Year B, Pentecost Acts 2:1-11, Romans 8:22-27
May 20, 2018
There are some weeks–and I know that we have all experienced them, where we just feel a little beaten down by life. It may be one huge serious thing, it may be 1000 small things that build around us until we feel suffocated… It could be anything. It could be everything. It might be something personal, or something more global. For instance, this has been a difficult week in terms of the news. In the beginning of the week, we were bombarded with reports from Gaza. It is a land that seems to know no peace, a land that every major religion prays for, a land where our Lord and Savior lived, died and was resurrected. A land where over 2000 were injured in one day this past week. In our nation, our week ended with yet another school shooting. This time, 10 students were killed by a 17 year old boy. The carnage never seems to end in our schools.
While our week ended with the royal wedding and the uplifting and encouraging sermon by our presiding bishop, I still found myself struggling to find the good in the good news. It was especially challenging, because this week is Pentecost. It’s the day we mark the coming of the Holy Spirit and to some extent, the birth of the church. We wear red. We talk about fire and light. We eat cake. It’s supposed to be about joy, right???
And yet, the biblical description of Pentecost is a little more complicated than the birthday of our Christian Church. The fire we talk about in the Pentecost story is not created by birthday candles. The fire in the Pentecost story is tongues of fire over people’s heads. When I hear about tongues of fire resting on people’s heads, I often wonder why people did not duck. Would that not be the most natural reaction to fierce winds and tongues of fire descending on your head? The first thing I would do would be to dive for cover. Had they not yet heard of stop, drop and roll?
All the paintings that depict the story of Pentecost have the people looking serene. Some look almost bored, like there was nothing strange about flames hovering over their heads. A couple of the paintings depict people looking a little surprised, even scared, but that is certainly the exception. And there is not one that I could find where people are actually ducking. If someone could find me one, I would be most appreciative.
I cannot help but wonder what gave those people in the Pentecost story the presence of mind to stand still, to know that there was nothing to fear. Perhaps the Holy Spirit had some sort of calming effect. If the Holy Spirit could give them all the ability to speak in other languages, surely the Holy Spirit could also provide some sort of natural sedative…like lavender infused wind. However, for some reason I have an easier time imaging every person speaking in different languages than people being calm when tongues of fire were resting on their heads.
The thing is, they had every reason to be afraid. The scary truth is that the Holy Spirit brings change and transformation. Those are anxiety provoking things. No amount of calming lavender will take that away. The only time the Holy Spirit is not terrifying is when we let the flames just hover over our heads (like in the paintings) rather than break into our hearts.
But the intention of the Spirit is never simply to hover. In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he wrote, “And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit…” Earlier in Romans, Paul wrote: “…hope does not disappoint us because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”
That all sounds great, and it is very lovely imagery…but what does it mean? The text almost makes it sound like we are just passive recipients. God searches our heart. God’s love is poured into our hearts. It almost seems like we don’t have to do any work…we just sit around and wait for the dancing flames. Actually, there is something we can do—or rather something we can’t do. We can’t duck. We can’t run for cover. We can’t hide behind something that is safe and secure, like the brick walls of a church, or willful ignorance that may shield us from pain, or fear that keeps us from taking risks.
When it comes to the Holy Spirit, nothing is safe from its violent winds or tongues of fire. It does not discriminate in what it chooses to transform. That makes it sound as though it is unstoppable. However, this is not the case. There is one thing that can stop the transformative power of the Holy Spirit, and that is our hard and uncompromising hearts. In order for God to search our heart….in order for God’s love to be poured into our hearts, we have to open our hearts.
People always talk about broken hearts like they are a bad thing. It’s true, they are painful, but they are necessary. I do not know about you, but when I have weeks like this, weeks when the small things or the very big things threaten to tear me down, I have a tendency to bury the pain. Sometimes I want to ignore the bad or thought provoking news and watch reality TV or read fashion magazines. Sometimes I do. But then there are weeks when I can’t, because I have to preach to you all. So here is what I did this week. I read the news. I cried. I cried a lot and watched Bishop Curry’s sermon about love and then I cried some more.
And then I prayed that the Holy Spirit would touch all your hearts when my words were not enough. I even prayed that your hearts would break a little. I believe that we have two options when our hearts break—when we face pain and fear. We can sew them back up tight, maybe even encase them in a hard shell. Or we can just piece them back together, leaving the heart cracked, but much more open than before. Because if we leave those cracks, those tiny imperfections, we leave more space for God’s love to break through.
Those people at Pentecost…they had every reason to be afraid. But it was not the flames or the wind that should have scared them. It was what would come after, that should have scared them the most. When the wind died down, the flames disappeared, and the great crowd dissipated, their lives were forever changed. I don’t think the Holy Spirit provided them with the presence of mind to stay calm. I believe the Holy Spirit gave them something far greater, courage and hope to stand still and open their hearts to something new and different. My prayer for all of you is that when the wind comes and the flame burns just a little too hot, that you will find the courage to stand still…to lean into the wind and the flame, knowing that God may let you fall, may even let you get burned a little, but will make sure that whatever hardship you might face will bring you closer to the person who God created you to be.