Sunday, May 24, 2015

Pentecost B - May 24, 2015

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Randy Greve, OHC
Pentecost – Sunday, May 24, 2015

Acts 2:1-21
Romans 8:22-27
John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

Pentecost flowers arranged by Bros. Joseph and William
When I was a boy growing up in a Southern Baptist church, one of the songs we learned was “this little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine. This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine. This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine, let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.” I think the idea comes from Jesus’ statement that we are the light of the world and that we are not to hide our light under a basket. It reminds me of sayings like “It’s better to light one candle than to curse the darkness” and other such ditties that are designed to inspire me to do my little part to spread the light of niceness and kindness in an evil world. Actually, it’s not the world that is evil, but the song. Yes, “This little light of mine” is an evil song and must be stricken from church from now on. It sounds warm and fuzzy – and there is a kernel of truth there, but “this little light of mine” is not the story of Pentecost, not the story of what it means to be church. There are two main problems with the song: God’s light is not little – and it’s not mine. The real story is not that I am given some bit of light with which to push back evil as best I can. The risen and ascended Christ is Lord of the universe, of all of it, of every heart, from all eternity and forever and ever. The light that shone down in fire on Pentecost is the light that fuels the stars, that shines in me and in you – it is the glory of God reflected in creation, in beauty, in truth, in love, in each human being fully alive. It is the biggest thing in the universe. And it is not mine to do with as I want. I couldn’t any more hide the light of God’s glory than hide the sun’s light on a bright sunny day. It shines before me, shines during my brief breaths on earth, and shines after I am dust.

The song’s subtle temptation is to the place where we are comfortably small and have some measure of control over what is happening around us. The song assumes that the cosmic story of salvation is too big and we have to cut it down to size, my size, (the size of me!) so that my life, my choices, my power is ultimate. This terrible song captures the spirit of the individualistic age. The good news is that the story of the world and for the world this Pentecost Sunday is so much more wonderful, so much more exciting, so much more terrifying, that we cower from the very un-believability of it and yet are drawn in by its beauty and wonder. Because although a life with me and my little light is tempting, what I really most deeply want is to be connected to the light of you and you and you so that together we can best express the glory of God already shining in us and around us. That’s the story I want to be a part of !

The scriptures for Pentecost frame the spiritual life from that cosmic perspective. Acts and Romans in particular give us two distinct but important images of prayer that get us out of the shell of our own fantasies and into the grander reality of God’s presence and action in the world.

The popular misconception in spirituality is that prayer is supposed to generate some kind of affirmative emotional feedback loop to let me know I’m doing it right and once I find the secret, I can just assemble the elements and shine my little light whenever I want. Sorry to burst your bubble, but that’s not the deal. So, what do the readings give us?

First, Acts. The Day of Pentecost itself is certainly one of those “big” moments in salvation history and the spiritual lives of the apostles and the rest of the community. The Holy Spirit comes in the form of wind and tongues and the transcending of languages - unpredictable, uncontrollable, controversial, mysterious, unique, powerful, life-changing. The church is officially and fully born and sent out into the world to be weird. The whole event is the celebration of pure gift –the apostles were filled with the Holy Spirit to live and proclaim and serve the Gospel. They didn’t wallow in the “wow” of it – they didn’t try to bottle it, they never asked years later “why doesn’t it feel like it felt on Pentecost?” They received the power God offered and went out to work.

Then, the lesson from Romans. Perhaps St. Paul would be the great advocate of ecstatic states in prayer. He of the road to Damascus fame, a bright light, a voice, a mystical encounter with Christ – tell us how to have the “wow” moment, Paul! Give us a little light for our own! The passage from Romans 8, written between 56 and 58 AD, more than 20 years after his famous conversion, is not pointing us toward shining our little light. Instead of bliss, we get this language about groaning and weakness and rather than telling us how to pray he tells us we don’t know how – we can’t know how.

So what are we being told about prayer? These lessons are images of the spiritual life. Sometimes we will have intense experiences that are our own participation in the big moments like Pentecost when God graces us with the gift of the awareness of our being deeply known and loved and forgiven and filled with hope that God is able and willing to save us, comfort us, and give us direction. Often they are markers of a major life change or growth in our own faith journey. Prayer in these moments is this palpable sense of being aflame with love for God and our neighbor in a community of joyful expectation. For these moments we give thanks.

But for most of us most of our spiritual lives will be hanging out in Romans. Most days what is conscious is our own groping inadequacy, our capacity to get in our own way, the searching for some sign of the divine at work, the temptation to settle for my little light. These times, when compared to Pentecost moments, can feel dry. Nothing seems to be happening. Prayer seems to be the cold and boring babbling of meaningless words to an absent God who doesn’t care. This is normal. It does not mean you are doing it wrong, it means you are human. The challenge is to trust that something is happening even when nothing is happening. For these days and weeks and seasons and sometime years we also give thanks because the Holy Spirit is no less present, no less at work in the times of groaning than in the Pentecost moments. Beneath our groans, unknown to us, are the sighs of the Spirit who knows our hearts, knows and wants our growth, and can plead on our behalf even when we don’t know what to ask for.

So two images of prayer: the first is prayer as the surprising and ecstatic visitation of the spirit with dramatic power and deep conversion transcending our words. The second is prayer as reality beyond our words where the Spirit transforms our groaning into intercessory sighs. Neither image is particularly interested in my definition of prayer, my program or agenda or routine or feelings. The images do not refute the use of language, they refute making my language my little light. So, given this, what does the monastic community do here day-by-day? We gather together in this sacred place and say and sing words – lots of them. Whether in the joy of connecting or in the agony of our own resistance and isolation, we keep gathering and speaking and singing. Why? At its best, liturgy creates the opportunity to be attentive to the promptings of the Spirit – whether that be the gift of Pentecost or the gift of groaning or something in-between is up to God. We show up and receive the gift given by God. Liturgy is the fuel the Spirit uses to plant us in God’s presence and turn our desire into holy sighs of praise. Both ways of prayer are very interested in my heart - my real openness to God’s mysterious work in the world, in us, in me, through me, and sometimes even despite me. The light is not small and it is not my light – that’s the maddening and wonderful adventure of the life of discipleship.

May God give us the patience and grace to enter into the Pentecost moments and the times of groaning in our prayer lives that we may trust the transforming light of the Holy Spirit in us and in the Church. Amen.

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