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Pentecost - Turn!

Pentecost – Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104:25-35, 37;

1 Cor 12:3b-13; John 20:19-23

May 28, 2023

C. Partridge


Come, Holy Spirit, turn our hearts with your living fire.

I was driving in my car recently, listening to music, when a recording by Pete Seeger came on from an album called “Live in ’65.”[1] It began with an introduction that took me by surprise: “Let me sing you a song which, for many years I liked the poetry,” Seeger says, “I carried it around in my pocket for years until I picked a tune for it.” Then he adjusted the tuning of his guitar with a clothespin as the crowd chuckled, and he launched into the song: “Turn! Turn! Turn!” I’ve known this song my whole life, but only through this recording did I realize that Pete Seeger had written it, so familiar was I with the Byrds’ rendition. The poetry that captured Seeger’s heart is the language of Ecclesiastes (not one of our readings this morning): “for everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven: a time to be born, a time to die; a time to plant, a time to reap” it continues, “a time to break down, a time to build up; a time to weep, a time to laugh… a time to mourn, a time to dance…” (Ecclesiastes 3:1-2, 3b-4). Seeger’s song layers the deep, cyclical balance of this passage with the iconic refrain, emphatic with exclamation points, “turn! turn! turn!” (or as my grandmother might have rendered it, “turn around!”). This turning language, absent from Ecclesiastes though deeply rooted in other biblical passages, is essential to Seeger’s song. To characterize the cycles in this passage as “turns” recognizes that they come actively, powerfully, and sometimes swiftly. They turn! with exclamation points. And so too do we, must we. Turn!, turn!, turn! is a call to step into agency amid the seismic changes of our lives and our world, to actively engage our own transformation and that of our world as we navigate things beyond our control, knowing that God is with us in the midst of it all. God the Holy Spirit is moving in power and mystery, turning the soil of creation, composting, conspiring. Come, Holy Spirit: turn! turn! turn!

This song could not but come into my mind as I sat with our readings for the Feast of Pentecost, noticing how they highlight the Holy Spirit’s galvanizing renewal – not only of community but of creation itself. Pentecost is a festival that the earliest Christians inherited and reshaped from Judaism – the festival of Shavuot, which originally celebrated the gathering of the grain harvest and then shifted over time to celebrate Moses’ reception of the Torah. Greek-speaking Jews called the festival Pentecost because it fell fifty days after the Passover.[2] Christians mark today as the fiftieth day after and of Jesus’ resurrection, the completion of the season of Eastertide, and a celebration of the Holy Spirit’s descent with tongues of fire alighting upon the heads of the disciples, as told in the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. Suddenly, as just shared in our multilingual reading of that story, the disciples heard a roaring sound, followed by the miraculous ability to hear and understand the telling of God’s deeds of power bursting barriers of language and nation (Acts 2:1-12). This transformative event infused them with new strength to carry out what Jesus had called them to do, to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). This moment represented a new creation for the community. It birthed anew a movement that had grown through Jesus’s life and ministry, that had walked through the horror of his arrest and death, that had emerged blinking into the blazing light of his resurrection, and now was being set loose by the power of the Holy Spirit.

This new-creative moment, this turning, was not only communal but cosmic in its significance, inviting us to read it through a much wider, deeper perspective than as a key moment in the Church’s history. The passage’s own quotation from the prophet Joel signals this angle: this was the great turning in which God’s own Spirit, poured out upon all flesh, would bestow the ability to have visions, to dream dreams, to call upon God’s holy name. Terrifying signs in the earth itself pointed to the cosmic dimensions of this turning, from fire and smokey mist to eclipses of sun and moon (Acts 2:16-21, quoting Joel 2:28-32). The Psalm appointed for today connects to this dimension, reminding us of a vast creation teeming with all manner of earthly inhabitants. I have a friend whose favorite line of Scripture is “that Leviathan which you have made for the sport of it” (Psalm 104:26). But the celebration of a sporting God gives way to an awe-filled response tinged with trembling in the face of a creation whose cycles bring death as well as life (Psalm 104:27-30). In “due season,” amid the rhythms of creation, God brings birth and death, the forming of life from the ground and its return to dust. Breath marks this pattern most dramatically of all—ruah in Hebrew as well as pneuma in Greek can be translated as both spirit and breath. The Breath or Spirit of God can breathe in and out, it can withdraw and fill. As at the dawn of creation, it can hover. Now, at Pentecost, it blows wild. It creates new channels of understanding, it removes barriers, it connects in a spirit of expansiveness. And far beyond the borders of human community, the Spirit renews the very face of the earth.

The invitation to us in the face of this renewal, this profound turning of creation itself, is to turn along with it, to receive it. In our gospel passage, we return to the scene of the resurrection day, or more accurately, its evening, its turning toward the next day. Through locked doors behind which the disciples had gathered in confusion and fear, the resurrected Jesus came among them (John 20:19-23). As you may know, I especially love this story for its embodied qualities – that resurrection does not erase but transfigures our bodily histories. But shared on this day, this story emphasizes another aspect of our created life: breath. Jesus breathes on them, just as God the creator had breathed the breath of life into the first human, rendering it a living being. Now the risen Christ bestows the divine breath of the Spirit into this fearful band. The scene can come across as intimate and quiet, but in actuality Jesus was harnessing the living force of all creation and blowing it clean through them. No doors could contain it. No terror could keep it at bay. And yet also: they needed to turn toward it, to open themselves to it actively and intentionally. “Receive the Holy Spirit” he said. Receive the Holy Spirit. Participate in creation’s own resurrection renewal. Turn! Turn! Turn!

This week in the midst of St. Aidan’s life, I had the privilege of accompanying a small group who completed the ritual process of saying goodbye to Roger Wolcott and releasing him into God’s own heart, a process we began as a community back in December. Margie Wolcott and Deacon Nancy Pennekamp had chosen China Beach, looking out at the Golden Gate Bridge, as the site for returning the final portion of Roger’s ashes to the earth. It was a gray, misty day, much like today, as we made our way down the sandy steps. Some surfers were out, and the Coast Guard was doing exercises of some sort with small watercrafts, but they subtly receded as we began our time of prayer and singing at the edge of the water as the tide came in. When the moment came, four of us waded out into the surf to release the ashes. Immediately most of them were received into the water, becoming one with it, indistinguishable. But then something else happened: a small portion was caught by the wind, whipped into the air, shimmering in the light and whisked away. It took my breath away, and immediately made me (and also Margie, I later learned) think about this day, of Pentecost. Of the wind of God carrying this particular life, and truly all of our lives out into a process of resurrection renewal more deep and profound than we can fully fathom. I thought of one my favorite lines from John’s gospel, one I have always associated with the loving, mysterious spirit of St. Aidan’s: “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). I thought of Jesus saying, “receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22).

In the days since, these witness of the Spirit have also brought to mind a perhaps unlikely creature: the California Condor. We saw them yesterday as we hiked in Pinnacles National Park, soaring above us, slowly turning high amid the volcanic-formed cliffs where their nests shelter their endangered, burgeoning chicks. In their embodiment of life emerging from death, the Condors strike me as deeply resonant Holy Spirit signs, at least as appropriate in my mind, if not more so, than the pure white doves so often depicted as the symbols of the Spirit. Turn, they quietly called as we watched from below. Receive life emerging in mystery, moving you with the tides of the Spirit’s blowing. Look for it, collaborate with it in the most unlikely places. And so today that call is issued to us afresh: receive the Holy Spirit; turn, turn, turn into the wind of God; be opened to its mysterious, life-collaborative force. May it be so. Amen.

[1] Pete Seeger, Live in ’65 (Appleseed Recordings, 2009) https://appleseedmusic.com/pete-seeger-live-in-65/?v=7516fd43adaa [2] Eds. Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, The Jewish Annotated New Testament (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 223.

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