Sunday, May 31, 2009

Spirit, Flesh and Bone: A Sermon for Pentecost Sunday

Many thanks to Rachel Barenblat, aka the Velveteen Rabbi, for her kind permission to quote from her blogpost "Standing Again at Sinai."
When I was in college I discovered the slightly illicit delights of the all-nighter. This usually had to do with studying, of course, for some enormous, life-or-death exam for which I had not really cracked the books just yet. It also usually had to do with friendship—camaraderie, the “we’re all in this together” feeling students have when their backs are to the academic wall. It’s late May, and a lot of our high school students certainly know what I’m talking about, and I’m guessing our college students have pretty fresh memories of the same.

I spent one particularly memorable all-nighter with Jean, one of my junior year roommates. Jean was studying French, I was studying math, and I decided to add to the ambience of the whole experience by baking a loaf of whole-wheat bread, a skill I’d just learned. Also, a good way to procrastinate—kneading the dough has therapeutic value as a stress-reliever, and the anticipation of a delicious treat adds to the festive mood. As we worked and chatted (quietly, so as not to awaken our other roommates) the smell of the bread began to fill the kitchen. I later wrote,

“I breakfasted with Jean at 3 AM.
We dipped hot bread in metaphors and honey.
I’ve had a vision! someone said…
the reflexive verbs are little ferrymen…”[i]

And that’s what all-nighters are like: Work, sweet food, sweeter conversation, and sometimes, visions.

I read a lot of writing by other ministers and religious professional on the web. One of my favorites is a web log called “The Velveteen Rabbi.” It’s written by a rabbinical student named Rachel Barenblat. This week Rachel posted an account of how she observed the Jewish festival of Shavuot. Shavuot, which always takes place fifty days after Passover, celebrates the giving of the Torah—the law—by God on Mount Sinai. Rachel wrote,

My shul [that is, her congregation] and the shul up the road joined forces again to spend Shavuot together, singing and noshing and learning well into the night…

Our studies wrapped up around 3ish, [3 AM, that is!] and by the time we were through with our brief closing ceremony (passing the Torah from person to person, each cradling her for a time, and then reciting a [blessing] to seal our study) it was 3:30. [Then Rachel describes driving to another home, where participants talked about the journey from Passover to Shavuot, and then listened to a folk tale.] And by the time that ended, the sky was lightening and it was dawn.

It's been years since I've actually stayed up all night on Shavuot; I expect I'll regret it later today, at least physically. But there is something amazing and unique about the feeling of learning Torah all night, opening myself to the insights which arise in new ways in the dark, especially knowing that so many others around the world were doing the very same thing. [Joyous festival], everyone—I hope your holiday is sweet.

Rachel passed a traditional Shavuot. The customary way to observe this festival is to stay up all night studying the Torah and eating: a religious and spiritual all-nighter! The food usually consists of dairy-based desserts such as cheesecake, since the celebration includes joyful reminders of the land of Israel, a “land flowing with milk and honey.”

I have to say, this sounds like my kind of celebration: The bible, something delicious, and a conversation that goes well into the night. Sounds heavenly. One other thing I should tell you about Shavuot. Its name in Greek is “Pentecost.” This is the festival the friends and followers of Jesus—as well as Jews from all over the known world—were celebrating when the Spirit came down.

“When the day of Pentecost had come,” our reading from the Acts of the Apostles begins, “they were all together in one place.” Of course they were. They were celebrating, as the good Jews they were, the fact that God had given them the sublimely sweet gift of God’s word. They had probably stayed up all night. There are 50 days from Passover to Shavuot, and there are 50 days from Easter to the Christian Pentecost. So, I imagine their study of Torah had greater urgency and relevance than, perhaps, ever before. I imagine they searched the scriptures diligently to help them to understand what exactly was going on… who Jesus was, and how he was related to the word of God as they had received it. What an all-nighter that must have been. We see the end-result:

First there was the wind… the rush of violent wind, which filled the place where their studies, their Torah-all-nighter had taken place. Maybe a wind that blew around the last bits of sweet cake and cream. Wind—like the wind that the prophet Ezekiel prophesied to at God’s command. Wind, like that wind that came upon those formerly dry bones and literally blew life back into them. Wind that bridged the gap between spirit and flesh.

And then fire—“tongues” of fire appearing on each head. Fire, like the fire of the bush that was burned and yet not consumed… remember, how that fire told Moses he was standing on holy ground. Fire, like the presence of God in the wilderness…remember, how God went before the people in a pillar of cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night.

Wind, and then fire, and then… words. Not just any words, but words spoken in every language of every person that had come to Jerusalem to celebrate Shavuot. Words that broke down barriers of language and custom. All this, the morning after the all-night study session, in which they were opening themselves, as Rachel put it, to the insights which arise in new ways in the dark.

What an intriguing concept: “Insights which arise in new ways in the dark.” There is something especially compelling about the idea of studying all night, or talking all night. I recently heard this, about the 19th century French novelist, Honore de Balzac: “He liked to eat a light meal at 5 or 6 p.m., then sleep until midnight, and then get up and write all night and day while drinking cup after cup of strong black coffee.”[iii]

Of course, there are other kinds of darkness besides the darkness of 3 AM. The darkness described by the prophet Ezekiel in our reading this morning is the darkness of people who feel utterly disconnected from any sense of God’s love and care for them. These people, exiles in Babylon during the 6th century BCE, have lost their homes, their leaders, and their place of worship, the Temple. The Temple is an especially grievous loss, because the people of Israel experienced it as housing the very presence of God in their midst. So their words are especially haunting: “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” These are people lost in a spiritual darkness.

Yet, in the midst of this psychic and spiritual wasteland, this literal graveyard of the people’s hopes, one man is pulling an all-nighter, listening for a word from God’s holy spirit, and like so many other students before and after him, he too receives a vision:

Thus says the Lord God: “I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel…I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act,” says the Lord. (Ezekiel 37:12b,14)

For the ones who are willing to keep their eyes and their hearts and their ears open to God’s word in the darkness, the power of God is ready to be made manifest. For Ezekiel and the exiles, that power is seen in a vision of resurrection—dry bones covered with flesh and given the breath of life once again. These wanderers in the darkness of exile learn by this breathtaking and breath-giving vision that God has spoken, and God will act. For the friends and followers of Jesus, perhaps living in the darkness of uncertainty about life without Jesus physically in their midst, the power of God is made manifest by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Shavuot, Pentecost. God gives the Word, and God gives the Spirit. They emerge, perhaps, from the darkness of a long night of wrestling with scripture in hopes it will give them a blessing, with eyes and hearts and ears ready to be blasted open with wind and fire and words.

And what about us? How do we prepare ourselves for the pouring out of the Holy Spirit in our midst? I guess there are worse things than spending a night—all night—studying, praying, eating, and waiting for the movement of the Spirit. Especially when we do it together. It’s the all-nighters that we spend alone that are the tough ones—the nights when sleep won’t come, and it’s not because our minds and hearts are engaged in consuming the sweetness of God’s word, but because we are chewing the bitter cud of anxiety or regret. Those are the all-nighters I can do without, thanks.

No, I like the way it happens in the reading from Acts: “When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place.” And—for those of us who are not really night owls but who are more like larks—it was 9 in the morning. Perhaps some early birds had joined them in time for the swooping down of the dove. Perhaps night owls and early birds can manage to find time together for work, sweet food, sweeter conversation, and maybe even visions.

It is time for us to dream together, here at St. Sociable. The members of the church council have been working diligently together—we haven’t quite gone all night, though at the end of some meetings we may feel as if we had. We are preparing ourselves for congregational conversations, beginning with the one we will have next Sunday, when we can continue the process of dreaming together the future of ministry in this place. Take heart: this is not a life-or-death exam; and we are indeed all in this together; and I guarantee you that every single one of us is committed to what is best for this church. “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,” says the Lord, “and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.” Let’s share our visions and dreams together. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] A fragment of a poem written long ago (!)… circa 1981.
[ii] Rachel Barenblat, “Standing Again at Sinai,” The Velveteen Rabbi, May 29, 2009.
[iii] The Writer’s Almanac, May 20, 2009.


Sophia said...

Awesome! I have *never* heard a sermon connecting Shavuot and Pentecost and only learned about it on my own last year.

And Rachel is wonderful, isn't she?

Choralgirl said...

For the ones who are willing to keep their eyes and their hearts and their ears open to God’s word in the darkness, the power of God is ready to be made manifest.


Seriously--I'm taping it to my bathroom mirror.

And you wonder if your "voice" is clear. Hmmmph.

That certainly sounds like an insight from one who's recently stepped from shadow into sun. :-)


MaineCelt said...

Good Heavens!!! Pentecost is my favourite festal day in the Church calendar, and I've always loved its emphasis on multicultural/multilingual understanding. How can it be, then, that I've never known the Jewish festival context for Pentecost, especially when one of my New Testament profs was a Jewish woman?!?

Thank you so much for this sermon. I love the quotes you use, and I love the way you weave everything together. AND you've given me a religious reason to eat cheesecake, at least once a year!

Anonymous said...

...please where can I buy a unicorn?

Anonymous said...

...please where can I buy a unicorn?