The Sunday Sermon: Pentecost

Rev. Richard Hogue Jr.
June 5, 2022

            Good morning everyone, and a happy Pentecost to all! If you’ll allow me to be very frank, when I compare my own experience of Pentecosts in life to that of the original day, all of mine seem pretty ho-hum, with one exception. Five years ago, I had the extreme privilege of being an invited guest to Canterbury Cathedral, along with forty or so other newly ordained or soon to be ordained guests from around the Anglican Communion. We were part of an annual program that the mother cathedral hosts to increase relationship and dialogue across our denomination and the many nations we come from, and I loved it.

Beyond getting to live the life of a cathedral for the first time, from matins to evensong daily, I remember being able to hear from perspectives on ordained life from siblings in India, Australia, East Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa. It was a great joy to find a dear friend I had made in Hong Kong there with me, and so we were able to catch up after not seeing each other for a couple of years, as I had gone there to write about the Anglican Church in Hong Kong in seminary. For the South African’s who were there, I served as an interesting touch point, as I had lived in the Eastern Cape as an Episcopal missionary, and a couple of the other guests were from that province, and we were able to compare notes. I remember debating about human sexuality with a brother from Zimbabwe, him incredulous over our attitudes in the United States around human sexuality, and I was stymied that bride prices were still part of the traditions encouraged by the Anglican Church in Zimbabwe. The differences, the debates, and the camaraderie that were sparked there remain to me a sign and symbol of the whirling of the Holy Spirit, bring people together across multitudinous boundaries, all challenged and supported by the gift that was given that first Pentecost. Of course, the two weeks we were there included the Sunday of Pentecost, and the Cathedral was sure to use us all in the service as a sign of that day.

            But what I remember most of that Pentecost is the Dean’s sermon, and here I have to give a bit of a trigger warning for what I have to relate next, as it was wrapped around a tragedy. You see, that week there was the 2017 London Bridge attack, in which three assailants rammed a vehicle through the pedestrians on the famous bridge, and then got out on Borough High Street to begin killing other people. Eight were killed and forty-eight more were injured. It could have been far worse, as the metro police shot the assailants dead, finding their bodies wrapped in explosives. We had just been near there days before at Lambeth Palace for tea with the Archbishop of Canterbury, so while we weren’t affected in the same way as those present or British people, it was still shocking. The Dean’s sermon telegraphed the feeling many had that morning to the first Pentecost, as Jesus’ followers likely would have locked themselves in that room, fearing the torment of the religious authorities, or worse, being chased down by the Roman legions. The people in that cathedral were as afraid then as our earliest forebears in faith. I confess I feel somewhat the same now, after multiple mass shootings in the weeks leading up to this Pentecost.

            While I can no longer remember the exact words of Dean Willis, I can remember the feeling it left me with, that God can take any mess, working through us, to make meaning and life, even in the face of death itself. That is, after all, what we proclaim in our creeds, isn’t it? Despite Jesus’ death, God makes new meaning and creates new life where we might see only the end. This in no way reduces or removes the pain, frustration, anger, and righteous indignation we have in the wake of tragedy and brutality. But it does mean that we can use those feelings to empower and change the world around us, and God absolutely asks us to participate in that mission.

As we heard in the Gospel this morning, Jesus said: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace, I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

“The Spirit of truth,” I love that phrase, because to me it means the Spirit can handle so much. The truth is we are afraid of the terrible things that can happen in this world. It is also true that God asks us to confront the terror of the world, as God asks us to confront it in the symbol of the cross. The cross itself was a symbol of terrorism by the state, but God took its vile bloodlust and turned it into a symbol of renewal, the ultimate underdog story, as a backwater born and raised, itinerant rabbi upended the world forever. Pentecost is often referred to as the “birthday of the church,” and that’s appropriate. But I also think it’s the moment that the responsibility for upending the world as we know it shifts to the church, tongues of fire, confusion, and all. Where humans once built the tower of Babel to reach the heights of heaven, on Pentecost, the heights of heaven rains down to earth, helping people to hear God’s message that the world as we know it is no more. What if we were such a joyous and loving people that we are confused for drunkards as our love spills out into the streets? What if the real tragedy is that the church, as Christ’s body, doesn’t challenge the status quo, and instead of tongues and hearts of flame we are a stumbling block to the very Spirit that is to inhabit and move us? What might it mean for us to be inhabited by the Advocate, who reminds us of what Christ says?

Whatever our answers to those questions, important as they are, there is a more fundamental truth that Pentecost provides: That God loves this world, this planet, all its people and all its life, and God wants us to love this world, not because it is perfect, but because of the possibilities of new life and love that vulnerably awaits to grow in the face of all the bloodshed and wastefulness. So, here we are this Pentecost, all gathered in one room, waiting for the Spirit to consume us so that God’s love and rejuvenating power can be heard around the world again. “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

Amen.

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