A Sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter
Trinity Episcopal Church
in Easton, Pennsylvania
May 16, 2021
Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created. And You shall renew the face of the earth.
O, God, who by the light of the Holy Spirit, did instruct the hearts of the faithful, grant that by the same Holy Spirit we may be truly wise and ever enjoy His consolations, Through Christ Our Lord, Amen.
Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this season.
This evening, at sunset, our Jewish Sisters and Brothers will begin the celebration of the Feast of Weeks, known in Hebrew as Shavuot. It commemorates that moment when, seven weeks or 50 days after Passover, the People of Israel gathered around the base of Mount Sinai as the Prophet Moses—at the height of the mountain—received the Torah, the Law, the Commandments from God.
In Second Temple, Judaism—at the time of Jesus and his disciples—there were three great Pilgrimage Festivals: Pesach (or Passover), Shavuot (or Weeks) and Sukkot (or Tabernacles or Tents). If at all possible, each family would make the journey to the Holy City of Jerusalem to celebrate in the Temple. Of the three festivals, Passover may have been the most popular, but it is quite possible that Shavuot may have been the most important.
Years ago, after having attended my first Seder, while I lived in the Bronx, I had an interesting conversation with a Jewish friend. I told him how deeply touched I had been by the Seder and shared my conviction that this, surely, must have been the transforming moment for the People of Israel. The delivery from slavery and oppression must have been the defining moment. He disagreed, and said that “No, it was the giving and the receiving of the Law which set Israel apart from all the other nations, and which made us into a unique and distinct group.”
Gary then shared with me his own experience of preparing for the Bar Mitzvah. He had been raised in a Jewish family, and had been circumcised and named on the eighth day. So, on some level he might be considered to be Jewish. But, there was something lacking, something missing, something incomplete. As he stood at the bema and chanted the passage from the Torah, he took upon himself the obligation, the commitment of following the Law. He literally became a “Son of the Commandment,” that is what bar mitzvah literally means. No longer was his family responsible for his faith and for his practice. He now took that responsibility upon himself.
Some Jewish mystical thinkers refer to the Sinai experience as the “Marriage between God and Israel.” We speak of “covenants” of the ways in which God enters into a committed relationship of love and compassion. There is a progressive revelation of intimacy and inclusivity as these covenants are revealed (Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, Moses at Sinai, King David, and the Prophets). But notice that we do not speak of either Pesach or Sukkot as a covenant-only Shavuot.
In reality, the three Pilgrimage Festivals speak of one reality in three stages. The delivery from Slavery, the giving of the Law, and the time spent wandering in the desert. They speak of a disillusioned and hopeless people who are transformed by the emancipating love of God, who are then willing to take the risk of committing themselves to that God (even though they really have no idea what that will mean for them) and who then morph from freed slaves (with a slave mentality) into independent persons who are finally ready to cross the Jordan River into a land—which they are promised—will be “flowing with milk and honey.”
As an interesting aside, the tradition for Shavuot is to eat dairy products. It recalls the promised, milk and honey, the “sweet gift of the Torah,” and has been described as an unexpected surprise. After all, the kosher requirements and regulations did not exist prior to the giving of the Law. When Moses came down from the mountain and explained the Law, the people suddenly realized that the meat which they had been eating (and the pots in which it had been cooked) was not kosher and could no longer be eaten. And so, to celebrate, they had a dairy meal. Perhaps we could all eat cheesecake to celebrate tonight.?
Shavuot also celebrated an important harvest festival. It was the time when the “first fruits” were brought to the Temple. It celebrated God’s abundant—even extravagant—generosity. In love the Ruler of the Universe provided, from the earth, gifts of grain and fruit. Through human labor and cooperation, these would be transformed into the essentials for living.
Unique among the Pilgrim Festivals, though, Shavuot seems to recapitulate the story of the three primary relationships from Genesis: God, community, and creation. God enters into covenant on Mount Sinai with the People of Israel and then blesses them with the abundance of creation. In response, the People of Israel take upon themselves the project of “tikkun olam,” of working to heal, to repair, to lovingly restore wounded creation. In its own way, it is the celebration of a new creation, a new season of hope. Thus the prayer of gratitude is recited on this day, “Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this season.”
On Thursday, we celebrated the Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Now, with the Apostles and the Disciples, we gather in that Cenacle, that Upper Room in Jerusalem. Like their ancestors, they have been brought out exile—from death into new life—through the Paschal Mystery of the passion, death and resurrection of Christ. And yet, there is something missing, something lacking. They quake in fear in that Upper Room because Jesus has left them. They imagine that at just any moment, the Roman authorities or the Jewish political leaders will break down that door and haul them off to court.
And so, they do the only thing which remains for them—the only thing which gives them hope—they pray as Jesus instructed them to do for the coming of the Advocate, the Consoler, the Comforter—even though they have no idea what that means. And, in a city, suddenly full of Jews from all over the diaspora—almost fifty days after Passover, after the Resurrection—they prepare to celebrate Shavuot. However, influenced by Greek culture, and even the Greek language, they use another name to describe this Festival of Weeks, the Festival of the Giving and Receiving of the Law, the celebration of the First Fruits—they use a name which in Greek means “fifty.” They prepare to celebrate Pentecost.
This coming Sunday we will recall and celebrate the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Feast of Pentecost. We will celebrate the transformation of those frightened disciples who will open the doors of that Upper Room and who will run out into the streets proclaiming the Good News of Jesus the Christ. We will celebrate the birth of the Church. We will celebrate the incredible way in which that Good News will be proclaimed first in Jerusalem and then to the ends of the known world.
But we are not there yet. We live today, between the Ascension and Pentecost. Today, we pray for the coming of the Comforter, the Advocate, the Holy Spirit. We pray that our broken, violent, and wounded world may be renewed and—with our help—recreated! We pray that all of creation, and all of humanity may be drawn into ever deepening relationship with God. So that we may become like that tree planted by the river which never grows thirsty. Like grain scattered on the hillside which produces an abundant harvest—and the tastiest of breads. Like grapes crushed and fermented into wine to gladden the heart and to bring healing.
Today we pray for a world overflowing with milk and honey. A world of abundance in which the needs of every person will be met. A world in which there will be safety, security, peace, and justice. A world in which no one will be excluded or treated as less than anyone else. A world of love, and hope, and joy. A world in which we will all be sanctified in truth by recognizing that every single person—without exception—is beloved and is claimed as “God’s own forever.”
And so, today, between Ascension and Pentecost, we pray. “Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created. And You shall renew the face of the earth.”