Sunday, May 15, 2016
"The Holy Spirit All Over the Place"
Pentecost is a major feast of the Church, but it is a distant third compared to Christmas and Easter. Face the facts. How come? What can we do to give Pentecost a chance to catch up with Christmas cheer and Easter joy, as spring unfolds before us each day? Maybe it’s because Pentecost doesn’t have a secular mascot like Santa Claus or the Easter bunny. Pentecost celebrates the coming of the Holy Spirit to the disciples, which Jesus promised would happen in today’s gospel from John. The Advocate will come. Like the holiday of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit is a distant third in the Holy Trinity. Today is about underdogs. Nobody talks about the Holy Spirit, or at least not enough.
So, what about the divided tongues as of fire in the Acts of the Apostles? What about the gospel being preached in different languages? This is powerful stuff going on, why doesn’t Pentecost get more respect? Is it too hard to imagine in our world today? An instant Rosetta Stone experience, for the new leaders of the Church. The flames of spiritual presence allowed the disciples to speak in different languages, and thereby spread the gospel of Jesus Christ to the world, which they did. The disciples, now apostles, are amazing in the absence of Jesus. The Gift of the Holy Spirit is a breakthrough experience for everyone involved.
In Buddhism, there is an important concept called Moksha, which is relevant to Pentecost, I think. There is a great buildup of energy in moksha, followed by a breakthrough; an extraordinary liberation from the temporal, differentiated, and mortal world of ordinary experience. A liberation, from ordinary forms of sensation. And consequential thought. There is a breakthrough experience, opening up a deeper spiritual reality that has access to the human mind. Moksha and the Holy Spirit, both Buddhism and Christianity, have something in common, and much to learn from each other’s tradition. Prize Day is a kind of moksha, along with the important events coming in the next three weeks.
Today students from the Buddhist Club, now in its fourth year, will be traveling with me to the Chuan Yen Monastery in Carmel, New York. The monastery has the largest Buddha in the Western Hemisphere. It stands at 37 feet and is surrounded by 10,000 miniature Buddha statues. I counted them during my last visit. I had to be sure, to check out the hype. The monastery is not far away, but it’s another world that we will enter. Today our students will meditate before the greatest Buddha of this hemisphere. Maybe we’ll experience Moksha, maybe the Holy Spirit. Who knows?
There is a tremendous buildup of energy at this time of the year; the key thing is to direct it productively. The guidance of God comes in the new form of the Holy Spirit. But the Holy Spirit is not really new at all. You can find the Spirit of God all the way back in the first chapters of Genesis, with the Spirit flowing over the waters of creation. I have heard countless sermons in my life, but I have never heard a sermon that was just about the Holy Spirit—at least not one I can remember.
How can we move the Holy Spirit and Pentecost upward from their bronze medal status? How can we find the gold medal stand?
Let’s start with the decorations in chapel this morning, and the gospel read in different languages. Ms. Lynch from the Art Department has brought us the wonderful and beautiful ribbons next to Jesus. They are the tongues of fire, the inspiration for speaking new languages. And they surround our resurrected Jesus statue, high above us each Sunday; which is exactly true to the holiday; with the Holy Spirit fulfilling the Easter miracle, Jesus and the Holy Spirit together. There are so many paradoxes today. The Holy Spirit is ineffable and yet tangible; with a penetrating ability to communicate, and to inspire communication in every known language. What does it mean for the Spirit to be both accessible and ineffable?
Ahh. This question brings us to baseball, thankfully.
Baseball can be a road to God; the ineffable and the tangible come together in following the game. This is typical Holy Spirit sermon behavior, changing the subject when you’re just getting started.
The author of the book Baseball as a Road to God is John Sexton, the fifteenth President of New York University, who used material from his very popular class of the same title to shape the book’s theology. The course at NYU is geared towards helping undergraduates create an intellectual and personal context for the ineffable. That’s the goal. To make friends with Moksha, our new classmate. As any mystic will tell you, or not tell you if they’re really mystical, the ineffable is hard to talk about. By definition, the ineffable is too great or powerful or beautiful to be described in mere words. It cannot be understood by conventional means; you must move outside your comfort zone, and normal realms of knowledge. As for other fields, besides religion, science isn’t generally helpful with the ineffable (and the religious faith it generates). Theology is really the best field to talk about the ineffable, and how it can be found in baseball, according to Sexton: “Whatever its particular manifestation, faith is an affirmation of something that cannot be expressed, for it is rooted in another domain of knowledge, one that is unknowable in scientific terms.”
For Sexton, a major baseball motif is a sense of brokenness and a longing for home. Everything comes back to home in baseball. Baseball requires, if one is to be successful, a separation from home, by three stations, and a return when the runners—the former hitters—are somehow changed by the journey. Like you, here at Kent. The runners score; they return to the fraternity of dugout and clubhouse. It all comes back to where it started. But none of this happens safely; there is always peril. Don’t do anything stupid in the last three weeks of school. Keep it cool. Baseball seems to have a knack for breaking one’s heart, while inviting, on a mystical level, a deeper commitment to secrets, mystical coincidences, and zany anomalies. In the words of Sexton:
“Faith is often the handmaiden of hard work, intellectual and otherwise. In religion thinkers have often tried to use reason to convince others to join them in the faith. Much ink has been spilled, for example, on various philosophical arguments designed to ‘prove’ God’s existence. I find it interesting that the argumentative style and logical structure of some of these arguments have parallels used—with equal force—to suggest that something more than coincidence is involved in some of baseball’s delightful anomalies.”
The hard, personal work of religious faith began with Sexton’s love for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and how they embodied the joy and sorrow of his childhood, especially when they left for the West Coast in 1958. Listening to Dodger games on the radio was a magical experience, a scrolling narrative of imagination in every Brooklyn neighborhood, listening to the Southerner Red Barber call the games. (At the time of the Dodgers, Brooklyn was the fourth largest city in the United States.) Going to the park, to little Ebbets Field, was heaven itself. Sacred places and sacred time at the park require partisanship, and this partisanship creates the suffering, and the glory.
For John Sexton, baseball is a ground of being where one can experience religious faith. This is how he describes the relationship between the individual and the ineffable:
“There is much that is known today, and even more that is unknown today but will be known (perhaps even hundreds of years from now). Faith—true faith—deals with neither the known nor the unknown but knowable. It deals with that which is unknowable in the scientific sense but which the believer knows with all his or her being (the way, in a wonderful marriage, love is known). This is the domain of faith. Therein lies the most powerful connection to baseball, its rhythms and patterns, astonishing feats and mystical charm; it is not necessary to elevate baseball to the level of ultimate concern to notice that, for the true fan, there is sometimes a touching of the ineffable that displays the qualities of a religious experience in the profound space of faith.
As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, ‘All I have seen teaches me to trust the Creator I have not seen.’ That thought was echoed by William James: ‘The divine presence is known through experience. The turning to a higher plane is a distinct act of consciousness.’”
So the Holy Spirit streams ahead, and pulls us forward, to Prize Day and beyond, bridging the gap between conscious living and the ineffable source of our being. In an act of consciousness, we meet God again, in our own time with the Spirit. Enjoy the moment; it is a gift from God. Be in the moment. Enjoy your life, but with gratitude that reaches out to others. The Holy Spirit of Pentecost is experienced by some as a sacred dimension of God that is feminine. Nearness to the divine comes with surprising discoveries, and you can make them too. The Holy Spirit is the author of our dreams and visions. May the Spirit bless all of you in the weeks to come as we finish the year together, as people on fire. A moksha for goodness. And love.