May 28: Day of Pentecost

Valerie Kelley is a retired educator and congregant at St. Hilda St. Patrick. She has served on the Bishop’s Committee and is a former Senior Warden. The sermon for Sunday May 28, was preached in response to John 7:37-39 based on the manuscript below.

The breath of God, fire, God within and around us. Through our readings today, on this day of Pentecost, we get an intoxicating feeling of being surrounded and held up by the mysterious power and presence of God through the Holy Spirit.

Every year on this day, as we read together from the Acts of the Apostles, we get a glimpse of how it felt to the disciples and the others who experienced it. Can you imagine how surprising and scary and awe-inspiring and overwhelming this situation must have been for those who were there?

We know that the disciples had recently lost Jesus in a very difficult way, and then they had experienced his resurrection. Minds blown. They must have been struggling with what all of this meant for their individual lives and for the world. Everything was upside down. It’s hard to imagine that in this context they didn’t have any disagreements.  They probably had conflicts and misunderstandings, just as other humans would. Yet, when this day of Pentecost came, the disciples were all together in one place.  They were all with each other where they experienced a life changing event – a great sound of wind, and they were each touched by tongues “as of fire”.  I imagine there was a SHARED experience of Wonder. And Confusion. And Awe. But through the Holy Spirit, they were touched by God. While they were together.

Also near the disciples were other people – Our scripture from Acts talks about crowds. Why were they there?  What we know is that the Day of Pentecost, or Shavuot, was originally an agricultural festival that took place 50 days after the first day of Passover. Traditionally, people took the day off from working. So people were hanging out. I imagine groups gathered from around the Jewish diaspora – people from places like present day Egypt, Greece, Italy, Libya, Syria, Israel, and more. Hanging out TOGETHER. In community.

It wouldn’t be a surprise if the people in the crowds on that Day of Pentecost described in Acts had some misunderstandings with each other as well. Their customs and cultures were different, even though most of them were probably Jewish. We hear about their different languages, but what was everyone eating? Where were they all staying? I’ll bet they didn’t look alike.

We don’t hear about the conflicts, though, either among the disciples or the crowds. What we hear about is that while they were together, each person heard the Spirit in their own language. The Holy Spirit became known to each of these people individually, in their own way, yet the experience was so powerful because it was also SHARED.

This is the gift of Pentecost – The promise that The Holy Spirit connects each of us with God, and with each other, despite our differences.

 Of course, in everyday life, sometimes, this unity through the Holy Spirit is difficult to find. Even in this day and age, where we have planes and the internet and TV and phones to connect us, human beings still look at people from other places and sectors of society with suspicion. We like to talk about how divided and different we are from one another. Other people’s religious beliefs may seem odd; their accents unintelligible, their customs strange, their politics kooky, their motivations suspect. We’ve all been in situations where we don’t feel valued, and where difficulties grow. Just looking at the newspaper today, we can read about politicians who feel so disconnected from their fellow Americans that they can’t work together to keep our shared country out of a debt crisis. We can all think of many more examples where we find it difficult to see our connections to each other – our looming climate crisis; the prevalence of local unhoused people; increasing gun violence are just a few.

And yet, when we honor our connectedness through God, we can change the world, one person, one family, one community at a time. Here at St. Hilda-St. Patrick, when we work together to take care of our building and grounds, provide food and socks and backpacks and gift cards and holiday meals for our neighbors; provide flowers and snacks and prayer shawls and music for each other; when we gather on Zoom or around the altar to share the gifts of communion; we are joining together in the Holy Spirit in a way that we can’t do when we’re alone. We then take this love of God with us into our work and family lives, and the web of love through God continues.

The promise of the Holy Spirit means we have to put aside some of our individual differences to see each person we meet as a valued child of God. And it is the Christian responsibility of each of us to acknowledge and demonstrate that we are bound together.

Paul clearly understood this when he wrote years later to a bickering church in Corinth – as we heard in the reading from his first letter to the Corinthians today. Paul was clear that each person and their unique gifts had a role to play in the community of God. No one person possessed all the abilities needed in the group, and each contributed in their own distinctive way to the whole body of Christ.

Early in my career teaching English to people from other countries, I was around a table speaking with a group of students, including some young women from Saudi Arabia, when an office assistant escorted a new student into the classroom. He was a young, handsome Chilean teen who greeted me, his new teacher, with a kiss on the cheek, as was his custom. Then, eyeing his new classmates, he strode purposefully to greet them too. The Saudi women eyed him suspiciously and then all at once they ducked under the classroom table. They were terrified of a potential kiss from this boy. Clearly the boy and the women had different customs and taboos, and the misunderstandings were obvious. But TOGETHER we eventually forged a class where everyone could learn and thrive in their own way.  Our young Chilean had to figure out that his way of saying hello felt truly disrespectful and scary to his classmates; and the Muslim women had to learn that his greeting was offered in good faith and with a loving attitude. Both ways of seeing the world were valid; but each had its limitations; and the group soon became a tight-knit learning community. Despite their differences in religion and background, to me it seemed that the Holy Spirit touched each of these students as they grew together in their shared goals. Because of their willingness to see the gifts in each other, they became a strong class of learners who supported and loved each other.

In Christian tradition, the experience of Pentecost we heard described today is the beginning of the spread of the church, when Peter calls the disciples to go forth into the world bringing the love of God to all. Their focus was on what God, through the Holy Spirit, can do with people who encounter God’s love. And while we are called to listen and to look for the Holy Spirit, we aren’t called to be Christians by ourselves. This good news is that the love of God rests on all of us. The Holy Spirit binds us. We belong to each other, and it is through each other that, if we look hard enough, we can see the breath of God.

We find Jesus in our sisters and brothers. In loving our neighbors. We find Jesus through the transforming power of the Holy Spirit in our lives in community.

Thomas Keating says in his book, The Mystery of Christ, “We are in God and God is in us, and the unifying force is the Spirit. To live in the Spirit is the fulfillment of every law and commandment, the sum of every duty to each other, and the joy of oneness with everything that is.”

I’ll close with This prayer, which is derived from our psalm today:

Come, O Holy Spirit,

Fill the hearts of your faithful

And kindle in them the fire of Your love.

Send forth your Spirit, and we shall be created

And You shall renew the face of the earth.

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