This sermon was preached at St. Mark’s, Berkeley, on Pentecost, Sunday, May 20, 2018. Much of this homily was inspired by a recent re-discovery of a hymn text by Thomas a Kempis, “If there be that skills to reckon” reflecting on the glory of heaven and the character of its society. One of my favorite stanzas goes as follows: “There the gifts of each and single all in common might possess; there each member hath his portion in the Body’s blessedness; So that he, the least in merits, shares the guerdon nonetheless.”
Collect: O God, who on this day taught the hearts of your faithful people by sending to them the light of your Holy Spirit: Grant us by the same Spirit to have a right judgment in all things, and evermore to rejoice in his holy comfort; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Readings: Acts 2:1-21, Romans 8:22-27, John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15
In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:
Well this is it. The long period of waiting is over. What had been promised is now fulfilled, we can all celebrate and carry on our ways with a little extra spring in our step, with a delight that wasn’t there before, and with some newfound inspiration to boot.
I’m talking of course about the Royal Wedding, though the same could be said about today’s holiday of Pentecost. I wasn’t able to watch yesterday’s broadcast, but as I read the various reports and reviews, one thing I’m struck by is the common refrain. Everyone — whether on Twitter or Facebook, the New York Times, Esquire, or the BBC — is remarking on how the preacher took everyone to CHURCH.
The preacher was our own presiding bishop, Michael Curry, and somehow his remarks had such an effect that the commentators have largely left aside their focus on dresses and clothes and royal lines of succession, and have started talking about love: love as a force, a power, and desperately needed in our world right now. The Telegraph is estimating that as many as two billion people watched or heard the wedding yesterday, by television, radio, or internet. And by most accounts, nearly all two billion of them are now talking about love.
What happened that so many people heard the same message? Somehow the miracle of Pentecost has occurred again in our time: all the people gathered from every corner of the world heard Peter preaching in their own native language. All the two billion people watching the wedding have heard something told them about love.
The whole thing brings to mind another royal undertaking, many thousands of years ago deep in the misty reaches of the undefined past. You may remember the story of the Tower of Babel. In order to make a name for themselves, the leaders of the people decided to build a great city with a great tower reaching all the way up to heaven. Now at that time, as the book of Genesis renders it, there was only one people on earth, and they all had the same language. To foil their hubris, God confused their language, and they could no longer understand one another. They stopped building the city with its tower, and from then on they were scattered all over the face of the earth.
It’s difficult to underestimate the sadness of this story. It’s the last chapter in the prologue to the book of Genesis; Abraham appears immediately after, and from then on Genesis concerns itself chiefly with his perspective and that of his descendants, no longer with that of all and sundry. The confusion at Babel marks the last in a set of universal curses that punish human arrogance and explain the difficult conditions under which we go about our lives in this world.
Pentecost, which the Church celebrates today, is the reversal of that curse. All of a sudden, the world’s confusion of language is ended and they can all understand Peter speaking in their own native tongue. What does he say to them? That the love of God poured out on the whole human race in Jesus of Nazareth, that love is theirs too; God’s love is for them too. Forgiveness is not only possible, but it is freely offered. Life beyond death is not only possible, but it is the new order of the day. Even more, this love which God offers goes ahead of us to encompass all the human race, represented by every conceivable language, and binds us all together.
From Pentecost on, Christians believe that deep down at the heart of things it is impossible for there to be competing peoples and nations at enmities. All are one in the Holy Spirit of God, all are given the same language of love, no longer to make a name for themselves with a tower reaching to heaven, but to find their name already given them, as they give themselves to one another.
This is the truth which Pentecost reveals: the burden of translation, the fear of being misunderstood, are transfigured into occasions where words give way to actions, where argument makes allowances for affection, and where love is finally what we long most desperately to say, offer, prove, and achieve.
In short, Pentecost reveals that our own first language is love, though in the meantime we may have forgotten how to speak it. Pentecost reveals that our own first inclination is towards the communion that love creates, though in the meantime we may have forgotten how to identify it. This is why it’s so important that the Holy Spirit arrives on Pentecost not just as a power to reveal these things, but also as a gift, as a help, for us to live into them.
I remember one year in high school our school band director had signed us all up for a competition. We were going to go to Virginia with other school bands from all over the country to play for a combined audience and to be judged. The music he had chosen was difficult, and I remember one rehearsal where by that point we should have made more progress than we had done. We were frustrated with ourselves, and I’m sure our director was too. But instead of yelling at us, he was full of encouragement. “Don’t worry,” he said, “You’ll get this. I know you can do it. I wouldn’t set you up to fail.”
I remember that phrase, “I wouldn’t set you up to fail,” because it was the first time I’d heard it. It took me a minute to understand what he meant, but it was a huge relief — that, at that moment, somebody in authority had more confidence in me than I did, had more knowledge of my own ability, had more excitement about our band’s potential for success than we could muster. And here he was doing everything he could to help us succeed.
You don’t have to be a musician — though it helps! — in order to understand or at least guess the (tongue-in-cheek) proximity between music directors and God. Which is only by way of offering, that God doesn’t set us up to fail either, and continually gives us the gifts and the resources to accomplish the work we are set; chief of all, his own self in the Holy Spirit.
On Pentecost the Holy Spirit of God shows up, not just to guide or to teach, but to be the gift, God’s own self the gift, revealing what was true all along: the love, the potential for good, the desire for common understanding and communion deep at the heart of human life; and not just revealing what is true, but healing the divisions which prevent its fulfillment, drawing us into a single Body nourished by God’s own self. That gift is the Gift of Gifts, and it remains a stupendous mystery for us to contemplate as well as a dynamic life for us to live.
No, God does not set us up to fail, but reverses all the curses with which we are afflicted, to enable love to flourish among us and within us. Let us allow that love to guide us into closer relationship with one another and with God. Let that love overcome our resistance to meet and know those who are different from us, and embolden our confidence to trust.
So may we find ourselves understanding one another in our own native language of love. So may the love of God grow within us to embrace our selves our communities, and our world.
In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Amen.