I was surrounded and the room filled with the loud sound of a family presenting to God their fears, their hopes, and their anxieties. In many ways, it was like any other day; I knocked on the non-descript hospital door and introduced myself. I listened as the family shared the terrible news about the patriarch lying in the bed, and their confidence that, despite their being no hope, that they still had it. When I asked if we could pray together, the woman standing beside him said, “yes, but we’re Pentecostal and we pray in tongues”, so it would have to be that way. I tried to reign the cynicism that slowly began to rise and mumbled something about not knowing how to do that, but that I was happy to pray with them while they did. I am used to written prayers or quiet prayers that arise from the heart; I had yet to experience the beauty and the chaos of praying in tongues.
It was chaotic and loud; the room filled with a noise that sounded to me like nonsensical mumbling, with the occasional voice rising up in a language I understood giving voice to the pain, fear, and hope that everyone in that room felt. It was chaotic and loud, and while I’m still not quite certain what happened in that room that day, and I’m still more comfortable with written prayers, I know that the Spirit was present in those prayers. In the darkest moment of their lives, that family offered to God sighings too deep for words because they could not fathom a path forward.
In our Acts lesson today, we hear the story of the Day of Pentecost. It is the day of Pentecost, 50 days after Christ rose from the dead; all the disciples are gathered together. Then chaos ensues. The sound of a violent wind coming from heaven, filling the whole house. Tongues like fire appeared, hovering over their heads, being filled with the Spirit they began to speak in other languages, a gift of the Spirit. A crowd gathered, bewildered. Many people, heard them speaking in native languages. They all, a variety of people from a variety of places heard of God’s deeds of power. Amazed and perplexed, some believed and some thought they were drunk. Peter stands and begins to preach.
One of the things you may or may not have picked up on in my almost a year with you here at Christ Church is that I can tend to be a bit gregarious with my love of scripture. I love the complicated works of St. Paul, and I love the way St. John upholds unity and love as the ultimate, and unsurprisingly, I love the Day of Pentecost. I love this holy day because it is the start of something big and wild. It’s where we find the locus of our (generally poorly articulated) belief in the Holy Spirit. It is the uniting of a broken, fragmented world. It is uncomfortable and messy, it is the church.
While Pentecost isn’t necessarily the beginning of the church, it is the beginning of what we claim to believe happens with you had that water poured upon your head in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It is the beginning of what we believe happens when a bishop marks with holy oil the sign of the cross upon your head as you were welcomed into this church. It is the beginning of something big, and something of which we are still a part today.
On that Day of Pentecost, the essential work of the Spirit began as it transformed eyewitness of Christ into ministers of the Word made flesh. On that day of Pentecost, all that were gathered there gained a new orientation, new prayers, and new energy for a life of faith. Because if a life of faith is anything, it is a life of hope and a life work. On that day of Pentecost, our work began, and as beginnings so often do, it arose out of a time of chaos. One of the things that we know to be true as we reflect back on the life of God’s people since the day of Pentecost is that our suffering is not eliminated by resurrection life, no, rather it is transformed, and in that transformation, God’s people have been sustained by the Spirit, because since the Spirit is at work in the world we can have a genuine hope for the future.
In our Romans text today, Paul is wrapping up a treatise on what it means to live a life of faith. Speaking to the community, he names the fact that the life and world that we know is and will be true is already, but not yet. We are waiting for the resurrection to be manifest in every part of our life; we do not see, but we hope. In this hopeful waiting, the very same Spirit that was present that Day of Pentecost is with us and intercedes for us in our prayers.
Now perhaps it’s also unsurprising that I love Romans 8; it is just such a beautiful passage of our Holy Scriptures (seriously, go home and read it). I love it for a variety of reasons, but chief of all might be just how lovely verse 26 is: “for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” Oh church, I love this passage because there have been so many times, when the words of my prayers fell short, or felt dry, or when I was praying for something too big to name, and I have thought back to these words of St. Paul.
In a week where we have seen terrible, senseless, and grotesque violence in Gaza, where they had their deadliest day since their war in 2014, and in a week where we had our 22nd school shooting in our country this year alone, I have lost my words. I have given rise to my prayers of Lord, have mercy, Kyrie Elison, and all others that name what I cannot name myself, but my sisters and brothers, this week I have known sighings too deep for words.
But this is what I know to be true on that Day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit was present and came upon those faithful believers to help them do all the work that they were given to do. I know that the Spirit moves in this world boldy and freely, and it never moves without having a powerful impact. I know that as we give voice to our prayers of Lord, have mercy or Kyrie elison or our prayers that are too deep for words, arising with them is our cry of Alleluia, alleluia, Christ is risen! Even if we do not know how to pray, the Spirit intercedes for us, and gives us the strength and courage to go out into the world to do our best to make those prayers come to fruition. Because this life of faith is a life of hope and it is a life of work; we hold both close at hand.
So as you leave today, pray. Pray that we might know the resurrection life that we know to be true. Pray that all that we do is working towards God’s peace. And as you leave today, get to work. Our prayer is not about changing God’s minds, but is so often about changing our own hearts and our own intentions, and our prayers fall short if they are not paired with work to bring about that for which we pray. And as you leave, perhaps most of all, hope. Hope in Christ eternal, hope in God’s unchanging, unwavering, unrestricted love, and hope in the resurrection life. May we all know the work of the Spirit in our own lives, in the life of this community, in the church universal, and in the world at large.
A sermon delivered to the people of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, KY on PentecostB , May 20, 2018.