Pentecost B: Like a Feral Pigeon

Readings:

  • Acts 2:1-21
  • Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
  • Romans 8:22-27
  • John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

Sermon

There’s something significant about today.

It’s Pentecost Sunday.

Pentecost is a tricky day. Some congregations mark it by celebrating the completion of confirmation. Still others celebrate with images of tongues of flame and by wearing red to church that day. Still others have what is called a Holy Ghost hole in the roof of their church through which flowers and perhaps a dove figuring would be lowered into the church during the readings. Pentecost is literally the 50th day. This is the 50th day of Easter. It is the day that we recognize the readings from Acts or from Luke, where the Holy Spirit is made known by descending upon the disciples. All in all, it seems to be a pretty significant day. And it can be tricky to preach.

In doing my study and preparation I came across an opinion that stated effectively that too many of our Pentecost sermons try too hard to explain and define the who or what of the Holy Spirit, with the end result being a boring, heavy, and hard to understand mess, that attempts to tame the Spirit into domesticity.[1] And I knew I didn’t really want to do that.

But, you know? I can’t help stop thinking about pigeons.

I know that the Holy Spirit is often described or is often depicted as a dove, and that image means something to a number of people. A dove is generally peaceful in nature, has a lifemate, is pretty to look at, can be trusted to return to its dovecote or home with regularity. But I can’t help but think that the Holy Spirit is a lot more like the commonly derided “rat of the sky” – the feral pigeon. More like those pigeons you see in the city, trying to find a place that hasn’t been spiked, or electrified, or altered in some way to keep the pigeon population from pooping on the people and buildings below. That pigeon.

Descended from the noble rock pigeon from the sea cliffs of Europe, domesticated well over two thousand years ago (but not really), the feral pigeon is unafraid of people and readily adapts to the urban landscape, even as we have changed it over that time. They are incredibly intelligent, and continue to increase in number and presence within whatever confines and boundaries we attempt to establish in an effort to keep them at bay. They have a diverse diet and will lay their eggs on the bare ground if necessary. Like doves, they mate for life and roost in the same place until their death. Stubborn creatures. Regularly labelled ‘vermin,’ pigeons create scenes of chaos and confusion when they, themselves are provoked to flight.

This sounds to me as good a definition of the Holy Spirit as I can come up with. When the Spirit is provoked, or agitated, or simply at work in the world, the human reaction to that activity “can be translated as confused, in a uproar, beside themselves, undone, blown away, thoroughly disoriented, completely uncomprehending.”[2] That certainly seemed to be the case in our reading from Acts. And like that damnable pigeon, the Spirit continues to adapt and change and move fluidly and organically through whatever boundaries humans have erected, continues to agitate, and continues to be.

Pentecost is often misused to cap off the season of Easter. Over time, it had come to be seen, by some, as the culmination of that promise of Easter: resurrection from death. But, I want to tell you that Pentecost is not the end. It is merely the beginning. As David Lose states, Pentecost didn’t happen just once. Even within the book of Acts, there are:

“multiple Pentecosts; multiple times, that is, when the Spirit is poured out, amazing things happen, and people come to faith. Each of these stories represents a repetition and extension of the power of the Holy Spirit that starts at Pentecost but continues throughout the history of the early church. And it doesn’t stop in Acts. There are a variety of episodes in the Church’s history that we might also appropriately name another Pentecost. The flourishing of the monastic communities in the middle ages, the Reformation, the revivals of the first and second Great Awakenings in North America and more are all great examples. And it’s not just big events. Pentecost happens in our local contexts as well. Pentecost isn’t over!”[3]

Every year, after Pentecost Sunday, we move into a church season of Pentecost. We are swept up into a whole season of paying attention to what God is up to in our lives.

For the people involved in the events of our Acts reading, there is a clear moment where people begin to step forward into trust for their lives, to anticipate the life of the church and what God is up to in the world, while testifying to the life and death of Christ. For early Christian communities, the events that took place on the particular day of Pentecost mark a particular boundary, or threshold, where people began to look into the future as well as at the past.[4] That sense of here and there, those in-between phases of life, is a common theme in the history of the Christian Church. This is a time of conclusion and anticipation, of looking back and going forward. As true as it was for the church of history, so it is now as congregations, synods, and the national church try to understand their place in the world, in community, and in their own particular contexts. And it is in each of those moments that the Holy Spirit comes and roosts.

Which is a strangely comforting, yet mildly unsettling thought. And I think that’s the point.

Think of communion. Even when the disciples, all those other people through time, and we, break bread and say that we “Do this in Remembrance” of Christ, we are acknowledging the loss of Jesus’ physical presence as a human being amongst us. But we aren’t doing so in grief and mourning, we do it in celebration. Because, in a wonderful and mysterious and unbelievable way that can’t be really understood, Christ is there. God is there. In, and through, and around. The Holy Spirit makes that difference. We are a people who are living between stages, backwards and forwards. “It seems that’s how it has always been for God’s people: living in the tension of absence–presence… We confess the full absence of Jesus as we confess, simultaneously, the full presence of Jesus Christ in, through, and among us by the Spirit. Jesus’ reassuring words about the Spirit, to the disciples and to us, speak into our human desire to both know and believe…To both the parts of our heart and soul that want the familiar worlds and to the other parts that are anxious, yet excited, by the new and otherworldly and empowering.”[5]

In a way, I think we can’t escape that observation Karoline Lewis made about how we like to talk about the who and what of the Holy Spirit. This is a part of our need to see and touch and smell and taste and understand an idea of something so very intangible that disturbs our lives so very tangibly. This past week I spent a lot of time comparing the Holy Spirit to the common feral pigeon. But I don’t think that’s the only way I would describe the Holy Spirit, nor would I expect that you would now see the Holy Spirit that way either – it’s just what my brain has decided to make sense of the world in front of me at this particular time. Maybe it was Spirit-led. Maybe it’s just an overactive imagination. Whatever the reason for the image, I am (and I hope you are) drawn to thinking a little bit more about the ‘other advocate’ – which helps us all pay a little more attention that what God is up to in the world.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus makes a nearly unbelievable promise to his disciples. He acknowledges that he’s confusing them – he’s told them far too much for them to understand all at once. But he tells them to trust the Holy Spirit to guide them. The Spirit speaks the truth of Jesus to that particular community as well as to the world. Significantly, the Spirit will lead them in the way of truth on matters that Jesus has not yet been able to teach them. The wonderful, mysterious, and exciting news in this is that the Spirit will proclaim Jesus’ own teachings in the new and changing and tangibly real circumstances that the community will face when Jesus is gone; will be interpreter for what is heard for each context that the community will come to face; will continue to make the teachings of Jesus relevant to each new generation and to each new age.[6] This other advocate is another way to live in relationship with God.  And I say again that we are moving into an entire season of being mindful of what God is up to in the world, in our community, and in each of our particular contexts. Thank goodness the Holy Spirit comes alongside each person and is yet another part of God in the midst of us. Thank God that the Holy Spirit is as tenacious and constant as the feral pigeon that roosts in the places that we think it ought not to. Thanks be to God that we are encouraged, lead, and taught time and time again. Amen.

[1] Karoline Lewis. “Spirit Feelings,” Dear Working Preacher. (http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3623), May 17, 2015.

[2] Karoline Lewis, “Spirit Feelings”.

[3] David Lose. “When Will Your Next Pentecost be?” Working Preacher, (https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2573), May 12, 2013.

[4] Sharon H. Ringe. “Commentary on John 15-27; 16:4b-15”, Working Preacher. (https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=271), May 31, 2009.

[5] Neal D. Presa. “Being Here, Not Here, and Not Yet,” The Hardest Question. (http://thq.wearesparkhouse.org/yearb/pentecostgospel-2/), May 21, 2012.

[6] Ginger Barfield. “Commentary on John 15-27; 16:4b-15”, Working Preacher. (http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2466), May 24, 2015.

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