Well friends, I just have to begin by sharing that it’s been an odd, difficult, wonderful sort of week. After a long Lenten season that we kicked off with the fantastic “Occupy Palm Sunday” event at the Logan Square monument, followed by a full Easter Season that culminating in our ecumenical witness for peace worship service at Kimball Avenue church before the NATO protest, I was looking forward to a week in which my calendar was looking relatively wide open. I’d plotted out my days the way a landscaper divides and subdivides a plot of land — scheduling patches of writing next to phone calls and visits long overdue. I was imagining a rich, relaxed week of ministry among you all leading up to this morning, Pentecost, the final Sunday of Easter and Memorial Day, the unofficial beginning of the summer season.
But then life happened. I got a message from home that a dear family friend, a mother of the church in which I’d grown up, was ill and in the hospital. Childhood friends were drawing close to support one another and I decided I should be at home. The spacious days in my calendar were wiped clean and planted with a different, but still abundant, crop.
I was in the car by lunch on Wednesday, driving across western Illinois and eastern Iowa. The fields were rippling with young stalks of corn and soybeans planted in April and May. Cows with their calves were grazing and lazing along the hills under a partly cloudy sky, full with the promise of rain.
I pulled into Des Moines just after dinner and joined up with friends who were finishing their second or third pizza. Nothing gets us through hard times like food, and I did a lot of eating (and drinking) this week. I didn’t actually arrive at the family homestead until well after dark and quickly I was asleep.
When day broke the next morning, I could already tell we were moving to a different rhythm. No rush to shower and get to the office. Instead, a slow breakfast on the back patio looking out over my parents’ kitchen garden. They’ve been slowly perfecting their backyard for years, my dad the landscaper, my mom the one to weed the plots and pick the vegetables. A labyrinth of prairie grasses mown into the far backyard. It is an impressive achievement, the gardens in my parents’ backyard, but my father is quick to remind me, “God does the heavy work, we’re just helping.”
That sort of spirituality finds a wise companion in Vigen Guroian, an Armenian Orthodox professor of theology and ethics at Loyola College in Baltimore, Maryland and the author of a number of books including Inheriting Paradise: Meditations on Gardening, which I’ve been reading this spring. Guroian writes,
“It is not the gardeners with their planting and watering who count,” writes St. Paul, “but God who makes it grow.” Indeed, we are not only ‘fellow-workers’ in God’s great garden; we ourselves are God’s garden (1 Corinthians 3:7-9).
It is a spirituality that finds its echo in the psalm for this morning, Psalm 104, with its agricultural imagery:
“These all look to you to give them their food in due season; when you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are filled with good things. When you hide your face, they are dismayed; when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust. When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the ground.” (Psalm 104:27-30)
The fiftieth day of Easter, the day we call Pentecost, came to the Christian church from our Jewish elder brothers and sisters who celebrate this day by the name Shavuot. Shavuot is a harvest festival, the day of the first fruits, marked as the fiftieth day after Passover. In biblical time it took seven weeks to harvest the crops, beginning with the barley during Passover and ending with wheat by Shavuot. Religiously, Shavuot commemorates the anniversary of the day God gave the law, the Torah, to the nation of Israel assembled at Mount Sinai. As nourishing as any food from the earth, God’s law feeds and sustains us.
The early Christians did not reject the notion of God’s law, but as they grew into a new expression of the faith they found by following Jesus — who called them to new life in baptism and commissioned them to heal and transform the world — they were being fed by something else as well, not only law but also the gospel. They were fed by the liberating good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ, which we begin to hear this morning in the first reading from Acts, as Peter begins his preaching ministry,
“In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, 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… Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” (Acts 2:17-18,21)
You can hear the good news we now call the gospel just beginning to take root in this early sermon by the church’s first pastor. Speaking to an assembly of people from every nation, and being heard by each as if in their own language, Peter speaks by the power of God’s holy spirit, rained down on him, to tell them that each and every one of them would receive the presence of God, to dream new dreams for the world, to see new possibilities for life together, here and now.
It’s a wonderful sermon Peter gives, and it goes on quite a bit longer than what we hear in this morning’s reading, and at the end people are brought to faith and the church is born. It would be easy to give all the credit to Peter, the one Jesus called the rock on which God’s church would be built, the one who would hold the keys to the kingdom of God. But, like my parents’ garden, we remember that this story begins with the Holy Spirit resting on the apostles, and this work is God’s work through Peter.
I don’t know what kind of weather you had here in Chicago, but throughout the last few days in Des Moines we were graced with the most gentle rain showers I’ve seen in a long while. The days were warm, but not hot; the air was moist, but not smotheringly humid; and two or three times a day in the late morning and mid-afternoon the skies would open up and it would rain for five to ten minutes. It was exactly the kind of rain a gardener loves: long enough to really drench the soil, but light enough not to damage the plants. They were beautiful rain showers — which is not an adjective I usually use for rain, but they truly were beautiful.
On Pentecost we usually focus on the image of fire, like the tongues that rested on the apostles. But, given that it is the culmination of the Easter season, even Pentecost can’t avoid watery language, as when Peter says the Spirit will be “poured out” on all flesh. Vigen Guroian writes,
“On Pentecost, the Spirit rained upon the church. Every living soul upon whom the Spirit rains becomes a fruitful garden like Paradise. In truth there have been many Pentecosts. The church’s Pentecost was foreshadowed at the creation of the world when the ‘spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters’ and all life began (Genesis 1:2). Pentecost also anticipates the last day when everything will be made new by the Holy Spirit. The personal Pentecost of each Christian is his or her baptism and chrismation.”
That was a new idea to me, “the personal Pentecost of each Christian.” I have always thought of Pentecost as the birthday of the church, but Guroian keeps the meaning of Pentecost tied more tightly to the sending of the Spirit which we celebrate each time a person is grafted into the life of the church by baptism.
But Pentecost is both a collective experience and a personal reality. The apostle Paul touches on our very personal experience of the Holy Spirit poured out at Pentecost when he writes,
“Likewise, the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” (Romans 8:26-27)
So many times over these last few days — sitting on the back patio, sitting by the bedside, sitting across the table over a meal, there were no words left to say, just sighs too deep for words. And yet we could feel that God was present in those moments, in those sighs, and that they were enough.
This silence in the face of death, in the face of suffering, in the face of all that is unknown is when I am most able to tell that I am not only one of God’s fellow-gardeners, but that I am, myself, part of God’s own garden. It is in my helplessness that I finally begin to understand that God is planting, God is watering, and God is bringing in the harvest out of the garden that is me, and you, and all of us together.
Again, Vigen Guroian, this time quoting Henry Mitchell,
“Henry Mitchell, in his book One Man’s Garden, observes, ‘it is not important for a garden to be beautiful’ in everyone’s eyes. But ‘it is extremely important for the gardener to think it is a fair substitute for Eden.’ Perhaps this is an overstatement, or perhaps it is a theological truth. It is important for the Christian gardener to see beauty in the garden of his [or her] own self.”
This, too, is a way of thinking about Pentecost that had never occurred to me. That, at Pentecost, the Holy Spirit is poured out on us like rain on the fields, that it nourishes and washes and restores us to something like that first garden in paradise. By baptism we become, like Christ, new Adams and new Eves, we enter a new paradise, and we are revealed as the beautiful creations of God that we are. Guroian says it better than I can,
“At Pentecost the Son sends the Holy Spirit over the earth and into each one of us. Beauty makes us beautiful inside. Each of us is changed into a flower that bears the fruit of its own kind within the infinite scope of Beauty.”
Never in all my years have I experienced the blessings of Pentecost the way I have this year, blessings that are available to each and every one of us — no matter where you are in life’s journey. Pentecost pours itself out on the infant being brought to the font for baptism and the woman lying in her hospital bed being anointed once again with oil, revealing the beauty always present in each. Pentecost rushes into us like the winds before the rains, inspiring our sighs too deep for words. Pentecost grows within us, like the seed unfolding itself in the soil, reaching for the warmth of the sun, growing into truth we have not yet fully seen but are maturing into one season at a time, that we are all God’s children and we are all being saved.