Pentecost Homily by Robb Beck


On Pentecost Sunday 2013, Grace parishioner Robb Beck shared his reflection on the question, “What is the Spirit saying to the church?”

To think about the Spirit is to think materially, about bodies (Eugene Rogers).

“And a tongue rested on each of them.”

Anyone who has heard a sermon or two by Father Stephen or Mother Esme very quickly learns the power of stories and the role story plays within the greater life of Grace.

And so on this Pentecost day, I can’t help but think how stories and the Holy Spirit might interact.

Just recently both my Grandparents passed away within 9 days of one another, following a marriage of 67 years. It just so happens that my Grandmother was one of the world’s best storytellers. She could take any mundane, everyday event and turn into an epic saga, replete with character development and intricate plot lines; and no story, it seemed was allowed to end without a thundering, dramatic climax. And so I’ve been thinking a lot about her story and the stories she told me.

I recall one particular story about the movement and form of the Holy Spirit. My Grandmother was a child both of the dust bowl and great depression, and at one point the family was reduced to living in a tent on their Texas farm. During their difficult life my great-grandfather had found a “holy-roller” church, as Grandmother described it. You know the type…The kind of church where congregants roll around the floor and frequently speak in tongues. (And on this day I wonder what these holy-rollers would think of our tongues of fire, whether they would be impressed.)

After many years and after her own form of faith began to take shape, my Grandmother joined the Lutheran church. One day she decided to invite my great-grandfather to a Sunday service.

Apparently, it did not go as planned.

As still a proud member of the Pentecostal church, he was not afraid of expressing his frustration with the lackluster Lutherans. “Ila, these people have no Spirit!” he thundered – a statement that, from his perspective, seems fair. My Grandmother, who at this point was quite taken by the quiet rhythms of the Lutheran liturgy responded, “but Dad, look at that person over there; the one silently kneeling in prayer before the altar, the tears coming down her cheek. How can you say that that person lacks the Spirit?”

In wisdom unbeknownst to her, my Grandmother was not simply offering, I think, the somewhat obvious point that we all worship God differently, each in our own way, true as this may be. She seemed rather to be saying something a little more profound, a little more subtle. As if she was trying to say, through some strange amalgamation of Pentecostalism and Lutheranism, that the Spirit does not float free of bodies in some ether, but rests, sits, inhabits us. “If you’re going to think about the Spirit, it won’t do to think Spiritually,” I imagine my Grandmother saying in her dramatic, Texas form, “you’ve got to think materially, the Spirit as resting within not as simply floating above” (a proleptic paraphrase of the Anglican theologian, Eugene Rogers).

Today my mind then rushes immediately back to Acts: “and a tongue rested on each of them.” The Greek word used here, “kathezo,” translated as “rested,” means to sit, to fix one’s abode, to settle down. It’s a shocking thought. We go from tongues of fire, apparent chaos, we’re told of onlookers who think the disciples drunk, to simply “it rested, sat, on each of them.” In other words, the Spirit didn’t zap, shock or arrest the group, it simply rested on them, with them. And they could speak to one another.

Good Bible readers that we are, we recall that the last time there was mass confusion over language was from the Tower of Babel. But this time, rather than the diabolic and intricate planning of humankind at its worst, we have the Spirit peacefully renarrating human hubris. We have the tongues of fire, but tongues of fire that do not stand in opposition to our bodies, but honor the dignity of concrete, material existence. Tongues of fire that abide within us, that rest upon us.

What might this mean? What is the Spirit saying today or what form does it take?

I think it’s notable that we are given very little data in Scripture and in tradition that the Spirits zaps us into submission or that is somehow penetrates our minds/bodies via osmosis, or that it solely resides in conscious feelings.

What we are told about the Spirit, where we can be sure it’s acting, is it’s concrete manifestations, in the water of our baptism, in the bread that falls in our hands, in the wine we drink. It is all so very embodied, it is all so tangible. In a word, it is all so non-spiritual.

S, to see the Holy Spirit in tongues of fire, but also in the simply repetitive movements of the embodied liturgy. To feel the Spirit move as we kneel at the altar, as bow as the cross processes, as the bread is dropped into our hands, as we drink Christ blood. It’s all so embodied, so earthly, so fleshly.

Again, I see my Grandmother before me, before her Father, and indeed, before us here at Grace. “If you want to think about the Spirit, it won’t do to think ‘Spiritually’; you have to think materially, concretely.”

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