Fourth Sunday of Epiphany/January 28, 2018 Responding to the #MeToo Movement and the Presiding Bishop and President of the House of Deputies statement; c. the Rev. Dr. Mary Foulke
In the name of God + Amen.
My mother was not much of a housekeeper. I learned this when my friend Andrea had to dust her room once per week before she was allowed to play, I never had such a task. And, I was confused because Andrea’s room was so tidy to begin with– you couldn’t see any dust! After all, I knew what dust looked like, you could write your name in it.
Clean and unclean – there was and is a lot of shame and morality that gets attached to clean and unclean that needs to be questioned, in the ancient world and today.
In the ancient world issues of clean and unclean that had to do with following religious dictates. We know that when these dictates got in the way of community, Jesus intervened often with a miracle that made people labeled “unclean,” “clean,” and so restored the outcast to their community. This wholeness and relationship to community was the definition of what it meant to be “clean.”
In our modern and post-modern world dictates for “cleanliness” manifest themselves in attempts to produce an orderly or control-able world. Often this results in religious and secular bigotry and violence: imprisonment, deportation, walls are all in the name of order and control. Jesus’ mission is the same, how do we restore wholeness and community?
One of the spirits of order and control, I call “pretend everything is fine.” “Pretend everything is fine” projects a world where everything is tidy, people do what is expected of them, all is manageable. This is the spirit that says that we have overcome racism, that everyone has an equal chance and poor people just need to apply themselves. Anyone who says differently “has a chip on their shoulder,” or “hasn’t really tried.” “Pretend everything is fine” wreaks havoc on the lives of children who understand the difference between “pretend” and reality, and are ignored or dismissed by adults who prefer to cling to pretend.
We saw this spirit being called out this week by Judge Rosemarie Aquilina at the trial of Larry Nassar who abused over 200 girls and women. This story is not just about one disturbed person, but sick organizations in which many people protected the perpetrator, overlooked both warning signs and actual complaints, and pretended that everything was fine. These organizations built environments where compliance was the rule and complaint was punished, deep wrong flourished. Everything was not fine.
The more “pretend everything is fine” succeeds in hiding the truths of hurt, anger, and fear, the stronger the spirit becomes. The more we call it out – the more we say everything is not fine, this is wrong, this is a scandal – we invoke the power of Jesus to command spirits to come out.
This week the Presiding Bishop and the President of the House of Deputies issued a statement about how the Episcopal Church is possessed by the spirit of “pretend everything is fine.” It is not just Michigan State, not just USA Gymnastics, or Hollywood. Sexual harassment and abuse has possessed the church as well. They called for repentance starting Ash Wednesday.
What I take from the letter is a call to truth telling: to calling out the evil spirit. The letter puts an emphasis on those in power, those who need to repent of cover-ups as well as abuse itself, and this is important. However, the powerful are the minority. The majority in the church are those of us who have been abused, who have been silenced and ignored. Reports show that approximately 1/3 of women have reported sexual
harassment in the workplace, that is just those who reported it, and that is only the statistics from the workplace, not church, not home, not school. The spirit of “everything is fine” would have us discount these vast numbers, would have us say, “it’s just the way it is, it’s always been this way.” No, it is not “the way it is” with God – and no matter how prevalent, it does not have to continue!
When abuse is covered up or not taken seriously, we become disconnected, divided within as individuals and as communities. We bury our fears, grief and anger, but these feelings don’t go away. The “#metoo” movement, Judge Aquilina, and others who have ventured into telling the truth have opened the gates, and it seems the US public is willing to listen, at least for now.
Whether we have experienced abuse or not, Jesus sees our hurts, our fears and our anger. In the face of “pretend everything is fine” he calls us back to real life with others, to wholeness. Jesus says, “be still spirit – be gone! Everything is not fine” He recognizes us, and says with love rather than blame or discount: “you are not fine, and I am with you.” It is devastating at first, we are so quick to blame ourselves, to think that suffering is our fault, that it makes us “bad” or less than, that’s why we grasp so tightly onto “fine.” But once the spirit of pretend is cast out, even for a moment, we can take a deep breath and see that we will be ok, maybe even free.
Jesus’ authority named by the Greek the word exousia meaning freedom to express one’s powers, or from Deuteronomy, empowered to speak in the name of the One God. This authority is available to us! What if we allowed ourselves to “know what we know” and to speak our truth?
We don’t need to tell a tidy story of who we are, we can simply be who we are. Telling our own truths, our own story can be deeply connecting if we let it. What difference would it make if we valued the mess, the truth, the secrets, at the core of our self? What if we believed that someone really cared about what happened to us, what we’ve been
through, that someone would listen and say – “I’m so sorry that happened to you, it’s not ok, and we are going to make it right in our community.” Jesus almost never hesitates to reach out to people in all of who they are, especially to those labeled unclean, and he restores them to the whole. He does the same for our inner selves, those parts we have hidden away or covered up are seen and restored to wholeness.
This week might have been triggering to some of us, the graphic accounts of abuse are sometimes too much, like the videos of police violence against or killing of Black people that play on an endless loop, it does not help to re-traumatize ourselves. The power of exousia, of telling our own truths, is not about staying in the trauma, it is about releasing it, about being restored to wholeness and community. Some of us need to turn off the television or the newsfeed, not to avoid the truth, but to stay connected with ourselves and our community. The point is not to overwhelm, but to hold the truth. On the other hand, some of us need to hear and to see the explicit details to be convinced of its realness, to break through our defenses against human cruelty, and to hold the truth. Whether we take a break or delve more deeply, it is transformative to connect and re-connect – with ourselves, with community, with reality. We don’t have to pretend any more, we cannot pretend any more. We become more whole when we acknowledge rather than avoid or deny the truth, when we support truth-tellers rather than crucifying them.
Rachael Denhollander was the first woman to file a police complaint against Larry Nassar in 2016. In an op-ed in The New York Times (January 26, 2018), she describes the power of the unclean spirit: “I lost my church, I lost my closest friends…I lost every shred of privacy….And the effort it took to move this case forward –… often felt crushing. Yet all of it served as a reminder: These were the very cultural dynamics that had allowed Larry Nassar to remain in power….I knew that the farthest I could run from my abuser…To choose to find and speak the truth, no matter what it cost.” She concludes with a call to encourage and support truth telling, to confront our own fears, our own communities, and support the victim. “Ask yourself,” she writes, “How much is a child worth? Every decent human being knows the answer to that question. Now it is time to act like it.”
Let us pray: God our redeemer, you have promised liberation for our world: remission of debt, forgiveness of sin. Deliver us in body, mind and spirit from the grip of all that is evil; and may we who claim the blessing of release have courage to live by it, in the name of the One who died to set us free, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (p. 122, Janet Morley, All Desires Known)
Sixth Sunday of Easter 2017/May 21, 2017, #ThriveNYC c. The Rev. Dr. Mary Foulke
In the name of God + Amen.
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” There is a lot about love in this morning’s Gospel – all the lessons really. And, nothing is so contested as God’s love. It seems simple, as our friends at Unity say, “God is love, and love is for everybody.” How do human beings get it so frighteningly twisted? First there are the arguments about whom God loves. Many people start with “God loves everybody” BUT – and then there is a list of all the people we find problematic. Some of us can embrace “God loves everybody” BUT then human beings do things that God doesn’t like. I wouldn’t disagree, and I think we are challenged to contemplate “God loves everybody.” Period. Because when we have a line like “If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” it so easily becomes conditional and not for everybody. We must focus on God loving every person, or it becomes twisted: we hear instead “if you keep my commandments, you will prove that you love me,” or “if you keep my commandments, I will love you.” That is not what it says!
Meditate on the simple truth: God loves everybody. We are created by love, redeemed by love, sustained by love. We are the apple of God’s eye, each one of us at the core of our being is a delight to the divine. The commandments simply call us to attention, to remember that we are the beloved children, all of us, to remember that those others that we see every day are cherished, and those others who wake up on the other side of the world as we go to sleep are treasured – all the beloved children of God. If you love me, you will keep my commandments: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and strength and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.
Simple to say, not so simple to practice. The state of the world in all its corruption, violence and disaster accuses us of all that we have done and left undone. The state of our own bodies, minds and souls accuse us of all that we have done and left undone. The harshness of our self-criticism when we compare ourselves to others, the lack of compassion for the things we have each miraculously survived, the dearth of imagination that we might ever experience feelings of peace or joy or pride in accomplishment. Is it any wonder that we have trouble relating to others with all the hate we have for ourselves?
Our spiritual/physical/mental health and well-being is challenged every day by every racist, hetero-patriarchal, transphobic, class stratified, able-ist, child-hating structures and behaviors. Each one of us is infected and affected by this toxic stew that turns us against ourselves and one another. In addition we have our own dna, our own brain chemistry and traumas that show up sometimes in mental illness – in fact, one in five New Yorkers experience a mental health disorder in a given year. I think the statistics are conservative – these are only what is reported. 18% of (almost 1 in 5) children experience two or more “adverse events” that might make it more likely that they develop mental illness later in life. [If 1 in 5 children live in poverty, we know the statistics are higher]. 27% of public high school students report feeling sad or hopeless daily for a period of two weeks or more. 230,000 Veterans live in New York, and 1 out of 4 are thought to have PTSD and/or depression. These statistics come from Thrive NYC, which has organized this weekend to highlight the struggles of people with mental illness and all who are affected – and what New York has to offer. There is an 800 number that we can call 24/7 to talk, or a number to text with someone who is ready to listen. Thrive NYC (and you can post or tweet #ThriveNYC at any time today) wants to change the culture of shame about mental illness, close the disparities in care and train culturally competent professionals, start early to address trauma in children, and partner with communities. This is a worthy effort, and I hope to see these efforts manifest in real help for people who are suffering, and that is all of us. I think it is even more profound if we link it to the local, regional, national and international events. Mental health means not having to hold your heart every time your loved one leaves home in hopes that they won’t be harmed or killed by law enforcement or street violence. Mental health means feeling safe in your own home, because it is safe from abuse and poisons in the water or the walls. Mental health means not having to choose between rent and medicine, or food and healthcare.
If you love me, keep my commandments. The word “keep” in Greek is similar to “guard” – “watch over.” What does it mean to guard love? It does not mean to keep it away from people! It does not mean to lock it up in a tower (or a church) somewhere! “Keep my commandments” means remember that love that is meant for you, and for me, and for your best friend, and your worst enemy, and many people you don’t know at all. Keep love in the forefront of your mind, preserve love in this culture of individualism and self-centeredness, heed-listen to and learn from love in your own life. “If you love me, keep my commandments:” could mean live in a community of ethical practice, a community of imagination and compassion that will always remind you that you are loved and free. St. Mary’s is a Eucharistic community: we enact it at the altar – all are welcome, blessed, fed and empowered – and we take that with us to recreate other gatherings of welcome, blessing, feeding and empowering. We keep the commandments in the shelter, in coffee hour, in the Food Pantry, in the park, at the store, in the library, in our buildings, we are remembering and reminding everyone that we are created for love and freedom, we are meant for love and freedom, we are destined for love and freedom. If you love me, keep my commandments. Amen.
Trinity Sunday 2016/May 22, 2016, c.The Rev. Dr. Mary Foulke
In the name of God + Amen.
When I started working at my last parish, I caused a bit of consternation with my opening prayer before preaching: In the name of God. Amen. No-one talked to me directly about it, but enough people talked to the rector that he had a discussion with me. The assumption was that as a feminist I was refusing to say “Father-” as in “In the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” Well – I am a feminist, that part was true enough. However, I think it would be incredibly challenging to refuse to say “Father” given the Prayer Book… but you know there were people who were so concerned that they said they watched me during the Creed to see if I refused to say part of it. Now, I don’t think we have such drama here at St. Mary’s – we might have the opposite: who cares about the Trinity? Some of us who did not grow up in an Episcopal or Roman Catholic Church might think that the doctrine of the Trinity is only drama, or something that mattered a long time ago – like when North African bishop and theologian St. Augustine wrote 15 volumes about it. Today, I want to tell you why I think it is important.
God the Trinity: the Father, Son and Holy Spirit; the Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer; the God who brought us to life, calls us to freedom and moves between us with love; is first and foremost a mystery, a mystery of a God who is, in God’s very being, in relationship, both different and unified, recognizable and inseparable, beyond and still very near. The reason I acknowledge God in silence and gesture is to acknowledge the un-describable-ness, the holy un-name-ableness before I attempt to describe or name the nature and action of God in our world. So again, in recognition of the great mystery that is God, I first acknowledge the impossibility of understanding.
That said, the Trinity, the relatedness of God’s very being, the “many-ness” of God’s very unity, is central to my own faith. I find peace in impossibility of complete knowing, I find power in the variety, and joy in the connectedness. The Holy Trinity is the natural antidote to human desires to control, to limit, and to separate. This One with Another God, as one professor of mine would say, is a constant friend who does not allow us to get stuck in our fundamentalisms, whether about the Bible, about the Prayer Book, or even about the Trinitarian formula. The Many are always inviting us to broaden, the One always offering a center, and the Relationship always reminding us that we don’t have to choose between God’s selves and/or our own. Co-equal, co-eternal, we are called to be all of who we are even as God is all, all three, or maybe more than three.
What does this mean for us in the here and now? It is a reminder of the mystery within each of us, made in the image of God, indescribable, awesome, complex, many faceted. This Sunday faith leaders have been asked by the Mayor to open the discussion about mental health and mental illness in his campaign “Thrive NYC”. Now you can count on me not to do everything suggested by government officials, but I think this is an important topic. Mental illness is often unspoken in churches – not because it is seen as an awesome mystery, but more often as a shameful secret whether it is our own, or a member of our family, or a member of the church that no-one wants to talk about out loud, but many are wondering and fearful.
Mental illness has been around from the beginning of humankind, and it has been more accepted and less accepted over the generations. In some places and times, people with mental illness were seen to be possessed by demons or spirits, or they were seen as spiritually gifted prophets or seers. What seems most problematic to us in our place and time is that people with mental illness seem not to be able to cope with current reality – they “need help” and are seen therefore as weak, troubled, a burden on others. I want to acknowledge the strain of worry and care on family and friends as well as the person themselves, and suggest that there is more. There is a truth that people with mental illness offer us that we should consider: why should we cope with the world as it is? In what way are we the ones who are ill because we are able to function in a toxic stew of racist, capitalist, heteropatriarchy? I’m not suggesting that we all embrace mental illness, only that we contemplate the thought that we who are not diagnosed are in no way “better” than we who are. And the either/or is not even reality as most of us are on some kind of spectrum of mental health. I struggle with anxiety, many struggle with depression, and more. Those whom are most visible are only that – visible. A clergy friend of mine who is bipolar talks about how she doesn’t know when to “come out of the closet” about her condition. The majority of those with diagnosed mental illness are living their lives in very ordinary ways, often with the support of medication or therapy or other treatment; it is the shame and stigma associated with illness that causes the problem more than the illness itself.
Trinity Sunday is not a day for easy formulas or trite explanations of the great mysteries of the being of God or humans. It is a day – one day – to contemplate the deep complexity and relatedness of us all. In the name of the many-ness of our one God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit; Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier; Earth Maker, Pain Bearer, Life Giver; and one of my favorites attributed to St. Augustine: God the Lover, God the Beloved, God the Love itself, in whose image each of us are created, in the name of God + Amen.
Easter Day at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church/March 27, 2016, c.The Rev. Dr. Mary Foulke
Happy Easter St. Mary’s!
I want to begin with a story about a friend of mine. He is also a priest, in fact he is the rector of a big church. He does not believe in the resurrection. Scandal, right? I was scandalized the first time I talked with him about it. The more I talked with him, the more I thought about it, there are quite a few people who seem to doubt, question, even deny the resurrection.
I am not talking about the historical account, what really happened 2000 years ago, and how we explain it. That is not quite as interesting to me as the power of God to do something new and unexpected and good. I think this is at the heart of the Gospel account from Luke that we read this morning. Mary Magdalene and the other women were confused when they did not find Jesus’ body as they expected to, and they were afraid. Something bad must have happened, after all the recent events had been very grim: Jesus was betrayed by a friend, sentenced to death as much by a mob as by the government, and crucified while other friends fled; a few stayed, but you can imagine that their experience of grief did not leave much room for hope.
It is not the scandal of disbelief as much as it is the understandable confusion caused by a great goodness appearing the midst of distress. And this is what I think many thinking people have questions about. When we look at the world around us, are we open to the in-breaking of dazzling goodness? Would we also be confused and perhaps even frightened if the government and corporations started investing money in communities, in providing decent paying jobs and high quality education and child-care? We would wonder where have they put the politicians? What is the catch? Faith in the power of resurrection means we have to at least try to imagine it.
Some people worry about the church, that people aren’t going to church as much as they used to. The beings in dazzling clothes might ask us: why do you seek the living among the dead? The strength of the church is not measured in numbers but in what we stand for: food justice, housing justice, love and freedom for all. Maybe the church never should have been measured in numbers, but certainly Christians were caught up in that for a long time. It is actually a sign of life that churches are stepping out and stepping up to the challenges of an unjust world, this is what we try to do at St. Mary’s. Christianity is at our best when people participate in ministries of feeding and housing and advocacy rather than simply showing up out of obligation to a social norm.
A little over a year and a half ago I received a call from the Search Committee at St. Mary’s. I had been looking for a job for about 10 years. I was pretty experienced with thanking people for the opportunity to get to know them as they told me why it wouldn’t work out, and sometimes I told them. So there I was chatting with the Committee from St. Mary’s, when finally one person said, “you know, we’re offering you the job.” I didn’t recognize the signs of something new, an authentic call in the midst of many rejections.
What are the signs of great goodness happening around us even now? It can be difficult to find resurrected life, sometimes confusing, maybe even unbelievable. Esteemed elder and former Archbishop Desmond Tutu described our call as the church: “In a setting that claims we are made for alienation, separation, dividedness, hostility, and war, we must, as the church of God, proclaim that we are made for togetherness, for fellowship, for community, for oneness, for friendship, and peace. In a situation of injustice, oppression, and exploitation, we must proclaim that the justice and righteousness and equity of God will prevail. In a place where truth is a constant casualty, with many in high places taking loosely the demands of verity and truthfulness, we must declare that truth matters and that a people who have become immoral are in grave danger of collapse. In a situation where human life seems dirt cheap, with people being killed as easily as one swats a fly, we must proclaim that people matter and matter enormously, because they are created in the image of God.” He said this before the fall of apartheid, a fact both distressing (the words seem so relevant to our current situation) and inspiring (that he had such faith in the face of overwhelming and seemingly permanent evil that was apartheid).
One of the ways the church proclaims how much people matter is through baptism, and today we have the honor of baptizing baby Daniel. Before a baby is able to do anything, to comprehend anything in the ways that adults comprehend, before a baby articulates anything about God, we celebrate his arrival in the world, we mark his belonging, and we proclaim God’s hope in him. We make promises that we will support him as he grows into all of whom God has created and called him to be.
In fact the church offers us constant reminders of the great goodness that is in us all, that is in our world. Baptism, Eucharist, every time we come together we are reminded (again the words of Desmond Tutu) that “We are made for goodness. We are made for love. We are made for friendliness. We are made for togetherness. We are made for all of the beautiful things that you and I know. We are made to tell the world that there are no outsiders. All are welcome.”
So here we are, together, about to baptize the newest Christian into our community, we are here after a week of terrorism in Turkey, Belgium, Nigeria and more; we are here to proclaim God’s dazzling goodness in the midst of the most vitriolic presidential campaign and all kinds of national political craziness. We are here to say, we are good people in a City that is divided and unjust. In some ways it doesn’t even matter if we believe in resurrection or not, because God’s unexpected and confusing triumph over every evil is happening even now. Amen.
Epiphany C 2016 at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church/January 3, 2016, c.The Rev. Dr. Mary Foulke
Today we are celebrating Epiphany – officially Epiphany is on January 6, the 12th day of Christmas. However, we are celebrating a little early just because of how the calendar works. Even if it is early, many people are taking down decorations, getting ready to go back to school or work tomorrow or whatever our usual routine is. There is little time for reflection and celebration, little time to look beyond our own household and what needs to get done. The celebration of Epiphany interrupts our automatic response to a schedule. It is both a hopeful invitation and a bold challenge.
First the hope: the magi interrupt life’s regular patterns. Pagan visitors arrive and claim that there is something new being born, an embodiment of hope, a vulnerable incarnation of a different way to live. They are searching and the invitation to us is also to search, and also to worship.
Then the challenge: it was not just the cruel Herod who was afraid, it was all of Jerusalem with him. A different way to live means changing what we do now, which -however brutal- is at least familiar. “All of Jerusalem with him,” is an indictment of people who have cast their religious and political lot with the occupying forces, in this case the Roman Empire broadly, and Herod specifically. Despite the name of “Three Kings Day” – the Gospel seems to emphasize the fourth King, Herod. Herod who murdered his own sons, one of his wives and many who opposed him. “And all of Jerusalem with him.”
Evil does not exist without support: whether it is the support of active co-conspirators or the support of silence and fear. It was out of fear that Herod gave the order to murder all the boy children, and it was all Jerusalem with him that carried it out. How do we understand “all of Jerusalem with him” for our own time? Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a great theologian who died trying to remove Hitler from power, said the test of morality of a society is how it treats its children. In the United States we are in a bad way. We have the outrageous and unnecessary tragedy of the killing of a 12 year old child by police, with no consequences for the officers. Statistics show that a child or teen is killed every three and a half hours, that’s nearly seven every day, 48 every week. Not only that children make up the poorest age group in the United States: over 15.5 million children live in poverty in this nation. Personally I think our dominant culture hates children. How else could these facts be true?
It seems that as a culture, we are afraid to demand that it stop. Certainly the grand juries seem to be afraid. We seem to think that we would be giving in to something or someone if we actually provided food and shelter for hungry children, or a meaningful education. The question is, are we willing to be changed as the magi were changed? Are we open to a different road home? Are we open to the possibility of something new being born, an embodiment of hope, a vulnerable incarnation of a different way to live?
In my mind this is much more than police reform, gun control, or anti-poverty measures (important as all of these are). This is about valuing what is human. This is about caring for children as a society rather than seeing them simply as possessions of parents or grandparents who are either doing a “good job” or a “bad job.” This is about stepping out of our adult schedules and expectations into our own humanity and finding Jesus there.
Yesterday we celebrated Epiphany with a party for children. This is a long-time tradition, usually led by the Episcopal Church Women, but there is a deeper reason. Especially at this time of year, we are called to seek Jesus, to seek God, in a vulnerable child; we are called to make a crown out of craft materials, play a game, spend some time paying attention to children, paying attention to Jesus. It is good for them and it is good for us.
We adults like to think we know what we’re doing and we are easily caught up in judgment. Hanging out with children reminds us that learning new things can be fun, and that living in the moment does not require constant judgment about good or bad, right or wrong. It is a more vulnerable existence, both economically as I have mentioned and developmentally. It is uncomfortable for adults because there is no protection in vulnerability. The deeper truth is that neither is there protection in know-it-all-ness, or fearful violence.
Epiphany is not just a day to mark the end of Christmastide, it is a whole season to seek God’s vision in expected and unexpected places, to avoid cooperation with and cooptation by evil, to make room for the birth of the new however scary and uncomfortable. It is a season to be open to an embodiment of hope however impossible it seems, and to make time even in the craziest schedule for a vulnerable incarnation of a different way to live. It is a season of finding God, of God finding us in unexpected ways. It is a season when we will hear a voice say: this is my beloved child, in whom I am well pleased; when water will be turned into wine. Interruptions full of joy that dare us to allow ourselves to be changed.
 Marian Wright Edelman, http://www.blackstarnews.com/us-politics/justice/new-year-2016-violence-is-still-order-of-the-day.html; January 1, 2016
May 27, 2012
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
Good morning. Happy Pentecost. Its good to see all of you this morning. I must confess to still being in recovery from our massive party of an Ascension Sunday last week and send-off for our Rector Fr. Earl Kooperkamp and Dr. Elizabeth Kooperkamp. Its feeling a bit more like low Sunday than Pentecost—which can only be a testimony to the extraordinary work and moving celebration we had for Earl and Elizabeth last Sunday. It was a testimony as much to the creativity and caring of this parish as to the extraordinary leadership of our Rector over the last decade—a tour de force and service I’ll remember always.
We are back again today, however, you, me, all of us together. Not one of us has been spirited up to heaven in a cloud thus far. And this morning we’ve shown up—which is of course, half of life. So that’s a start. We’ve done some singing, seen the Sunday School’s dramatic depiction of the first Pentecost, and now have the opportunity to get our minds and hearts around one of the great feasts of the church year (and the way-over-the-top reading from Acts that goes with it.) So lets go.
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire appeared among them and a tongue of fire appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the spirit gave them ability.
As we have just seen in an excellent dramatic interpretation, this scene from the Book of Acts is just, well, such a spectacle—tongues of fire, a rushing wind, speaking in different languages, the birthday part of the church and what not–you name it. Its such a splashy, shocking and awesome event, one wonders what it has to say us everyday Christians who live the in the here and now and for whom a Baptism of the Spirit with all the bells and whistles that the original Pentecost day is—lets just say—not always part of our daily experience (Again, I’m making an exception for last Sunday).
It’s worth taking a look at the context of the first Pentecost. I think from our vantage point today more than 2,000 years later we get about half of what is truly surprising in this passage. We, like the original disciple, understand that the Pentecost event is the fulfillment of promise that Jesus makes—and is reported in John’s Gospel—that he will not leave the disciples comfortless. Jesus says he will send them an Advocate. We understand this part—the promise of God made good.
There are other significant parts of this event that are not so clear to us. We have to recreate the historical context and remind ourselves that the disciples’ worldview was pre-Christian—shaped entirely by the prophetic and other writings of the Hebrew Bible. When we do that, we get a fresh look at what is NOT surprising in this passage. For one thing, the idea of God’s Spirit descending is NOT a new idea in the Hebrew Bible. That God’s Spirit fell from heaven on someone would not have been that shocking to the disciples.
Throughout the story of the Israelite, God was consistently pouring out God’s spirit on prophets and leaders. In Isaiah’s description of the suffering servant God says, “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations” Likewise, remember the story of the 70 elders? When Moses is leading the Israelites through the desert he finds the challenges of leadership too great. He gathers the elders around him and God says to Moses, “I will take some of the Spirit that is on you and put it on them and they shall bear the burden of the people along with you . . . Then the Lord came down in a cloud and spoke to him and put it on the seventy elders and when the Spirit rested upon them they prophesied.” Indeed the falling of God’s Spirit on someone is the very definition of what makes a leader in the tradition of ancient Israel.
Thus, the really surprising part of the story of the Spirit’s descent in Acts, then is not THAT God’s Spirit falls, but rather WHO it falls upon. The really remarkable thing about the Pentecost event—something too often lost on us today—is the radically indiscriminate—democratic, if you will—way God’s Spirit descends. The Holy Spirit does not anoint Jesus’ prophetic successor as one might have thought. Instead, as Peter says, the Spirit does that thing that the Hebrew Prophets like Joel thought would only possibly happen at the end times: God’s Spirit falls on all.
“In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Sprit and they shall prophesy”
Something surprising has happened at St. Mary’s in the last week. Its almost as if the roof has been taken off the top of the congregation and our true architectural structure has been revealed for the strength and beauty it has retained all along. We’ve known that the lay leadership at this church is strong, but the way people have in just the last couple of days stepped forward, stepped up, communicated with one another, prayed together and worked together to reach out to others and take care of one another has been something to see. Like that awesome line that wrapped around the church last Sunday as people stood to say their farewells and receive a final laying on of hands from Fr. Earl during the healing part of the service, one couldn’t have predicted it, but it made (and makes) total sense nonetheless.
The grass has not grown under our feet. In addition to having The Rev. Deacon Christine Lee on board with us for transitional summer clergy, steps are in place for getting additional sexton assistance, and raising up additional Urban Farm help. Outreach has continued and we’ve been down to support the nuns on the steps of St. Patrick’s, attended prison-re-entry trainings, and are thinking ahead exploring the future of the of the St. Mary’s homeless shelter. In just the past week, people at St. Mary’s have been praying together, working together, attending choir practice, visiting one another, emailing photos and plotting together for the Kingdom of God in a way that we’ve always done but is also different than its been before. Suddenly, I’m asking myself the question, was the roof been taken off or did we inadvertently blast it off?
It turns out that at St. Mary’s today we are not waiting around for any descending tongues of fire or holy infusions from above. On this Day of Pentecost May 27th, 2012 it appears the Holy Spirit is already at work among us, between us, around us in the most extraordinary ways. She is filling us with God’s love and power, representing Christ among us, creating new life within us, liberating us to love God and others, and uniting us to Christ and one another.
In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.
Let us go forth in the name of God, Rejoicing in the power of the Spirit. Amen.
The Rev. Chloe Breyer