Day of Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Lessons:

Numbers 11:24-30
Acts 2:1-21
John 20:19-23
Psalm 104:25-35, 37

 

I believe that a carpenter’s son named Jesus did indeed crack Time in half, enter this world in the guise of a squalling infant, say his piece, be slaughtered for his pains, and crack Time again on his way home. I have no real basis for this belief, and neither do you. We either believe the man or we do not, and I do, for reasons I know and do not know.

These are the words, the Creed perhaps, of the Portland writer Brian Doyle. Doyle, as many of you know, died early last Saturday morning. And his death, much like the death earlier in May of the musician, Chris Cornell, and earlier this year of the writer and radio host, Stuart McLean, is a blow to me. It is like the loss of a friend whom I never met.

Cornell, through his band, Soundgarden, provided a good part of the soundtrack for my university years. McLean, through his radio show, The Vinyl Café, taught me so much about how to talk and write about that place where comedy and sorrow intersect and holiness ensues. And Doyle. Brian Doyle, even though I don’t think he ever self-identified as a theologian, taught me so much about what we mean when we use the word “faith.”

One of the things that I particularly appreciate about Doyle’s work is that, as is evidenced in the little passage that I just shared with you, he embraced the irrationality, the thorough unprovability of faith. Somehow for Doyle, the absence of “real basis for this belief” is not a liability in Christianity but, rather, it is a feature, a strength.

I guess I am drawn to this aspect of Doyle’s writing – this part that acknowledges the inherent uncertainty of discipleship but that says “yes” to it anyway – because it is so congruent with my own experience not just of church but of life in general. When I drive or bicycle or my car around town, I feel this surge of mystification and irritation when I encounter those billboards (it feels like they are everywhere) that say something like, “Beyond reasonable doubt – Jesus is alive.”

I’m mystified and annoyed because, well, there is a totally reasonable doubt that Jesus is alive. It is totally reasonable to argue that, when the soldiers hammered the nails through his hands and drove the spear into his side, when the light drained out of his eyes, that was the last that anyone ever saw of him.

It is totally reasonable to doubt.

But still I believe.

I still believe because, the more that I live, the more that I realise that love and meaning and healing and freedom spend a lot of time hanging out in the same place as reasonable doubt, that God spends a lot of time hanging out in the same place as reasonable doubt. When Phoebe and I first embarked upon the exhausting adventure that we call parenting, we had reasonable doubts that we were qualified to raise children. But we said yes anyway. When we first moved from Canada to the United States, we had reasonable doubts that we could figure out how to function not just in a new city but a new country. But we said yes anyway. A dozen years ago, when I came to church and stood before the congregation and answered a series of staggering questions and stepped into the waters of baptism, I had reasonable doubts that I was the sort of person who was capable of being a Christian.

But I said yes anyway.

To walk into a hospital or a hospice room, not knowing what the one whom you love will look like lying in the bed, is to face reasonable doubt. To go back to school at age thirty or fifty or seventy, is to face reasonable doubt. To try to figure out how to heal, how to live fully again, after a life-shaking grief or trauma is to face reasonable doubt. To say “I love you” and not know what answer you will receive – my God, is there a doubt more reasonable and more terrifying than that one?

And yet to refuse to do these things, to keep your heart safely locked up in a box. Well, that is no life at all. To leave your life unlived is a tragedy greater than the biggest grief that there is.

A while back – and I’m just going to speak for myself here, I don’t want to be so presumptuous as to speak for anyone else – I concluded that leaving my relationship with Jesus unnamed and uncelebrated and unthanked, that leaving the presence of Jesus that I had discerned in the wider world unnamed and uncelebrated and unthanked, was to engage in a similar tragedy. That this too was a kind of unlived life. And so I risked becoming a Christian. With God’s help, with your help, I am risking becoming a Christian still. I will risk becoming a Christian for the rest of my life.

Doyle says that he believes the man – that he believes Jesus – for reasons that he knows and that he does not know. Paul famously writes that once our days are done we shall know even as we are known, that we shall see God face to face. But for now, we see through a glass – a mirror – darkly. For now, our knowing is fleeting and incomplete. For now, there are reasons that we know and reasons that we do not know.

Somehow, this incompleteness is necessary. God understands that the work of being alive, of becoming fully human, of learning how to love and how to live and how to shine, would not be possible if our lives were obvious and easy. In that scenario, there would be no learning at all because there would be no risk at all; we would be like widgets safely and passively making their way down the conveyor belt.

The term “leap of faith” is a cliché. But it’s a cliché because it names something real. Sometimes we stand on a precipice and get ready to jump. Maybe chasm is wider than we imagined, and we are not sure if our legs have the strength to propel us across. Or maybe the jump is into darkness, and we have to trust, we have to believe, that solid ground awaits us on the far side.

Every now and again we catch a glimpse, an unimpeded glimpse of the Kingdom. It can happen when we are present for the birth of a child. It can happen when we are present for the death of someone we love. It can happen when we encounter art or music or nature another kind of deep beauty. It can happen, to paraphrase the poet Lee Robinson, in the silliness and holiness of sex. It can happen in a moment of service, of sacrifice. When Taliesen Meche was pulled from the MAX train last week, dying from a stab wound inflicted by a terrorist, he said:

Tell everyone on the train that I love them.

That was an unimpeded glimpse of the Kingdom.

The story of Pentecost is the story of such a fleeting and an unimpeded glimpse. The fire comes down, the tongues are set free, everyone hears in their own language. For a moment, everything makes sense. For a moment, we don’t need the mirror. We see face to face.

And then the moment is gone. And the struggles of church and of society and of simply being a human being on this earth resume. The confusion resumes. The reasonable doubts resume.

If we let them, however, the memory of the Pentecost moments, of the Kingdom moments, will sustain through our times of lostness, our time in what scripture calls the wilderness. Their memory will be a kind of beacon on those days when meaning seems hopelessly distant, when God seems hopelessly distant.

A big part of what we do in this strange and wonderful thing that we call church is to remind one another of our Pentecost moments. Sometimes, when I forget, you remind me. Sometimes, when you forget, the rest of us remind you. We remind one another that God is with us, and that God will show us the way home.

I believe that a carpenter’s son named Jesus did indeed crack Time in half, enter this world in the guise of a squalling infant, say his piece, be slaughtered for his pains, and crack Time again on his way home. I have no real basis for this belief, and neither do you. We either believe the man or we do not, and I do, for reasons I know and do not know.