A Sermon for the Day of Pentecost

By: David H. May, Rector


I’d like to begin this morning with a little confession. From time to time, when I’m flipping through tv channels, I’ve found myself pausing to look in on a certain kind of religious tv programming. You’ve probably caught sight of them too. They’re those programs with the incredibly glitzy, gaudy sets with the gold gilt pastor’s chairs. I don’t understand all that glitz. And I don’t understand the hairdo’s and the strange glittering clothes some of these preachers and religious personalities wear. Most of the music I hear on those programs makes me cringe. Check that: all of it makes me cringe. I don’t really like the Christian faith all pompadoured up and hair-sprayed and whipped into some kind of a tacky spiritual meringue. But I do find myself pausing to look in.

Because, along with the tacky sets and costumes, I also often see hundreds, of people in those tv studios or rented Ramada Inn banquet halls, fervently, passionately waiting for the miracle of God’s mighty presence and the manifestation of his power. And I often see a collection of people – black folks, white folks, Hispanics and Asians that most of us mainline denominations will never see in our churches.

I do pause my channel flipping and watch, because like all of those folks, I want to see a miracle too. I want to see God move to sanctify life through healing or mighty displays of the power of God’s holy love. I want to be fed with bread baked in heaven and drink Living Water bubbling up from the source of all life.

At least I think I do.

Because, what if right here, right now, Pentecost broke out, and the fire of the Holy Spirit lighted on each our heads turning each of you into a burning bush and we knew without a doubt that we were on holy ground. What if (at 9am: Liz Rider and Robin Lind) (at 11am: Jesse McCoy or Isabel Correl) suddenly jumped up with their arms in the air and started speaking in tongues. And what if you, sitting there mortified in your pew, discovered that you understood every strange word and sound they were proclaiming. What if (at 9am: Tom Farrell or Isabel Fitzgerald) (at 11am: Bob Swinson or Charmaine Trice) got slain in the Spirit and laid out flat on the floor trembling and shaking. Would you praise God, pretend like nothing was happening, or call 9-1-1?

Yes, Lord, let us see you make a miracle, let us see your mighty Spirit healing and making all things new again. But please don’t give me a pompadour hairdo and awful music!

Yes, Lord, renew us with your goodness and love so that we know that you are real. Heal us. Mend us. Forgive us. Set us on fire too. But please, can you do that in a way that won’t rock my boat too much. Can you do it at least with Anglican chant?!

The great Archbishop of Canterbury during the Second World War, William Temple, said that the primary work of the Holy Spirit is to keep us in deep companionship with Jesus who will give us all the faith, hope and love we need to give ourselves to each other – whoever that ‘each other’ might be. The Holy Spirit creates communities of people united in love for one another as a miraculous sign ‘to this sinful and broken world’ of God’s power to overcome every obstacle, every fear and hatred, and even our own mortality that would divide us as the living from the dead. These communities of the Holy Spirit are the Church.

The gifts of the Holy Spirit, whatever they may be, make ordinary things and ordinary people extraordinary vessels of the power of God. The Spirit makes our lives holy – makes them brimming with the experience of God’s powerful love pouring over the edges. The Holy Spirit shows us that we are crowned by fire, each one of you a burning bush, showing us, we are on holy ground. (Th. Merton quote: “how do you tell people they are walking around shining like the sun?!”)

I don’t know why it is, but sometimes, 7-11s seem to be the place I see fire alighting from time to time. Maybe God knows I’m too uptight about displays of holiness in the church that he has to get me off into a different setting to see it.

Some years ago, at one of my regular 7-11s – the one at the bottom of Carytown – I was getting a Big Gulp for the ride home back to the Northern Neck. I saw three or four of the employees talking together and laughing in the parking lot just outside the door.

I wandered by them on my way out and said, ‘hey, how’s Tonya?’ Tonya was a young woman who worked at that 7-11 then and who I knew from past visits had been in a horrible car accident a few months before. Well, my question was like throwing a match onto gasoline vapors. It was like one of those religious tv shows, screams of hallelujah! Tears, arms in the air.

I stood there sipping my Big Gulp, realizing that the living holiness of God was filling up that moment so that it was beginning to pour over the edges.

All these women who worked there then except for Tonya and one other young woman were single African American women with children. They were all up against it – single, raising kids, eight bucks and hour, car repairs, juggling childcare.

But they have each other, and they surely have God.

At one point in the celebration, I learned that Tonya had come home from the hospital, that they had raised almost $800 for her at the store, that they were taking turns watching and feeding Tonya’s three children, and that they had gotten their churches mobilized praying for her.

I said that we (meaning me and three other older ladies) had prayed for Tonya at our Wednesday noon Holy Eucharist at my church.

Well, that news created another huge eruption of celebration. ‘Thank you, Jesus, thank you, Jesus!’ one of the women cried hugging me and rocking from side to side with me in tow.

Tongues of fire were beginning to settle on us.

They recounted the dark days of Tonya’s hospitalization and how they had all closed up the store one day and marched down to MCV to give blood for Tonya. “We didn’t want just anybody, some stranger giving blood. She’s our sister. I wanted her having my blood not some strangers.’

I said in a very restrained Episcopal way, ‘well, praise God’.

One of them said, ‘let’s do that right now. You pray for Tonya and give God the praise.’

And before I knew it we were in a circle, hand in hand, in the middle of the parking lot at 7-11 with cars rushing past on Cary and people passing around us praying.

I don’t remember the words that I prayed, only the knowledge that our cup was full and running over.

And after ‘amens’ and ‘thank you, Jesus’, I said, ‘Well, I’d better go.’

And I did, but not till I was hugged by these overjoyed, weepy, joyful women. You’d have thought that I was in the company of the women by the empty tomb of Jesus that first Easter morning.

I sat in my car for a moment, looking in my rearview mirror at the women. My eyes saw the celebration of plain old ordinary people, cashiers at 7-11, till on second look, I saw the Spirit of God pouring out all over the edges of that ordinary day, and something like tongues of fire alighting on us, making a burning bush of each of us through whom the voice of God can be heard, and seeing that I was on holy ground I said the way we Episcopalians do, ‘praise God from whom all blessings flow’.

I promise you, the next time I preach from this pulpit, I will not be sporting a pompadour. If (at 9am: Seward Gray) (at 11am: Seth Schaeffer) speaks in tongues, I will try not to be mortified. If (at 9am: Susie Salsitz) (at 11am: Tom Slater) gets slain in the Spirit, I hope a sister or a brother will take her/his side. But if any of us sees God’s holy love beginning to pour out over the edges and something like fire alighting on us showing us we are on holy ground, give each of us grace, O Lord, to see the splendor of your power, that fills us with love, that gives us the joy of your Son’s abundant life, and that inspires each of us with all the faith, hope and love we need to give ourselves for one another. Make these words more than words and give us the Spirit of Jesus. Amen.