Sermon May 31 Pentecost Rev. Betsy Hogan
Have you ever found yourself desperately trying not to laugh... at the completely wrong moment?
A time of silence, a solemn occasion -- and something happens, or something pops into your head, and of course it's probably nerves and the last thing you want to do is laugh, it couldn't be more inappropriate --
But oh my word here it comes -- and how are you EVER going to stop it.
Sheer force of will can sometimes prevail, as I'm sure those of you who are actors or performers will know. I have a colleague who once managed to keep it together -- and I don't know how, it was very impressive -- but he managed to keep it together when he was celebrating the sacrament of communion and suddenly realized he'd just solemnly intoned the words, "And after supper, Jesus took the cup and broke it..."
So sheer force of will -- yes, sometimes we can push that nervous hysterical laughter way back down before it explodes out of control --
Before it spreads, before we want to crawl into a hole from embarrassment --
But other times? Not so much.
It's a beautiful word, "namaste". The spirit in me greets the spirit in you. It's a graceful word, it has a softness and a humbleness about it -- there's a gentleness in the speaking of the word namaste that is just perfect. It just perfectly evokes not only its meaning, but also the spirit in which its spoken.
It's a word that itself bows in greeting, in love of neighbour, even as it expresses both. A beautiful word, and perfect.
Which is why, this week as I was thinking about the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost, I found myself remembering...
A service I attended a long long time ago, back in the dark ages when I was in seminary, that included a moment in which we all had to solemnly and lovingly look into one another's eyes and speak to each other a word that they told us meant "I see the spirit of God in you".
I didn't know it at the time, but they could have chosen the word "namaste". So gentle, so beautiful, so graceful.
But instead, the word that they told us to speak, as we gazed deep into one another's eyes, "I see the spirit of God in you" -- was "bojo".
B O J O. Bojo. I can't remember what language they told us it was, and I've googled it since with no luck -- but I dare you to try it. Because I'm here to tell you, if you can do it -- solemnly and worshipfully look deep into your neighbour's eyes whilst speaking the word bojo -- then kudos to you.
Because we could not. During that service long long ago when I was in seminary. We tried. We tried to keep it together, we tried to focus ourselves in the seriousness of the moment and the worshipfulness of the context --
But, bojo???!!! There was just no way that was going to end well.
Unless, of course, the worship leaders had been smart enough to recognize -- which they weren't, but I digress -- unless, of course, the worship leaders had been smart enough to recognize... that when, like wildfire spreading, eventually most of the congregation is literally falling down and weeping with the effort of trying not to burst out laughing?
Maybe that's actually precisely how the spirit of God has decided to turn up.
In the passage from the book of the Acts of the Apostles that we heard just now, after all, the way things all unfold on the day of Pentecost is NOT, as it happens, exactly what any of Jesus' followers might have anticipated.
Or even hoped for. Or certainly planned for. Because Jesus had told them that he would send to them the Spirit -- a comfort and an inspiration and an advocate. His Spirit, to accompany them forward. To give them strength, to drive them along, to work in and through them in shaping a faithful and holy community.
He'd told them the Spirit was coming. They knew enough to anticipate its arrival.
But, you know, the LAST time the Spirit turned up -- at least so far as his followers know -- the LAST time the Spirit turned up, it descended from the heavens as a dove.
A gentle and beautiful dove, sailing on the wind, gracefully alighting on Jesus' shoulder in the moment of his baptism, sign and symbol of God's blessing and God's presence --
So lovely, so holy -- presumably it'll be like that again....
But what happens instead on the day of Pentecost, when Jesus' followers are all gathered together? Thunder, lightning, hurricane wind and an earth-shattering roar -- and is everybody's head on fire??!
This is NOT what they thought was going to happen -- this is NOT how they thought the Spirit arriving would be.
Because it should have been, I don't know, gentle. Shouldn't it? Holy. Lovely and worshipful. Solemn but grace-filled. A moment of beauty, with angel chorus. And fall on your knees. Receive the holy spirit.
So thunder and wind and everyone's head on fire? This is not the Holy Spirit they were looking for. And it's not just that it's unexpected, it's also embarrassing.
Because everyone around them now thinks they're drunk -- it's nine o'clock in the morning for heaven's sake, but everyone around them now thinks they're drunk, and frankly, if they could just get past the part where their heads are on fire, they could probably admit they can pretty much see why.
Because, the truth is, they're not exactly behaving like they're sober. Like, with any kind of appropriate decorum. In fact, they're pretty much babbling like they can't keep it together, like they're completely out of control. Like they don't know how to behave in public, and sheesh, didn't anyone ever teach them manners???? It's embarrassing.
But meanwhile.... in the midst of all this chaos.... "Perfect," says God. "That's exactly how I wanted that to go."
This is usually the weekend I'm at the Annual Meeting of Maritime Conference – even with the new "Regions" 14 and 15, it's still the same gathering of all the ministers and lay representatives from United Churches in the Maritimes, in Bermuda, and in Gaspésie.
So that's a bit poignant, not to be there, because it IS hundreds of people of all ages, singing together, and talking together, and being together, which is pretty uplifting –
But at the same time, the Annual Meeting often kind of makes my head want to explode.
And I know -- I have a pretty low threshold for that, I'll be the first to admit it --
But it's often so nice, the Annual Meeting. It's often so lovely and so peaceful and holy and spiritual – it's often so beautiful and poignant and soulful and moving --
Not that there's anything wrong with that, and I know it's exactly spiritual lifting-up that a lot of us -- by the time May rolls around and we're at the Annual Meeting -- really need and respond to.
But it's a reason that there was one address that was given at an Annual Meeting years and years ago, maybe ten or twelve years ago, that I think of every year at this time. Because, that year – thanks be to God – in the midst of all the nice, it kept my head from exploding.
It was a colleague who got up to share her story of faith -- and yes, she said, comfort, and strength, and peace, and life --
But then "What's this life of faith really about for me?" she said to us -- "It's about this."
"It's that I am not satisfied that some people don't have clean water to drink. I am not satisfied" she said, "that people are going hungry in this day and age, that the mentally ill and addicted are increasingly being 'housed' in our prisons while treatment programs are getting cut. I am not satisfied with our leaders putting profit before the environment, and I am not satisfied that the wealth of a few is battering into poverty the rest."
"I am not satisfied with any of this, and with more. And for me," she said, "that's what faith in God and God's goodness is also about. Yes, it's comfort and strength and peace and life, but it's also looking around and saying to the way things are that I am not satisfied: this is not good enough."
And just like that -- and we could practically see it happen -- that nice nice pretty pretty Holy Spirit as dove that had been soothing us all at Conference in a warm bath of comfort and peace, gave way, however briefly, to the Holy Spirit that is NOT interested in behaving itself, that does NOT have a proper sense of decorum, that would NOT expect anyone to actually be able to gaze soulfully into someone else's eyes whilst saying the word "bojo" --
Because it's chaos, that Holy Spirit. It's thunder and it's wind and it's everyone's head on fire -- and it is NOT satisfied with the way things are because the way things are is not good enough. And we can do better.
That's the Holy Spirit that comes blasting down from heaven to fire up the faithful on that Pentecost long ago, on that day recorded in the passage from the book of Acts. And it is really not what they expected. It is really not the transcendently beautiful holy experience they might have thought it was going to be, and it might even have scared the daylights out of them.
Until they realize, in no small measure thanks to the Apostle Peter, that God has sent them -- of course -- exactly the Spirit they need. Exactly the Spirit it'll take to fire them up enough to finally get OUT of that nice safe upper room they've been holed up in, and out into the world to actually be the change that Jesus inspired for them, embodied for them.
To figure out how on earth, in the real world, to be kind, to be understanding and forgiving, to go the second mile, to keep themselves from wanting revenge, to believe that better is possible, and not to give up on that -- when the real world of the disciples' time did not exactly make that easy.
Any more than our own time does. Because truly, unless we're not satisfied as people of faith that the way things are is not good enough, we're not paying attention.
I'm writing this as America is burning, and not for the first time. The last time, Martin Luther King Jr. rightly said "riot is the language of the unheard". It wasn't an endorsement of rioting, it was demand for people to pay attention. To start hearing the Holy Spirit thundering out in wind and fire in the voices of thousands and thousands that the way things are is not good enough. Not there. But also not here.
We're in this weird limbo space right now where in the absence of "the usual", public noise has actually repeatedly driven justice-oriented policy decisions on a dime. It's been kind of fascinating to see the Holy Spirit operating in the vacuum created by the pandemic lockdown, in a way that's been kind of everyone with their heads on fire –
Noticing, realizing, saying out loud "I'm not satisfied, this isn't good enough" and specifically for those who are most vulnerable – and having that matter.
It's been the Holy Spirit at work. A little chaotic for sure, but arising in people. Maybe arising in us, as what we've experienced in this time has kind of changed our perspective on what we thought was necessary – or what we think might be possible.
A bit chaotic, maybe, and not quite the gentle holiness of namaste – the spirit in you greets the spirit in me, and that Holy Spirit of God fills us with peace and surrounds us with comfort and uplifts us with strength --
But if all it is, is just nice nice pretty pretty? If it doesn't also make us feel bytimes like our head's on fire, and we're "not satisfied, this isn't good enough" --
Then maybe this Pentecost, in the midst of this weird thing we're all living through, can be the best Pentecost ever – at least since that first one. Where we try and gaze soulfully into one another's eyes while saying 'bojo' and just embrace the chaos. Of the Holy Spirit thundering through us to make things better. Amen.