Year B, Pentecost May 20, 2018 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“…we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”
A blessed Pentecost to you! It is a happy day. It is a big day, religiously. As one commentator succinctly puts it, “Christmas is stupid without Easter. Easter is pointless without Pentecost.” An important day and a fun one. All the red. Fr. Bingham down at St. Mary’s has these outrageous red sneakers he wears every Pentecost. Totally fun. This chasuble is the only red thing I have. I do have one t-shirt, it is white, but it does have bright red printing on it. It is in the Coca-Cola font, but instead of “Enjoy Coke” it says “Enjoy Capitalism.” I love that shirt but I stuck with the chasuble. It is a happy day. The reading that we all joined in on from Acts, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, is traditionally taken as the birthday of The Church. Where Jesus lodged in the disciple’s hearts in the Ascension, passed on from generation to generation in the church, in the Pentecost, everyone, EVERYONE, inside and out, heard the Good News in words they could understand. That Holy Spirit, She’s a good one. The Church arose in that imperishable fire that lay on each and every head that day. Today we also celebrate a mile-stone for this church. 50 years ago this June 23rd, the first Mass was celebrated in this space, at this altar, by this congregation. A few of you were here! Thank you for getting this started. A happy day! Join us downstairs afterward Mass for the potluck and the celebration of these founding elders and the legacy they have left with us and for us.
It is a happy day and my heart is heavy. It has been another bad week in the world. Torture, or at least a lead torturer is back in the public eye. (And so is Oliver North)??? Yale police seem to have reinforced racial bias by confronting an African-American student who fell asleep in the library. A New York lawyer ranted against Spanish speaking employees, fortified by our President calling immigrants “animals” again. But mostly its the violence. The violence in Gaza. Sixty dead and 2,400 wounded… on Monday. Snipers from protected positions shot protesters armed with rocks and slings and that baby asphyxiated by tear gas didn’t even have a sling; and yet our government praises the IDF at the United Nations for using “restraint.” And violence near Houston, another horror-show in another school. The 22nd this year. And we can’t blame assault weapons, the boy carried 19th century technology: a shotgun and a revolver. Tomorrow is the 20th anniversary of the same tragedy right here in Thurston.
What are we doing? We’re fouling our own nest, we’re eating our young. The image of Goya’s painting “Saturn Devouring His Son” keeps flashing through my mind. Do you know that one? A terrible image of a monstrous, crazed figure not eating, but devouring a body, and not just a body, but their own son’s body. Horrible. Saturn (Cronus in Greek), was one of the Titans, and fearing usurpation by his offspring, he ate each one as they were born. (Well, he did kill and replace his own father and Zeus, his son, escaped being eaten and did eventually kill and replace Saturn, so his fear was justified, but his means… maybe his means necessitated the end he came to)? How can the Israel Defense Forces not understand that? Or our own political, military and security leaders? Or advocates for unlimited gun rights? We’re devouring each other and our own selves and with it, the whole world around us.
I’ve tried to be much more hopeful these past nine months, focusing on God in Christ with the Holy Spirit and God’s church and you, God’s people. I have been more hopeful, I am more hopeful, but I can still get worked up. I can get very cynical. I sometimes wonder how many of the problems in our politics are the creation of a media circus pumping import into minutia to boost profits. But then yesterday Will sent me a brief video message published by Sojourners, a prominent Christian publication. It is on our website now. The message, led off by our own Presiding Bishop, The Most Reverend Michael Curry, (most famous at the moment for preaching at the royal wedding), is a stark public warning about racism and white nationalism worming itself into the highest echelons of government, the dangers of truth evaporating from public discourse and a clear warning about creeping authoritarianism. Richard Rohr, Tony Campolo, conservative Baptists, our PB (Episcopal lingo for Presiding Bishop) and others chimed in… not a radical group, not alarmists, and they are taking our current situation very, very seriously, that the fabric of our society (and our ecology) is frayed and is fraying at an increasing rate. Just because you are cynical doesn’t mean that it is not terrible out there.
Pentecost can be a happy and joyful feast. It can be red sneakers and birthday cakes. It can be that. Sometimes, though, that is not where we are, not where the world is, not completely. What Pentecost always is, though, is a holiday of hope. It is about the Holy Spirit entering the world in a wholly new way, inviting everyone into the hope of new life. We don’t need to be happy to be hopeful. What we need is the Holy Spirit, the source of hope. We need Her intercession, Her power, Her hope. As much as ever we need that. In this moment, I don’t know if we are up for the rush of wind, or divided tongues as of fire. I don’t know if we could take that, see that, or trust it if it did happen again. But we need Her presence, O boy do we need the Holy Spirit, our Companion and Advocate, as much as ever. And in moments such as this, maybe moments as scary or precarious as the times St. Paul lived through, we need to listen for Her voice, and listen hard, for sometimes She whispers in “sighs too deep for words.”
“We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we are saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”
We’ve been struggling, we humans, for long, long time. Forever, right? That’s the purpose of the story of Adam and Eve: to account for the question, “why is it so hard when it could be so easy?” Some things get better. Some things get worse. Some things don’t seem to change. That goes for everything human from geopolitics to marriage. There is so much pain and suffering in the world, so much of it utterly unnecessary and completely meaningless. That just seems to be the nature of an existence categorized by fear and trembling, sickness unto death. That’s just the way it is. But some of that pain and suffering is completely necessary and utterly meaningful. Through some pain and suffering great change happens, renewal occurs, life enters the world. Everyone who has given birth, or has seen someone born knows this. And we know that somewhere deep inside, we were all born. The conscious memories of our own births are hidden, but we all entered the world in the groans of pain of someone who loved us before they ever even saw our face with their own eyes.
That is hope in its rawest, most unrefined form.
It amazes me to hear of the hope people find in desperate places. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. knew darkness and said, “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.” That’s the long view. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, another saint among us acquainted with the suffering of injustice, spoke in hope, saying, “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.” The Christian life itself is life lived with the knowledge of the cross in the hope of the resurrection. Right?
We here are people of some privilege. White American people of privilege have crested the top of the roller coaster. Like Peak Oil, we’re at Peak White Privilege. We’re beginning a decline in privilege as white folks in an age of increasing diversity, as part of a disappearing middle class as poverty increases on one side and Gilded Age concentrations of wealth increase on the other, as citizens of an empire fighting a rear guard action as we pass the zenith of our imperial power. Hope can be hard to find in a downward spiral, because the future looks less appealing than the past or present.
To live in Montgomery or Soweto was morally and physically hard in so many ways, harder than I can fathom. And it was dangerous, morally and physically. AND the future was wide open. (Besides the threat of violent death, it could only get better). The birth pains those oppressed communities groaned under held the hope and promise of a new life, a life better, freer, more abundant, more just, with more power, with more of a share of the bounty. For those of us currently with privilege, with power and wealth, it can be hard to hopeful about the leaner, more austere future we face. It is hard to see that having less is in fact better, and not just for everyone else who is on the upswing, but for ourselves, too. It is hard to see that so much of the privilege we have is bad for us. Wealth, for example, isn’t very good for us. Never has been. It can make us morally and ethically lazy, can blind us to the other, be it the soil, air or water we rely upon for sustenance or other people, upon whose toil our common life depends. And men. We enjoy the privileges we have, but they aren’t good for us, let alone the rest of the world.
We need God right now. We need the Creator, the Divine Parent who brings us and everything else into the world. We need Jesus our friend and companion on the journey, saving us over and over again from the evil one and ourselves. And we need our Advocate the Holy Spirit, life, light, hope itself incarnate if only in our heart. We need the one holy and blessed God to help us relax our death-grip on the perishing world, pry our fingers from unearned and unhealthy privilege, and give us patience and help us to hope for what we do not, on our own, cannot see.
All the groaning in pain, the anxiety, sighs too deep for words, hope we can’t see… and the suffering of the world amplified by the 24 hour news cycle, it can feel like Saturn devouring his son. But there is hope. For us. For you. For everyone and everything under heaven.
The Reverend Dr. Peter Storey was the Methodist Bishop of South Africa in the dark days of Apartheid, a co-worker in that rocky vineyard with Archbishop Tutu. He was a white man, educated, privileged, and on the right side of God and history. Among other things, he served for a time as the chaplain on Robbins Island, the infamous prison fortress, home to Nelson Mandela in his decades of imprisonment. Storey was filled with Christian hope of the kind Paul writes of in his letter to the church in Rome. Hope for the unseen by a groaning world. Good will come, but it will hurt getting there. Dr. Storey is talked about this in terms of “the great nevertheless of God.” I find these words very helpful in understanding Paul, but more importantly, in understanding the Holy Spirit and the hope She offers, especially to Her church.
The great nevertheless of God. The small minority of white South Africans held the vast majority of the wealth and political power in that nation; nevertheless God was with the poor. The preferential option, God is always on the underdogs’, the weakers’, the one with less artillery’s side. The South African Defense Forces were amongst the best trained, equipped and most experienced armies in the world; nevertheless it crumbled before a largely peaceful revolution. After centuries of oppression, it seemed natural that reprisals would come against the whites as they had in places like Zimbabwe; nevertheless the spirit of truth and reconciliation arose, and with it divine justice in all its messy and unconventionally satisfying glory. There wasn’t bloodshed.
St. Paul is speaking to the hope that is present to us in the difficult time we are in, a difficult time in the history of our nation and in the natural history of our world. Climate change is going to birth something. Nevertheless, God is guiding us, and not just us, but the whole creation through this pain towards the fulfillment of a promise made long ago. Most of us can’t see what a just future looks like for us, for our nation, not from this staring place, not like I think Tutu and Mandela asked for and imagined from theirs, nevertheless, the Holy Spirit takes our unknown needs to the heart of God in “sighs to deep for words” where they will, in the fullness of time come to fruition. And as one commentator writes, “The glory of resurrection doesn’t erase the agony of crucifixion – nor does it justify it. Nevertheless- resurrection, life, light is coming.”
Nothing happy-clappy in there, but the “great nevertheless of God” teems with solemn joy, with eschatological hope, with faith in the Redeemer that came and will come again. In darkened days like we are in, it is worth reminding ourselves of the promises of Christ as we celebrate the birthday of The Church, and the birth of this church, too. AMEN