I’d like to begin today with a prayer that comes to us from Pope John Paul II, who offered these words up to God on the night before Pentecost in 1979. He has returned to his homeland in Poland, and a million people have gathered to worship in Victory Square in Warsaw. Many historians point to this occasion as the moment when the Iron Curtain began to come down:
Let your Spirit descend. Let your Spirit descend and renew the face of earth, the face of this land. Amen.
Have you noticed lately that the top-grossing movies all involve superheroes? We never tire of valiant men and women, all with special powers and abilities, who courageously fight against villains who seek to destroy us and the world. I don’t think it’s any accident that we’re attracted to stories about superheroes in a time when our real-life leaders, those whom we expect to protect and guide us, are failing us left and right.
It’s hard to think of a sector of society—politics, business, education, science, communications and technology, religion, the arts—that hasn’t been marred by misconduct, dishonesty, selfishness and fear.
It makes sense that we would turn to entertainment like movies to look for heroes who won’t let us down. But what if that wasn’t necessary? What if, on this Day of Pentecost, we look for examples of ordinary people like you and me who are capable of extraordinary things through the power of the Holy Spirit?
We may not be able to fly or be invincible, but we can open ourselves to God’s power. As St. Paul writes in Ephesians: “Glory to God, working in us, who can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.” That “infinite more” is the work of the Holy Spirit, who works in unlikely places through ordinary people.
I’m thinking this morning of Austin Perine, a four-year-old who lives in Birmingham. One day, he and his dad were watching a nature show on TV about pandas.
The mother panda on the show abandoned her baby, which caused little Austin to ask his father: “What’s going to happen to the baby?” Mr. Perine replied: “He will be homeless.” Austin thought a while and then replied: “Are there any people who are homeless?” His father explained to him that some people are homeless, even in their city. The little boy pondered that a while and then declared: “I want to use my allowance to help the homeless. I don’t want any more toys. Let’s go and buy them some food and bring it to them.”
And so that’s what Austin and his father do once a week. They go to a local restaurant, buy a bag full of sandwiches, and hand-deliver them to homeless men and women on the streets of Birmingham. Here’s the best part: like a superhero, Austin wears a red cape when he goes out on his missions. He says the same thing to each person as he shares the food: “Don’t forget to show love.” Watch Austin’s story here.
I could write an 80,000-word dissertation on pneumatology, the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. I could describe for you the perichoretic indwelling of the Spirit with the Father and the Son in the Holy Trinity. I could trace for you the movement of the Holy Spirit through 2,000 years of Christian history.
Or I could just point you to 4-year-old Austin Perine in Birmingham, Alabama. If you want to understand and open yourself to the Holy Spirit, look no further than this little boy and his mission to feed the hungry. A child came to terms with a world in which pandas and human beings abandon and hurt each other. He felt a tug to respond with compassion, to do something that involved letting go of his personal comfort and security. Then, he acted, enlisting others to join him.
Don’t forget to show love. Good words for us to hold unto this Pentecost Sunday.
The Holy Spirit is all about remembering to show love to God and each other. “Come down, O Love Divine,” goes the old hymn. “Seek thou this soul of mine, and visit it with thine own ardor glowing.”
Come down, O love divine, because we live in a country in which a 17-year-old boy wearing a “Born to Kill” t-shirt takes the lives of 10 of his fellow students. Come down, O Love Divine, because so many people in our world are seeking to heal after experiencing violence, abuse and oppression.
Come Down, O Love Divine and remind us to show love just like you do at the creation of the world, when the morning stars sing together and all the heavenly beings shout for joy.
At the creation, you brood over the chaotic waters like a dove. A mighty wind sweeps across the face of the waters, and you animate the world with meaning and purpose. Later, when your people are in bondage in Egypt, you blow against the Red Sea waters so that God’s people go through on dry land. You remember to show love and liberate your people from slavery.
When God’s people are exiled to a strange land, you speak through the prophet Ezekiel who imagines a desert landscape littered with human bones bleached by an unblinking sun.
God’s people are confused, divided, angry. They take care of their own and abandon the poor and vulnerable. They don’t know whom they can count on to tell them the truth. Their minds narrow, their hearts grow cold, their souls dry up and they stagger and fall to the dust.
And then, just when all seems lost, you sweep across their dry bones and “suddenly there is a noise, a rattling, and the bones come together, bone to its bone. There are sinews on them, and flesh has come upon them, and skin has covered them . . . you breathe life into them, and they come alive, and stand up on their feet, a vast multitude.”
In the New Testament, at the Annunciation, the angel Gabriel tells Mary that she will give birth to the Savior of the world, and Mary, like little Austin in Birmingham, takes some time to ponder the news that Gabriel shares. She wonders: “How can these things be?”
Gabriel tells her that you will overshadow her just like you brooded over the waters at the creation of the world, that you will give Mary, an ordinary person, the ability to do something “infinitely more than she could ask or imagine.” You call her to bear God’s own Son for “nothing is too wonderful for God.”
You remember to show love for Mary and for her son, Jesus, at his baptism. He wades into the waters of the Jordan River with his cousin, John, who baptizes him.
When Jesus comes up from the water, you descend on him like a dove, and the Father’s first words from heaven are about love: “You are my beloved Son, and with you, I am well pleased.” Don’t forget to show love.
On the Day of Pentecost, Jesus’ disciples are all gathered together in one place. After his ascension to heaven, they are grieving his loss yet again and wondering what’s next. Their bones are getting dryer by the minute.
And then you rush over them like the waters of creation, the Red Sea and the Jordan River. You move at gale force to topple the Tower of Babel built on the shaky foundation of our hubris. You undo the estrangement that divides us one from another and call us together in unity.
Suddenly, everyone understands each other speaking of God’s deeds of power. You inspire Peter to recall the inspired words of the prophet Joel: “I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh . . . everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
Love Divine has come down, and there are no superheroes to be found, just ordinary people like you and me: “Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.”
All of God’s children see visions, dream dreams, speak of God’s deeds of power and remember to show love.
I’m going to guess that when our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, graduated from seminary, he never thought that he might one day preach at an English royal wedding in front of millions of people. Remember what I said before about the Holy Spirit moving in unlikely places through ordinary people.
Unlikely, because let’s face it, the English royalty aren’t exactly known for spontaneity and Pentecostal fire. You can count on them for tradition, and the setting for Saturday’s wedding in Windsor couldn’t have been more traditional: a grey Gothic chapel. Soaring stained glass windows, burnished wood choir stalls decorated with ancient symbols, horse-drawn carriages. Not exactly the type of place where we anticipate the rush of the Holy Ghost.
And then there is Bishop Curry, who would be the first to tell you that he’s no superhero. He’s just an ordinary man who has opened himself to the extraordinary power of the Holy Spirit. Through the power of the Spirit, I believe Bishop Curry was invited to give the sermon in the first place. He was invited because he’s a gifted preacher who also happens to be the first African-American Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church.
Meghan Markle is biracial. Her mother, who attended the wedding and sat across from the Queen, is a descendant of American slaves. It was lost on no one that this wedding was a historic moment for England and the United States, two countries that profited enormously from the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.
In Bishop Curry’s sermon, he spoke of the experience of American slaves who sang of a balm in Gilead, of the love of God that can heal the deepest wounds. His sermon moved many people because it was true.
In a world torn apart by division, hatred and lies, Bishop Curry shared the truth of the Good News that God pours out God’s Spirit upon all flesh and that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.
Or in Bishops Curry’s own words: “When love is the way, then no child will go to bed hungry in this world ever again. When love is the way, we will let justice roll down like a mighty stream and righteousness like an ever-flowing brook. When love is the way, poverty will become history. When love is the way, the earth will be a sanctuary.
When love is the way, we will lay down our swords and shields down, down by the riverside to study war no more. When love is the way, there’s plenty good room, plenty good room, for all of God’s children.” Transcript of Bishop Curry’s sermon.
Come down, O Love Divine on us all. Comfort the mourning. Shield the joyous. We have so much to celebrate right now at St. John’s: during the 9 a.m. service, we will thank God for our high school graduates. During the 11:15 a.m. service, we will baptize new members of Christ’s Body. On this joyful day, we pray to the Holy Spirit to take our ordinary minds, hearts and souls and do infinitely more than we could ask or imagine.
My brothers and sisters: on this Day of Pentecost, receive the gift of the Holy Spirit and remember to show love to every child of God.
A sermon preached at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Tallahassee, FL, on May 20, 2018.