Celebrating Pentecost and Honoring Shavuot....

Here are my worship notes - in two parts - for the coming Feast of Pentecost on June 8th 2014.

Part One:  Time for Children
Today is the Feast of Pentecost: an ancient feast in Israel and a celebration that is over 2000 years old in Christianity.  In ancient Israel – and in the Jewish tradition today – this festival celebrates the time Moses received the 10 Commandments from the Lord on Mt. Sinai.  In our Christian tradition, Pentecost honors the day the God gave the Holy Spirit to the first followers of Jesus.
 In Judaism, Pentecost is called Shavuot in Hebrew – the week of weeks – and comes 50 days after the start of Passover.  Christianity borrowed this holiday from our Jewish cousins and used the Greek translation of Shavuot for our festival called Pentecost. That’s the first thing I want to share with you today:  the way of Israel and the way of Jesus are connected – in many ways we are part of the same family – even when we use different words and honor different truths. We both serve the same God and we all came from the same people.

Part of our celebration today is about remembering our connection to Judaism and its teachings.  I think of it like a family reunion:  do big families still have reunions these days?  Have you ever been to a big family party where cousins and other relatives from all over country – and world – get together?  That’s part of what our celebration of Pentecost is about:  it isn’t just the birthday of the Christian church – although it is that, too – it is a time to remember our connection with our first family in Israel.

+  In the earliest celebrations of Pentecost – Shavuot – our Jewish cousins would hold a feast after dedicating the first crop of grain to the Lord. For 49 days after Passover they would say prayers that counted the days until Pentecost. Then they would harvest the crop, place it in baskets woven of silver and gold and bring it to the Temple in Jerusalem. 

+  Stories are told that as the farmers brought their wagons from the countryside into the city, people would wave at them and sing songs and wave flowers.  And after the grain had been blessed and given to the Lord, the people would feast together.

So I thought in honor of the ancient tradition – and as a way to remember our connections to Israel – WE should have a little feast today to celebrate OUR Pentecost. Feasting is what big families do at their reunions, right?  So let me invite EVERYONE – not just the children – but everyone who wants to share a bit of the feast to come on up and join me in the Chancel around our communion table because we have some special treats.

+  Today we have three uniquely Middle Eastern foods to mark our feast: lamb, olives and pita bread.  In the old days, Jews would eat a lot of cheese and milk products on Pentecost but we shared some cheese earlier in this season, right?

+  Today our special feast is offered to both you and the Lord as a reminder of God’s sustaining love.  God’s love nourishes us.  God’s community strengthens us. And most often we experience and learn about the Spirit when we are joined together.  One of the Hebrew psalms tells us:  how good and pleasant it is when sisters and brothers dwell together in unity. It is like the dew on the top of the mountain; it is like the oil that anointed the head of Israel’s first priest Aaron.

Gathering together is one of the ways we open ourselves to God’s loving presence. Sometimes our gatherings begin in sorrow – like at a funeral or during sickness or war – other times it is in celebration – like at a baptism or a wedding – and there are still other times we come together as a community, too:  can you name some of the times we all gather together as God’s people?

So let’s pass around the goodies – take what you would like to try and then pass them on – and let’s make certain that everyone is served. Eating, you see, can be a prayer.  Another psalm tells us:  taste and see the goodness of the Lord.  And as you are sharing prayers with one another with this food, let me sing for you another prayer that you can join in with once you have had a taste, ok?

Those who trust in the Lord are like Mt. Zion 
Which shall never be removed: now and forever more.
Peace be on Israel, peace be on Israel, peace be on Israel:
 Now and forever more.
Alleluia, allelu…

Pentecost is a feast – for Christians and for Jews – it is a reminder that our nourishment comes from the Spirit of the Lord as we gather in community. It is a festival honoring both heaven and earth – the 10 Commandments and Christ’s new commandment to love one another as servants – and it is to be for us a source of joy and grace.  As our children head off for Sunday School – and the adults return to their seats in the Sanctuary – let’s sing them off with this blessing:

Alleluia, allelu…
Part Two:  Time for Adults
Over the years I have come to experience the wisdom and blessing of God’s truth in two ways:  acts of love and acts of embodied study and reflection. Most of the time, I need both in order to GET it.  I have to TASTE before I can SEE… And when it comes to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit – shared with Christians in a unique way on Pentecost – I need to FEEL what that is like before I can understand it and try to live into its blessing.
Pentecost evokes the power of love within me but it is a very curious type of power. In fact, it is the polar opposite of how we often think of power because, as the writer Philip Yancey names it, this power is unconditional grace in action. It turns conventional wisdom on its head, it brings healing and hope to those who are living in fear and invites ordinary individuals into a worldwide movement of compassion.

The power of love is a curious thing 
Make one man weep, make another man sing 
Change a hawk into a little white dove 
More than a feeling that's the power of love 

It’s tougher than diamonds, rich like cream 
Stronger and harder than a bad girl's dream 
Make a bad one good make a wrong one right 
It’s the power of love that keeps you home at night 

You don't need money, don't take fame 
Don't need no credit card to ride this train 
It's strong and it's sudden and it's cruel sometimes 
But it might just save your life: that's the power of love

(Do you know this song? 
God’s wisdom breaks through in some strange places, yes?)

The first time you feel it, it might make you sad 
Next time you feel it, it might make you mad 
But you'll be glad people when you've found 
That the power makes the world go ‘round 

You don't need money, don't take fame 
Don't need no credit card to ride this train 
It's strong and it's sudden and it's cruel sometimes 
But it might just save your life: that's the power of love

(instrumental break)

It don't take money and it don't take fame 
Don't need no credit card to ride this train 
Tougher than diamonds and stronger than steel 
You won't feel nothin' till you feel 
You feel the power, just the power of love… 

Our spiritual ancestors in Judaism would sometimes stay up all night on Pentecost – Shavuot – praying and chanting and singing the 10 Commandments.  They trusted that the commandments were the key to being real – the path of true holiness – and the way of becoming so saturated in the power of love that every day could be hallowed so that the most ordinary things might show us a glimpse of heaven.  So they sang and chanted and played with Torah all night long…
Biblical scholars tell us our Pentecost links us back to those celebrations
honoring the time of Moses on the mountain.  They insist that our holy day describes a time when those who followed the path of Jesus received the same Spirit of God in their hearts that Moses received on the stone tablets of Jewish Torah. All the images of our Pentecost suggest a parallel with Mt. Sinai: the thunder, the wind, the tongues of fire, the signs and wonder that engulfed Moses on the mountain (Exodus 19) They are all present as God hands down the Spirit and power of love to Christ’s disciples on Pentecost.

You see, what Luke is trying to tell us in this story is that God created one ever-lasting and unchanging covenant with Israel on Mt. Sinai and then shared another eternal and unchanging covenant with us in Jerusalem.  Now let me be very clear because Christians often get this wrong.  The OLD Testament – or first covenant – was neither taken away nor completed on Pentecost; that covenant remains true and binding on Judaism until the end of time.

+  Too often Christians talk about the NEW covenant as something that replaces the OLD – and that is wrong – and not at all what the story teaches if we are paying attention.

+  Rather what the ministry of Jesus accomplished – and what Pentecost confirms – is that God’s grace has now been extended beyond the tribes of Israel to include ALL creation. Grace is both revealed and shared with ALL people so that Jews and Gentiles alike can be saturated in the power of love.

+  As that prophetic voice from the past, Sly and the Family Stone, used to say in “Everyday People” – there are different strokes, for different folks – Jesus himself told us that in my Father’s house are MANY mansions.  Are you with me here?  Do you hear what I’m trying to say?

The OLD covenant is for one people – Jews – and the NEW covenant is for other people – Christians.  One doesn’t replace the other and one isn’t better than the other:  they are both eternal, blessed, binding and sacred paths for living into the power of love. All contemporary Christian traditions – Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant – affirm this to be true.  God didn’t take back the blessings given to Moses nor did the Lord rescind the promise and power of love expressed in Torah. Rather, as part of God’s unfolding wisdom, the blessings of grace were expanded in the way of Jesus.

And just to be certain that we grasp this truth – that God’s love is true in both the Old and the New Covenants – Luke puts the words of the prophet Joel into the mouth of Peter.  When Peter preaches to those gathered in Jerusalem for the Feast of Shavuot, he tells them three things that the prophet Joel once told Israel:

+  First, the path into God’s grace is gender inclusive:  your sons AND your daughters shall prophesy said the prophet – and Peter affirmed this in his first sermon.

+  Second, living into God’s grace is age inclusive:  the ancient word was that there would come a time when your young people will dream dreams and your elderly shall see visions – and Peter’s message was that was being realized on that very day.

+  And third, a life shaped by God’s grace is ethnically inclusive:  remember how the Pentecost story started – with people from all over the known world gathering together – to return thanks to the Living God for the blessings of Torah? 

What Luke is telling us is that God’s NEW covenant is rooted in the old: the old hasn’t been revoked and the new continues to express the justice and compassion of the old.  Both are faithful to the way of Moses born on Pentecost – or Shavuot – and both are sacred expressions of the power of God’s love.  Now let me push the envelope a little by saying that one of the reasons fewer and fewer people TRUST the power of God’s love these days has something to do with how poorly we show love to one another. 

It doesn’t seem to matter what covenant we belong to – or other expressions of God’s grace in other spiritual traditions – Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus all have a pretty checkered past when it comes to consistently living into the power of love. Next Sunday, for example, we’ll have some guests sharing with us their recent experiences working in modern Palestine and Israel – and it is heart breaking.
And while there are some beautiful new signs and wonders of God’s true peace being expressed in the world – I think of Pope Francis’ invitation to both Shimon Peres and Mahmoud Abbas to join him in joint prayers for peace – still when you consider the overwhelming evidence of what religion is doing in the world, it is NOT kind to the power of love. The writer, Philip Yancey, described this reality better than anyone else I know when he wrote:

In his autobiography, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche told others that he had the ability to smell the inmost parts of every soul – especially the abundant hidden dirt at the bottom of many a character. Nietzsche, it seems, reveled in smelling the filth and sin of people. But our calling as people of faith is to do the opposite – to smell the residue of hidden worth in every soul and person – and strengthen the power of love and grace by the love of Jesus.

Yancey called this obsession with the filth and brokenness ungrace – the opposite of grace – so as I prayed over what Pentecost might mean in light of this it hit me what I’m going to try to do during this season:

+  I am going to try to fast from ungrace for the months between June and November; that’s the season we call ordinary time in the Christian tradition. It begins today and runs through All Saints/All Souls Day in November.

+  You see, if our new covenant is really about grace – finding the value and blessing in ALL people, ALL ages, ALL faiths and ALL ethnicities – then I need to practice this because much as I hate saying so, it doesn’t come automatically.

+  So why not turn the season of ordinary time born of Pentecost into and upside down fast from ungrace?  In Lent we fast from food to have more to give to the poor? Why not fast from ungrace so that we have more time and energy to share love rather than judgment with those we meet?

Oh I know that somebody is thinking:  how naïve – how simplistic – how even
childish this sounds. But Jesus was clear:  unless we become as a child we will NEVER enter into the community of God’s love in our ordinary lives. I think a six month fast from ungrace is JUST what the doctor of Pentecost ordered.  And I’ve got a prayer song to help you practice it if you want to join me.  It comes from that great band of women from Canada known as The Wailin’ Jennys and is called “One Voice.”

What would happen if at the start of each day you sang or spoke this prayer song? It could be the way you began each day’s fast from ungrace – and I’m going to give it a go whether you join me or not – but it would be more fun if I had some company.  In fact, it would help me a lot – and who knows – it might help you, too.

Fasting from ungrace by singing is a time tested way of growing into the power of love.  I believe ever more strongly that people of the New Covenant need to find new ways of strengthening the power of love and grace in the world.  We’re going to sing this prayer now and maybe you’ll want to join us…


ddl said…
Kleenex...again. Jewish friend coming over this evening after children are in bed... I keep meditating on covenant...something we share. The loyalty I have. Covenant with God/Jesus/church (the one I serve)and perhaps the need to renew that covenant in a personal way. One voice...two voices...three voices...singing with each other...more kleenex. Happy Shavuot AND Pentecost.
RJ said…
Right back at you, my friend. Blessings to you.

Popular Posts