Sunday, June 8, 2014

Homily: June 8, 2014 [Pentecost] Washington National Cathedral


 
The choir’s singing of Psalm 104 just now reminds me of a bright spring morning in the late 1980s, 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 just last year. In May 2013, the cicadas took over our world for several days. They reappear every 17 years and 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 I heard 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 humans 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” of 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 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 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 God keeps coming back to us, keeps calling us to live life in the divine light of God’s hopeful promise of joyous and abundant blessing.

            And that’s just the Old Testament. In the New Testament, God takes that mission one step further: Jesus comes to us, lives among us and shows us what an abundant, joyful, compassionate life looks like. Again, we people try to break that connection by taking Jesus to the cross. But once more, 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 returns to the Father and promises us an abiding presence: an Advocate, a Comforter. In receiving the Spirit, the Jesus movement, the community of Jesus’s friends and companions, is first of all taking in the assurance that we are part of some deep, ongoing, loving process that is immensely bigger than we are and which catches us 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.

            The big, deep reality of Pentecost is that 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. The Holy Spirit is the living presence of God in and among us.

            How does that ongoing divinity express itself in us, here and now? I still remember Werner Herzog’s film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a beautiful movie filmed in the caves of southern France where the paintings 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 of pre-modern people. 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 lives. It’s not only the whales and the cicadas who are in touch with life’s rhythms. It’s not only the aboriginal artist who can feel the hand of the spirit at work as he paints.  You and I can do that, too. We now together have been given the gift of the Spirit, and that means that we, like Jesus, have been taken up into God. We are not just watching something from the outside.  We are part of what we proclaim.

As Psalm 104 reminds us,

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.

            Or, as our Prayer Book antiphon for Morning Prayer says it, “The Spirit of the Lord renews the face of the earth.” The ongoing life of Jesus and his presence among us now are what Pentecost really means. They are God’s ongoing gifts to us. You and I, together, embody God’s life and purpose in the world. 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, so that in and with God, Christ, and each other, we may begin to paint the world with the hand of the spirit. Amen.

 

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