Weekly Preaching: Pentecost 2020

May 26th, 2020

Pentecost. I feel I’ve preached on Acts 2 quite a few years now. I might again, but might not. If you plan to, I’ll refer you to my blog from a couple of years ago, which has pretty extensive material that might be of use to you.

Also, The National Council of Churches recently held a pubic online memorial service to mourn the more than 300,000 worldwide and nearly 100,000 US deaths from Covid-19, "as a way for the country to join together to grieve the passing of family, friends, and even strangers we hear about in news reports." Where I am, such talk gets hijacked into ideological rhetoric in a nano-second, but it does seem like the sort of thing churches should do together.

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1 Corinthians 12:3b-13 is an intriguing choice. If Pentecost is, as we are fond of saying, the birthday of the Church, then what does it mean to be the Church? Paul’s exploration of gifts is worth probing. There are “varieties of gifts,” so there’s no one spirituality or service model for everybody. Many churches (like mine!) do “spiritual gifts” inventories, assessments of “strength finders,” etc., so people can see how they are wired and thus find their path to service. All good, but I always wonder if we might be getting it backwards. Is it that God has made me a certain way, so that’s how I serve? Or do I stretch and learn to serve God more profoundly if I do what I’m not gifted at?
 
Does God use my strengths? Or my brokenness? Leonard Cohen’s “There is a crack in everything / that’s how the light gets in” comes to mind. How do we unearth people’s gifts  all the people’s? I gripe at my place about the way churches and their groups and service options are geared toward “marathoners,” people like my wife who will sign up for thirty-five-week studies or three-year weekly commitments. I’m a “sprinter,” and my tribe is increasing: I get nervous over a three-week commitment. And then what times of day do we have things? A young parent, or a surgeon, or a night nurse: how do we employ their gifts, and time?
 
"Weak Enough to Lead" by James C. Howell. Order here: http://bit.ly/WeakEnoughtoLead
Not surprisingly, in our culture, “difference” feels threatening. The Methodists can’t seem to get along with people who think or act differently. But difference is God’s good gift; difference is how we know God, not merely through the daunting labor of reconciliation, but even just hearing God’s voice. I love Hans Urs von Balthasar’s wisdom:
 
“We cannot find the dimensions of Christ’s love other than in the community of the church, where the vocations and charisms distributed by the Spirit are shared: each person must tell the others what special knowledge of the Lord has been shown to him. For no one can tread simultaneously all the paths of the love given to the saints: while one explores the heights, another experiences the depths and a third the breadth. No one is alone under the banner of the Spirit, the Son and the Father; only the whole Church is the Bride of Christ, and that only as a vessel shaped by him to receive his fullness” (Does Jesus Know Us? Do We Know Him?
 
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The lectionary supplies us with a couple of Gospel options. John 20:19-23 is a text we saw and commented on recently (with mentions of Rachel Hollis, Caravaggio, Simone Weil and Jean Vanier, and Graham Greene, and what Jesus “breathing on them” was about). So let’s look at John 7:37-39. One of the coolest new things to visit in Jerusalem is the “Pilgrim’s Path,” newly excavated, starting at the Pool of Siloam, making its way up the long incline to the Temple Mount. I've taken several groups now through this tunnel! You have to duck your head, but it’s a spectacular underground walk; the very stones on which Jesus and thousands of Jewish pilgrims would have made their way from Siloam, which is a mass Mikveh for cleansing, up to the Temple for worship on the great Festival days.
 
John’s vignette reveals a dramatic moment; in my sermon, I will paint the scene as vividly as I’m able. The Festival in question was the Feast of Tabernacles, or Sukkoth, when Jews recalled dwelling in makeshift booths in the wilderness years. Special celebration was given to the miraculous gift of water in the desert (Exodus 17, right on the heels of the gift of the bread from heaven in Exodus 16, just as John 7 is right on the heels of Jesus as the “bread of life” in John 6!). The high priest would lead this great processional, carrying a golden pitcher full of water from the Spring Gihon and the Pool of Siloam. Upon reaching the pinnacle, he would pour the water out on the ground — a dramatic reminder of the gift of water, not to mention David’s nobly heroic moment reported in 2 Samuel 23:15-17: After sighing that he was thirsty, three devoted men broke through the Philistine lines and brought him water at great risk to themselves; moved by their action, instead of drinking, David poured it out on the ground.
 
At this Feast of Booths, Jesus was in the crowd. Just as the priest solemnly poured the water, Jesus cried from the side, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me” and mysteriously alludes to living water flowing within any who believe. People must have been puzzled, chagrined, or maybe drawn to him.
 
Of all Jesus’ “I am” declarations in John, the “water” identity is curiously alluring. In the Incarnation, Jesus entered the water of Mary’s womb, and was himself 80% water when he was born (like all infants) and even as an adult was 70% water (like you are). So much of his ministry was conducted near or on the water. His Baptism, the fishermen, so many miracles, preaching and healing at the great Mikveh pools in Jerusalem, Bethesda and Siloam. Water has some mystical lure for us. A rainshower calms the soul. The lapping of waves along the ocean shore, or a river flowing by speaks somehow deeply to the soul. 
 
Jean Vanier, whom I've loved and quoted and now feel crushed by... can still with his words usher me and maybe some others into the holy mindset: “Jesus is calling us to receive him so we may give life to those who are thirsty. Those who believe in Jesus become like him. Through their love, words and presence, they transmit the Spirit they receive from Jesus. They will quench the thirst of the poor, the lonely, the needy, those in pain and anguish and will give them life, love, and peace of heart.”
 
This is the Church, the one born at Pentecost, right?

What can we say May 31? Pentecost Sunday originally appeared at James Howell's Weekly Preaching Notions. Reprinted with permission.

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