The feast of Pentecost is sometimes referred to as the birthday of the church, because it marks the transition of the disciples from a small group gathered to pray in one room into a movement of international apostles empowered to proclaim God’s good deeds far and wide: this is a day when we celebrate the ways that Spirit of the living Christ, the risen Jesus, is poured out in new and astonishing ways in the wake of Jesus’ ascension.
Today we and millions of other Christians are celebrating Pentecost, but many of those same bodies, and millions of others who don’t have a clue about Pentecost, are focused in these last days of May and early days of June with the celebration of graduations and grade promotions. These can be joyous and soulful rites of passage - and they often have their own sermons of sorts. One of the most well-known graduation speeches resurfaces every year in the words of Dr. Seuss, whose last-published book, “Oh the Places You’ll Go” is given to gads of grads. I don’t necessarily recommend the work as a college graduation gift, but I have to admit that one particular section has caught my sustained attention and reflection: Amidst the message of American stick-to-it-can-do-ism, Suess includes this little reflection on individuality: “Fame! You’ll be as famous as famous can be, with the whole wide world watching you win on TV. Except when they don’t. Because sometimes they won’t. I’m afraid that some times you’ll play lonely games too. Games you can’t win ‘cause you’ll play against you. All alone! Whether you like it or not, alone will be something you’ll be quite a lot.”
I have a beautifully tender-hearted friend who nearly cries every time she reads this section to her preschool son, because it touches a deep truth in her as a mother: as much as she loves her son, she sees, she knows, that “alone is something [he’ll] be quite a lot.” There is a piercing resonance to this phrase, and it touches upon something real in our human experience, this feeling of being alone, even when we are gifted deep and loving relationships, and especially in seasons when we are not. It is a surface-level truth that few would deny.
But, with all due respect to Dr. Seuss, the truth of our individuality, our interiority, is only a half-truth. The witness of Pentecost doesn’t hide or deny the deep searching difficulty of our days -- especially this year’s readings from John and Romans. The Spirit we encounter today, and always, does not protect us from the world that loves money and success much more than love. It does not make us immune to weakness, angst, or as St. Paul so colorfully calls it, “inward groaning.” And yet the testimony we receive today, a testimony that has been passed down the line for about 1,982 years and magnified by countless souls along way, says that we are never actually alone. Never, never, alone.
We have been given the Advocate, which literally means “one called alongside.” God’s self-giving love for the world, as seen in the person of Jesus, is shared with us, made present to us. We indeed have a loving counselor, as close as our very breath. Through God’s grace and the witness of many faithful souls, I have come to trust this truth.
It is a truth uncovered most often by a beautiful dance of communal and individual devotion, and today we as a community pray that the spirit’s presence will be deeply felt and graciously received in the life of Angelique Catherine Neomah Goodridge. I imagine that Angelique’s parents and godparents will pray many prayers over the years, some in sighs too deep for words, in the hope that she will will rest in this truth more days than she does not. This is the prayer of all parents, of our community for all children and adults baptized into the life of faith: may she know that she is not alone. May she feel that the deepest truth about her life is that she is God’s beloved child.
For 27 years, Romy Vasquez has been a boy scout leader in South Central L.A. He’s seen more than a dozen of his boys become Eagle Scouts, even amidst an environment where he has to sell the Boy Scouts as the “biggest gang in the world.” Even though he recently moved to Victorville, he drives to LA three times a week and is incredibly available. He says,
"I'm on call 24 hours with my boys, and I've always told my boys: If I have to pick you up because you got into trouble or you're in the wrong place and you need help, pick up the phone and call me. Tell me, 'Romy come and get me.' Fine, I'm on my way to pick you up."
We would say this man is a great advocate. He makes credible and believable the claim that life does not need to be lived alone; that we humans are capable of showing up for one another in relationships in wonderful ways.
I do not know anything about Romy Vasquez’ faith, or what other things he might make credible to his boys, like the idea that God loves them. Yet this is the movement of Pentecost: it begins with the wonderful, sometimes incredible news that the Spirit of Jesus is as close as your breath, but it doesn’t stop there. We can rest there, but not forever. Because we are also called to help other people SEE, notice, recognize this deeper truth of a holy presence within that is not as obvious as Dr. Seuss’s claim that we’ll be alone a lot. All Alone? We must say. Oh no. You are not.
Etty Hillesum was a young Jewish woman who chronicled her life and her increasing faith during the German occupation of Amsterdam. She was not particularly religious growing up, but in her twenties she writes that she made an incredible discovery, through prayer and reflection: “there is a really deep well inside me,” she wrote. “And in it dwells God!”
Former Archbiship of Canterbury Rowan Williams holds her up as an example of someone who takes responsibility for making God credible in the world, through her life, her manner of being, her words. It is plain, he says, “that she saw her belief as a matter of deciding to occupy a certain place in the world, a place where others could somehow connect with God through her -- and this not in any self-congratulatory spirit or with any sense of being exceptionally holy or virtuous, but simply because she had agreed to take responsibility for God’s believability.” (Tokens of Trust 22-23).
In a time of deepening darkness and oppression, on a journey that ended with her execution at Auschwitz, she wrote these words: “There must be someone to live through it all and bear witness to the fact that God lived, even in these times. And why should I not be that witness?” she asked.
God lived, even in these times. Why should I not be that witness?
God lives, even in these times. Why should we not be those witnesses?
The Rev Laurel Mathewson
May 24, 2015
St. Paul’s Cathedral, San Diego
Pentecost - Year B