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Wednesday, May 20, 2015

"I have much more to tell you" (Pentecost)

Seraph in flames
Just a few thoughts today on Pentecost. Something we learned at St. Anne from the late Fr. Jim Dunning (of happy memory) was a process called “echoing God’s word,” based on the ancient monastic practice of lectio divina. The idea was to read scripture together (generally, it has been the gospel of the approaching Sunday) and then we each repeat the word or phrase that we heard that spoke to us directly as we listened; we repeat that word or phrase three times. Of course, sometimes there is just one phrase or two that everyone seems to have keyed in on, but sometimes the response is remarkably varied. Since parish leadership has changed, our style of sharing scripture has too, but it doesn't really matter for the scope of this little blog post.

I find for myself that more often than not this practice in our staff meetings is a left-brain exercise for me; it doesn’t always engage me on the level  of affect. I tend to hear what I’ve been thinking about, rather than what might be speaking to my emotional or personal life. Not that thinking isn’t personal; it’s just the difference between loving and being in love with the idea of love. They’re both all right, but the latter is no substitute for the former..

But what catches me on Sunday is almost always personal, almost always a surprise, and almost always something I didn’t notice in the spiritual exercise of "echoing God’s word." The last time we had Pentecost with year B readings, with the optional gospel, I know that did not expect to hear the words, “I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now” jump out at me from the gospel. It spoke to me as I was thinking that I tend to believe that the sudden change in the disciples on the feast of shavuot, what we call Pentecost, the feast of first fruits 50 days after Passover, was more of a metaphor than an actual event of wind and fire. I don’t know that at all. It’s just more like my reality. I don’t really want a God who does magic tricks, one who intervenes with tongues of fire and simultaneous translations, because that kind of God plays favorites, doesn’t come around for those who really need him, only lives in stories of old deeds done brilliantly, but who isn’t of much help to people in need today.

But I do have experience of true things working on me. I mentioned about how as the gospel story leaves the apostles on the mount of the ascension, they’re still talking about a restored kingdom of Israel, missing the point of Jesus’s entire time with them, including his suffering, death, and resurrection. But that missing the point is important to me, because I know that I miss the point all the time; my whole life is an exercise in missing the point. But things work on me. I’ve been cruel, but I’ve learned to change my behavior from being exposed to the gospel. I’ve been angry and self-important, but I’ve learned to see myself in a bigger picture, and tried to learn to behave more gently and gratefully. 

Remembering, re-membering, putting the pieces together, is what allows this to happen in us. We’re too busy or angry or just distracted by life to react to, let alone respond to, the gospel at certain times. But we keep hearing the word of God calling us to something new and really, really, different, calling us into the mystery of agape. It’s really different to wake up and be part of a family, God’s family, in a way we didn’t know before. It’s really, really different to think about how we fit into a world where every single person is just as important as we are. It’s really, really different to live not under the threat of punishment by a divine judge nor because of the promise of a deferred salary as “payback” in the afterlife, but to live for other people because we were made that way, because that’s the only life that makes any sense. 

We’ve heard the exact same stories since we were children, but Jesus said to our hearts, time and time again, “I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now.” 

Of course, it may be, it almost certainly is, that no matter what I/we think we know now, there is still more to learn from the Holy One than we can bear at any age or time of life. The story is told of the seraphim, the highest rank of angels, that they are made of fire, that they rise up out of the river of fire that flows in front of the throne of God in heaven. When they behold the countenance of the One who is beyond knowing or naming, they dissolve into fire again, returning to the river over and over again, and being reborn. We never know God completely; our knowledge and love dissolve with every morning, new insight supersedes our previous thought even as it builds on it.

So back to that Pentecost story in Acts. The flash of tongues of fire, the thrill of the mighty wind, these sound like metaphors for life-changing insight, the kind that (metaphorically?) may have knocked St. Paul down on the way to Damascus. The speaking in tongues, the hearing of the good news in many languages, this sounds like the development and growth of the Church in the Mediterranean basin as the story of Jesus was taken to every land. Did it happen fifty days after that awful Passover when Jesus was murdered? Fifty weeks? Fifty years? Fifty is a mystical number, too, remember: the perfection of seven multiplied by itself, mystery times mystery, plus one. The "twelfth of never," we might say, or "infinity plus one." In other words, it all happened at the perfect time. The right time, kairos, God’s time. Like the grain of wheat, after the right time in the ground, the plant is ready for the harvest. It took as long as it took for the apostles to begin to understand that God was not in fact going to intervene against Rome, but that God, made visible in Jesus, was claiming the world again as empire anyway. Only it is not an empire of coercion, violence, and the amassing of treasure and goods, but an empire of peace, dialogue, and shared resources. And the message is, choose your empire, and live there now. Augustus, who founded the Pax Romana, is dead, and food for worms. Jesus, the herald of God’s empire, is alive. Choose your emperor. Turn around and go in this new direction.

St. John, you’ll recall, sees all of this happening on the cross, when Jesus “hands over the spirit” as he dies. John reports the birth of the ecclesia, the community of believers “called out” the way that Abba called Jesus, by telling that “blood and water” flowed from the pierced side of Christ, the afterbirth of the newly born incarnate children of God. Like those children, the meaning of life, the reality of who we are and the mystery to which we are called, grows gradually inside of us, not so much with miracles and spectacles of power as with the flashes of insight that are the sparks that fly when the flint of the gospel strikes the hard rock of our lives.

One of these days, those sparks, enough of them, will set a fire to the earth. Aflame with agape, the Church will rise from that river, see the face of God everywhere, in every person and living creature, every quark and galaxy, and dissolve in the energy of love, to be raised again, over and over, to its destiny of self-sacrifice and loving service.

This is what we are singing this weekend at St. Anne:

Call to Worship: Pentecost Sequence (music by Rory Cooney) My setting is what I think of as a “jazz chant,” using Jesuit Fr. Peter Scagnelli’s poetic translation of the Veni Sancte Spiritus.

Gathering: Send Down the Fire by Marty Haugen
Psalm: Psalm 104: Send Out, Send Out Your Spirit by Rory Cooney
Preparation rite: This Very Morning (GIA octavo, Rory Cooney) I think I’ve said before, I don’t think that I can write any better than this, but it hasn’t exactly flown off the shelves. I wrote it for the ordination anniversary of a friend and colleague, which happened to fall on Pentecost a few years ago. YouTube video is below, right; the lyrics are here. 

Communion: May We Be One (GIA octavo, Daigle/Cooney)

Recessional: Over My Head (spiritual)
 or I Send You Out by John Angotti

Other Pentecost posts:
Urban Renewal in the City of God
The Fifty Hour Pentecost
From Babel to Pentecost
Christ and the Spirit (this is your brain on too much oxygen)

"I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now. 
But when he comes, the Spirit of truth,

he will guide you to all truth.”