Sermon by the Rev. Marek Zabriskie on Pentecost Sunday, May 31, 2020.
Today is the Feast of Pentecost. It is one of the high feasts of the Church Year and the birthday of the Church. On this day, God gave the disciples the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit inspired the disciples to leave Jerusalem and share Jesus’ radical message of love around the world.
Episcopalians tend not to be Pentecostal people. We are apt to be a bit buttoned up and tight-lipped when it comes to our religion. Perhaps you know the story of the woman who worshiped in an Episcopal church in a very proper New England town. She clearly was not from there. As the preacher preached, she could not constrain herself and shouted, “Amen! Yes, Lord, preach it!” Several few minutes later, she said, “Praise Jesus! Yes, praise him!” An usher discretely made his way down the aisle, leaned over and said to her, “Madam, is something wrong?” “No,” she replied, “But I’ve got the Spirit!” The usher sternly replied, “Well, Madam, you certainly didn’t get it here.”
In his book The Go-Between God, John Vernon Taylor writes, “Our theology would improve if we thought more of the Church being given to the Spirit than the Spirit being given to the Church.” George Whitfield, the English preacher, who led the Great Awakening in America, said, “The reason why Congregations have been so dead is because dead Men preach to them.”
Indeed, Pentecostal churches are the fastest growing churches in the U.S. and around the world. The world hungers for a Spirit-filled faith. And when a religion starts getting too old and creaky, too focused on rules and this is what we’ve always done, the Spirit often slips away.
We all need something spiritual. British soccer legend Gary Neville, once said, “It’s no longer sport, it’s spirit.” When someone dies, we said, “She gave up her spirit.” We say things like, “My school has spirit!” The morning after Hitler’s Luftwaffe bombed Bristol, England and left the city in smoldering ruins, Winston Churchill walked through the rubble and his words put steel in the spines of the survivors, who picked through the ruins of their houses and neighborhoods, and they in turn inspired him. Later that day, he said, “I see the spirit of an unconquerable people.”
There are two words for spirit in Hebrew. One means “wind” and the other means “breath.” If you take away someone’s breath, they die. We all need to breathe. Earlier this week, a Minnesota police officer knelt on the neck of a hand-cuffed black man named George Floyd for nearly nine minutes in broad daylight in front of a crowd in Minneapolis while three fellow police officers assisted him and George Floyd cried out several times, “I can’t breathe.” Finally, the spirit left him. He went limp and died. Protests, riots and looting have ensued across our country since then. Our nation is shocked after yet another unarmed black man is killed and his spirit is taken. “I can’t breathe,” said George Floyd.
Not long ago, Ahmaud Arbery was killed while jogging near Brunswick, Georgia. The Georgia police did nothing two months. No arrests. No detective work. Nothing. The two white men who killed him were free. The police had planned to deny justice to yet another black man. While these appalling stories deeply trouble us, they deeply anger and frighten black Americans, who live in fear of the police who are supposed to protect them. I pray that this never happens in Greenwich or anywhere in our country, but it happens all too often. So, we worry about the spirit of our nation.
We worry about our own spirit. As this pandemic has worn on, I have found myself becoming cranky, fragile and fatigued. Every day feels identical. Emails and Zoom meetings. I recently spoke to my 89-year-old father. He has always been resilient, but he told me, “I broke down three weeks ago.” The long lockdown and the pandemic have affected his spirit.
How is your spirit? A recent poll found that almost half of Americans – 45 percent – feel that the coronavirus has negatively affected their mental and emotional health. It has worn us down and frightened us. So, we need to revitalize our spirit.
Do you remember how the disciples returned to the Upper Room after Jesus was crucified? They locked the doors for fear that the authorities would arrest them. Like so many of us during this pandemic, they were afraid. The English philosopher Edmund Burke said, “Nothing so robs us of the power of reason and of action as fear.” One the greatest psychiatrists of the 20th century said, “Fear is the major reason that human beings fail to achieve their great potential.”
The Spirit is God being present among us. God’s spirit gave strength to Samson (Judges 14:6), leadership to Joshua (Numbers 27:18), wisdom to sages (Proverbs 1:23), and ecstasy to the sons of the prophets (1 Samuel 10:10). God’s spirit produced outstanding human beings who served God’s purpose. No moment was more dramatic than when Ezekiel wandered through the valley of dry bones and God told him,
“Prophecy to these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.” (Ezekiel 37:4-5)
Our world is in a valley of dry bones moment. We need to be resurrected by God. We need the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is not a philosophical concept. It is not opium for the masses. No, the Spirit is God active in the world and working within each one of us. Our spirit is our inner life. It contains our thoughts, our emotions, our intentions. You and I have been given this spirit in baptism. This spirit connects us with God.
I recently sat alone in the Rector and watched our youngest daughter’s virtual commencement from the University of Pennsylvania on my computer. As I watched, I cried, because I love our daughters and my wife and was aware of how strange and uncertain our world has become. There was no cap and gown celebration, no gathering of proud families, no normal end to a collegiate experience, no fitting culmination to all their hard work. Then the University Chaplain spoke with warmth and calming gestures. He said,
“Twelve schools, one university, all 50 states, each district and representatives from over 100 countries around the world, yet still one university…. we’re finding that we can still come together as one university….
May these graduates see challenges not just as moments to survive, but as moments to serve. May they see interruptions as opportunities. May they even through tears see catastrophes as callings….
May they always be counted among this heroic number who respond to the difficulties of life by seeking to love and serve others wherever their paths might lead them.”
As thousands of family members and students in over 100 countries watched him speak words of inspiration and hope that touched our spirit, it made me think of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit united so many diverse people. God’s Spirit never divides, but always unites us.
On that first Pentecost the disciples reportedly returned to the same house where the Upper Room is found. Pentecost was a Jewish Feast held on the fiftieth day after Passover to commemorate the giving of the Law, the Torah, to Moses on Mount Sinai. Jews from all over made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to celebrate it.
Then suddenly there came a rush of wind and tongues of fire descended upon the heads of the disciples and they began to speak in all sorts of languages. Each person heard his or her own native tongue spoken by one of the disciples, these semi-illiterate tradesmen, who knew only Aramaic and possibly Greek. It was mystical and surreal. They were so inspired that witnesses said, “They’re drunk!” But they were not. Peter stood up and preached the sermon of a lifetime. Three thousand people were baptized and received the Holy Spirit that day and the Church was born.
On the Feast of Pentecost, Jesus’ power became their power. They became vanguards of God’s Spirit in the world, channels to carry the Gospel to the far corners of the earth. Peter preached in Rome, James evangelized in Spain, Thomas took Christianity to India, Andrew proselytized in Greece, Paul planted churches in Turkey, and John ministered in Asia Minor. The Holy Spirit had transformed them just as it can transform each of us, if we invite the Spirit into our lives.
So, we have a choice this morning. We must decide whether want a mild dose of creaky, old religion or whether we want to be filled with the Holy Spirit and live a larger life. If you want a more Spirit-filled journey, then pray this simple prayer, “Come, Holy Spirit, and kindle in me the fire of your love. Take my mind and think through it. Take my lips and speak through them. Take my soul and set it on fire with a love for this.” I invite you to pray something simple like this. Invite the Spirit into your life, and God will do the rest. Amen.