Sunday, June 04, 2006

Pentecost is Our Day

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen
Year B: The Day of Pentecost
June 4, 2006

Acts 2:1-11
1 Corinthians 12:4-13
John 20: 19-23
Psalm 104:25-32

Pentecost is Our Day

Spirit of the Living God, fall fresh on me.
Spirit of the Living God, fall fresh on us.


Well, Happy Pentecost! Pentecost is a great day because this is our day – today the Holy Spirit is poured out onto us. Today the Holy Spirit is breathed into us – into us right here at St. Paul’s in Jersey City. The past few weeks we have been through Palm Sunday, Good Friday, Easter Sunday and Ascension Day – and they were great and powerful days for sure, but Pentecost is a church feast that is really about us, right here and right now.

I mean, let’s face it, we weren’t there when Jesus was welcomed with waving palms into Jerusalem. We weren’t there when Jesus blessed the bread and wine at the Last Supper. We weren’t there when Jesus was nailed to the cross. We weren’t there when the apostles peered into the empty tomb. We weren’t there when the resurrected Jesus told Thomas to touch his wounds. We weren’t there when the apostles were left staring into the sky as Jesus ascended into heaven. No, we weren’t there for any of that – but we are right here in Jersey City during June of 2006 and right at this moment we’re having our own Pentecost, a Pentecost just as real and powerful as what the disciples experienced two thousand years ago. Today the Holy Spirit is being poured into us, breathed into us. It’s up to us to open our hearts to the Spirit. It’s up to us to let the Holy Spirit transform us into true disciples. It’s up to us today to walk out the doors of St. Paul’s and transform Jersey City and to transform the whole world. Today is Pentecost – today is our day!

It’s the end of the Easter season but it’s also the birthday of the church. Pentecost is the beginning of the church, the start of our Christian transformation. We just heard the lessons - as promised, the disciples were given the Holy Spirit and the church is born. Remember, even after the resurrection the disciples had been fearful, clueless people hiding out behind locked doors. Now the power of the Holy Spirit transforms them into true Christian disciples, boldly proclaiming the Good News of Christ in every language. Pentecost transforms the disciples into men and women willing to risk everything for Christ.

But, unlike Easter, Pentecost is not a one-time event – the outpouring of the Holy Spirit that began on that long-ago Pentecost continues today – right here and right now – right here on Duncan Avenue at St. Paul’s in Jersey City! Pentecost is not really about the transformation of a few Jewish men and women from 2000 years ago. Pentecost is really about the transformation that takes place in our own lives – when we open our hearts to power of the Holy Spirit and are transformed from being fearful, self-centered people into bold, loving Christian disciples. Pentecost is about our transformation and the transformation of the world.

Yes, Pentecost is about us and our continuing transformation into Christian disciples. Pentecost is about our individual transformation - and it’s also about our group transformation. You may have noticed that today’s lessons actually contain two Pentecosts. In the Acts of the Apostles we have sort of the “Big Pentecost” - the powerful depiction of the divided tongues as of fire descending on the disciples and then the disciples speaking in many languages. In John’s Gospel we have the “Little Pentecost” - Jesus simply breathes the Holy Spirit onto the disciples. Two very powerful images expressing the same reality – the gift of the Holy Spirit given to Christ’s followers.

In both accounts, though, the Holy Spirit is given – poured out or breathed – in public – in the community, not individually. Jesus doesn’t call the disciples one by one and breathe the Holy Spirit on them. (Jesus doesn’t quietly say something like, “Andrew, come over here for a second – I want to give you something.”) Instead the Holy Spirit is given collectively, in the community. Just like today, Jesus doesn’t call us to be disciples but then say, “Shh, don’t tell anyone about this – keep this to yourself.”

This is really important, and maybe something we’d like to forget. Despite what many people may say – and even what we might like to believe – our Christian faith is not a private matter. We cannot be transformed and then keep it to ourselves. We can’t be a “secret disciple.” You know what some people say about us Episcopalians? That we’re the “frozen chosen.” That’s not good enough! It just doesn’t work that way. Our transformation takes place here in church and in the world around us. As Christians, each in our own way, we are called to be transformed and then to go out and share the Good News, transforming the whole world.

Whether we like it or not, the power of the Holy Spirit and our transformation by the Holy Spirit is a public event. One of the things I love about the Episcopal Church is that, as you know, we usually celebrate the sacrament of Baptism in the middle of our Sunday Eucharist. All of us assembled take part in the baptism – we are all here to witness to the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, to remember and renew our own baptismal vows, and to pledge our support for a new Christian – we pledge our support both individually and as a community. Every Baptism is a Pentecost.

I’d like to share two examples of this uncomfortable, public, Pentecost Christianity that you and I have been baptized into. Last week out at House of Prayer we had a good discussion about Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa. I’m sure many of you know his story. When he was a teenager the white minority government in his country imposed the brutal system of apartheid on the black majority. Tutu was first a school teacher but in part because he was frustrated by the restrictions on what he could teach, he was ordained a priest. By the early 1980s he was one of the most outspoken opponents of this ugly, racist regime. In 1982 he declared to a government commission, “Where there is injustice, exploitation and oppression, then the Bible and the God of the Bible are subversive…Our God…is a God of surprises, uprooting the powerful and unjust to establish his kingdom.” In 1984 the world recognized Tutu’s willingness to speak truth to power and he received the Nobel Peace Prize.

Thanks to the courage of Tutu, Nelson Mandela, and others, in 1994 the white minority regime in South Africa was peacefully replaced with a multiracial government. It’s truly one of the great miracles of our time. But the miracle didn’t stop there. Next, President Mandela put Tutu in charge of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Both Mandela and Tutu understood the difficult truth that those white people who had done wrong were also victims of this evil system. So they were given the chance to make a full confession of their wrongdoing and in return received amnesty. The victims and their families were also given the chance to tell their stories to the commission. And so the healing began. How hard it must have been for people of color to offer forgiveness to these often brutal white people! How was forgiveness and reconciliation possible? Well, Tutu and the others opened their hearts to the power of the Holy Spirit and allowed themselves and their world to be transformed. It’s truly a Pentecost story.

Now another Pentecost story, this one a little closer to home. This past week I had the pleasure and privilege of meeting Bob Castle. You may have read in the paper that he was honored by the local historic preservation group as a living Jersey City landmark. Some of you who have been around for a while may remember that he was the rector of St. John’s on Summit Avenue back in the 1960s. When Castle got the job at St. John’s the bishop warned him that this would not be a good career move. That turned out to be a correct prediction, because Castle was not content to hide his Christianity within the church walls. Instead, Castle got involved in the big issues of his day – the civil rights and anti-war movements. You don’t have to agree with his politics to admit that Castle courageously carried his faith through the church doors and out into the world – forcefully speaking out and fighting against poverty, corruption, racism, violence and war.

On one memorable occasion, he brought garbage that had filled city-owned buildings and dramatically dumped it on the steps of City Hall. (That got their attention!) This white guy from the jWest Side famously befriended members of the Black Panthers – while opposing violence, he stood with them against racism and oppression. When Jersey City seemed to be in danger of descending into the chaos of race riots that devastated cities such as Detroit and Newark, Castle – a white man trusted by many in the black community - went out into the streets and helped to defuse the situation. And, unlike many other big cities, Jersey City didn’t burn and collapse.

The other night somebody asked Castle how he decided what causes were worth fighting for. He answered that he believed that something was worth doing only if it had a cost to him personally. “It’s got to cost you,” he said. And sure enough his work in Jersey City ended up costing him a great deal. For quite a while this outspoken priest was basically unemployable in the Episcopal Church – the bishop had been right after all, St. John’s really wasn’t a good career move. Castle actually ended up running a general store with his family in Vermont for years. But, the Holy Spirit is always at work and eventually he returned to the church, landing at St. Mary’s in Harlem, once again taking the Christian message out from the sanctuary and into the streets – and speaking the truth to power.

Of course, we’re not called to be exactly a Desmond Tutu or a Bob Castle. In their own times and places they found their ways to live out their Christian vocation. But on Pentecost, and every day, each of us in our own way is called to open our hearts to the power of the Holy Spirit. We are called to allow ourselves to be transformed and to grow into our transformation. As St. Paul writes, we are each called to use our manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. Our job together here in church is to reflect on what gifts of the Spirit we have been given and then, even though it’s going to cost us, rise above our fears and each in our own way bring our gifts out those doors and into a very broken and hungry world.

So, today is Pentecost. Today is our day. Today the Holy Spirit is poured out onto us. Today the Holy Spirit is breathed into us. Right here, right now. It is up to us – us, the people of St. Paul’s. All of us. Today is our day. Today it’s up to us to respond, to open our hearts, allowing the Holy Spirit to transform us, to transform Jersey City, and to transform all of creation.

Sweet Holy Spirit. Sweet Heavenly Dove.
Stay right here with us, filling us with your love.
And for these blessings, we lift our hearts in praise.
Without a doubt we’ll know that we have been revived
When we shall leave this place.