Saying Psalm 104 this morning reminds me of a bright spring morning in either 1987 or 1988, when I saw my first school of whales:
Yonder is the great and wide sea
with its living things too many to number, *
creatures both small and great.
There move the ships,
and there is that Leviathan, *
which you have made for the sport of it. [Psalm 104.26-27]
In those days I was the Vicar of St. Aidan’s Church in Malibu, California, and the California gray whales make their way south in the winter and north in the spring passing through the Catalina Channel about 100 yards or so off the coast of Point Dume in Malibu. Up until that time I had been a bit dismissive of the popular piety about whales. But my attitude changed on that spring morning as, running on the beach, I saw an enormous herd of gray whales round the turn of Point Dume and swim north. I had never before been in the presence of something so mysterious and so “other”.
If you’ve ever seen them up close, you’ll agree that whales are impressive creatures. They are huge. But it’s not only their size that is compelling. They are also gracious and stately in their bearing. And there’s one more thing. They come from someplace else. They live in the ocean. They are creatures of the earth, but they dwell in a part of the earth that is mysterious, hidden, removed from us. Looking a whale in the eye as I did that morning is what we at Berkeley in the 1960s used to call a “mind-blowing” experience. When you do that you’re making contact with a creature who inhabits an entirely different reality than you do. When you do that you are connecting with a being from someplace else.
And recalling that moment reminds me of a related experience in Pennsylvania seven years ago. In 2004 Kathy and I were living in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, and that was the year the cicadas, the insects who appear every seventeen years, took over the world for several days. They make a deafening roar. The first time I heard them I was driving, and I thought that there was something wrong with my car—perhaps the fan belt needed replacing, or I had a cracked block. The sound inside the car was truly disturbing. It was only when I got out that I realized what the sound was—the cicadas had wound themselves up into their full, celebratory screech.
Now I know there are many who found this sound annoying, but for some reason I found it deeply reassuring and, at times, quite moving. Like the whales off the California coast, the 17-year cicadas heard that year came to us from someplace else. Most of the time they inhabit another reality than the one we normally see. And more than that: they are witnesses to a process and a nature that is bigger and deeper than we can easily imagine. This cycle of theirs—17 years underground feeding on the nourishment that tree roots carry to their leaves, 4 to 6 weeks above ground, singing, mating and dying in a relatively short spurt of time—this cycle goes on above us, beneath us, in spite of us. Its rhythms are entirely apart from us people and the things that usually concern us. As George Harrison said, “Life goes on within you and without you.”
Whales and cicadas: what could they possibly have to do with Pentecost, today’s festival, literally the “fiftieth day” after Easter. Like the holiday, our fellow creatures remind us that we are part of something bigger, deeper, more wonderful than what we usually perceive. We are deeply in touch, if only for a moment, with the reality of a life from someplace else.
Let’s look at aspects of Pentecost this morning: the big, deep reality hidden, as Gerard Manely Hopkins said, “deep down things”, and the way that reality expresses itself in the here and now.
First, the big, deep, wonderful reality: if you asked me to summarize what Christianity is “about”, I’d say that it has to do with God’s desire to be connected with us. If you read the Bible straight through, it describes the lengths to which God will go to be in relationship with human beings. God made us in the divine image. And though it is the Bible’s verdict that we have done a lot over the years to try to sever the connection—from eating the forbidden fruit to murmuring in the wilderness to worshipping golden calves and killing the prophets—God keeps coming back to us, keeps calling us to return, to repent, to live life in the divine light of God’s hopeful promise of joyful and abundant blessing.
And that’s just the Old Testament. In the New Testament, God takes that enterprise one step further: God becomes one of us, takes on human form in the person of Jesus, lives among us and shows us what an abundant, joyful, compassionate, deep life looks like. The life of Jesus is not a series of magic tricks; the life of Jesus is God’s greatest and most audacious scriptural attempt at reestablishing this connection with us that God so deeply desires. Again, we people try to break that connection by taking Jesus to the cross. But once again, God’s drive toward us keeps on coming, and so Jesus returns to us in the resurrection. God comes back again, and again, and again. That is one—perhaps the most important—meaning of Easter.
But Jesus’s earthly presence could not last forever, and so 40 days later, at Ascension, he returned to the Father and promised us an abiding presence: an Advocate, a Comforter. This presence we await emerges from this long, profound process that we’re a part of. When the church gathered, as we hear in the Acts reading, in one place and “suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind,” this again is not some kind of New Testament magic trick. The coming of the Spirit is a new act, and a surprising one, in this ongoing process of creation, redemption, birth, death, and renewal. To understand what it means to have the gift of the Spirit on this fiftieth day of Easter we must remember the sense of anxiety and loss that Jesus’s companions had twice experienced at his death and ascension. In receiving the Spirit, the Jesus movement, the community of Jesus’s friends and companions, is first of all taking in the assurance that they are part of some deep, ongoing, loving process that is immensely bigger than they are and which catches them up into it. Just as at Easter, so here today at Pentecost: God has come to us. God has not left us to our own devices. God is in and among and with us. Pentecost is the newest chapter in God’s ongoing drama of the search for a human connection. We matter to God. We matter so much that nothing can remove us from God’s presence. Not death. Not our own faithlessness. Not our worries and fears. Not anything.
So the big thing the early Christians got at Pentecost was a deep and abiding sense of joy that they were once again in the same room with the One whom they had come to know on the roads of Galilee, in the streets of Jerusalem and at the table of inclusive and welcoming fellowship. This experience is the same one that Jesus names when he greets the disciples on Easter night in John’s Gospel: “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Easter was about Jesus himself being back, if only for 40 days. Pentecost is about something even deeper and greater: Jesus of Nazareth may be gone from the world, but he and the God he enfleshed are now present in and among and through us. We are not only connected. We are now, like Jesus, taken up into God’s divine life ourselves. The Holy Spirit is not something abstract and gaseous floating around in the sky someplace. The Holy Spirit is the living presence of God in and among us.
A couple of weeks ago my son Oliver and I went to see Werner Herzog’s new film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams. It’s a beautiful movie filmed in the caves of southern France where the painting on the walls are around 30,000 years old. At one point in the movie, Herzog interviews an ethnologist as he tries to understand the creative process as pre-modern people would. The ethnologist quotes what an Australian aborigine said to him when asked why he was painting on a rock. The aborigine said, “I am not painting. The hand of the spirit is painting.”
Pentecost is about the hand of the spirit guiding us in our day-to-day lives. It’s not only the whales and the cicadas who are in touch with life’s rhythms. It is you and me. We now together have been given the gift of the Spirit, and for us that means that we, like Jesus, have been taken up into God. So as Easter season reaches its culmination, as followers and companions of Jesus, we rejoice in the twin gifts of resurrection and presence. Nothing can separate us from God’s love made flesh in and among us, in Jesus and each other. Whether we are consciously aware of it or not, we are part of an ongoing life that is bigger and deeper than we are. And if we give ourselves over to it, that ongoing life will guide us and protect us as we seek to live in compassionate, loving alignment with the will of the One Jesus called his Father and we now know as the Spirit, God embodied in ourselves. If we align ourselves with that Spirit, we will not be painting. The hand of the spirit will be painting.
The ongoing life of Jesus and his presence among us in the Spirit now are God’s ultimate gifts to us. Your life is as connected to the depths of reality as are the lives of mysterious creatures who dwell in the deep of the sea or under the earth. Your life is as connected to God as were those of Jesus’s companions who knew firsthand the Spirit’s rushing wind and tongues of fire. Let each of us embrace that presence, feel that wind, and hear those tongues. And then let us together move out in a Pentecost blessing to paint the world with the hand of the spirit. Amen.