June 5 2022
St. Stephen’s, Oak Harbor
Blessed be the Name of God
Everything has a context, a setting. Everything is surrounded, enfolded, supported, undergirded by something, shaded, enlightened, availed, obscured. Everything has a context. That’s true of us, this morning. June 5 2022, in the shadow of mass murders, amidst continuing pandemic, in the early days of Spring; in my case, between anniversary and birthday, in the midst of this community of faith, on Pentecost, a festival day.
In this context, I have been drawn to a poem written by the Rev. Mary Earle, dear friend in San Antonio. The poem is called, “Even at the Grave, Magnificat.” The dedication reads, “On the tenth anniversary of my son’s death of brain cancer.” Then she cites Luke 1.46-47, in the voice of Mary, the mother of Jesus: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my savior.” This is the song the church has called “Magnificat.”
Even at the Grave, Magnificat
Did you sing you song
As your son cried out,
As thirst convulsed his torn limbs?
Did you sing your song
As the nails pierced
Those hands and feet
That you had bathed and kissed?
Did you sing your song
As he breathed his last
And you let him go?
Did you sing your song?
Did You Sing Your Song?: Poems. 2020.
The collection from which this poem comes takes its name for the refrain,
“Did You Sing Your Song?” It’s as fine a collection of poems as I know, given to me by my Amy, not so long ago. On the day of the Uvalde shootings, I spent quite a lot of time with Mary Earle.
Another aspect of my context is a fierce yearning for quiet, stillness, and if God is my helper, silence. But here I am, obliged to speak and what do the Scriptures give us? The Tower of Babel and the Day of Pentecost. In other words, clamor, racket, noise. Indecipherable or decipherable, still tumultuous and thunderous noise. And, of course, I’m quick to admit that any sound is clamorous when silence is what one seeks.
So, I must, nonetheless, join the noisemakers and take you with me.
What is good for me to say? What do you need to hear? What will nourish you, sustain you, aid you on the path you travel? What, in our context, will keep you upright and mobile?
Listen to what we have prayed in the collect for the day. “Grant us by the same Spirit to have a right judgment in all things, and evermore to rejoice in his holy comfort…” “Holy comfort.” How dear that would be. Both the comfort I used to derive from curling up under a chenille blanket that my mother kept—that kind of comfort—and the comfort that is intimate to the word itself. The Latin under “comfort” is “with strength.” Yes, I want both of these—the reassurance that that old chenille blanket gave me when I was a child. And the Godly strength, now, to seek for the “right judgment” that is promised. “Grant us by the same Spirit to have a right judgment in all things, and evermore to rejoice in his holy comfort…”
In Genesis we read how we have explained to ourselves how it is that we have such a vast array of languages, and, by implication, our inability to understand one another. In Acts 2, we read of the reversal of all this.
The story in Acts at first glance is not only fanciful but also odd. Whatever it’s character, the point is that God intends all to be blessed by the Spirit and to be whole, to be God’s own possession.
The story comes to us in three episodes. In the first one, “the disciples” are gathered together and things altogether unexpected began to happen. A great rush of violent wind, something like tongues of fire appear above their heads and they all began to speak in assorted languages, making quite a racket, apparently.
They make such a disturbance, it seems, that in episode two, a great crowd gathers around the house, “bewildered.” People in the crowd hear their own languages spoken—that wonderful long list of nationalities that is so hard to read. The assessment by the hearers is that these speakers are “filled with new wine.” That tells us something about the nature of the gathering and the quality of the noise!
So, episode three begins. Peter, now the leader and speaker for the closest followers of Jesus, stands and addresses the crowd, intent on explaining away the suggestion of drunkenness—after all, as Peter points out, “it is only nine o’clock in the morning!”
This is not drunken behavior, says Peter. This is not new wine talking. This is fulfillment, right here before you, of what was spoken through the prophet Joel, in times past. Then Peter recites Joel’s prophecy, a vision about the end of time and the resolution of all things. Young people, like some of you, will prophesy and some will have visions. Old people like me, we will dream dreams. And even those in bondage will prophesy and have a picture of a time when things will be better.
Strange things will occur around us, we are told, in the heavens and on the earth, and we will know by these signs that the resolution of all things is at hand. “I [the Prophet] will show portents in the heaven above, and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.”
It was the prophet’s job to scare the daylights out of the people, to startle them into right relationship with each other and with God. And Peter invokes this fierce prophetic language to help his hearers on Pentecost understand that what’s going on is about God and about God’s promise.
Peter in our story, and Joel before him, wanted to use the turmoil of the heavens and the distress of the earth as signs of God’s pleasure or displeasure, and by invoking these signs, to awaken us to either God’s good intentions or God’s anger. Peter added the chaos of Pentecost to this list of signs. But why do Peter and Joel want to call upon these signs?
To get us to straighten up, to get us upright, to get us faithful, to make us just, to elicit forgiveness, to teach us about the Day of the Lord.
I have had the perhaps unusual experience as a preacher to have preached the Sunday after 9/11; the Sunday after a tsunamai killed thousands in Myanmar; the Sunday after Katrina hit New Orleans; the Sunday after the death of George Floyd; and now the Sunday after the shooting in Tulsa, the second Sunday after the massacre in Uvalde, and a few Sundays after the horrors of Buffalo.
Unlike Peter and Joel, I cannot make righteous nature’s devastation of many by fire or hurricane or earthquake. I cannot make righteous the devastation caused by the energies the earth sets loose. I cannot make righteous the violence of 9/11. I cannot make righteous the fact of war, poverty, racism, homophobia. I cannot make righteous the savagery of gun violence and the malevolence that is alive in our political life. No, unlike Peter and Joel, I cannot make righteous human sin or the upheavals of the heavens and the earth.
For my part, I take as a fact the sorrow of God and God’s yearning for us, for you and me, to be God’s agents for good in the midst of human tragedy. However the prophets may have read such things in the past, and however some still persist in such readings, I am certain that God does not cause such things to happen so we will catch on. I am certain of God’s sorrow at what there is to be seen, and God’s hopefulness that, faced with such harm and disruption, you and I will come forward, eagerly and with compassion, to help and to welcome any and all.
One of the riches of the Pentecost story is that it gives us all the languages and people of the world, then and now. The story gives us the eventual outpouring of God’s blessed Spirit on everyone. In the face of “portents” of great harm, it is comforting to know that God’s vision embraces all the languages and people any of us can know or imagine.
A story. Some years ago, one of my dearest friends died. Nine years my junior, we had a friendship over countless lunches for many years. Stanley Robertson Hall, a teacher at the Presbyterian Seminary in Austin TX, and a wonderful teacher at that. After his death, I taught in his place.
At his funeral, the preacher told a story—and I want to tell it to you. I’m telling you this story to make the same point that Peter and the prophets want to make but in a different fashion. They want you to know about God’s disposition and so do I.
“[Stan’s] first job…was as a cook in a pancake house. He used a full ladle of batter, as he was instructed, and produced a plate-sized pancake. One particular day, his boss told him that they needed to make more money, but they didn’t want to raise the prices. So, said [Stan’s] boss, don’t use a full ladle anymore. Use a little less—two thirds, maybe. Stan didn’t protest. He didn’t quit. He didn’t stand outside the restaurant with a sign. He just didn’t do it. He kept on using a full ladle to make each pancake. He got fired!” Everyone, you see, deserves a full pancake!
Prophetic visions and the calamities of nature, even the extent of human sin, notwithstanding, this, in the simplest terms, is the heart of God. “Everyone deserves a full pancake!” In the face of real pain and death. I’m not suggesting delusion and hiding from the horrors that beset us, but I want to testify that there is nothing in your life or mine, nothing in nature, nothing in the past or in the future that will frustrate God’s good intentions for creation and humankind.
Join me, then, in taking refuge in Jesus’ admonition, “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”
Blessed be the Name of God