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Guest Preacher for Pentecost — Rev. Kayla Bonewell, from Church of the Open Arms, UCC and Cathedral of Hope, UCC in Oklahoma City
You had thought that fire only consumed, only devoured, only took for itself, leaving merely ash and memory of something you had thought, if not permanent, would be long enough, enduring enough, to be nearly eternal. So when you felt the scorch on your lips, the searing in your heart, you could not at first believe that flame could be so generous, that when it came to you — you, in your sackcloth and sorrow — it did not come to consume, to take still more than everything. What surprised you most were not the syllables that spilled from your scalded, astonished mouth —though that was miracle enough, to have words burn through what had been numb, to find your tongue aflame with a language you did not know you knew —no, what came as greatest gift was to be so heard in the place of your deepest silence, to be so seen within the blazing, to be met with such completeness by what the fire gives.
Today, near the 2000thbirthday of the Christian church, give or take a few decades, we retell the birth narrative of this amazing community known to us as Christianity.
This is the story of our birth. It appeared that God was pregnant, and ready to deliver a new child who would be named “The Way,” or in later years, would earn the nickname “Christianity.” This was not God’s firstborn, as God had already given birth many times over. God had carried to full term the galaxies, solar systems, and planets. The water, air, fire, and soil of the Earth. The creatures both crawling, swimming, and winged. God had also birthed compassionate communities time and again; the Buddhists who were taught how to alleviate the suffering of sentient beings, the Jewish folk through the descendants of Abraham and Sarah, and many other tribes and peoples, too numerous to recount within this birth narrative. But, on the eve of our birth, people from all over the land were gathered together in one place for a special occasion. They were gathered to celebrate the Jewish festival of Pentecost. The word “Pentecost” came from the Greek word for “fiftieth.” Fifty days after Moses told Pharaoh to “let my people go,” after the Hebrew’s exodus from Egypt and slavery, after they watched their oppressors disappear from sight after crossing through the Red Sea, fifty days after all of that, Moses received the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. So, the people were gathered from all over to commemorate that day when God had given them instructions for how to be God’s people, how to live together with compassionate. This festival of Pentecost has been known by other names as well. The Feast of Weeks, the Day of First Fruits, or Shavuot (Shav-u-ot), but no matter what they called it, God choose this gathering to become the day of birth for the Christian church.
It’s unclear whether they knew that God was pregnant; God was certainly showing, but as we learn through experience, it can be impolite to assume pregnancy. Many tell-tale signs were apparent, none the less. For one, Jesus had promised that God would be sending them a helper, an Advocate, the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ proclamation in the 14thchapter of John, verse 6, “I will ask Abba, who will give you another Advocate to be with you forever,” had became the equivalent of a positive pregnancy test. New life was more than just a gleam in the eye. Another indication of God’s pregnancy had to do with the cycle of life and death. We don’t always notice how the two are connected, but new birth regularly rises up after the death and passing of a loved one. It had been almost two months since the crucifixion of God’s beloved son, Jesus, whom they called “The Christ.”
So, when the Feast of Pentecost came, without warning, God’s water broke, and there was a sound like a strong gale force that filled the entire building. Like wildfire, the Holy Spirit spread throughout the people. After they were filled to the brim and overflowing with spirit, the people stood face to face and suddenly, where there had been confusion, there was now understanding. Where there had been discord, there was now unity. Where there had been distance, there was now embrace. It was all so glorious and unheard of; many thought it must be the effect of alcohol, but that was not the case. Although folks had come from different zip codes, economic status,’ educational experiences, and cultural understandings, everyone was empowered to respond to one another, not as “other” or “foreigner,” but as respected and beloved equals. All were gifted with the motivation and ability to meet one another where they were. To speak in the language and manner with which someone else was most accustomed.
Some rightfully asked, “What’s going on here.” What are we bearing witness to? That’s when Peter stood up, with Jesus’ other eleven understudies, and spoke with bold urgency. He recounted the ancient promises from the prophet Joel; “God’s spirit will erupt in a birth blazing fire. A quenching holiness that can be poured again and again upon creation, gifting it with marvel and miracle. You will know that a fresh batch of spirit has appeared whenever young folks, your very sons and daughters, begin to speak up and speak out. Whenever your elders hear God’s prompting and wisdom within their nightly REM cycles. This pouring out of God’s spirit is never discriminating. The spirt both drips and burns within the first and the last. The least and the most. The little and the large. Even those whom we discount, leave out, silence, or ignore have received barrel-fulls of holiness. So, if you want to see true wonders above and below, then you will have to face one another and see God’s spirit emanating from every living being. Call each other by your true name, which is beloved. Once you do this, my saving, healing, restoring, and redeeming power will be ignited.” That day, after God’s spirit spoke through Peter, three thousand were baptized, and the Christian church’s birth certificate was officially signed, sealed, and delivered.
Happy Birthday Church. Ours is a powerful story, and as is tradition on birthdays, we can’t help but stand against the kitchen doorframe and record how much we’ve grown this past year. Our growth is not measured in tick marks of tallness, but rather by a depth of heart, a wideness of welcome, a healing of humanity.
In the center of my mother’s bible are hand-written notes about the progress and milestones of her family. The date of her child’s first steps, a report about the last baby tooth placed underneath a pillow. What will you write down in the center of your Bible this year, regarding the church’s growth. A note about a new ministry meeting the needs of the neighborhood? An injustice confronted? A child nourished? A stranger turned friend?
At birthdays, we also look at what has not yet come to pass. When we’re young, we think by age such and such, we will know everything. Then of course, when we reach that age, we look around and think, “Really? This doesn’t feel like I thought that it would. Surely I should know more than I do by this age.”
At the age of 2000, one might think that church should have it all together. That we would have perfected our practices of faith. That good news would be in abundance for the poor, release would be readily available for those who are bound, that the oppressed would be free from burden, and everyone would have the ability to see clearly.
We are not yet too big for our britches, as we still have more maturing to do. Today is not only Pentecost, the church’s birthday, but it is also Mental Health Sunday. Since 1949 the month of May has been set aside as a time to raise awareness and educate the public about mental health and un-wellness.
In the beginning, the church was supposed to be a place where you were truly seen, for all that you had experienced, endured, overcome, and sometimes still struggled with. But over time, it became a place to dress up for. A place to bring one’s tidied-up-self, to show up looking all put together. This practice is not one of faith, but of falsehood. Jeff Brown, author, filmmaker and grounded spiritualist, says this.
Quote “So many people get judged when they refuse to put their pain away. They get judged for showing it, for speaking it, for insisting on sharing their memories of abuse with those they know. I am not talking about those overwhelming strangers with their stuff—I am talking about legitimate sharings with those they are connected with in daily life. All too often, they are fed one repressive message or another: “Don’t look back,” “What’s done is done,” “Don’t be a victim,” “Your feelings are an illusion,” “Be strong.” What is ironic about this is that those who insist on embodying and expressing their feelings are actually the courageous ones—unwilling and unable to live a false life. Their stuff is breaking through their defenses because they are tired of carrying the weight of buried truths. They want a healthier and more authentic life. Those who seek to shame their revealings are actually less courageous, turning to repressive mantras in an effort to bypass their own unresolved feelings and memories. If they can shut others down, they can remain shut down themselves. But shut down doesn’t take us anywhere good. If we don’t deal with our stuff, it deals with us. May we all speak our truths, before our buried truths destroy us. Out with the old, in with the true.” End Quote. https://www.facebook.com/SOULSHAPING/posts/10156792265745982
I think on our list of birthday goals during our next trip around the sun, we might benefit from vowing to fully see one another. Because to truly be seen is healing. And to suffer in silence is harming. Mental health and un-wellness is one of those conditions that our culture turns its back on. Something that gets whispered about, shame piled, or swept under the rug, because we don’t always know how to treat it, fix it, heal it, or live with it. But from our sacred birth story, we are given one of the most healing salves in all the world. The gift of soaking in God’s Spirit. To recognize that spirit poured out upon all around us. To turn face to face and truly see one another as beloved. When we do this, we are able to communicate in a language understood by all; the language of love, respect, dignity, and equality.
I did not awake early enough on Saturday morning to watch the royal wedding of Harry and Meghan, but I did hear the wedding sermon given by The Most Reverend Michael Bruce Curry, presiding bishop of the American Episcopal Church. His homily focused on the redemptive power of love, which the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King said will make of this old world a new one. He noted the impact that harnessing the power of fire has had upon humankind. Fire, that symbol of Pentecost. Rev. Curry preached, quote, “Fire, to a great extent, made human civilization possible. Fire, made it possible to cook food…to heat warm environments…there was no Bronze, Age without fire. No Iron Age without fire. No Industrial Revolution without fire. The advances of science and technology are greatly dependent on the human ability and capacity to take fire and use it for human good.” The Rev. compared the enormous impact of the harnessing of fire to the great healing our world couldexperience if we were able to capture the energy of another kind of fire, the energy of love.
Hear his words, “When love is the way, unselfish, sacrificial, redemptive…then no child will go to bed hungry in this world ever again. When love is the way, we will let justice roll down like a mighty stream and righteousness like an ever-flowing brook. When love is the way, poverty will become history. When love is the way, the Earth will be a sanctuary. When love is the way, we will lay down our swords and shields, down by the riverside, to study war no more. When love is the way, there’s plenty good room…for all of god’s children, because when love is the way, we actually treat each other well, like we are actually family. When love is the way, we know that god is the source of us all and we are brothers and sisters, children of god.” https://www.townandcountrymag.com/society/tradition/a20754692/royal-wedding-sermon-michael-curry-full-transcript/
Sounds like a vision of Pentecost to me. May love be ourway during this next trip around the sun. Amen.