If We Lament, We Must Also Dream
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May 31, 2020
Day of Pentecost
Fire. Uncontrolled, one of the most dangerous things to experience. Only a few months ago, the world watched in horror as much of Australia was engulfed in flames that killed people and destroyed homes. And within this nation, we see similar frightening events recur with frequency across much of California. But fire is also essential to human life. Quoting the French Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Michael Curry reminded the British royal family and billions of others watching a wedding in Windsor only two years ago, “the discovery, or invention, or harnessing of fire was one of the great scientific and technological discoveries in all of human history”. And we knew that well before the work of Teilhard de Chardin in the 20th Century, for back in the time of Jesus, every single day of the year, an animal would be sacrificed to God in the Temple in Jerusalem. Carefully controlled fire, kindled by the priest, would consume the beast that had been duly selected to honor - perhaps even appease - the one God. In carefully consumed flames, on the altar of the Temple, by the most holiest of God’s people, fire was offered to God to please God.
Water. Uncontrolled another source of enormous danger. I still remember the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, which brought devastation and death on the day after Christmas, in what felt like a few brief seconds. And within the last year, less dramatically, parts of my home country were heavily flooded, causing much hardship and loss, and leaving at least one village permanently uninhabitable. And water, too, is essential to human life. We know a healthy human body can last some weeks without food to nourish it - but only a very few days without water. Back in Britain, as the year 2000 approached, many were scared that the turn of the digits would see the purifying systems fail, and that invisibly contaminated water would pour out of the taps and poison us all. And water, too, was important in the Temple. Day after day, without fail, an animal was consumed by fire on the altar of the Temple. And when that had happened, a jar of wine was poured over the altar by one of the priests. But each fall, for one holy week, something else would happen as well…
If you are familiar with the major Jewish festivals, you will probably know of Sukkot. It combines the commemoration of the Israelites making their long, hard journey through the wilderness, with an annual prayer for rainfall at the end of the scorching middle eastern summer. Also known as the festival or Booths or Tabernacles - recalling the lack of real, permanent homes, experienced during the forty years of their wilderness journey - this festival is part of the Jewish calendar today, just as it was some 2000 years ago. And before the Temple was destroyed by the Romans, during the seven days of the festival, to underscore the urgency of the prayer for rain, a priest would carefully fill a jar with water from the nearby pools of Siloam, bring it to the Temple, and alongside the jar of wine, it would be carefully poured over the altar in this precise and controlled liturgy.
And thus fire and water were the stuff of worship of the one God. Offered with care and control - for that is how you must treat both fire and water - in the most holy of places, and performed by the most holy of people. And all done in the service of the one God, the God whom the children of Israel knew would one day act decisively to demonstrate sovereignty and power, and to vindicate and eradicate the sufferings they had known in history and in their present time. But they were in no doubt that the point at which God acted might take things ever so slightly out of control. They knew that the vindication and deliverance for which they hoped might lead into an end game that would feel anything but controlled. They knew that the answer to dismay and lamentation might be something of a game changer which would turn the world upside down.
And one man who knew this in particular lived, so most contemporary scholars think, around four centuries before Jesus of Nazareth. There is nothing in the three chapters in what we would now call the book of the prophet Joel to suggest that he lived through a pandemic such as we are currently experiencing. But he had equally valid reasons to be in a state of dismay, for his land and nation are laid waste, not - in his case - by plague and pestilence, but by the horrors of an awful war. He speaks of how ‘a nation has invaded my land, powerful and innumerable’; he tells his people, “Wake up, you drunkards, and weep…”, and his opening words both demand and command: “Has such a thing happened in our days, or in the days of your ancestors? Tell your children of it, and let your children tell their children, and their children another generation….” Today - the feast of Pentecost - is the very final day, the culmination, of what we sometimes call the ‘Easter Cycle’ - by which I mean the complete, combined spiritual journey of Lent and Eastertide. And you would recognize several of Joel’s words and phrases of lament enshrined in our purple-clad liturgies of Ash Wednesday. Half of his brief book is lament, dressed with repentance, and - to Christian ears - it is remarkably well suited to our annual season of penitence. But Joel knew that the one God was ‘gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love’. Joel knew that one day, God would act on behalf of those whom God regarded as God’s children. For Joel, such action would have an apocalyptic feel that would suggest it was the end - but an end that would bring vindication. And thus it is that we read Joel not just on Ash Wednesday, to start us of on our journey to and through Easter - we also, thanks to Saint Peter, we also read Joel 96 days later, as we celebrate the birthday of that movement we now call the Church - the great day of Pentecost. And to a great crowd of Jews gathered in Jerusalem, not in the fall, but the early summer, for another of the great Jewish festivals - to this bemused crowd, things must have seemed pretty out of control. For some kind of religious ‘experience’ happened in front of them, and suddenly clear, audible prophecy poured forth in every language that could be known and understood.
And, lest they be in any doubt what was going on, the ringleader of this strange and emboldened group turned to Joel to offer the interpretation of what they were witnessing: “…this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘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. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord's great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved." But they should have seen it coming. Any of these folk who were in the habit of coming to worship in Jerusalem during the great festivals should have seen it coming, because they had had a warning. The warning we heard in that brief snippet of the seventh chapter of John’s gospel. Because Jesus gave the warning. Jesus gave the warning that things were - truly - going to get out of control. By John 7, Jesus is already far from popular with the Jewish authorities, and causing wonderment and perplexity in many minds and hearts. And - devout Jew that he is - he has come to Jerusalem for Sukkot. Initially he is discreet, but as the week of the festival progresses, Jesus becomes more outspoken - culminating, not for the first time, in a scene at the Temple.
As the Temple priest, showing such careful control, pours a single jar of water for the seventh and final time over the almost inaccessible altar on which flame has consumed an animal sacrifice - as this liturgical offering is made to the one God, Jesus can bear it no longer. Forget this unwanted and unnecessary ritual and sacrifice. Forget the significance of one jar of water, offered to the creator of all the oceans of the world. “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me,” he cries out. “Let the one who believes in me drink…” This drink is not portion-controlled under the careful authority of the Temple priests. This is abundant water offered abundantly. But it comes with a catch…And the catch is that if you drink of that water, you don’t get to keep it - you end up having to share it even more abundantly. For, as Jesus goes on to say, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.” Not just one jar to pacify or please God - rivers of water. And more than that - be very clear that ‘heart’ is a tame and dubious translation of the Greek. Jesus is talking about the believer’s belly. This is both visceral, and it is personal. Jesus is talking about living water rising up from the foundation, physical, emotional and spiritual, of who we are, or - at least - who God has created and called us to be. And that changes things.
Joel knew that - sort of! Joel thought that the day of God’s action would mark the end times, if not the very end itself. That - surely - is what all the talk of the darkened sun and the other portents is all about. But Peter reinterprets the great prophecy to be a beginning - a new beginning of the acting out in the world of the very best of human dreams and visions. And in the moment itself - at that remarkable turning point as God the Holy Spirit acted so decisively to change the world - we get a sense of what the best of human dream and vision should be about. Because all of them - Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judaea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians... they all heard - and heard together - as one - the mighty works of God. From the very word ‘go’ the Spirit’s gifts are given to build up unity and community, not to foster division and individualism. And that should be a clue about the dreams and visions to which the people of God are called - dreams of unity and community, not division and individualism. And, my God, those dreams are needed.
I last preached a sermon for Sunday morning only two weeks ago, and, tragically, I felt compelled to speak of the horror of racism encapsulated in the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, and the reticence of the Georgia authorities to arrest his killers. And now his image has been replaced in our minds by that of George Floyd breathing his final breaths as a Minneapolis police officer choked him with his knee - an action described by the mayor of that city as a failure ‘in the most basic human sense’. We have many reasons to lament. Our own sinfulness, of which Ahmaud and George Floyd are but two icons, is heart-breaking. And, in the week in which we saw the pandemic death toll in the US surpass 100,000, we have more reasons to be broken-hearted, whether about the personal and economic impact the virus has wrought, or of the ‘varied’ quality of human behavior that has resulted. But - as Joel teaches us - if we lament (which we should), we must also dream.
If the pandemic through which we are living is to have a silver lining, it will be about the so-called ‘new normal’ into which we will eventually move. It will be about the start of an era when unity and community, created through love and service, will become the values that will outweigh the evils of self-interest and ego. For let us not forget that when we focus on ‘ego’, as Stuart Hoke succinctly reminded us, all we are doing is edging God out.
So - even in lockdown - I invite you spiritually to get out of your houses, to play with uncontrolled fire and water, and let the Holy Spirit rebound on your heads and flow like rivers from the very depths of who and what you are. Because if you and I can be brave enough to do this, and demonstrate to the world around us in word and deed that Jesus, indeed, is Lord, then we shall truly see the coming of the Lord's great and glorious day - the day when everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. Amen.