The Day of Pentecost

A sermon preached by the Rev. Nils Chittenden

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Last week was the Feast of the Ascension. I said that this was a church feast that preachers didn’t really like preaching on, because they didn’t really know what to say about it. No one really talks very much about the Ascension. So, for the preacher: not much material to work with.

The same could not be said of today. For the preacher, there is more material than you could ever imagine. It’s the reverse issue, there’s too much material. And when I first sat down to write this sermon on Friday, I just couldn’t think how to wade through the plethora of options. I had too many choices and couldn’t see the wood for the trees. Which is why I ended up writing this sermon last night instead.

I’ll be honest with you, I love preaching, but I don’t love writing sermons. I prepare them in advance, I’m not really a ‘winging it’ kind of guy. I do have to wait for inspiration to hit me.

And this is how sermon-writing goes for me: a week beforehand, I read the readings set for the following week, and I try to marinade those readings, if you will, in all the stuff that goes on during the week, so that when I write my message towards the end of the week it reflects in some way something that is relevant in some way to the particular circumstances of our lives at this point in time. But that inspiration sometimes sure takes its time. 

And, yet, I have never not had a message to preach when I get up in front of you on a Sunday morning. And yes, once or twice, the inspiration hasn’t actually hit me until early Sunday morning.

That word, inspiration, is in interesting one to take apart. Because it literally means ‘to breathe in’. Here is a word in everyday usage that is a direct reference to the Holy Spirit. What the word, ‘inspiration’ means, quite literally, is that we ‘breathe in’ that which sparks our creativity, our imagination, our motivation. And here’s the really crucial detail: in order to breathe it in, it must come from outside us. Now, the reality of the air that we breathe is that it outside our bodies and we take it in. We respire. But metaphorically, when we seek creativity, imagination and motivation, we draw this from outside our own stores. We breathe it in, and it becomes part of us. The molecules I just breathed as I said that were external to me until this moment, but now they have enabled me to stay alive: they have been, literally, incorporated into me, and have enabled me to exist and to grow as a person.

A complex mixture of gases, mostly oxygen, bit of nitrogen etc, is what we breathe in to keep our bodies and minds alive and flourishing. What keeps our souls alive and flourishing is the Holy Spirit. It provides us with all the nutrients we need. 

When I was seeking help for my sermon-writing, I knew that what I needed was inspiration into not only my body and mind, but to my soul. I needed the help of the Holy Spirit to know how to navigate through the morass of material and say something this morning that would be helpful. And you can tell me later if you feel like I should have waited for more inspiration or not.

The Day of Pentecost by Jean Il Restout

The Day of Pentecost by Jean Il Restout

Yesterday was a day for being inspired, and that undoubtedly helped me. We have place ourselves in situations where we can be open to be Holy Spirit without other stuff getting in the way. For those of us at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Manhattan, the Holy Spirit was very much in evidence. We felt stirred, we felt uplifted, we felt the presence of God in our lives through the liturgy, the music, the architecture and the companionship of our friends and families. And when the Bishop placed his hands on the heads of each person being confirmed or received into the Episcopal Church, he prayed that the Holy Spirit might come to that person to uphold them, to support them and to reassure them of God’s love. It was an event motivated by goodness and love. God wants the best for us, and everything there was designed, with all our human limitations, to reflect that.

The Choir of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York

The Choir of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York

If you have never been to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, I urge you to go. It rivals the great medieval cathedrals of Europe. Indeed, it is bigger than them. It’s the largest gothic cathedral in the world. Everything about it is on a colossal scale. Just one of the columns supporting the ceiling above the altar – a tiny part of the cathedral – is longer than the whole of St. Stephen’s. The cathedral is so big that it becomes deceptive. It doesn’t look quite as big as it really is, because our frame of reference is skewed. We can’t really take things in that are that massive. In that sense, the cathedral – and the other great cathedrals of the world – are doing what they were designed to do. They are only partly functional spaces. Yes, they are meant to be the mother ship for a diocese – that is, the collection of parishes in a given area. But we could gather the parishes of the Diocese in a warehouse that looks like Home Depot. But we don’t. Because cathedrals and churches are trying to say something allegorical, something about God. They are trying to give us a sense of awe, of magnificence, of scale, that we can barely comprehend.

The Cathedral of St. John the Divine is, to be sure, an outstanding example. It is breathtaking. Actually, I would want to say, it is breath-giving. But each of our sanctuaries, in their own ways, are seeking to say something about the nature of God, and to be special places, set aside for something that helps us understand God better. That is why we are spending a significant sum of money restoring our sanctuary here, and why we are raising significant sums of money to restore our organ. Because we are continuing in a 175 year-old tradition of making sure that a special place remains a special place that feels – and is – qualitatively different from mundane everyday life, a place where prayer has been prayed for all those years, and will continue to be prayed, a place where we can be inspired.

That is not to say, however, that we can’t find the Holy Spirit outside of these special kinds of places. We have to be very careful in traditions like the Episcopal Church and other churches that have ornate and beautiful buildings, that we don’t forget that these buildings are here, ultimately, as base-camps for us to be spiritually nourished and fed. 

We are nourished and fed by the Holy Spirit for a reason. I’ve told the story, on several occasions I think, about my home parish church in England. Like many churches it has wall-paintings, and one of those wall-paintings is over the main door. It says, ‘This is the Gate of Heaven’. Not that surprising, really, is it? That’s the kind of thing you expect to see over a church door, isn’t it? I mean, you walk into the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and you think to yourself, what the people who built this place were trying to do was give you some kind of metaphor of heaven. So, yes, not surprising that my home church has painted over the door, ‘This is the Gate of Heaven’. But, here’s the thing: it’s painted on the inside of the church, as you’re going out.

The Christian calling is mostly not inside our church buildings. It’s n expedition away from base-camp. But in order to be the very best we can be on the expedition, we need to have been at base camp. We are here right now at base camp, to be nourished, to be renewed, to be briefed on the complex road ahead of us, and to be encouraged. All of this the Holy Spirit does. But we are also here to be challenged, and I want to encourage you to this: to come to this base camp each week, but then seek the guidance, the support, the inspiration of the Holy Spirit as you go about your daily lives. 

And I pray that God, the source of hope, will fill you completely with joy and peace because you trust in him. Then, in the words of St. Paul, you will overflow with confident hope through the power of the Holy Spirit.

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