor and respond accordingly. It is the charism of this place.

Which makes entering into this profound place of contemplation, individually and as a community so important, because of your willingness to go to the hard places following Jesus can take us to—for part of coming to understand what the Spirit may be saying about what is going on and how to be a healing presence, is willingness to be open to the fullness of the message, even when it makes us uncomfortable, even when its frightening. Especially when it is frightening.

Contemplative practice will at times reveal some difficult truths.

Fortunately, none of us have to face this these difficult truths alone. We not only have each other, but as Paul says in today’s reading from Romans, “All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.”

And again, as Jesus says in today’s Gospel. “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

We are wanted, cherished, cared for, and loved by God.

Pentecost is indeed a wild ride—it takes us to places we could never imagine on our own, and propels us to proclaim and be Jesus in ways we find disorienting, terrifying, exhilarating, changing our lives and the lives of those we meet along the way forever.

And it also calls us to sit in the eye of the storm, watching, waiting, and anticipating for the Spirit of Truth to continuously remind and teach us of all Jesus has said and continues to say.

Buddhist nun Pema Chodron puts it beautifully how we may do this. She writes, “Life’s work is to wake up, to let the things that enter into your life wake you up rather than put you to sleep. The only way to do this is to be open, be curious and develop some sense of sympathy for everything that comes along, to get to know its nature and let it teach you what it will.”

May we all be Pentecost people in which Pentecost is not just a day but a wondrous, blessed, and sacred way of life.

The Rev. Canon Allisyn Thomas 
St. Paul’s Cathedral, San Diego 
15 May 2016

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