The Day of Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

June 9, 2019 Pentecost

Lessons:

Genesis 11:1-9

Acts 2:1-21

John 14:8-17, (25-27)

Psalm 104:25-35, 37

How shall we tell the story of the people who build the tower with its peak in the heavens?

Today, I’d like to wonder with you about understanding this story as a folk tale or, if you prefer, as a parable. Folk tales have morals, sometimes they even end with the storyteller saying, And the moral of the story is…

And the moral of the story is… Don’t touch other people’s porridge or Don’t talk to strange wolves, no matter how charming they may be. And parables have questions, questions that, somehow, always prove to be just a little bigger than our answers. The folk tale or the parable about the tower built up into the heavens: it ends with a moral or with a question to which the encounter that we call Pentecost then responds.

The folk tale goes like this.

Once upon a time there was a city. And in it there was a rich man. The man figured out how to make money when he was young and across his life he used that money to create still more money. He needed nothing, he wanted nothing. When he would sit down for a meal he would not say thanks to God or to the land or to any other human beings. He would look at the food on his plate and say, I did this. I paid for it myself. I don’t owe anyone anything.

In his factories, the man’s many employees toiled away making iPhones and Instant Pots, and in his hotels, his many other employees toiled away, going the extra mile for truly excellent customer service. The man would look at everything that belonged to him, and everyone who belonged to him, and he would not say thanks to God or to the land or to any other human beings. He would hold his Instant Pot and he would say, I did this. I paid for it myself. I don’t owe anyone anything.

It was a really nice Instant Pot.

But something was troubling the man. Even though people kept bringing him meals and kept on making him stuff and kept on cleaning his hotels, he had the strangest idea that no one liked him very much.

How could that be possible?

The idea that he was less than immensely popular, that the smiles on his employees’ faces when they met him were forced and false, that the people whom he called his friends would remain at his parties exactly as long as his money lasted and no longer, was an idea that began to keep him awake at night.

And so the man read several books, he watched several TV shows, he retained several very expensive consultants. And he started to notice that a great many people who seemed to be happy and who seemed to have friends said something that went like this:

I love the Lord my God with all my heart, and all my soul, and all my mind. And I love my neighbour as myself.

Not all of the people used exactly those words. But the man had the sense that they meant the same thing.

Now, the rich man found the idea of God strange. Because in stories that he heard, it was God who had made everyone and everything. And the man knew that no one had made him. He was a self-made man. This problem notwithstanding, he wanted to meet God. And so he told all of his employees in his factories to stop building and all of his employees in his hotels to stop cleaning and all of them to get out their shovels and their hammers.

I, he told them, am going to build a tower.

So start digging and hammering.

And so his employees began. And day after day, as the rich man watched, the tower got higher and higher until at last it reached up into heaven itself. On that day the rich man ordered all of his employees out of the building and he ascended to the top in his private elevator and there he stood in his private, heavenly penthouse. He looked around and he said: I did this. I paid for it myself. I don’t owe anyone anything.

And then he added:

Well, God, I am here in heaven. Appear to me now.

But God did not appear. And so the man tried again.

This is the tallest and the best tower in the world. So, God, appear to me now.

But God did not appear. And the man became impatient.

God, he said, Don’t you know who I am? Appear to me now!

But God did not appear. The man was alone in what was supposed to be heaven. He opened his window and looked down upon the people, many of whom were his employees. Across the height of the tower the sound of their laughter and their joy and their words floated up to him.

And the rich man had the oddest impression that the people down below were speaking a language that he could not understand.

Chapter Two.

Years passed and the rich man lived in the tower alone. He grew old. Until one day his doctor came to him and said, You don’t have long. Soon you will die.

And the rich man said, I would rather not. How much will it cost not to die?

His doctor cleared his throat nervously. And the rich man said to him in a hoarse, small voice: I did this. I paid for it myself. I don’t owe anyone anything. I will not die.

But even the rich man knew that this was not true.

And so one day, early in the morning, the rich man left the tower. Out he went onto the streets where the people spoke a language that he could not understand. He wandered the streets until he was lost, until even the tower that reached into heaven was out of sight.

A passerby saw the old man, lost and alone. And so she approached the old man to ask if he needed help. But the old man could not understand the words that the passerby said. And the passerby could not understand when the rich and old man replied, when he said:

I am looking for God. And I am so, so lost. I cannot search any more on my own.

And there the two of them might have stood, both wanting to understand, neither being able to.

Except that in that moment something like fire appeared among them. And everyone began to talk at once and the man could understood all of it, all of it. He heard everyone’s joy, everyone’s sadness, everyone’s grief, everyone’s hope.

The passerby said to him: This is the moral at the end of the story. This is the question at the end of the parable.

For the first time in years, maybe for the first time since he was a child, the man giggled. He giggled until he wept and his tears fell down his cheeks and mixed in with the holy flames.

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.

Pentecost Homily by Jan Elfers

On Pentecost Sunday 2013, Grace parishioner Jan Elfers shared her reflection on the question, “What is the Spirit saying to the church?”


The Christian mystic Mechthild exclaims, “The day of my spiritual awakening was the day I saw–and knew I saw–all things in God, and God in all things.” When we see this, we see everything anew. For most of my life, when I have prayed, I have imagined a God “out there and up there somewhere.” Certainly God is everywhere. But the scriptures tell us today that God is not only out there—but IN HERE. The Holy Spirit abides with you and IN YOU. “On that day you will know that you are in me and I am in you,” John’s gospel says.

When we fully embrace the God in us, we will be utterly transformed. And transformed people transform the world. This is kind of scary stuff—violent wind, tongues of fire, visions and dreams.  So Jesus calls us to courage when he prays, “do not to be troubled or afraid,” and Paul in Romans encourages us to not live in fear, but to claim our inheritance. Fr. Richard Rohr, in his most recent book. “The Immortal Diamond,” states that the purpose of religion is tell us and to keep reminding us over and over again of who we are.  All things are in God, and God is in all things. This is the absolute reference point from which we begin—it is the immortal diamond within us. The paradox of this truth is that we are at the same time precious and unique as we are also universally the same as every other created human being. So in each encounter we must acknowledge our shared sacredness. There is no other way to live our lives together in peace than in this reality.

I was in San Francisco recently caring for my daughter, Molly, who had broken her foot and needed surgery. She lives in the heart of downtown and I soon realized that parking spots in the city are as valuable as your firstborn child. You have to move your car every two hours or you get a ticket! It can make you crazy. I spent 10 days, all day long, looking for the next 2-hour parking space! Ridiculous right? One hectic morning after I got my daughter to work I realized I had forgotten my computer in her apartment. I had to race back to her place to pick it up because I was working remotely.  Of course when I returned, there was no place to park. I stopped the car in the driveway and tore inside. I hadn’t been gone 30 seconds when I heard someone laying on the horn. I grabbed the computer and ran back to my car. An older man got out of his car and without making eye contact, marched passed me, pointed at my car and yelled, “Don’t you EVER park in MY spot.” And I just broke down. “Where is your humanity? I cried. I am caring for my daughter—she just had surgery and can’t get along without my help. Do you have children? Have they ever been in crisis?” He stopped, turned his head, looked in my eyes and said, “Yes, I have four children, and I lost one of them last week.” We were both speechless for what felt like a very long time. Finally I replied, “I am so sorry. Then you must understand.” We stood there together in silence and then returned to our cars and drove away.

What happened there? In the course of the stuff of life this stranger and I discovered the God in each other in the recognition of our shared suffering. This situation wasn’t anything more than probably happens to all of us daily. An encounter gives us the opportunity to be changed. When we believe that God lives in all of us, a shift happens in our soul.  Jesus says,  “The one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these…” Life becomes one meeting after another with the God in each of us—we can’t see anything but sacredness in the parent who worries about feeding his family, in the mother grieving the senseless death of her child in war, in the desperation of the person with cancer and no insurance, in the one despised because of their skin color, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and even in the enemy who does us harm—there is no separation between us.

The transformation starts in the smallest ways like parking spots and grocery store checkout lanes and committee meetings. The God in each of us doesn’t look like perfection. It can look discouraged, impatient, frantic and yes, afraid. The God in each of us is like the soft carbon that is buried deep in the earth. But time and pressure transform this non-descript material into a beautiful, radiant and immortal diamond. We are like that.

Richard Rohr asks, “What if our one and only task in life is to discover and become who we are?” That news is too good to be buried in the earth. God is not only out there. God lives in me. And in you. And you. And you. And in every, single created being. This is our shared inheritance and it cannot be taken from us.

Amen.

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.”