A sermon for Pentecost Sunday 2019 (Year C)
St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church
Come, Holy Spirit. Come as wind and cleanse; come as fire and burn; convert and consecrate our lives to our great good and your great glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
I invite those of you of a certain age, who may recall a time before there were movies on demand, to step with me into the childhood bliss of seeing a 16mm film projector being rolled into your school classroom on a rainy afternoon. Every year at least once it was the story of Johnnie Appleseed, and anything featuring Jiminy Cricket as a narrator was always a sure hit. But the most memorable classroom movie for me was The Red Balloon, a French film by Albert Lamorisse. Its original release in 1956 combined with its popular acclaim and classroom use throughout the 1970’s and beyond leads me to believe that perhaps some of you may also be familiar with it. Quick recap: the film follows a little boy, Pascal, and his red balloon running together through the streets of Paris, with child and balloon befriending each other and sharing a sweet synergy over time. The film has virtually no spoken words and yet, we are able to follow exactly what is happening. It is one of those quaint films that captures the innocence of childhood belief, accompanied by the logical but often misguided reaction of adults and bullies who try to break the simple joy and playfulness of friendship playing out between them. I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but suffice it to say that many parallels of life, death and resurrection are also played out in this story without words.
Looking back at my childhood, I realize I had a lot in common with Pascal. My imagination was constantly in motion and I spent a lot of time on my own, nurturing a storyline in my mind. There were bullies in my life, and some adults who were helpful while others didn’t seem to appreciate the joy and playfulness of my childhood imagination. In a series of scenes in the movie, Pascal and his balloon are looked after by a kindly janitor, and smiled upon by a group of nuns who shield his balloon beneath their umbrellas on a rainy day. But, Pascal and his balloon don’t fare so well trying to get on a bus together, and then they are very emphatically turned away from the grand entrance of Notre Dame. This reminded me that while there were many kind people who sheltered my journey, not every place…including church…felt like a safe or welcoming space for me.
I was raised in the Pentecostal tradition, so I was taught to pray fervently to receive the Holy Spirit, which in that context meant speaking in tongues and being “slain in the spirit” as people say. As a child, it was sometimes frightening and confusing, and as I aged, it felt like a forced expectation that frankly, was unattainable for me. Sometimes when I tell people about the faith tradition I was raised in people find it wildly fascinating and curious. We all have our ways of worshipping, and one is not better than another. This way was just my life as I knew it, every Sunday Morning and Sunday Evening, and again at Wednesday Bible Study. Perhaps it was like Pascal’s streets of Paris which seemed so exotic to me in rural upstate New York but to him were simply the fixtures of his life to navigate, finding moments of peace and contentment while dodging and hiding from those who sought to squelch his joy.
Pascal’s Red Balloon travelled with him through the Paris streets and alleys, sometimes seeming to play with him and sometimes helping him outmaneuver the bullies. The relationship felt simple and loving, which is what makes the film so hauntingly beautiful. For these reason and perhaps others, I developed an affinity for that Red Balloon which somehow spoke to my childhood spirit in a way that words could not.
During my college years, I had a parting of ways with the tradition in which I had been raised, and I made my way into the Episcopal fold as a choir singer, even if I hadn’t really stepped “all in” into our tradition at that point. There was still fear, and self-protection, and some passive avoidance of getting too involved or attached to any kind of organized religion. This arms-length avoidance helped me keep my illusion of control. But I admit, I actively avoided Pentecost Sunday.
But, in 2007, my family and I had relocated to Richmond and we began attending St. Thomas just before Easter. I felt that special kind of love this place can offer those who are in a sort of spiritual recovery, where all are welcome and none are forced, as I like to say. I heard it was going to be the 100th Anniversary of this little parish I was growing to love, and I wanted to be a part of that. The Bishop was coming on Pentecost, and there were going to be baptisms and confirmations.
I remember entering this space with some reservation that day, but feeling a lightness come over my spirit when I saw the joyful bunches of festive red balloons and people embracing the day as a celebratory gift. It reminded me of the same joyful moment of Pascal seeing his bright red, helium-filled friend that he thought was lost. I didn’t even need words to hear the resonant truth the Spirit of God was speaking to my spirit: Don’t be afraid. I am right here with you. I always have been. And, I never left.
Sometimes we are reminded of gift of the Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives in the most unexpected and unpredictable of ways. Even through red helium balloons.
I have had several other incredibly beautiful reminders of the Holy Spirit’s presence since that day. Some of them were also here in this parish: one, like the brush of a breeze during a quiet compline while attending our Inquirer’s class; another, the sense of a true burning away of the pain of the spiritual wounds of my past during my Confirmation; and most recently the comforting and life-giving embrace of the Holy Spirit enfolding me at my ordination, transforming that which I offered to God to be used, I pray, for the continued growth and healing of the Church and the world. These weren’t flights of imagination but are, I believe, real and palpable moments of my life where I have been able to perceive the Holy Spirit at work in me. Like the disciples gathered in that upper room, it was like a clear voice cutting through all the other voices and languages of time and space to say: I am with you, I am here. And, I will always be.
In our lessons today, this is the message we are all offered from the Holy Spirit: the abiding presence and steadfast relationship of the Spirit of God given to all of the people of God. The Holy Spirit moved across the waters of creation, breathed the breath of life into being, stirred the hearts of those who met Jesus, enlivened the followers of the Way of Christ to become the Church to reach to all parts of the world. Today we joyfully celebrate the gift of God’s Holy Spirit to the world in what we have come to know as the Church and honestly, it’s OK to embrace that with childlike joy. That’s why we have balloons, and dove pendants, and joyful music and of course, cake!
What is truly amazing is that the Spirit is still moving in creative and adaptive ways so that the transforming and redeeming love of Christ spreads to all the corners of the world, as well as into the depths and recesses of our hearts. The “Spirit of Adoption” that we hear in the Epistle to the Romans applies to all of us, who are enfolded with love and welcomed into the family at any age. We are continually brought into the loving embrace of God through the action of the Holy Spirit. We are given the Spirit of Adoption to counteract the spirit of fear, to know that we belong wholly to God, as children of God. We are loved, and beloved, and embraced in that love for all time.
I’ve learned so much more over the years about the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Our Comforter and Advocate is with us, filling us with what we need to make God’s presence known in the world. Those gifts differ for each of us, and they are not all in one form or expression. I am reminded in our lesson from Acts that the real action of the spirit wasn’t in the outpouring of languages, but in the ability of everyone present to hear clearly, in the language of their heart, about what our lectionary, in its NRSV translation, describes as “God’s deeds of power.” I would push that translation a bit, though, as the Greek adjective used to describe the working of God, μεγαλεῖα, might be more meaningfully translated as “magnificent” or “wonderful” not with a sense of earthly power, but with the knowledge that the wonderful workings of God are greater than we could ask or imagine. In Greek, it is the same root as Mary’s Magnificat, proclaiming from her soul the greatness of God. This magnificat of the Holy Spirit is what resonated through time, space, culture and language on Pentecost to rest in each hearing ear and open heart.
And so it is with us too. The attributes of God’s magnanimous presence will speak differently to each of us, and activate within us the different gifts we bring: hospitality, teaching to young and old and everyone in between, prophetic witness, preaching the Gospel in word and deed, translation of God’s redemptive love to a hurting world. The Holy Spirit fills us with these gifts, and empowers the Church to transform the world. God speaks, God moves, God works in us.
Take time this Pentecost to listen, deeply, to the Holy Spirit moving in your life, conveying with simple wonder the gifts and grace we each have been given to show God’s love in the world. Celebrate that, and be joyful! Sing your Magnificat! Reach out for the string of that red balloon not because you fear it will float away, but because we are in relationship with this enlivening, joyful and very present Spirit of the Living God who fills us to overflowing with joy and possibility. It is the gift of this Pentecost day, and all the days that have been, and all the days to come.
Come, Holy Spirit. Kindle in our hearts the flame of your love that in the darkness of the world it may glow and reach to all for ever.
Veni Sancte Spiritus. Come Holy Spirit.