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Grace and Power Pour Down

Rev. Dan Smith
Sun, May 19

Pentecost Sunday
Text: Acts 2:1-17

Don’t get me wrong! I love Pentecost. It’s one of my favorite festivals, and not only ‘cause I can so easily color-coordinate my tie and stole! The task of preaching on Pentecost though is a little like nailing jelly to a wall! Frederick Buechner once put the dilemma in this way: “The word ‘spirit’ has come to mean something pale and shapeless, like an unmade bed. [We think of] school spirit, the American spirit, the Christmas spirit, the spirit of ’76, the Holy Spirit. Each of these,” Buechner writes, “points to something you know is supposed to get you to your feet cheering but which you somehow can’t [always] rise to. Even if we can get to our feet cheering, our hands clapping and our voices singing this morning, and I don’t doubt that its been genuine, let’s face it, Spirit, is a hard thing for us to put into words. How many of us mainline Protestants feel reluctant to blithely invoke the Spirit for fear of sounding too religious, or for that matter, too spiritual. Yet when we really think about the enlivening and literally inspiring force that the Spirit is in our tradition, I think somewhere within even the most reluctant among us, we know we can barely breathe without it. But most of us may choose to withdraw from wrestling with the concept of the Spirit, satisfied with an agnostic approach to making any intellectual sense of the matter, and instead leaving such spiritual things entirely to the realm of individual experience. So, what can be said of this third person or aspect in the Holy Trinity, and what do we make of the story of its appearance in our reading from Acts?

I’m grateful to Patty VanNess this morning for giving me the title and focus for this Pentecost sermon. Grace and power pour down! Patty has once again shared her spiritual gifts with us this Sunday by inviting Peter and the choir to premiere her exquisite composition of Psalm 67, a part of a new series she has been working for on for years. Stay tuned for more! On behalf of all of us, thank you, Patty, for that gift, and especially on this birthday of the church, as Pentecost is often called. Grace and power pour down.

That’s it. That’s the story of that first Pentecost, in essence, the day in which the Spirit brought forth the church. Grace and power pour down! Its also a large part of what Christians mean when we talk about spirit, that is, when we talk about the capital H, capital S, Holy Spirit. On that first Pentecost, amidst those early first century adherents of the still emerging Jesus movement, we are told that the Spirit does just that. It pours down. It descends. It’s sent from above. From up in the heavens comes a violent wind and tongues of flame that came to rest upon each of them, mind you this is 50 days after Easter. In years past, we’ve tended to focuse more on the imagery of the story – the wind and fire and water, all symbols of the Holy Spirit used throughout the Hebrew and Christian Bible. In fact, Pentecost itself is rooted in an antecedent Jewish tradition called Shavuot, which is the Hebrew word for Weeks. Pentecost was what the Greek Jews called the Festival of Weeks, which was originally a harvest festival but it came to celebrate the handing down of the Torah, or the Law, to Moses at Sinai.

This year, rather than get caught up in the elemental attributes of the Spirit of God – made known through the waters of chaos, through the air of God’s breath, through pillars of smoke and tongues of fire as it’s variously described through the stories in which the Spirit shows up, I invite us instead to notice another common thread, namely the direction of the Spirit’s movement in our Biblical accounts about the Spirit. Throughout scripture, let alone throughout our hymnbook, the Spirit is most often depicted as descending, and as being sent down from God above! This movement of the Spirit from beyond and above is one thing that distinguishes it as Holy! Whether like a dove, or in wind or flame or rain, the Holy Spirit more often than not pours down and descends upon our earthly, material existence, carrying with it God’s grace and power, God’s justice and joy, God’s wisdom and love. Think about it for a moment. Maybe not every time, but most times, when we encounter the Spirit in scripture, the Spirit comes. The Spirit comes to us and it comes from above!

Before we go further, let me be the first to say, I’m usually not a fan of a strictly vertical spirituality. If anything, I’m more of a horizontal guy. The Spirit is here, in you and in me, and between us. Yet it’s worth focusing on this way in which the Biblical writers describe those first appearances of the Spirit. It inspired medieval churches to install what were called “Holy Ghost” holes in the vaulted ceilings of their cathedrals. On Pentecost, they’d get up on the roofs and shove little doves through them to the awe of their awaiting congregations inside, but throughout the year, these holes would serve to keep open channels to the heavens above! Similarly, this vertical orientation is what led the Eastern Orthodox church to invite clergy and lay alike to kneel during their Pentecost celebrations, to kneel so low that they touch their foreheads to the ground. Some even lie and pray completely prostrate -- belly and palms and forehead, all flat against the floor! What a symbol. The Spirit comes from on high and so humans, humans in response, aim to get low, as low as they can go, as a gesture of utter humility in the presence of such grace and power descending.

Like those first recipients of the Holy Spirit, we too may well stand back from all this tradition and wonder “what does it all mean”? Are those guys prostrate on the floor merely drunk with too much communion wine? How do we more fully understand all this Spirit talk?

According to contemporary theologian Elizabeth Johnson, one clue to the Spirit’s work in the world receives precision from a trio of metaphors crafted by the third century North African theologian, Tertullian. I loved her summary of this powerful images. She writes:

“First, if God the Father [or Creator] can be likened to the sun, then Christ is the sunbeam, that is, of the same substance as the sun and coming forth to the earth. And the Spirit? The Spirit is the suntan, the spot of warmth and light where the sun arrives and actually has an effect. The pattern repeats in the example of water: there is an upwelling spring in the hill, and the same water in the river flowing (down) through the valley, and the irrigation ditch (the Spirit) where the water reaches plants and actually enables them to grow. [Tertullian] further compared the Trinitarian God to the root, the shoot and the fruit of the tree, that is the tree’s deep unreachable foundation (the Creator), its visible sprouting forth into the world (Christ), and its flowers, fragrances, fruits and seeds which beautify and nourish the world (the Spirit). “These are all”, Johnson contends, “metaphors for the one God who exists as incomprehensible mystery beyond the world, comes forth incarnate in history, and – here is the point – pervades the material world with graceful vigor. God’s grace and power pour down upon us, as we absorb the rays of the sun. If you like the tree analogy, grace and power grow up within us, as we share our God given fruits, our gifts, our creativity with the world in desperate and desert need of spiritual irrigation! Through it all, the Spirit comes, pours into and pervades the world with graceful vigor!”

Whatever image we might choose, the Holy Spirit is a force of divinity that touches down upon us, or if you prefer, that wells up within us. And it always comes! Veni Creator Spiritus! Come, Creator Spirit! Come, Holy Spirit! The Spirit comes whether from above us or beneath us. It moves towards us as constantly as our inhaled breath! And when we open ourselves, it pours into us, ever-ready to fill our cup with refreshment, with challenge, with courage and with hope. Coming from above, it reminds us that we are never the master of our domain nor that of our neighbor, that there is always a ‘higher power,’ and a great equalizer of humankind! Coming from beneath us, it evokes humility that we will never truly know what lies at the bottom of things, that we will never fully plumb the depths within us for they are as infinite as the heavens above! Coming, always coming from beyond us, from beyond our mere existential humanity, the Spirit offers and inspires our red and gold streamers that connect us with the generations and with generativity, that connects us with creation and creativity. The Spirit comes and with it, comes a sense of the immediacy and immanence of a God who is an otherwise wholly transcendent out-there and up-there divinity! And the endless source of God’s grace and power poured down on that first Pentecost and the Spirit has been looking for outlets and channels ever since.

This brings us to the rest of the story, and our part in it. Why still celebrate that original Pentecost? Why do we still sing of the Spirit falling afresh upon us and descending upon our hearts? Why does the Spirit come? You see, through us, through that community of faith to which it gave birth over two millennia ago, this force of God’s power and grace is meant to “live and move and breathe” and spread out into the world. Pentecost is the great crux, the intersection, the pouring down and the spilling over of God’s power and grace into human life, human relationship, human community, human creativity. The Spirit is what sustains our work for the Common Good. The Spirit is what gives us gifts for living and giving and loving and service. Tradition tells us that the so-called Fruits of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. When you find yourself struggling with any of these virtues, and who among us doesn’t, something is clogging up the works and preventing the Spirit’s power and grace from flowing down into and through you! These gifts, and each of us will hold and manifest them differently, are just waiting to break through.

The story of the pouring down of the Spirit at Pentecost is a reminder from whence the Spirit flows, and that it continues to flow today. The extent to which we can comprehend this is a past or present reality is measure of how open we are to receive, and of our readiness to become a vessel and a channel of the immediacy and presence of God’s love.

This past Thursday, about 30 of us were treated to some work-in-progress excerpts from Arleigh Prelow’s forthcoming feature length documentary called the Psalm of Howard Thurman. Thurman is best known for being Dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University and a mentor to Martin Luther King, though Arleigh’s footage tells so much more of this remarkable spiritual leader. I’ve been doing some re-reading of Thurman since Thursday and I came across this beautiful meditation of his yesterday. It speaks to the need to clear out a space for the Spirit to work in and through us, and not incidentally, it aligns us with a certain downward movement. It’s called How Good it Is to Center Down, and it bears quoting in full. Hear his words now:

How good it is to center down!
To sit quietly and see one’s self pass by!
The streets of our minds seethe with endless traffic;
Our spirits resound with clashing, with noisy silence,
While something deep within hungers and thirsts for the still moment
and the resting lull.
With full intensity we seek, ere the quiet passes, a fresh sense of order
in our living.
A direction, a strong sure purpose that will structure our confusion and
bring meaning to our chaos.
We look at ourselves in this waiting moment – the kinds of people we
are.
The questions persist: what are we doing with our lives?—
What are the motives that order our days?
What is the end of our doings? Where are we trying to go?
Where do we put the emphasis and where are our values focused?
For what end we make sacrifices? Where is my treasure
And what do I love most in life?
What do I hate most in life and to what am I true?
Over and over the questions beat in upon the waiting moment.
As we listen, floating up through all the jangling echoes of our turbulence, there is a
sound of another kind –
A deeper note which only the stillness of the heart makes clear.
It moves directly to the core of our being. Our questions are answered,
our spirits refreshed, and we move back into the traffic of our daily round.
With the peace of the Eternal in our step.
How good it is to center down!

Howard Thurman is a man who knows the Spirit’s movement, and was very much aligned with it! That clearing out, that centering down, that letting those amazing questions penetrate and beat in upon the waiting moment. On this Pentecost Sunday, and in the days ahead, open your heart and let the Spirit come and clear out the traffic of your mind. Let the Spirit ask you those living questions that have the power and grace to melt you and mold you and fill you. Listen for that sound from above, that sound from within, and feel the Spirit’s weight on your heart like gravity, pouring down, slowing down, quieting down, centering you down into the core of your being where you too will touch upon that fiery core of God’s eternal presence made known. May that love and presence, that grace and power, refresh and restore us all that we too may spring forth and send forth God’s justice and love to the world, with the peace of the Eternal in our every step. Amen.

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