Sermon: Pentecost, May 28, 2023

About a month ago, I attended the Diocese of Maine’s annual clergy conference. For two days we got to soak in the wisdom of Dr. Catherine Meeks. Dr. Meeks is an Episcopal layperson and the executive director of The Absalom Jones Episcopal Center for Racial Healing, located in Atlanta, Georgia. She is clearly a woman of intelligence, wisdom, empathy, and deep spirituality. She has done her work, both in the public square and personally within herself, and it is evident every time she speaks. At the end of the conference, our Bishop gifted all of us with a copy of her newest book, a book of meditations, The Night Is Long but Light Comes in the Morning: Meditations on Racial Healing. I received my copy in the mail early this past week. If you are interested in going deeper, understanding yourself a little better, healing yourself, gaining a greater understanding of the racial divide in our country, and becoming just a little bit braver than this is the book for you.

I was planning to read one meditation a day until I reached the end of this book but ended up reading the whole thing in two days. Now, I will go back to the beginning and follow my original plan so I can go deeper. But this week, I read it so quickly for two reasons: one it was so engaging and entirely compelling, two I had a niggling sense that there was a message within this book that I was being called to preach on Pentecost. I had to finish it in two days if I was going to use it to preach today.

Pentecost is frequently described as the birthday of the church and it is, but not exactly in the way we might envision it. For me when I hear “birthday of the church,” church represents what I know church to be—an institution, a building, a hierarchy, a fixed set of prayers and worship that everyone uses together, creeds, settled scriptures, tradition. This is not what came to be as the Holy Spirit was given to Jesus’ followers early in the morning fifty days after Jesus’ resurrection. The Holy Spirit did not create an institution, building, hierarchy, ordered worship, creeds, canon of Scripture, or tradition. The Holy Spirit was an energy that brought people together into a community, a true community, a Godly community, a beloved community that was ready, willing, and able to go out into the world to be witnesses to God’s kingdom on earth, to be God’s kingdom on earth.

I think I had also come to view Pentecost as a sort of magical event outside of any human control or influence. It is true that no human can control the Holy Spirit. We can’t make the Holy Spirit come to us or come within us. The Holy Spirit is of God and God is outside any human control, no matter how often we pretend otherwise. But the event was not magical, and it did require human participation for the energy of the Holy Spirit to be present and received. To borrow an idea from Dr. Catherine Meeks and apply it today, Pentecost was “mystical not magical.” It was mysterious and beyond human understanding, which is why Luke uses analogous language to describe the spirit (the Holy Spirit was like a rushing wind, and it was like tongues of fire). What the followers of Jesus experienced the morning of Pentecost was beyond human language. But it was not magical. Magic is what we call a trick perpetrated on us using slight of hand or something that we wish we could do but can’t because it is outside the physical laws that govern our existence. Think of casting spells with a wand or flying on a broomstick or travelling through time. We might wish we could do these things but can’t. To do them would be magic.

What the Holy Spirit empowers the followers of Jesus to do is not magic. They are able to speak various languages, all the languages of the people present that day listening to them. Certainly it would be a strange and mysterious experience to suddenly be able to speak a language I could not previously speak, but it isn’t impossible—Mysterious but not magic, it doesn’t transgress the laws of physics. And what else does the Holy Spirit empower Jesus’ followers to do?: speak bravely and confidently about what they have seen, heard and now know about Jesus; create a community based in love and the dream of God by sharing all that they have with one; risk their lives as the seek to live the life Jesus would have them live. Mysterious that they are able to now do this, but not magic.

I also read more than one commentary that said something like this, “Pentecost is important because it demonstrates that without God Jesus’ followers could not do what they did.” Certainly there is great truth in this. We need the Holy Spirit and God’s grace to accomplish much of what we are put on this earth to do. But sometimes I think we’ve allowed the idea of grace not works to make us lazy and to give us an excuse not to do the personal work that each of us needs to do. And it doesn’t allow for free will and God’s unwillingness to force the divine will upon us. Let me explain.

The Protestant Reformers were right so many centuries ago when they sought to correct the bad theology being practiced at the time. Works instead of grace had become so prominent in the thinking of the church and the average Christian that wealthy people bought indulgences and had masses said for them in order to buy their way into heaven. A good way to fill the church’s coffers but a bad way to witness to the kingdom of God, God’s dream for the world. In the face of such theology, proclaiming that it is only the grace of God that will bring us salvation, is a good message and a true one. But I often feel today that the pendulum has swung too far the other way, as so often happens. Now I hear theology that goes like this: “Say the Jesus prayer and proclaim that he is your personal Lord and Savior, and you will be saved.” Or “Pray for the gift of tongues, because without the Holy Spirit you cannot be saved.” Or “God will provide what we need.”

This is where Dr. Meek’s book comes in. It is a book about racial healing, but as with all great writing, her ideas apply to racial healing and so much more. She is a strong believer that if we wish to heal the world, we must first heal ourselves. I will share a few of her ideas with you:

“If you do not do your inner work with sincerity and intention, you will never do anything in the outer world worth speaking about.”[1]

“We must commit to the process of interrogating ourselves. Until we do so we will flounder in a state of being managed by energies we do not understand.”[2]

“We need to resolve the inner conflict of wanting to be healed but hoping to remain the same. . . . The path of healing is mystical but not magical once we genuinely commit to it.”[3]

“It takes courage to abandon the desire for a security that settles all questions and creates a stable life path that calls for little change.”[4]

“To fully embrace a new way to see requires a willingness to allow old ways of seeing die.”[5]

“ ’What can I do?’ This is the question that is asked by so many whites as they become conscious of their racist wounding. The question implies that there is a formula, a prescription that can be found somewhere, and that the work is to find the person who knows what it is and have them share it. . . . The real work of the person asking the question, ‘What can I do?’ is to find the answers that lie inside of them. The most important thing is to stand still, listen and start with the first step you don’t want to take.”[6]

“We must approach the idea of beloved community as a process of making space in the head and in the heart so that God can enter the space with energy that creates something new.”[7]

“No one can be forced into wellness.”[8]

“Organized religion, do you want to know what new thing God has in mind for you in the twenty-first century? If the answer is yes, what must we do to get into the healing pool?”[9]

As I read Dr. Meek’s meditations, I realized that we have done Pentecost a disservice and grossly misunderstood what happened that day when we began viewing it in isolation from all that happened before. The giving of the Holy Spirit wasn’t something magical that happened out of the blue through the grace of God, and if we just pray hard enough and well enough the same will happen to us too. Pentecost happened because of what happened prior to it.

The followers of Jesus when Jesus walked with them in this world were people who were looking for answers in the outer world before spending time working on their own healing. And as a result, they “flounder in a state of being managed by energies they do not understand.” One of them betrays Jesus by turning him in for a bag of coins. Another denies that he even knew the arrested Jesus, not once but three times. All of them beg and ask Jesus for “the answer” for “the solution.” When Jesus is nailed to the cross most of them flee in fear. The grace of God cannot sustain them because they have not done the inner work they need to do. It is only as they spend 40 days at the feet of the risen Jesus and another 10 waiting for the Holy Spirit, that they slow down enough to do the work they need to do.

Luke doesn’t tell us exactly what the followers of Jesus did between his Ascension and Pentecost, but we know they gathered together to pray. They stop moving. They stop trying to fix things. They rest and wait with each other, and they pray. And in that time of prayer and contemplation, presumably a time in which they had a chance to reflect upon themselves and the congruency between what they thought they were like, the world was like, and God was like, and what it really is, an energy was released, space was opened up in their hearts, inner healing occurred, disruption happened, they were changed. And the Holy Spirit now had space to enter each of them and do something new. God loves us too much to overpower us and force us to do anything. I do not believe the Holy Spirit could have come to the followers of Jesus that day if they hadn’t done some inner work of their own first. Beloved Community was a gift that God gave them that day, but it couldn’t be birthed in them if they hadn’t allowed it to happen. “No one can be forced into wellness.”

Dr. Meeks wrote about racial healing, and I think she is correct. For racial healing to occur, for the Holy Spirit to lead us to a place of equity and equality, we will individually and collectively need to do a lot of inner work. And I think this is true for the church as well. We spend a lot of time worrying about declining membership and attendance, decreasing pledging units, and smaller budgets. Enormous amounts of money and time over the past 50-60 years have been invested in finding “the solution” and looking for the person or people who can provide it. We hire clergy we hope will save us and then run them out when they don’t. And yet we, not just St. Andrew’s but all of western Christianity is still in decline. We want a solution that doesn’t involve new ways of seeing and changing. We want our buildings, programs, worship, music, hierarchy, membership, everything to remain the same with more people joining us in these things. We want magic. We want a solution without doing the individual work we need to do to make room for the Holy Spirit to lead us to where we need to be.

The “church” was born on Pentecost so many years ago, because those first followers of Jesus did their inner work that made space for the energy of God, the Holy Spirit, to transform them. It wasn’t magic but it was mystical. The question for us this Pentecost is are we willing to do the same? If you are let me know because we can travel this journey together. Amen.

[1] Dr. Catherine Meeks, The Night Is Long but Light Comes in the Morning: Meditations on Racial Healing. (Morehouse Publishing, NY), 2023. Page 2.

[2] Ibid., p. 3.

[3] Ibid. p. 5.

[4] Ibid., p. 7.

[5] Ibid., p. 39.

[6] Ibid., pp. 72-73

[7] Ibid., p. 78.

[8] Ibid. p. 203.

[9] Ibid., 204