Sermon May 28 2023 Pentecost Rev. Betsy Hogan
Has the grass near where you live been mowed yet?
I've sort of been enjoying, this past week or so, noticing people kind of hitting the wall on No-Mow May. As the carpets of yellow dandelions that we're purposefully leaving for bees and other pollinators began to degenerate into chaos –
And it was like, maybe instead it could be No-Mow Most of May. Before everything's a foot tall and all those carpets of yellow that we've actually gotten used to and they're kind of bright and cheerful and a lovely sign of springtime... all suddenly go to seed in a white-ish grey mess.
And ENOUGH, people started to say – we've done our duty, we have happy bees, but we’re going in. As one of our congregation noted about her lawn, “If I don’t return, send in a search party with machetes”.
We have our limits. Carpets of yellow and happy bees, yes. It’s all a foot high and the dandelions have gone to seed? Not so much. There's a reason why in climates like ours, dandelions have long been a symbol of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The line between lovely and chaos is very very thin.
In the passage from the book of the Acts of the Apostles that Gail read 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 – and presumably it'll be like that again.... Maybe like carpets of yellow, bright reminders of springtime: uplifting and expansive and energizing.
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 tongues of fire on everybody’s head. And this is NOT what they thought was going to happen -- this is NOT how they thought the Spirit arriving would be.
They thought it would be, I don't know, gentle. Holy. Lovely and worshipful. Solemn but grace-filled. A moment of beauty, with angel chorus. And fall on your knees in a carpet of yellow flowers. 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, and it’s not even that it’s frankly also a little terrifying – it’s that it's also embarrassing.
Because thanks to the fact that they’ve also all started babbling away in a whole lot of different languages, in a great linguistic MESS -- everyone around them now thinks they're drunk. It's nine o'clock in the morning, 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. They’re babbling like they can't keep it together, they're completely out of control. It's embarrassing. They're just a complete MESS.
And meanwhile.... in the midst of all this chaos.... "Perfect," says God. "That's exactly how I wanted that to go."
I fear that wasn’t exactly the reaction of the worship leaders long ago, at a service that was held at the theological college I attended in Vancouver. Because what they’d planned for all of us was a service that would be deep and spiritual and meaningful. A service that would connect us all in community, all of us ministry students and the staff and the professors – that would remind us of God’s spirit within us, filling us, strengthening us.
It would all be terribly moving. As we were invited to turn to the person next to us, and then to the person next to them, and make our way around to connect with each other – and look at one another solemnly, deep in the eyes, deep into the soul within, while saying to each other a word that we were told in English meant “I see the spirit of God in you”.
It wasn’t namaste, which is a Sanskrit word. I don’t think we were actually told what language it was. And I’ve tried to find it since and have had no luck. But there we all were, looking at one another solemnly, deep in the eyes and deep into the soul, and saying to one another, “bojo”.
And may heaven long have pardoned us, because we could not keep it together. I know that English words too must make sounds in other languages that make the people who speak those languages giggle uncontrollably – but it was just the whole THING of this moment manufactured to be deep and spiritual and moving, juxtaposed with attempts to be deep and spiritual and moving while saying out loud this very jolly word “bojo” –
And we could not keep it together. The stifled giggling eventually devolved into what was really not at all the kind of deep and spiritual and moving the worship leaders had hoped for.
But meanwhile, God? In the midst of all the chaos? Might well, in the spirit of Pentecost, have said “Perfect. That’s exactly how I wanted that to go.”
It’s not that there’s anything wrong with holy and moving, lovely and worshipful, solemn and grace-filled. There’s very much NOTHING wrong with moments of transcendant beauty, and doves descending from heaven, and choirs of angels sing, and fall on your knees in a carpet of bright yellow flowers.
There’s nothing wrong with controlled and perfect. But what we get reminded of in our Pentecost story is that there IS another side to the Holy Spirit – and with apologies to Monty Python, its chief weapon is surprise. Maybe even surprise and fear.
Because it does some of its best work, this other side to the Holy Spirit, when it busts into plans and defies expectations and introduces juuuust a little bit of chaos into the proceedings. Into our discipleship and how we’re trying to be… faithful and loving and following the way of Jesus in our living.
It’s exactly what we see in the Pentecost story – the disciples gathered, ready and prepared. And we know what they’re expecting. Peter’s clearly written a speech he can deliver to the crowds who will surely arrive when the big moment of the Holy Spirit’s arrival has happened. It’s the whole rest of that chapter of Acts, a kind of synopsis of the story of Jesus and then an invitation to everyone gathered to join with the disciples in following Jesus’ way – and Peter’s got it prepared. He’s all ready to go.
But in the event? He most definitely did not think that crowd would all gather mostly out of confusion because they were wondering if the disciples were drunk. He most definitely didn’t expect to have to start his big speech by reminding everyone it’s only nine o’clock in the morning.
But the Holy Spirit has turned up. To teach the disciples by experience, to teach us by example, that maybe, sometimes, what’s called for isn’t “keeping it together”. Conscious of solemnity and propriety, afraid of being embarrassed or embarrassing. Maybe, sometimes, what’s called for isn’t “keeping it together”. Controlled and perfect.
Maybe, sometimes, what’s called for is just letting it go. Be who we are, let the freak flag fly, lean into the silliness, enjoy what we enjoy, relish what we relish, be who we are.
When I was growing up there was a poem that became really popular in certain circles that began “When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple. With a red hat which doesn’t go and doesn’t suit me.” It was written by Jenny Joseph and it was called Warning. Which was exactly what it was, to all the world’s notions of “keeping it together”.
“And I shall sit down on the pavement when I’m tired,” the poem goes on.
“And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
And run my stick along the public railings
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.”
And why not? says the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Why not? For the disciples on that day, it’s clearly not a moment when what’s called for is keeping it together. The dandelions have gone to seed, as it were, and what it’s time for is letting it go.
Nevermind worrying about embarrassment -- what the Holy Spirit drops by absolute surprise into the Pentecost proceedings is this metaphorical notion that the language of their discipleship – the language of following the way of Jesus, the language of love and forgiveness and welcome of all and care for all – it needs no translation.
No message control, no managed measures of propriety to prevent the possibility of embarrassment.
Just be who you are, and let it go. Be who you are, the Holy Spirit is saying to the disciples, to us. Be loving and joyful and outrageously your faithful caring selves – because when your discipleship is lived out for real, that translates. On its own. It’s understood by anyone ready to understand… as real.
“But maybe I ought to practise a little now,” is how Jenny Joseph’s poem ends.
“So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised
When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.”
And… go, says the Holy Spirit. There’ll be plenty of time for propriety and solemnity and holiness and control. The lawnmowers’ll be out in full force quite soon, where they’ve not already done their bit. So if you can’t keep it together, my little dandelions, the Holy Spirit says to us, then let it go.