The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
Day of Pentecost
May 20, 2018
Little did I know that six words would chart the course for my life. I mean, how could have I known, I was only in fifth grade when I uttered those fateful words: “I want to play the tuba.” I mean, what a crazy thing for an eleven year old to say. All the other kids in my fifth grade were choosing instruments for sixth grade that were, verifiably, much cooler. Drums, saxophone, trumpet. I had to go and pick the tuba.
Now, it wasn’t so much actually playing the tuba that defined my life - it was the people I was introduced to through playing the tuba that defined my life. My best friends throughout middle school, high school, and college all played the tuba. And from where I sat in college concert band I had the perfect line of sight to the French Horn section, where this girl was sitting. I ended up marrying her. “I want to play the tuba.” Six little words that charted the course of my life.
On this Day of Pentecost, we hear again Saint Peter’s first sermon. After being inspired by the Holy Spirit, Peter stands to speak and gives the first Christian sermon. Peter just had a few words for the people gathered there that day. Quoting from the ancient prophet Joel, Peter preaches, “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.” Peter is saying, this, what you are seeing here and now, the joy and mutual love of being a Jesus follower, this is the Spirit that has been poured out upon all people. Like the rush of a violent wind, like divided tongues of fire, the Spirit has come upon God’s people.
And that short, little sermon, has defined history. Sometimes I wonder if Peter knew what he was saying. Could Peter have imagined that his little sermon would set the world on fire with the gospel? Could he have known that his little sermon, inspired by the Holy Spirit, would change everything? Here we are, two thousand years later, thousands of miles away - we look different than Peter, we don’t speak the same language, we have totally different lives - and yet we listen to what he has to say. Could he know that his little words would reverberate throughout history?
So I wonder, do we take our words that seriously? Do we realize that even just six little words that we say today could chart our future? Are we aware that our little actions and little words now have enormous consequences in the future?
There’s a subtle lesson here. Be careful about what you say. Your words change the world, for good or for ill. Your little actions now will have tremendous consequences long into the future. Do not be so naive as to think that what you say, what you do, is in a vacuum. As that great old priest said, “No man is an island” (John Donne, Meditation XVII). Every single moment of every single day we can choose to speak with the power of the Holy Spirit for good, or to speak against the Holy Spirit for evil.
I cannot emphasize this enough. Our society continues to use words that are not good for us, not good for our relationship with God, not good for our society. Slurs, derogatory remarks, outright bullying only tear us and each other down. Those words benefit no one. We speak so casually of warfare, we speak so casually with racial overtones, we speak of other people as if they were mere objects and not humans. These small little words, though we may not think much of them, do in fact impact the world. And as we saw all too horrendously on Friday morning in Santa Fe, Texas, we reap what we sow. When our society is built upon words of hate, of violence, of anger - hate, violence, and anger will return to us. I say clearly and emphatically, that when we use those evil words we are tearing down God’s Kingdom. The Holy Spirit has been poured out upon all flesh, and in the power of the Holy Spirit, evil words must not and cannot be uttered against one other. Though you might find those racial slurs definitive, though you might think the misogynistic off-hand comment is funny, though you may only utter them under your breath, though you may only type them in as a comment on Facebook, they are destructive. Those words destroy your capacity to see the good and the God in other people. Those evil words tear down God’s Kingdom that is built up inside you. Even just a few brief words have the potential to change your world for evil. This whole day, the Day of Pentecost, is about how we use our language.
See, on the Day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit gives the apostles the gift of new language. I don’t think the gift is so much that they can speak in other languages, it’s that they can speak in the power of love. As Peter opens his mouth for that first sermon, it doesn’t matter what language he speaks, it matters that his words are about God’s love for all people. This is not so different from what we all saw yesterday morning as Presiding Bishop Michael Curry preached at the royal wedding. Like he said, imagine if the whole world actually spoke with this power of love. Imagine that world. Imagine a world in which words of hate have passed out of our vocabulary. Imagine a world in which our politicians, our business leaders, our church leaders, all of us, all of us - only spoke with love. Imagine what that world would be like. I say, it would be the world that God imagines.
And imagine if we loved each other enough to actually put down our weapons - the real ones and the verbal ones. If we loved each other enough to speak with compassion instead of vulgarity. Imagine if we loved each other enough to see each other for who we are - beloved children of God. It would be Pentecost all over again. The gift of the Spirit would wash over the whole creation with reckless abandon. And even the little words we use would be words of love, and those words would chart a course for a bold, new future.
Today we at Holy Comforter get to experience just a small taste of that power. We are invited to sign our names on a steel beam that is being used in the structure of our new church. That beam will go above the altar. And as we sign our names on this beam, I also ask you to write words of hope, words of love, words of peace, and grace. Remember that the words we write there will always be with the people of Holy Comforter. The words we write there have the capacity to be words of great love. So that even that beam and the very bones of our church sing praises to God. And even as our prayers and praises come and go, those prayers and praises will always stand there.
The capacity for great good is within you, the capacity for a more beautiful, more loving world is possible, because we have been given the great gift of the Holy Spirit. Just like Saint Peter, the potential is within you for every word you speak to be a word of love.
And I wish, I wish I could say that if we all spoke in the power of love, that the whole world would be pleased with what we say. Sadly, the world is not that way. Our world is so accustomed to hate and bigotry that love sounds foreign. I wish I could say that everybody around the world loved Bishop Curry’s sermon yesterday, but they didn’t. Though he talked passionately and truthfully about love, they say it was too long, too energetic, too emotional, too un-British for their liking. Some of them liked it, but you could see them squirming in their seats at Windsor Castle. But I say that the world needed that sermon, the world ought to squirm when confronted with the power of love. And I wish that everybody in Spring, Texas was inspired and grateful for the work of love we are building out there. But they’re not. No one is happy when we’ve had to close down Spring Cypress Road to haul in dirt, to deliver steel, to set up that giant crane. I’ve seen the impatient drivers, honking and driving through the ditch to zoom by. But I say it’s worth it, because Spring, Texas needs a sanctuary, a church, a community for all people - all people. Because, as Peter said, God’s Spirit has been poured out upon all flesh. Love will be rejected and ignored, love will be ridiculed. Be that as it may. For that is what they did to the Lord of Love when they crucified him. Our call, as Christians, as followers of Jesus is to love regardless of the cost, even if it means opening our arms upon the cross.
Even if your words are not great, or grand, or long; even if you will never preach at St. George’s, Windsor Castle for a royal wedding, even if you will never stand up like Peter and preach a sermon that sets the world on fire, that same Spirit has been given to you. You too have the power to build up in love. You have the potential to build up for the Kingdom of God in love. Open your lips in the Holy Spirit, and your mouth shall proclaim God’s praise.