“If you’ll say this is for me, you shall be filled.”
A sermon for the Day of Pentecost
June 9, 2019
Almighty God, on this day you opened the way of eternal life
to every race and nation by the promised gift of your Holy
Spirit: Shed abroad this gift throughout the world by the
preaching of the Gospel, that it may reach to the ends of the
earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns
with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever
and ever. Amen.
This beautiful banner is the work of artist Patti Pasda
and hangs in the nave of Trinity Episcopal Church in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
This weekend I am not preaching. For some time I have considered the option of trying to write a sermon each week, whether I am preaching or not. But, until now, I have not acted on that impulse.
I do find myself in an interesting situation. Each Wednesday, I am honored to preach at the Weekday Eucharist at 11:30 a.m. where I work at Trinity Episcopal Church in Bethlehem. I try to make those sermons very short—no more than five minutes or so. They are a fascinating connection for me to those years that I served as a Roman Catholic priest. The homily plays a different role there. Early on, I came to the realization that, unless it is a very special occasion, the typical Roman Catholic congregation was willing to accept a length of one hour for Mass. Anything more than that was going to make some unhappy—and drive some away. So, that meant that the homily could not normally go beyond 8-10 minutes. Over a period of many years, I learned to work with that limitation.
With two or three exceptions, I never wrote the homily out in advance. And, it became easy to tell when the congregation was growing tired—and to know that it was time to “wrap things up.” From my own personal sense of the liturgy, I believed then—and still believe now—that the actions which recalled the words of Jesus and his own example were far more important than any words I had to offer. So, I invested more time in being a good presider at Eucharist than in being a good preacher.
The Sunday Episcopal Liturgy is another matter. To my delight, Episcopalians seem to operate more on the model of an hour and a half. The joy of that is that there really is no rush. This allows the preacher, and I would imagine, the priest presiding at the Eucharist to be more relaxed. There is no sense that the clock is ticking. It also means that the expectations are higher. I do not really thing that I spend any more time in preparing Episcopal Sermons than I did in preparing Roman Catholic homilies. The Episcopal ones are more polished—and developed in a different way. It seems that 15 minutes would be an appropriate length for an Episcopal sermon.
I have recently given all of this a good deal of thought and consideration, because this Summer, at Trinity in Easton, the preachers are also leading a discussion in the Forum each Sunday. When asked about this, I thought it was a wonderful idea and a great opportunity. Whenever, I have led Bible Study classes in the past, I have learned as much as I have shared. That really is the joy of exploring the Holy Scriptures—Hebrew and Christian in community. There are always new insights gained. Others see things that I do not see. And, at times my own ideas are challenged or validated. Both of which are very good things! In such sessions, I often feel the presence of God. Of course, it takes a willingness to be vulnerable for those studies to be successful. Especially if the participants share their own life-experiences, that means that they have to be unafraid to open up and let people know sometimes very personal things about themselves. I think that is also true of the preacher. The sermons which have moved me most powerfully are ones in which I have connected with the hurts, pains, struggles, and joys of the preacher.
Pentecost, provides a wonderful experience, I think, to reflect on the role and power of the spoken and preached word in proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ to the world. Our Presiding Bishop and Primate, the Most Reverend Michael B. Curry has shared two vital ideas which have had a powerful impact on my own spiritual life.
The first is “If it’s not about love, it is not about God.” I am convinced that the single greatest longing of every human heart is to be loved. Nothing else is even remotely as important as this. When it happens, that love is truly transformative, empowering and life-changing. Sadly, not everyone has had an experience of being loved. Many people have been hurt, wounded, and feel un-loved. Their experiences have led them, in some cases, to feel that they are not loved. Even, at times to fear that they might be unlovable. They feel flawed, broken, and rejected. They have given up on any hope of every finding love or of being beloved.
This has been so devastating for them that they have withdrawn from life and find themselves existing rather than living. This is especially true of people who have been rejected for who they are. People of Color, people from other parts of the world, those who are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, or Intersex, and those who suffer from various addictions know this all to well. At the very core of their wounded souls is either the fear that “if they really knew me, they would not love me.” Or else, they have been made to fear that they are “less” and not “deserving” of love. Bishop Curry’s message, though, is that God is primarily about love rather than judgement. And, God loves very single person who lives, who ever lived, or who will live. That is the message of hope which needs to be proclaimed. If someone listens to a sermon or homily and does not hear the good news that God loves them—that sermon or homily may be about many wonderful things, but is it about God?
The second important idea is that the Church is really nothing more-or nothing less-than the Jesus Movement! If it is not about Jesus, it is not about the authentic church. That does not mean that we have nothing else to say—or that we have the only answer. It does mean that in Jesus we have found an answer that makes sense to us. An answer that gives value, meaning, and purpose to our lives—as individuals, and as a community of faith. Seen in that light, every single action of the church must be evaluated in light of one question: “Does this lead people closer to an encounter with the loving, healing, saving, and life-giving Jesus?” If not, it may be interesting, and even important, But it will never be essential.
Sadly, we have allowed the fundamentalists to co-opt talking about Jesus. We are afraid that if we do too much of that, we will be thought of as “fanatics.” There has been so much hurt and pain caused by allowing others to hijack and distort the loving message of Our Lord, that there is no time to waste in introducing others to the real Jesus. A Jesus who loved unconditionally, who welcomed everyone, who served the needs that he saw in each person without ever stopping to ask what it would cost him. A Jesus who loved us so much that he endured the passion and crucifixion and the experience of death—not to show us that he suffered to take away sin—but to show that God’s love can never be halted or overcome by hatred or prejudice or cruelty or violence. That love is made especially clear in the power of the Resurrection and in the Outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
It raises the question, then, “How do I come to encounter and to know this Jesus?” How can I experience that limitless and transforming love? Although I have had amazing personal experiences of God—of Jesus—in moments of prayer and solitude, my primary and most powerful experiences of God’s love have come in the gatherings of community of the Jesus Movement. To be very specific—I have found and find God through the Sacraments.
In Baptism, I was claimed and sealed as Christ’s own for ever! I was made a member of the household and family of faith. In Confirmation I was empowered to become an evangelist for Christ—not like the televangelists or even the local preachers in a tent revival. But like every Confirmed Christian, I was anointed with the Holy Spirit—as was Jesus—to be a witness in the world of the reality and power of God’s love. In the Holy Eucharist I received the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus Christ—the “bread of heaven” and the “cup of salvation.” I was invited to become the reality I consumed—to allow it to transform me and to then carry that presence of Christ into the world. In the Sacrament of Holy Orders, a successor of the Apostles laid hands on me and invoked the power of the Holy Spirit giving me a sharing in the Ministerial Priesthood of Jesus Christ, as a Deacon, and as a Priest—to build up the Jesus Movement in conjunction with Bishops in whose dioceses I served—and with the women and men in whose parishes I exercised that ministry. At moments of illness-physical, emotional, and spiritual, I received healing and restored wholeness through the Sacraments of the Anointing of the Sick and the Reconciliation of a Penitent. Until now, God has not gifted me with a husband, and so I have not joined with another in Holy Matrimony. If that is part of God’s plan for me, I welcome it. And, if not, I will be accept that too.
Today, though, I want to say a few more words about Confirmation. For me, Confirmation, is about empowerment. Jesus told his disciples that when the Holy Spirit came upon them, they would receive “power.” To me, it seems obvious that they did not have power! There was something missing, something lacking in their lives. One reading of the texts would suggest that they might have already been baptized, and after that Final Supper/Seder, some claim that they had even been ordained. But before the day of Pentecost they were hiding out in fear in that upper room. After the power of the Spirit came upon them, they became fearless, public witnesses and preachers of God’s love on the streets of Jerusalem—and ultimately to the ends of the earth.
This was not a simple liturgical rite showing that they were now adult Christians. This was not a rite of passage. This was an explosion that rocked them to the core of their being—and which literally changed the history of the world. The Jesus movement was born on the day of Pentecost. Without the power of the Spirit the followers of Jesus would have returned to their old way of living with conflicting emotions. They would never have become the Apostles on whose witness, teaching, and ministry, the Church was built.
It is no mistake that we have been introduced to the idea of “Gifts of the Spirit.” Especially in the writings of Saint Paul. But we often make the mistake of thinking that those gifts only apply to a few people—certainly not to us! Another traditional approach was to speak of the seven “Gifts of the Holy Spirit”—these clearly are intended for each of us: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. Without saying anything about the particular gifts, one way to understand them is that they give us everything that is needed each day to accomplish God’s will in our lives. That is something which Baptism does not give!
In the first year after I was ordained as a priest, I served a year in a parish in North Central Pennsylvania. During that year, I was invited to lead a retreat for a group of High School Students who were preparing for Confirmation. They were wonderful young women and men. And, they took this very seriously! Yet, it was clear to me that, after listening, to them, that they really did not expect that it was going to make much of a difference in their lives. They thought it would be a nice day—and some were looking forward to spending time with relatives that they had not seen in a while. All of them had done many hours of service in preparation for Confirmation. For a few of them, it meant that they were finally going to be finished with catechesis and classes (they were honest enough to admit that). A few of them were not really sure how active they were going to be about Church afterwards. They were finally going to be able to make that decision for themselves when they went away to college the next year!
I honestly felt sad! They expected so very little to come at and after Confirmation. Really, it was not their own fault. No one had ever told them that there was another possibility. There was the possibility that they could have an experience of the Holy Spirit like that which had happened to the Apostles and the Disciples gathered in that upper room. Who was to say that there could not be a mighty rushing wind and tongues of flame or even the gift of tongues? Even if that did not visibly happen, they could have such a powerful experience of God that their lives would be changed forever!
What prevented this from happening? One possibility, I think, is that God will not give us more than we are willing to accept. God is a gentle person. God will not come into our lives uninvited and unwelcome. But, if God is invited and welcomed—anything is possible! All things are possible! Pentecost in the here and now is possible!
There is a lovely Pentecostal hymn which I learned in traveling through the mountains of Eastern Kentucky one summer: “You shall be filled with the power of the Spirit. You shall be filled with the anointing from on high. If you’ll say this is for me, you shall be filled.”
May prayer for all of us on this Day of Pentecost is that we will say “This is for me,” and that we will permit that power promised to us—and gifted to us–in the Sacrament of Confirmation to be unleashed!
I will conclude on a personal note. On June 6, 1991, in the crypt of the Saint Vincent Archabbey Basilica, I presided at the Eucharist for the first time. It was the Vigil of Pentecost. That day I was empowered to serve as a priest in Christ’s one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. Thus, Pentecost will always be for me not only the Birthday of the church—but the day of my rebirth and empowerment for service. That in all things God may be glorified.