By The Rev. Sherry Crompton
May 23, 2010 (Pentecost Sunday)
Read: Acts 2:1-21 and John 14:8-17, 25-27
Today is Pentecost. The coming of the Holy Spirit when “they 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, like fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.”
How do you picture those tongues of fire? Like everyone else, I pictured these “tongues of fire” as little flames sitting on the disciples’ shoulders, much like the burning bush in the story of Moses –plain to see, but not doing any harm. This is how the day of Pentecost has traditionally been pictured in religious art through the ages – little tongues of fire dancing like the flames of a campfire. How quaint.
A friend of mine had a vision and said, What if, instead of thinking of the Pentecost “tongues of fire” as docile little flames casting a glow and warming the heart, we thought of them as bolts of electricity setting the soul on fire with passion for the gospel? What if we thought of the whole room that day as electrically charged and filled with a surge of new vitality? And what if we thought of the disciples as shocked, then energized with the awesome power of the Holy Spirit?
Didn’t Peter speak boldly to the crowd? Didn’t the disciples go on to witness to the power of the resurrection and the promise of eternal life? Let’s think of Pentecost as high voltage energy sufficient to spark new faith in common, ordinary folks like us, to the end that the whole world is filled with the radiance of God’s presence.
High voltage energy: It’s something to think about. First, as we all know, electricity is conductive – if you touch someone who’s electrically charged, you’ll get shocked. It happens all the time, especially in winter. You slide your foot over the carpet, it produces static electricity, then you shake hands with someone, and you both feel the spark.
Now let’s take this a step further….What if we were created for goodness? What if we could pass on that openness to the spark of the Spirit’s energy by being good? Desmond Tutu and his daughter Mpho Tutu wrote a book entitled “Made for Goodness: and why this makes all the difference”.
Desmond Tutu writes: “What difference does goodness make? Goodness changes everything. If we are the core selfish, cruel, heartless creatures, we need to fight these inclinations at every turn and often need strong systems of control to prevent us from revealing our true and quite ugly selves. But if we are fundamentally good, we simply need to rediscover this true nature and act accordingly. This insight into our essential goodness has shifted how I interact with other people; it has even shaken how I read the Bible.
Goodness changes the way we see the world, the way we see others, and, most importantly, the way we see ourselves. The way we see ourselves matters. It affects how we treat people. It affects the quality of life for each and all of us. What is the quality of life on our planet? It is nothing more than the sum total of our daily interactions. Each kindness enhances the quality of life. Each cruelty diminishes it.
We are made for goodness by God, who is goodness itself. We are made for and like God, who is the very essence of goodness. The creation stories in the Hebrew Bible underline these truths about us.
Several of the most important moments in that biblical story have something to do with breathing. Genesis tells us that God made humanity from two ingredients. One is dust, mud, dirt, the stuff we now find under our feet. God shapes us from this earthy clay like a kid making a mud pie. The Creator does not stop there. God breathes into this dummy made from mud God’s own breath, and the human becomes alive, a creature of matter and spirit. It’s God’s own breath that makes us live.
But something goes horribly wrong. Humanity breaks the first covenant that God establishes, is driven forth from the garden, and ends up living and laboring under a curse. Death reigns over humanity. And so, for every one in the long parade of people, there arrives the moment when the breath goes forth and does not return. The breath of life, God’s great gift, seems to dissipate and dissolve. The body falls into the dust from which it came.
This happens even with Jesus. There arrives that moment on the cross when he breathes his last, he expires, as he commends his spirit to the Father. The weight of this world’s sins has crushed him, caused his lungs to collapse, his breathing to stop. And so the body of Jesus, made of dust like our own, hangs lifeless from the cross.
Later something happens, strange and unexpected. The miracle of human creation takes a new and surprising turn. The dust of Jesus is raised to life by the Spirit of God, the breath of God. The life to which he is lifted is not life transient and temporary, marked by shame and sorrow. It is instead life eternal and glorious, a life of abundance and victory. This is God’s second great gift of breath, a breath that will not be denied.
Nor does God rest content with the resurrection of Jesus. God intends to take all of dead humanity and breathe into us the gift of life. And so we reach this great festival, the Day of Pentecost, for which the earthly life of Jesus was the preparation. Today the Lord sends a mighty wind not only down one Jerusalem street, but throughout creation in order to fill a dead world with fresh breath and call back to life the corpse of humanity.
Pentecost means that Easter is not a private affair for Jesus and a few friends. Jesus rose, not for himself alone, but as the front man for an entire new creation. The Holy Spirit comes as a breath of fresh air for all who want to breathe.
A second creation happens: dust and dirt and mud are infused and invigorated with the sublime Spirit of God, and creation gets rolling in a new and better way.
Pentecost is an explosion! The disciples have been hiding out in an upper room, devoting their time to prayer; the place is silent as a church on a Monday morning. Jesus told them to wait, so they’re waiting. Then the Spirit falls from heaven like an exploded skyrocket. With it comes a shattering of the silence.
And we have been gifted with God’s breath of life. We are endowed, like the creator, with this gift of creativity. Anyone who has seen a dancer in motion or an artist at work, anyone who has enjoyed the skill of a good cook or watched a child build a sandcastle or make a mud pie knows that human creativity is inherent. We may apply our creativity to good ends or ill. Human artistry can be used to decorate a home or forge a banknote. Human resourcefulness can combine the chemicals to purify a well or poison a watercourse. The beautiful gardens at the Palace of Versaille in France and at Mount Vernon in Virginia were the fruit of human inventiveness. The minefields that kill and main in Angola and Cambodia were also planned and planted by human beings.
In our creativity we are like God. We are also like God in our freedom. God leaves us free to choose how we apply our gifts and talents. We are made not only like God but also for God. Planted in the center of our being is a longing for the holy. Being made for God means, for us, that anything less than God will not suffice. We are hungry for God, but we don’t always know that it is God that we crave. Often we are like the woman who stands at the open refrigerator door at three o-clock in the morning knowing that she is hungry for something but not knowing what it is that she needs, so she shuts the mouth of her hunger with something that merely stupefies but does not satisfy.
We are made for God, who is the give of life. We are made by God who holds us in life. We are animated and held in life by the very breath of God. It is God’s breath that sustains us.
We can cultivate the practice of choosing right. We can foster it in ourselves. The gospels have a series of passages that ask the reader to “keep awake”. The practices of goodness are practices of vigilance and conscious choice. They are habits of self-knowledge. Choosing what is good and right is a practice that can be learned. Practice becomes a habit and a habit becomes how we live our life. A life in tune with the goodness of God.
Author Saul Bellow wrote about a Rabbi who lived in a small Jewish town in Russia. The Rabbi had a secret. Every Friday morning the Rabbi disappeared for several hours. The people of his congregation liked to tell people that during his absence from them their rabbi went up to heaven and talked to God. When a stranger moved into town and heard this explanation for the rabbi’s weekly departure, he was not convinced. So he decided to find out what was really going on. The next Friday morning, he hid by the rabbi’s house, waiting and watching. As usual, the rabbi got up and said his prayers. But unlike other mornings of the week, he then dressed in peasant clothes. He grabbed an ax and wandered off into the woods to cut some firewood. With the man watching from afar, the rabbi then hauled the wood to a shack on the outskirts of the village where an old woman and her sick son lived. He left them the wood, enough for a week, and then went quietly back home.
After seeing what the rabbi did, the stranger decided to stay in the village and join the congregation. From then on, whenever he heard one of the villagers say, “On Friday morning our rabbi ascends all the way to heaven,” the newcomer quietly added, “If not higher.”
We are born to be good. May we be energized by the rushing electricity of the Holy Spirit and find out just what taking the risk of being good means. We are made for goodness. Amen.
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