"As for we who love to be astonished": Pentecost & Gertrude Stein
A Sermon Preached at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark
Acts 2: 1-12, Psalm 104: 25-35, 37; Romans 8: 22-27; John 15: 26-27, 16: 4b-15
The Reverend Tyler B. Doherty, Priest-in-Charge
“As for we who love to be astonished”—Gertrude Stein
Sometimes you’ll hear the Feast of Pentecost spoken about as the birth of Church—the gathered people of God “all together in one place” proclaiming the healing, salvific, and life-giving work of Jesus each in their own tongue. In a certain sense, of course, Pentecost is the birth of the Church. It’s a miraculous, mysterious manifestation of the Holy Spirit as the embodiment of God’s all-inclusive love for everyone without exception. The rush of the violent wind fills the entire house—blowing over the quaint little all-too-human boundaries we are prone to erect between insiders and outsiders, clean and unclean, the quick and the not-so quick. These Galileans, filled with the Holy Spirit are suddenly able to witness to a people from all over--Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs. The trick, however, is that the birth of the Church happens every time we open ourselves to something other than the same old same old. “I still have many things to say to you,” Jesus tells us. God’s still talking. Jesus is still knocking. The question is are we listening, and will we open the door?
What we see enacted on Pentecost is the early church as profoundly adaptive, flexible, radically hospitable, and other-centered. Their whole purpose for existing is to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ to others. It’s not about maintaining what they have, protecting what they had secured in the face of threatening outsiders, but meeting the others, just as they are, and showing them that they too are beloved of God, a child precious in God’s sight. Pentecost reminds us that this place doesn’t exist for itself. Of course, we need to be good stewards, keep the lights on, and weed the gardens, but that work of maintenance should never take the place of the outward thrust of the Christian life. As William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury during the Second World War reminds us, “The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.”
So Pentecost is certainly the birth of the Church, but it is also a reminder that we are ever being renewed, and reborn as the Church. The Church is an ever-emergent reality called into being in each moment and judged by its willingness to follow where the Spirit calls and leads. The Church is “reformed and reforming” as another Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsay, tells us. Reformation is not a “one-‘and-done” affair that we can chalk up to the past. Understood in a deeper sense, reformation is about seeing all the ways we prefer coziness, comfort, and maintenance, to mission outside the walls of the church. Reformation is really about the recognition of our human tendency to put God in a box, and regulate the work of the Holy Spirit according to our timetables and preferences. If we understand the reformation properly, it’s not about theological disputes over what happens to the bread and wine at the Eucharist, but about the Church always being a people on the way. We are ever on the Road to Emmaus, ever confronted by the angel Gabriel inviting us to participate in the birthing of Christ into the world. When we settle down, when we miss the daily annunciations and invitations to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world, we stop being Church. Pentecost is a reminder of our tendency to set up Holy Spirit wind farms that turn a good profit and keep the building cool. We fall back into thinking the Church is here to benefit us, and not those who are not its members.
For one week in July, the vestry and leadership of the Cathedral has decided to take the bold step of opening the doors of the Cathedral to welcome, house, and feed homeless families through Family Promise. We will join the over 40 congregations in the valley that participate in the program that is designed to assist homeless families—often fleeing domestic violence, the ravages of drug addiction, or the devastating consequence of living one paycheck away from not being able to cover the rent—get a fresh start. Family Promise helps people who have been left behind recover (or learn for the first time in many cases) their essential dignity and worth as human beings. Opening our doors in the spirit of the radically welcoming God who welcomes all to the banquet of divine love, our unused rooms upstairs become a little bit like the house where all the disciples were gathered. Something fresh, something that looks like new life, like healing, like love, like clean sheets and a hot meal, starts to flicker in rooms where the light switch hasn’t been touched in months.
The Church, properly understood, is always in the process of opening itself to the rushing wind of the Holy Spirit, opening the windows to the outside world allowing itself to be transformed in genuine encounter with the other. It’s our job not just to protect and preserve, but to do the only thing you can do with a gift you’ve received—give it away, share it with others. We go to those people who are lost, lonely, shoved to the margins, rendered voiceless and invisible by systems of oppression, and declare that they too are beloved of God. They too have a little tongue of flame dancing on their heads. They too are welcomed into that wind-swept, Spirit-filled house where each person, in their unique way, using their unique gifts, manifests God’s love for all creation.
That’s why we hear Peter, fresh on the heels of his betrayal of Jesus in the courtyard, suddenly get up and preach in bold fashion to everyone assembled about daughters prophesying, young men seeing visions, and old men dreaming dreams. Feast of Pentecost is a call to each of us to participate in God’s dream for the world. It’s a call to stop being so prosaic, and imagine another way of being in the world, and another way of being community. Too often, we get blinded to the work of the Spirit, what God is already up to in this place and in the world, by what the way we’ve always done it (which usually means since last year). “The whole creation is groaning in labor pains,” Paul tells us. What you see is not what you get. Who we are is yet to be revealed. We have a future that is different from our present reality and that is the essential nature of Christian Hope. The Easter message, which we’ve been pondering in our hearts these past fifty days, boils down to this—that at the end of our possibilities, God creates a new beginning. When we are at the end of our resources, God is not at the end of His.
This present world, despite the appearance of intractable violence, tribalism, and a widening gap between haves and have-nots, is not the final word. God’s dream for the world is still being dreamed, and we are called to participate in that dream, to be the ones who live out that dream in the flesh and blood reality of our daily lives.To be a people who live out God’s dream for the world means that we are in some way willing to be amazed, astonished, and bewildered. Gertrude Stein writes of “We who love to be astonished,” as an essential part of what it means to be a human being. To realize the fact of our very being entails a degree of astonishment.
To be astonished is to be shocked, amazed, stunned, dazed, stopped dead in your tracks by something thundering out. That’s what the Holy Spirit does—it interrupts, bewilders, pulls out the rug of settled smugness, and troubles the waters. Our old understanding of who we are, of our relationship with others, and our relationship with God in the person of Jesus Christ is revealed to be all too tame. It needs to be bewildered, made more wild, made more inclusive, more open to the Holy Spirit who Jesus sends to us that we might build a world that is more like Him—the one who touches the untouchable, the one who eats with sinners, the one who gives names to those faceless people lost in the crowd, the one who pronounces forgiveness upon those crippled by shame and exclusion, the one who frees us from the power of death and invites us into participation in God’s very life, eternal life, right here and right now.
Pentecost, then, is not a celebration of something that happened in the distant past. It is something that happens always and everywhere when we allow ourselves to be bewildered, made a little more wild like the wildness of God in a world that is all too tame. Pentecost is not something we remember, or talk about, but is an on-going relationship we participate in whenever we open ourselves to the Spirit that is already praying in the depths of our hearts with sighs too deep for words. We start to see with the eye that sees us and it reveals little flames of the Spirit on the heads of each person. Paul reminds us that we don’t know how to pray precisely for this reason. This isn’t something that Episcopalians with their allegiance to the Book of Common Prayer like to hear. Surely, we know how to pray! But what Paul is exhorting us to realize is that when we know how to pray, we are prone to box God up, to turn the Spirit into a handmaiden of our self-centered egoistic desires and think all this talk about God’s love for everyone is just the new wine talking. True prayer is about letting God be God in us, opening to Him, receiving Him as He is, and not according to our preferences and timetables. True prayer means we see the Church not as having arrived, but always on the way, willing in some way to open itself to what it doesn’t already know, to be willing to be astonished.
This Pentecost may we be a people who love to be astonished. May we be a people who know themselves as a people of the way, journeying into the wildness of God’s inclusive love for all. May we welcome as God has welcomed us and may we be a place that opens itself not to same of mutterings of how we’ve always done things, but to how the Spirit is speaking to us here in this place, in this time. May we be a listening people attentive to those sighs too deep for words that God’s dream for the world might become the Kingdom building work for our hands.