Preacher: The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.
I just returned from my annual retreat with my small group. We meet in Montana and spend five days praying, and telling our stories, and going for long walks, and eating together. We take turns cooking. Last year, at least for me, it was bit of disaster. I made ribs, and they were a little bit overcooked, depending on who you ask.
This year I chose ribs again, not remembering the experience last year. I was reminded… that is the beauty of long-term friendship. But this year was different. I asked Matt the butcher for advice, and he reminded me to brine the ribs in salt water first to loosen their cellular structure and make them tender.
Today is Pentecost and we celebrate the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is a brine, of sorts, poured into the human heart, to inspire all people to be tender toward one another. It is this tenderness that can bring salvation, bit by bit, into the world.
Let me explain how this works by stepping into this story of Pentecost. Ten days before the wind and flame blew into Jerusalem, the disciples had seen Jesus dematerialize into heaven. We call it the Ascension. I don’t know exactly what happened, but something happened that was stunning. It stunned the disciples into remembering everything Jesus had told them to do. And one of the things he told them to do was go to Jerusalem and wait.
So they did. And every day they would gather in the upper room and pray. Then, on the day of Pentecost, which was the Jewish feast to celebrate the winter harvest, suddenly there came a sound like the rush of a mighty wind. It filled the entire house. Then tongues of fire appeared, and rested upon the disciples, and they were filled with the Holy Spirit, and they began to speak in a way everyone could understand.
That is what happens when we are filled with the Holy Spirit, we speak in a way that everybody can understand; and not everybody can understand that. Some thought the disciples were drunk, but, the logic goes, no one is that drunk at 9AM in the morning. So people were perplexed. They asked: “What does this mean?”
Peter stood up and responded using words from the prophet Joel, which basically said: “God poured God’s spirit into all human hearts; like salt water, to begin to tenderize the human spirit. And Joel hastens to add that this includes all human spirits, sons and daughters, old and young, men and women, slaves and free, and when this Spirit was poured upon them they prophesied, and by their prophesy, they began, little by little, to save the world.
To help understand what Joel was saying and why Peter quoted him, it is important to understand this word prophesy. Now if you’re like me when you hear that word you think of Nostradamus, and the ability to predict the future. But it really means speaking the language of God. It is revelatory communication that tells us something about God and the world as God made it. This revelatory communication can happen through the ideograms of math, or the experiments of science, or the words of poetry, or the melodies of music, or the symbols of religion… like we will witness today in the Baptism of Tucker Greene.
To speak the language of God can happen in any language, but it is most powerful when it happens in ways that transcends language and becomes a habit of our heart.
I’ll give you an example. Some of you may have heard of Father Greg Boyle. He is the Jesuit priest who started Homeboy Industries that works with young people in LA, as they seek to navigate their way out of gangs or addiction or prison. The young people Father Boyle works with are tough, because you have to be tough when you’re considered a throw away person.
I heard Father Boyle interviewed recently. He was asked how he moves these kids from a place of tough, defensive isolation, to community orientation and health;in other words, how does he save them?
And Father Boyle responded like you might expect him to response, with one word–LOVE. But then he explained by saying: “While love is the answer, it is only the answer when it is grounded in the context of community. Sometimes,” he continued, “love can be up here in the clouds, far away, theoretical, and airy-fairy. And sometimes love can be tucked away in here, sequestered and horded in the human heart. For love to save the world it needs a methodology, a way of being that is real and tangible and transformative. The methodology,” Father Boyle concludes, “that I found works best with these young tough kids is tenderness.”
If love is the answer, and community the context, then tenderness is the methodology.
I want us to celebrate tenderness today on the feast Pentecost, because it is like the flame that burned on the heads of the disciples…vulnerable to the elements: rain and wind and snow. But also, because tenderness is a love that burns out here, and not up here, or in here, but out here to warm neighbors and strangers and those in need alike. I’ve seen it change the world, particularly when spoken in ways that transcends language. So have you, right here at Epiphany Parish.
Today is Tom Foster’s last Sunday, and I’ve wrestled with including him in this sermon, because I have known him for a long time, and I know, because he taught me, that worship is about God, first and foremost, every time, all the time.
And yet, Tom is one of the most tender souls I’ve ever known. For 10 years we have experienced this through the language of music he has spoken in this place, and because of him, little by little, over time, we have been warmed by the Holy Spirit.
Today Tom retires, for the second time. I am glad he will not be a stranger here as he has accepted my offer to be our Emeritus Music Director. But I do imagine he’ll disappear for a time, for a good, long, well deserved break.
The renewal of this parish comes in greater part through Tom’s ability to express the reality, and power, and grace, and beauty, and tenderness of the Holy Spirit through this organ, and this piano, and that organ, and that piano, and that harpsichord, and those voices right up there.
At the end of the service we will relight the candles we brought into this sanctuary at the Great Vigil of Easter, and we will take them out into the world as a symbol of the flames that burn right up here on each one of us.
But today, in particular, see that flame as music that has, under the tender leadership of Tom Foster, gone out into the world, Sunday after Sunday, these past 65 years making it, little by little, a better place. That is how salvation works. That is prophecy spoken into the world. That is what it sounds like to hear the language of God…tender, universal, and transcendent.
And we know, because of what we witness in Pentecost, that God pours God’s holy brine upon all people…for tenderness looks like love no matter where you are from, or what language you speak, or what culture you grew up in. Whether it comes from the organ or piano or harpsichord, or from the voices of men and women, old and young, sons and daughters, slave and free; whether you are American or Arab, Libyan or Parthian, Persian or Mede, tenderness is the methodology of love that burns like a flame upon the head of all people who let themselves, like Tom Foster has, be tenderized by the Holy Spirit.