Sermon for 8 and 10 am Sunday, April 4th, 2017 || The Feast of Pentecost, Year A || Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104:25-35, 37; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13; John 20:19-23|| The Rev. Amy Whitcomb Slemmer, Esq.
Happy Pentecost! Happy first Sunday of June, with a joyful entrance into the summer.
I am so excited to be in this pulpit for my first foray into preaching as an ordained person, wearing a beautiful cross made for me by our Ojibwe friends at the White Earth Reservation, a red stole for Pentecost, and collar on as the outward symbols of yesterday’s ordination and a lifetime of discernment. I am also delighted to have this Sunday coincide with the feast and celebration of the Holy Spirit coming among us.
Pentecost is marked and celebrated by a wide variety of traditions, and is not just a Christian holiday. According to Jewish tradition, Pentecost commemorates God’s giving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai, 49 days after the Exodus. It also marked a Jewish feast of the early harvest.
We celebrate this day as the day the Holy Spirit descended upon the people – finishing Jesus’ work on earth, completing his earthly life and empowering people to go forth and do God’s work in the world.
We understand that the Holy Spirit – fully God, but a distinct manifestation — different from God the Father and from Jesus (I’m pretty excited to hear Father John make the Trinity make sense to us next week when we celebrate Trinity Sunday), yet with God’s same vision, love and expectations for the world.
The Holy Spirit is a holy mystery – which doesn’t mean that it is forever unknowable. Rather, it is a Holy Mystery that we can study, chew over, decipher, unpack and examine while being forever nourished by insights and new understanding about the Holy Spirit throughout our entire lifetimes.
Thank you to those who participated in our reading of the passage from Acts in a variety of languages. I get excited by the scene outlined in that passage, with the notion of a group of unconnected strangers having a shared and barely explainable mystical experience.
Imagine yourself being in a large gathering, in the middle of an enormous, bustling foreign capital. You hear dozens of languages being spoken around you, by people who don’t look or dress like you, and all of a sudden, you hear what is being said in English.
The truth and power of the words cuts through the crowd, and fills your ears and your head with wisdom, insight and your heart with an overwhelming sense of love.
When I think and pray about what that miraculous moment looked like, I think of the hearts and minds and lives that were transformed in an instant. I wonder whether the rapid steps of transformation for the unrelated listeners went something like:
First, an awareness of their own discomfort at the foreign-ness of the surroundings, perhaps a bit of irritation at trying to understand what is being said right next to them by people with unfamiliar manners and dress, perhaps standing too close, or wearing nothing, or something peculiar looking on their feet. As they try to tune out this gibberish sounding noise, they begin to realize that they can actually understand what is being said. This realization is quickly followed by an intense desire and hunger to hear every word – to be bathed in the wisdom and love being espoused by the multitude of speakers. And when the speaking ended, a sense of comfort and gratitude for being in the midst of a miraculous expression of God through the Holy Spirit.
I would love to think that every hearer referred to in our readings for Pentecost was changed for life. That no one who experienced the Holy Spirit on that day decided to go back to his or her shopping list, or to continue along with the marital spat that was interrupted mid-accusation. I WISH that God was as obvious and life altering as described. I am so grateful that I have had some pretty remarkable brushes with the Divine, but can not claim to have anything quite this obvious or dramatic.
Yesterday was pretty close. An ordination service is perhaps the liturgical equivalent of Pentecost. The Holy Spirit was definitely present and is called upon to transform lives.
Yesterday I and Daniel Bell, Emily Garcia, Patrick LaFortune, Duncan Hilton and Amanda March entered St. Paul’s Cathedral as very active and engaged Ordinands (which is the funny Episcopal word that makes us sound like ordinary comedians or something, but we are in fact individuals who worked, studied, prayed and discerned in community, a call to the priesthood). Yesterday we entered the Cathedral as the people we have been all of our lives. People who love God, who want to emulate Christ and serve his beloved children, people who want to work toward God’s vision of heaven on earth, and people who know with certainty that God loves us. And yesterday, we left the Cathedral as ordained people who have newly conveyed authority to serve God’s church in new ways than was possible as lay people.
Our transformation occurred as we sang hymns, were officially presented and vouched for, signed a book, were examined and said prayers. The true moment of transformation within the two hour joy-filled service was when Bishop Gayle Harris laid her hands upon our heads and said a prayer, calling forth the power of the Holy Spirit to fill each of us with Grace and power, to be modest, humble, strong and constant.
And we believe that Bishop Gayle’s prayer worked and she conveyed diaconal authority to Emily, Duncan, Patrick, Amanda, Dan and me because she had this special power and authority invested in her by Bishops who laid their hands upon her when she became a bishop, and they have the power and authority because they had hands laid upon them, all the way back. This is what we know as apostolic succession. We have continuity of authority and doctrinal teaching going back to the time of the apostles.
There are some treasured stories about the beginning of the Episcopal Church in this country and the lengths to which a few courageous priests went to be consecrated as Bishops. Just imagine the vitriolic political schism that accompanied our country’s break with England at the time of the Revolutionary War, and the distinct lack of interest and well-founded worry that the Church of England had in consecrating new Bishops in a rebelling country. It is worth a bit of study to look up the life story of Bishop Samuel Seabury, who was the very first Priest ordained to be a Bishop in this country. He had to go all the way to Scotland to have a Bishop lay hands upon him to continue the line of apostolic succession.
Hands conveying the authority that Jesus bestowed upon his disciples from their age to ours. Hands doing God’s work in the world, translating the Holy Spirit into action. Hands as critically important instruments to do God’s work. Each Sunday, just as we heard in today’s gospel as Jesus offered peace to the disciples, so we extend our hands to one another offering each other a sign of God’s peace, and we use our hands to cross ourselves, a beautiful body prayer, that connects us to God in a silent but meaningful way as we worship, and we extend our hands to accept the sacrament of Christ’s body when we come for Communion at the altar rail.
At the communion rail, our hands accept Christ’s body, and we are fed in the holy mysteries of our faith. We are then called upon to take the blessing of this sacred and sufficient food, and use it and ourselves to feed and nourish others. To use our hands to do God’s work in the world.
Yesterday during my ordination, there was the briefest moment, as I was kneeling before Bishop Gayle, when I could feel her hands on my head, and knew the prayer she was about to say, that I had a quick Formation Review (you know how some people who have walked close to death but have survived say they had a life review? This was similar but so loving and positive) my formation review included the people, prayers and milestones that were reached throughout these years of preparation – my loved ones in the cathedral, my family, priests and friends who have walked and sometimes carried me along this road toward taking Holy Orders. The people who were doing God’s work, being parts of the Body of Christ, being God’s hands by guiding me to be the Priest I am meant to be. It was a moment that felt like a slight shift, perhaps the opening of a very thin place with God and for a moment all things seemed possible. It was the perfect prelude to Bishop Gayle’s prayer.
My prayer for St. Stephen’s is that as a worshiping community, with the faithful leadership of our search committee, we too find that thin place, connected to God and to the joyful possibility of our next rector. My prayer is that like the people in the biblical story of Pentecost whose needs were met by God who spoke in ways they could understand, we too are amazed and deeply satisfied with the person who is called to be our rector.
I am confident that between now and when our permanent priest arrives, there are people hungry for God’s good news, and thirsty for the blessed assurance of God’s love. They may never come and sit among us at St. Stephen’s. But carrying the Eucharistic nourishment we receive each week into the world, we are invited to go and find them and serve them where they are, in nursing homes and hospitals, on park benches or at the beach, in prison or detox or sitting lonely behind a front door in Cohasset. There are people who need our hands and the Holy Spirit which needs to be translated into loving action.
As I live beyond these first few days and weeks of being an ordained person, I pray to grow into clearer understanding of the ways in which God will call and challenge me to do the work of divine purpose in the world. To put my hands to God’s use. And I give thanks to be in this parish at such a pregnant moment, full of the possibility of new joys, new discoveries and new insights, surrounded by faithful guides and inquiring companions, who have brought me thus far on the way.