Pentecost | St. Paul’s, Evansville | Joanna Benskin | 28 May 2023 | Numbers 11:24-30 | Psalm 104:25-35, 37 | Acts 2:1-21 | John 7:37-39

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Spirit of wildness and comfort who renews the face of the earth. Amen.

Good morning. Welcome to the Feast of Pentecost. Today we celebrate the Holy Spirit, and we celebrate the birth of the church. And when we celebrate the Spirit and the church, we celebrate movements of God that include us but don’t belong just to us. We celebrate God’s abundant love that keeps on expanding even farther than we might think it should go. We celebrate a grace that sweeps us up into what God is doing, a wild grace we can’t contain or control.

In our reading from Numbers, the Holy Spirit comes on a group of new leaders, including a couple of them who are not where they’re supposed to be. And Joshua wants to stop them, but Moses says that’s the wrong direction to go: “Would that all God’s people were prophets.” What a world it would be if everyone could be touched with this Spirit.

In the story of Pentecost in Acts, the Holy Spirit comes into the house like a rushing wind and then rests on the disciples as tongues of fire. The crowd gathered can hear the good news of Jesus in their own languages. The circle of Jesus’ followers expands beyond those who first walked with him. The Holy Spirit is moving and the energy is high.

And somebody thinks this is all getting pretty out of hand; some people think the disciples are drunk. So Peter goes back to scripture, and he tells the people what the prophet Joel said. “God declares: I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh.” People of all ages and people of all genders, everybody will see visions and dream dreams and proclaim what God has revealed to them.

As we learned from Jesus John 3, the Spirit is a wind that blows wherever it will; the Spirit spirits wherever the Spirit wants to, and we can hear the sound of the wind, sometimes we can see what the Spirit does, but we can never pin the Spirit down.

Some Celtic Christians imagined the Holy Spirit as a wild goose. It’s a different image from our gentle doves in the stained glass, and I think it’s a good one to expand our imaginations. Because the Holy Spirit is strong and loud and fierce. She can fight when she needs to. The Holy Spirit isn’t afraid of causing a ruckus. And if you have encountered geese in parks or if you’ve played that video game where it’s a lovely day in the village and you are a horrible goose, you may know how much chaos a goose can unleash.   

And in our stories from Acts and from Numbers today, the Holy Spirit’s wildness makes people uncomfortable. Along with the lifegiving breath of the Spirit and the revelatory words of prophecy, some fears bubble up. There’s an impulse to tamp things down, to get things back under control, to restore order. And yet, the Spirit still goes right on doing what she came to do. There’s a pattern where the Spirit moves unexpectedly, and people react with discomfort but can’t stop the Spirit.

This pattern of the Holy Spirit’s movement reminds me of a time in the life of the Episcopal Church, and a group of women called the Philadelphia Eleven. So bear with me for some church history; and maybe you can tell me more if you were there. It starts in the 1970s when women weren’t yet ordained as priests in our church. For a long time, women had felt the Holy Spirit calling them to be priests, and for a long time, the Episcopal Church had said it wasn’t ready.

Women could be ordained as deacons at the time, and there were women deacons who believed that they were called to the priesthood. They had discerned carefully in community. They had met all the educational and organizational and spiritual requirements to be ordained as priests—except that they weren’t men. The 1973 General Convention (when we vote on church policy) was going to be the one that changed the rules and allowed women priests. People who supported the change had been working toward this for years and years, and they thought they had the votes.

But then there was a last-minute tweak in the voting rules that let split delegations block the change. So it didn’t go through; more waiting. Supportive men, bishops and priests and laypeople who’d helped in the fight so far, advised the women to be patient, to keep waiting, to try again in three years at the next General Convention.

And the way I see it, this is when the wild goose Holy Spirit comes in. Because this is the part in the story when some of the women realized that they were done waiting. The call the Spirit had placed on them was true, and it was bigger than the political mechanics that allowed a minority to keep stalling. The call the Spirit had placed on them was urgent, and they couldn’t keep waiting year after year.

And so they decided to be ordained a different way, a way that would answer the Spirit’s call and also force the church to make up its mind. They found retired bishops who were ready to ordain them before the church had said it was ready.

And on July 29, 1974, at the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia, eleven women deacons were ordained as priests in God’s church. In a church named for the Holy Spirit (the Advocate is another name for the Spirit), they claimed their calling as priests in the church the Spirit birthed at Pentecost. Their witness changed the Episcopal church and the world. They made a way for me, and for many others. 

And the way they did it made a lot of people angry. Bishops from across the country scrambled for an emergency meeting to condemn this ordination. Even now, some people in the church, some people I respect, who have no problem with women as priests still think that what these eleven women did was the wrong way to do it, and that they should have waited for the normal process. The ordinations were what’s called “irregular;” outside the regulations.

But the church couldn’t outright call the ordinations invalid, because in a spiritual sense, everything happened that needed to happen. We believe that bishops stand in the line of the authority Jesus gave to the apostles, and so they get to lay on hands and lead the vows and make people priests, and the bishops did that with these women. So were the Philadelphia Eleven priests or not at this point? It put the church in a tricky position. And the next Convention, in 1976, they did vote to allow women priests and also to affirm or “regularize” the priesthood of those first eleven.

Suzanne Hiatt, one of the eleven women ordained that day, was also a skilled public organizer, and she described the pressure the church was under this way: “In 1973, most delegates were faced with the decision of whether it would be more trouble for the church to ordain women or not to ordain women, and they decided it would be more trouble to do it. In 1976, when faced with the same question, the delegates decided it would mean more trouble not to do it.” The ordination in Philadelphia didn’t exactly cause new trouble for the church, but it shifted the balance of the trouble.

Some people think these women could have just waited a couple of years. Others think that the irregular ordination was the only way to make the official change possible, that without something like this the delays would have continued indefinitely. It’s hard to say for sure.

But whether or not it was the only way for the change to happen, I believe it was a way that the Spirit blessed. I believe that the ordination of the Philadelphia Eleven was a movement of the Holy Spirit, in line with the ones we see in Numbers and in Acts. I think it was another moment when the Spirit decided to lift up people who weren’t the expected prophets in the expected places. I think it was another moment when the Spirit overflowed the boundaries of what was orderly and predictable to birth something new.

It’s beautiful when the Spirit moves this way—she can surprise us. The Spirit can lift up the lowly and cast down the mighty. She can show us that God’s love is so much bigger and freer and more alive than we could have imagined.  

And, to be honest, it can also be really difficult to move with the Spirit when she’s wild goosing all over the place and we’re just trying to get through the day. We all have expectations; we rely on some level of order and predictability to keep us safe and help us know what to do next.

Shortly after her ordination in Philadelphia, Suzanne Hiatt preached a sermon about the Holy Spirit. She said: “Religious people have a difficult time with the Holy Spirit precisely because we prefer to worship a God who is under control, whose ways are known and who can be trusted to feel as we do about events.”

I think it’s difficult because many of us look to our faith for stability and comfort in a chaotic world—I sure do. So it can be extra hard for us when it is God who is doing the chaos. The Holy Spirit’s wild goose ways can be a challenge when we’re already stressed and fearful; we’re looking for something steady to hold onto, looking for calm and comfort and not the flapping and the honking and the troublemaking.

And yet, Comforter is another name for the Holy Spirit we celebrate today. The Holy Spirit descends as a peaceful dove at Jesus’ baptism. The Spirit is promised as an advocate and guide who will come alongside the disciples and get them through the difficult times after Jesus’ death.

The Spirit broods over the waters at creation, and in our Psalm, she continually renews the face of the earth. In Romans, Paul says that to set our mind on the Spirit is life and peace. Paul says that the Spirit is with us in our weakness and intercedes with groans to deep for words whenever we don’t know how to pray.

So: the Holy Spirit is both; both the wild goose and the dove; the rushing wind and the gentle breath; present in both the fire of prophecy and the water of baptism; both an unruly agent of change and the steadiest thing we know; both challenge and comfort. The Spirit is God among us, and we don’t get to control what God does—but we get to respond. The holy wind will take us along if we say yes.

So on this day of Pentecost, and in the season of growth that comes after, I pray that we will have the grace to notice the Spirit’s movements and join in. And I wonder where you’ve seen the Holy Spirit show up lately.

Maybe the Holy Spirit has been with you as a gentle dove to bring peace and comfort. Sometimes the Holy Spirit is there in a kind word. Sometimes she’s with me in a deep breath when I know I’m loved, even in the midst of grief or stress or confusion. Sometimes it’s a sense of awe when we see something beautiful and know that God is with us.

Or maybe you’ve seen the Holy Spirit in full Wild Goose glory, God in goblin mode, reveling in holy trouble. I’ve seen her like this in creative disruption. I saw a video awhile back of somebody counterprotesting creatively. This was at a nazi rally where people were marching around trying to do very serious nazi things, and this guy showed up with a tuba and played dramatic music in a dopey way to make fun. I think that tuba was honking right along with the Spirit.

Maybe it’s listening to a new perspective even when the people sharing it aren’t being as polite or orderly as you’d like them to be. Or maybe embracing the Spirit’s wildness is as simple as finding joy in a day that didn’t go as planned, relaxing into what’s actually happening instead of trying to get back to what we expected to happen.  

However we might meet the Spirit in this season, I pray that we will be able to receive the gift. I pray that we will hear the Spirit’s voice among us, whether she is cooing or honking. I pray that we will be alive to the Spirit’s movement, whether the Spirit is breathing with us gently or asking us to throw our expectations to the wind.

And in this season, I pray that the Holy Spirit will make all of God’s people prophets. I pray that the Spirit will comfort us and challenge us, embrace us and trouble us, and help us to see the vision of God’s hope and dream the dream of God’s love. I pray that the Spirit will renew our hearts, renew the church, and renew the face of the earth. Amen.

A screenshot from Untitled Goose Game by House House, taken from the game’s website.
Icon of Pentecost by the amazing Kelly Latimore (…/sig…/products/pentecost).

Pentecost | Joanna Benskin | 5 June 2022 | Genesis 11:1-9 | Psalm 104:25-35, 37 | Acts 2:1-21 | John 14:8-17, 25-27

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Spirit of Life.

Good morning, friends. Happy Pentecost. Today some of us are wearing red and other flame colors in honor of the story of Pentecost, when Acts tells us that the Holy Spirit came among the disciples in the form of flames and helped them tell the story of Jesus in all languages.

Sometimes we also say Pentecost is the birthday of the church, because this is the day when following Jesus expanded from a small group of disciples to a community that invites everyone. With the Holy Spirit’s help, that community learned to follow Jesus more deeply, and care for each other, and tell the story of God’s love in every language. That community became the church.  

In this Easter season, we’ve celebrated the resurrection, and today, we celebrate the Holy Spirit. When we celebrate the Holy Spirit, we celebrate that God is with us now, living and moving and guiding and comforting; God didn’t just create the world and tell us what to do and leave. Today we discern how the Holy Spirit might be moving among us, and we give thanks for the ways the Holy Spirit has shown up for us and for people of faith through history.

The writers of the Hebrew Bible didn’t see God as a Trinity the way we do as Christians, but they knew God as Spirit. In the beginning of creation, the Spirit of God hovers over the unformed chaos of the world, and she starts to shape it and nurture it into a vibrant world. In our Psalm today, the singer sees God’s Spirit as still active to replenish the created world: “You send for your Spirit and they are created, and so you renew the face of the earth.”

In Hebrew and in Greek, the word for Spirit is the same word that’s used for breath and also wind.

When God breathes God’s own breath into the first human beings, that’s Spirit. The word inspired is related to spirit and breath too—it means breathed into. So when we say scriptures are inspired by God, or maybe even when we feel inspired to do something good or creative, the breath of the Spirit is with us, breathing alongside us.

The Holy Spirit can be within us, as close as our own breath. It can be a quiet strength welling up from within. And at the same time, the Holy Spirit is God, and she’s mysterious and powerful and beyond our control. Jesus says in John that the Spirit-wind blows around wherever they want to, and we can hear their sound, but we can’t pin them down or know where they’re coming from or where they’re going.

I’m calling the Holy Spirit “she” and “they” on purpose, and I want to say something about that, because today is also a day about how God moves in human language. The Hebrew word for Spirit is feminine, so whenever we hear about God’s Spirit in the Old Testament, the Spirit is a she. The Greek word for Spirit is a neutral gendered word, so the Spirit in the New Testament can be an it or a they.

But why does it matter what gender we use when we talk about the Spirit? Most theologians believe that God is beyond gender anyway—when we say “God the Father,” that’s a metaphor, and it doesn’t mean that God the Creator is a man. And when we call the Holy Spirit “she” or “they,” or we use feminine or non-gendered language, we don’t mean that God is literally a woman or a nonbinary person.

So, it’s okay to use words and images of any gender to talk about any Person of the Trinity, if it helps us to relate with God and come close to God. In one sense it doesn’t matter if we say Father or Mother or she or he or they or something else—God is beyond that, and no words we use are ever going to fully encompass who God is.

But in another sense, the words we use do matter. If we only talk about God one way, we’re missing a richness of how God shows up in scripture and in our own experience.

There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, we sometimes sing. And that wideness goes beyond one gender or one image. So why wouldn’t we want to expand our language and imagination to talk about God in more different ways?  

There’s also a danger that when we get stuck speaking about God mostly in male terms (like Father or Son or King), we end up giving the impression that being a man makes a person closer to God’s image, even if that’s not what we intend. The Catholic theologian Elizabeth Johnson talks about how the language we use for God shapes how we relate to each other as humans too. If God is the ultimate holiness and wisdom and goodness, and then we only align God with men, what does that say to those of us who aren’t men?  

Johnson says that if we only use male language and metaphors for God, we dig deeper into a system that doesn’t see women as holy and wise and capable of using power for good. So expanding our language can help us build the capacity to see God’s beautiful image in all kinds of people.   

So, in one sense, it doesn’t matter if we talk about God as a “they” or a “she” or a “he,” or none of those, or all at once—God is beyond any of that. But in another sense, it does make a difference, because if God is what matters most to us, our language about God shapes how we value each other and ourselves too. Using “she” and “they” pronouns for the Holy Spirit is what the Bible happens to do, and it’s just one way we can honor God’s image shining forth in all kinds of people, and beyond any one way of speaking.  

In our stories of Babel and Pentecost, too, God’s presence disrupts and expands human language. At Pentecost, the disciples speak in tongues so that people from all around the world can understand them when they tell the story of Jesus. Here, the Holy Spirit empowers the disciples to expand further out beyond the languages they know.

Babel is a little trickier. Languages multiply here too, but it’s not totally clear what that means. The Rabbi Jonathan Sacks introduced me to a new reading of the Tower of Babel.

Some early Jewish scholars picked up on the odd repetition at the beginning of the story: “They had one language and the same words.” Why does this get said twice? Rabbi Sacks thinks it’s because there’s more going on here than just the ability to understand each other—he thinks that maybe it’s a metaphor for a group of people all thinking the same way. Sacks reads the story of the Tower of Babel as a story about power and empire and conformity.

The way Rabbi Sacks reads the story, the problem with Babel isn’t that God’s ego feels threatened by people who can achieve a lot and build a tall tower. Instead, the tower is a larger symbol of building society as a monolith. So, the problem is that building a tower means building an empire; it means forcing a lot of people to conform to one idea of how the world should be; it means putting power in the hands of a few people, who then get to tell everyone else where to go and what to think. “One language” could be shorthand for a forced unity that squashes creativity.

When I was talking over the Babel story with Michael Kearns to get ready for this sermon, we wondered together whether the people who say, “Let’s build a tower” are actually the same people who actually have to haul the bricks. Sacks points out that the pyramids and the ziggurats of the time were built with forced labor. Famous empires that built impressive monuments usually did it by oppressing their own people, and sometimes by enslaving other people too.

Michael also noticed that the goal for the builders of Babel is to “make a name for themselves.” We wondered how this might relate to the job that God gives the first humans: naming and caring for the creatures. Instead of naming others, and letting others name them, the builders of Babel want to make a name for themselves. And they can do that with one language, one way of thinking, a narrowed imagination that concentrates on one place and one name instead of filling the earth with joyful noise and many names and a holy chaos of sound and movement.

In the way Rabbi Sacks reads the story, God’s move to multiply the languages at Babel is more of a gift than a punishment. He sees it not so much as God squashing down human ambition, but as God redirecting people’s energy outward into the world by expanding their speech. Maybe at Babel, God sets the early humans free for a world of multiplicity and difference and creativity.

Whether or not we agree with Rabbi Sacks’ reading of the Babel story, maybe we can see something like this happening at Pentecost. The Holy Spirit comes on the disciples in a wild, rushing wind. And the Holy Spirit doesn’t stay in one piece—they divide into tongues of fire and settle on each one of the disciples differently, and they give each one of them gifts of language. All the disciples there begin to speak in other languages, “as the Spirit gives them ability.”

And I really think it’s all of them, like the passage Peter quotes from the prophet Joel: People of all ages and genders, all kinds of people who followed Jesus.

They’re all speaking with the wildly different gifts of language that the Spirit has given them. And they’re all heard by someone in the crowd of festival pilgrims who knows that language, who never expected to hear it this way. Michael and I also wondered as we talked about this: When each person hears their native language, do they just hear words that make sense to them, or is it more than that?

Maybe they feel a clarity in their hearts that goes beyond the words spoken. Maybe the Spirit’s gift of tongues shows the hearers vivid images. Maybe the words they hear evoke what they love most about their homelands even as they give a glimpse of a truth beyond any nation or language.

In any case, the people are amazed and astonished to hear their own languages. This multiplicity, this abundance of languages, was the end of the Babel project, but here at Pentecost it’s the beginning of something else entirely. The early church begins with this amazement and perplexity, this holy cacophony of voices speaking as the Spirit helps them.

It begins with people from all over the world joining the conversation. The church starts with naming God and naming one another in dozens of languages all at the same time, and it goes from there.

And y’all, sometimes it’s a mess. Sometimes making everybody build one tower sounds a lot easier. I like my peace and quiet, and sometimes all the voices in the church are a lot, and I have to step back, and breathe with the Spirit awhile before I come back into the holy chaos. I also really like to know the one true absolutely right answer, and sometimes I have to learn to hold that more lightly, to be present in the complexity and multiplicity of the life we live together.

A church that began this way was never going to be easy, but it can be so beautiful. It’s so beautiful when we name each other, when we truly see each other in all the glory God has given each of us. It’s so beautiful when we teach each other new names for God, new languages of praise. It’s so beautiful when we see God’s image in all kinds of people.

It’s so beautiful when we do healthy conflict, and we can talk about our differences in the open even as we affirm our love and support for each other. It’s so beautiful when we get to see another person awaken to the Holy Spirit breathing in them, and come into their own with a new gift or a lifelong calling or an inspired insight. It’s so beautiful to hear us all speaking the love of God in our own languages.

And maybe this is part of how the Holy Spirit renews the face of the earth still: She rests on each of us. She gives us a word of hope to speak from the core of who we are, sometimes in a language we didn’t know we had, sometimes in a way no one else on this earth could have imagined it.

So, I pray that we see the holy flames of the Spirit among us—in this beautiful, messy church, and in all God’s glorious people. I pray we learn to listen for the wind of the Spirit wherever she might blow, beyond our comprehension and yet as close as our own breath. And I pray that we keep on teaching each other new languages for God’s love.