One of the best things about the festival of Pentecost, from my point of view, is that so far it seems to have remained completely the church’s. You don’t run across candy flames being marketed to children, you don’t hear of 3-day red sales at the department stores, and you don’t see pharmaceutical companies advertising Pentecostal pills guaranteed to produce visions and dreams . Pentecost, despite being known as the “birthday of the Church” doesn’t inspire many parties or, for that matter, birthday gifts.
Instead, Pentecost has remained for the church a celebration of the great gift that God has given us for the sake of the world’s healing and liberation – the gift of the Holy Spirit – which is one person of the Trinity, a mystery we spend some more time exploring next Sunday. It’s not quite accurate though, to say that God has given “us” the Holy Spirit, as though the Holy Spirit actually was a birthday gift given to us, the church, to hold on to and to keep.
Instead, we get stories like the one from Numbers, in which the Holy Spirit falls on the appointed seventy elders at the tent of meeting, but also on Eldad and Medad, who were not among the appointed people in the appointed place, because the Holy Spirit is like that – always anointing the unexpected people in unexpected places. Which is what Peter is getting at in his first sermon, delivered that first Pentecost, when he says,
In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy. (Acts 2:17-18)
Perhaps this is why consumer society has had such a hard time figuring out how to package this holiday. It can’t figure out how to sell a spirit of power and presence that God has already promised to give to everyone for free, so it stays quiet and hopes we’ll stay focused on Christmas and Easter, whose gifts are easier to wrap paper around. And for the most part we do.
True to the spirit of Pentecost, I’d been preparing one sermon all week long about the nature of Pentecost in an interfaith context and a pluralistic age, and then the Holy Spirit moved where it will, refusing to be owned or controlled by me or my writing process.
It moved for me on Friday morning, when I gathered with the family of James Deacon to celebrate his graduation from Northside Learning Center. Graduations are wonderful celebrations for the people graduating and their families, but the ceremonies themselves, I have to say, are typically not too memorable. Graduates sit restlessly in cap and gown, wondering if anyone will cheer for them as they cross the stage. The commencement speaker tries to say something noteworthy to a group of people who are through taking notes. Attention turns to the post-party before the thing itself is finished.
Not so at Northside Learning Center’s graduation. Located just to the north of Northeastern University and North Park University, Northside Learning Center is a Chicago Public School that serves students with cognitive disabilities, ages fourteen to twenty-two. Students there carry many labels. Some, like James, have cerebral palsy. Some have Down’s syndrome. Some move with the assistance of wheel chairs. Some have great difficulty speaking. For all of these reasons, this graduation could never be like every other graduation I’ve ever been to.
As the ceremony began, students filed into the room one at a time in red and white cap and gown, the school colors, walking slowly or being carried forward by their chairs, with pride beaming from their faces. Each young person walked through the assembly of gathered family and friends, many of whom had come to know each other well over the years of raising their children together and who shared each other’s joy in reaching this day.
When all forty-two students were in place the school’s principal, Darlene McClendon, gave the graduates a charge. Keeping her students’ abilities in mind, she spoke slowly and said something to the effect of,
“This chapter of your life is ending, and a new one is beginning. Keep moving forward. Don’t turn on the television and let that become your life. Find a job and work hard at it. Do something good every day. Show the people in your life that you love them.”
Surely the shortest charge to a graduating class I’ve ever heard. Yet, in its simplicity, it communicated the essence of every commencement address I’ve ever heard – and obviously in a way that even I can remember two days later, which I can’t say of most of the commencement addresses for which I’ve been present.
As I sat there and listened to this principal give these students their charge, garbed in robes of red and white, with diamond shaped caps resting on their heads, the words that came suddenly to my mind were,
“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. A
nd suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.”
And as I was remembering these words, suddenly those red robes looked to me like fire and the white ones like baptism, and I saw the faces of so many people – children and adults – I have known with cognitive disabilities or developmental delays, beginning with my sister and young people in my schools; people I have worked with over the years; members of this congregation, and members of your families. As cameras snapped photos all around me I thought:
This is one image of Pentecost – that the Holy Spirit rests on all people, those inside the camp and those outside of it, poured out on all flesh, preaching its message in whatever ways it has to so that we can understand what it is trying to say.
Which is not so different from what Principal McClendon said. A chapter of your life is done. Jesus has already said and done what Jesus came to say and do. Or, as the messengers in their white robes reminded us last week, “why do you stand around looking up to the heavens?” Keep moving forward. Don’t let the television, or the internet, or the stories about other people’s lives you gather on the phone, or through gossip, distract you from the life that is happening to you right now, that God has given you as a gift. Use this one wild and precious life you’ve been given, and use it well. Wear out, don’t rust out. And whatever you do, do it with love.
I’d always thought of Pentecost as a birthday, not a commencement, though the two are not so dissimilar. So, in the grand tradition of many a commencement address that ends with words by a writer more talented than the one asked to give the speech, I will end today with these words by Mary Oliver from her poem, “What I Have Learned.”
Meditation is old and honorable, so why should I
not sit, every morning of my life, on the hillside,
looking into the shining world? Because, properly
attended to, delight, as well as havoc, is suggestion.
Can one be passionate about the just, the
ideal, the sublime, and the holy, and yet commit
to no labor in its cause? I don’t think so.
All summations have a beginning, all effect has a
story, all kindness begins with the sown seed.
thought buds toward radiance. The gospel of
light is the crossroads of – indolence, or action.
Be ignited, or be gone.