Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Day of Pentecost: A Sermon on Pentecost

The reading can be found here...

Here is a poem by Wendell Berry. It’s called “The Wild Rose.”

Sometimes hidden from me
in daily custom and in trust,
so that I live by you unaware
as by the beating of my heart,

Suddenly you flare in my sight,
a wild rose blooming at the edge
of thicket, grace and light
where yesterday was only shade,

and once again I am blessed, choosing
again what I chose before.

I love that line, “choosing again what I chose before.” Can you tell that this is a poem about marriage? I’ve been thinking a lot about marriage lately. Haven’t you? Hasn’t everybody? I’ve been thinking about the meaning of that long and intimate relationship in which two parties give themselves freely and without reserve to one another, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and cherish all their days. That’s the ideal, anyway. And marriage is certainly all over the political news, these days, what with the recent vote in North Carolina as well as the interview given by our president in which he states that he supports marriage equality. And, of course, it’s almost June, the traditional marriage season.

But I’m thinking of marriage, on this particular morning, for other reasons. I’m thinking of marriage because it’s the day of Pentecost, that day on which Christians celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit—whatever that might mean—and there is a connection there, between Pentecost and marriage. But in order to understand it, we have to understand the Jewish roots of Pentecost, the roots of our very Jewish savior and his first followers.

Before there was a Christian celebration of Pentecost, there was a Jewish festival. “Pentecost” is its Greek name, from the root word meaning “fifty”: its Hebrew name is Shavuot, which means “weeks,” because that’s how it’s counted: seven weeks after Passover, plus one day. Pentecost/ Shavuot comes fifty days after Passover, and, like all really worthwhile and rich religious festivals, it commemorates many things, and contains layers of meaning to be unwrapped and savored. On one level—probably the original understanding, the most ancient—it is a harvest festival, a festival of the “first fruits,” the first beautiful and fragrant stalks of grain, and the sweet grapes that spring forth when the time is right, when the seasons have turned in precisely the necessary way, when it is just warm enough, just rainy enough and sunny enough. In ancient days the festival was commemorated with grain and bread offerings in the temple, bread being that necessary food, from ancient times, to sustain life.

And then another layer of meaning was added: the festival also commemorates that moment when the people of Israel stood at Mount Sinai and received the Torah, the covenant, the first five books of what we know of as the “Old Testament.” They received it from God. And you can see the connection, if you turn these two things over in your mind and in your heart. The giving of the covenant is a kind of “first fruits” of the relationship between God and God’s people. The Torah, the covenant, is as necessary to life as bread, is as basic as food. “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord,” says Rabbi Jesus, quoting Moses in the book of Deuteronomy. The Jewish festival Shavuot, also called Pentecost, stands in the tension between these very universal human needs: the need for bread, and the need for God. The need for sustenance of every kind if we are to live in this world.

And this is where marriage comes in. Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, also known as the Velveteen Rabbi, writes most eloquently of yet another layer of the Jewish Pentecost celebration: it is the celebration of the “cosmic marriage.” She tells of “two classical ways of imagining Shavuot as our collective wedding anniversary. In one interpretation, at Shavuot we married the Torah (with God and Moses as witnesses) and in another, we married God (with Torah as our ketubah [or wedding contract], and heaven and earth as witnesses…).[i]

All these layers come together in the traditional Shavuot reading: the book of Ruth, a rather unusual love story whose main action takes place on a threshing floor, and in which we find this covenant language:

Where you go, I will go;
Where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people, and your God my God.
Where you die, I will die— there will I be buried.
May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!”

~ Ruth 1:16-17

These words, often used by couples as a part of their wedding ceremony, are spoken by Ruth to another woman, Naomi, her beloved mother-in-law.

And that’s Pentecost as Jesus knew it, the Jewish festival, also known as Shavuot, which began last night at sunset, fifty days after Passover.

Our reading from the Acts of the Apostles begins, “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place” [Acts 2:1]. On another Pentecost Sunday I shared with you that it was a tradition, from ancient times, to celebrate Shavuot by spending the night in study of the Torah. I read this morning on Facebook the reports of my Jewish friends who did just this last night! It makes perfect sense that the family, friends and followers of Jesus would have been together, studying scripture that long night. And this casts the “coming of the Holy Spirit” in another light entirely.

Think of the layers.

Shavuot/ Pentecost is a harvest festival; and the coming of the Spirit is the beginning—only the beginning—of what will blossom in the wake of the life and work of Jesus of Nazareth.

This is a festival of “first fruits,” and we know the fruits of the Spirit to be love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control [Galatians 5:22-23].

This is a festival commemorating the receiving of the covenant between God and God’s people, and Jesus has described the Spirit as being a kind of advocate—one who stands beside us, who accompanies us.

This is a festival reminding the people of God’s ongoing involvement in their lives, a God described in the letter to the Romans as one who experiences life with us, walks alongside us, groans with us, and hopes with us.[ii]

And this is a festival celebrating a relationship sometimes imagined as a kind of marriage. Think with me, again, of the poem, “The Wild Rose.”

Sometimes hidden from me
in daily custom and in trust,
so that I live by you unaware
as by the beating of my heart…

This is a description of marriage, of that long and intimate relationship in which we covenant with another, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health… a relationship that requires absolute trust, living by one another “unaware.” And that is the way it is with God:

God, who is, sometimes, hidden from us.

God, with whom we live unaware, and yet, in the every-day-ness of deep trust…

God, with whom we dwell in an intimacy as profound and unselfconscious as the beating of our hearts. This is the Spirit as described in Romans… the one who accompanies us, breathing in us. And then, the second verse:

Suddenly you flare in my sight,
a wild rose blooming at the edge
of thicket, grace and light
where yesterday was only shade…

This describes those seasons in marriage in which we rediscover our good fortune in being in this relationship, when our beloved is new again in our eyes and in our heart. And this is the Spirit as experienced in our reading from Acts.

The Spirit blooms in gusts of wind, quiet no more, but vibrant, bold, unmistakable…

The Spirit flares in flame, passionate, kindling in us God’s very “ardor flowing…”

The Spirit fills us with grace and light, like the speech that can bridge gaps that have felt like they were uncrossable… like the right words at the right time, words that mend and heal, words that bind together and give joy…

Writing nearly five hundred years ago, the Spanish mystic John of the Cross composed a “Spiritual Canticle” that picks up this same theme: the marriage between God and humanity. He speaks of the human soul as the bride, longing for Christ, the bridegroom.

In search of my Love
I will go over mountains and strands;
I will gather no flowers,
I will fear no wild beasts;
And pass by the mighty and the frontiers.

O groves and thickets,
Planted by the hand of the Beloved;
O verdant meads
Enameled with flowers,
Tell me, has He passed by you?[iii]

Scripture tells us, “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.” And then this group of Jesus-followers experienced God as a sudden wind, and tongues of flame, and the ability to speak and hear in many languages. And if we look beneath this scene, we see the other layers of God’s people experiencing God’s presence… in bread and grain and the fruits of the earth… in God’s covenant promise of loyalty, the God who says to us, “Where you go, I will go,”… in the promise of words when we are sure we can find none, and in the promise of understanding of our very groans, of agony and  ecstasy. It is a long and intimate relationship, like marriage, in which we are blessed by this God who chooses us again, as we have been chosen before. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, “Shavuot: anniversary of a cosmic marriage,” at The Velveteen Rabbi, June 10, 2008.

[ii] Karoline Lewis,
[iii] John of the Cross, “Spiritual Canticle” Stanzas III and IV,


  1. Great sermon, Pat....great comparisons.

  2. I love the use of poetry in sermons, especially GOOD poetry. (Yes, of course, there ARE bad poems used in sermons, as in "3 points and a poem.") But, Pat, this is a wonderful wedding of poetry and scripture as an outline for a congregation's consideration. Happy re-birthday to us!