Monday, May 16, 2016

Homily: May 15, 2016 [Pentecost] All Saints Pasadena

            In the unforgettable words of Michael Corleone, “Just when I thought I was out... they pull me back in.”
            For the majority of you who have no idea who I am, I’m Gary Hall. I worked on the staff here for 11 years—George’s last five, Ed’s first six. In 2001 I left All Saints for a 15-year whirlwind ecclesiastical tour of the U.S., stopping in Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, and Washington. Given the craziness of this year’s presidential process, it seems I left the District of Columbia just in time. Now I’m back here, ready, in retirement, to perp walk yet another rector through an All Saints transition. If I believed in reincarnation, I might wonder, “Was it something I did in a former life?” Socializing a new rector to All Saints is not pretty, but somebody has to do it.  “Just when I thought I was out... they pull me back in.”
            But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Today is Pentecost, the day on which we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit to Jesus’s companions 10 days after his Ascension. If you are like me, the word “Pentecost” conjures up images of people speaking in tongues, rolling around on the floor in ecstasy, screaming how Jesus wants everyone to use gender appropriate bathrooms. “Pentecost” elides easily into “Pentecostal”, but there’s a world of difference between the two.
            The word “Pentecost” does not mean “slain in the Spirit” or anything like it. In Greek, “Pentecost” means “fiftieth”: today is the fiftieth day after Easter. In the New Testament chronology, Jesus rises three days after Good Friday, and then he spends forty days after his Resurrection restored to his companions. But he cannot seemingly stay forever.  So ten days ago on Ascension Day-- the fortieth day after Easter—Jesus departed for good and told his friends to wait for what will come next.  This ten-day period—the gap between the fortieth or Ascension Day and the fiftieth day or Pentecost—is the time theologian Karl Barth called “the significant pause”. It is a time of waiting, watching, and (yes) feeling anxious.  We have been left alone here. We have been promised a renewed presence. But who will it be and what will it look like?  These ten days are an epitome of the faithful person’s existential dilemma: we’re left alone in silence and waiting for God to act. The disciples stay in Jerusalem together, and all they can do is pray and wait.
            This ten day significant pause between Ascension and Pentecost gives us a compelling picture of an anxious community gathered in expectation. After working with a group of dedicated companions for personal peace and social justice in a dynamic and compassionate community, and after a long lead-up to his final departure—a charismatic faith leader has left his followers seemingly on their own waiting for what’s next, with only a promise of something new to follow. The community anxiously awaits the arrival of the one who will take them on the next steps of their missional journey.
Sound familiar? Who says the Bible isn’t relevant? This could be Jerusalem in 33 AD or Pasadena in 2016. Or it could be both.
Today’s celebration of Pentecost is both a remembrance of what happened then and an enactment of what happens now. Here is how the book of Acts describes the original fiftieth day:
When the day of Pentecost had come, the disciples were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. [Acts 2: 1-4]

On the fiftieth day of Easter then, the Jerusalem Christians got their answer. The Spirit of God came upon them in tongues of fire, empowering them each and all not only to speak and hear each other, but also transforming their hearts and minds. On the fiftieth day of Easter now, what might be on offer for us here, today? In neither situation does the answer to God’s on-going presence with us rest in the arrival of one flesh-and-blood person. Pentecost is not about a replacement Jesus or a brand new Ed Bacon. Pentecost is about something radically different. In both Jerusalem and Pasadena, the companions of Jesus are called dramatically into the center of things in a whole new way.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus makes this promise to his companions:
If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. [John 14: 15-17]

The word rendered as “Advocate” is the Greek word παράκλητος—or in English “Paraclete”—and παράκλητος means a few distinct things. In New Testament times, a Paraclete was an “advocate” in our traditional sense, one who pleads another’s case before a judge. Jesus is promising us a counsel for the defense. But a Paraclete was also one who intercedes, prays for, acts on behalf of, someone else.  So in promising us a Paraclete Jesus is promising us someone who will pray for and with us. Moreover, a Paraclete is also a helper, an assistant, one who stands by and with us when the going gets rough. So in promising us a Paraclete, Jesus is promising us someone who will help us do and become the people God wants us to be.
            When we talk in the church about the Holy Spirit, we often make her sound somewhat gaseous, like an aerosol spray floating around in the ether someplace—a kind of cosmic air freshener.  When Jesus himself talks about the Holy Spirit, he does so in these words:  defense counsel, intercessor, helper.  The Holy Spirit is not some vague divine ghost in the atmosphere. The Holy Spirit is God standing in, with, and among us.
            I have recently become a fan of the work of Monica Youn, a poet and lawyer who teaches at Princeton and regularly appears in the New Yorker magazine.  In a recent poem (“Goldacre”, June 1, 2015) she writes these intriguing words:
the young morning
with minutes
with wisps of wool

Now that line is part of a larger argument, but its reading depends on understanding the word “grommeted”. A “grommet” is a metal eyelet placed in a hole to allow a string to run through it. Think of a shoelace hole. In Monica Youn’s sense, a grommet is a hole made useful.  When she talks about the young morning being grommeted with minutes, she is suggesting that we have made the gracious gift of time “useful” by cutting it up into measurable bits. Grommeting takes things wild and unruly like holes and time and makes them useful. But in domesticating these things, grommeting deprives them of their wildness.
Grommeting:  Isn’t this what we in the church have done with the Holy Spirit?  In ancient Greek religion, the sibyls received the wild gift of prophetic speech. The religious establishment made this ecstatic prophecy useful by turning it into an oracle at Delphi where the wild spirit could be commercially available on demand.  In the same way, the church took the Holy Spirit and we forced her into a grommet. We made her useful, tame, institutionally reliable. Here was this wild gift where each person received what Jesus calls elsewhere “power from on high” (Luke 24:49) and we caught her, organized her, and tried to build a structure around her so that we could tell you, “The Holy Spirit will be reliably available at 132 North Euclid Avenue on Sundays at 7:30, 9, and 11:15.” Child care provided. We told you that we had the Spirit and you didn’t, and if you wanted to get a piece of her you had to come to us, the Spirit’s official licensed distributors.  We tried to make the Spirit useful.  We grommeted her, turning her into something like the official deodorant of the National League.
The trouble, of course, is that the Spirit we heard about this morning, the Spirit Jesus promises us, the One we come to know in places like this but also out in the natural world and in the prophetic justice work of the Gospel—that Spirit is neither domestic, tame, nor useful. That Spirit refuses to be grommeted. She is wild and free, an expression of the One at the center of the cosmos, the One we know in Jesus, the One who speaks in and through each of us when we are becoming the people God made and calls us to be.
Friends, I have spent forty years of my life serving and representing the institutional church, and nothing I say here should be taken as a disavowal of all the wonderful ways our structures forward the mission of the Gospel.  But let us not delude ourselves. Let us not confuse the institutional church with the Spirit of God. The witness of scripture, the witness of countless people who have gone before us, is that the Sprit of God is wild, free, and available to all. When the Spirit descended on the gathered community in Acts, she did so in flames of fire. She came not to one but to all. And if you read the next chapters of Acts, you’ll see how the Spirit sent them out into the streets of Jerusalem, not only proclaiming the name of Jesus but also finding and serving the lame, the blind, the lepers, the sinners, the lost, and calling them into a new transformed community of love, justice, healing, and peace.
“Just when I thought I was out... they pull me back in.” Kathy and I are so happy to be back here. I am thrilled once again to be part of a community that seeks to claim and know that Spirit in its prayer, its community life, and in its witness. And speaking as one who loves this place and its people, I would remind us that Pentecost came not in a single human being but in a spirit of love, power, and joy that transformed a community so that we could transform the world.
The Spirit of God will not be grommeted. Try as we might, we cannot make her useful, domesticated, or safe. She calls us onward into new and sometimes dangerous places. I know we’re all eager to meet the new rector, but as qualified and charismatic as he or she will certainly be, the next rector of All Saints Church will not be the exclusive official representative of the Holy Spirit on earth or even in Pasadena.  Pentecost suggests that the Spirit is alive and at work right now, in you, in me, in us, in ways we cannot ask for or imagine or even understand. She calls us to new work, new hope, new service. Our Paraclete is not someone awaited from the outside. Our Paraclete is here among and in us now, calling us to invite a new leader as our sister or brother into the good thing we’ve already got going on to help shape and build its next iteration for the years ahead.
Michael Corleone was right: “Just when I thought I was out... they pull me back in.” We’re all in this together. Let us not grommet the Spirit. Let us not grommet the next rector. Let us not grommet ourselves.  We have been clothed with power from on high. It’s all going to be all right.  Amen.