Cyclone Pentecost

And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind….  (Acts 2:2)

It was not the flick of the switch of the Large Hadron Collider – a particle accelerator outside of Geneva that has been built in order to smash protons together and that some say could create a small black hole that would swallow the earth – but it was not this, the work of scientists over-stepping their bounds that wreaked havoc with the earth last week.  It was not the hands of men that swirled the winds together in a great turbine and that churned the waters from their depths to wash over the Irrawaddy Delta leaving death and destruction in their wake.

It was what the insurance companies call an “act of God” - in the rush of a mighty wind and its accompanying surge of water – that brought catastrophe to Burma: a country that can hardly afford such a fate.

And today, on Pentecost, when we remember the great rushing wind that first carried the Holy Spirit into the midst of the church, we can be forgiven for wincing at the cruel irony of these parallel stories: the whoosh of great blessing that announced the arrival of the Holy Spirit, and the terrible spinning gusts of Cyclone Nargis that washed over the better part of a nation with it a 12-foot mound of water.

No wonder ancient voices spoke about God’s wrath and his fury – words that today make us squirm but which may ring true when we consider the work of his fingers this past week.  No wonder the Psalmist posits that “the earth shall tremble at the look of him.”  No wonder so many run for cover under the easy platitude that God moves in a mysterious way, and then do their absolute best to avoid or ignore God’s movements altogether.  No wonder the world is confused about God and ready to believe those who forcefully preach that God is not great.

And yet, we could be forgiven for wondering, in the grip of disaster, if God is, in fact, good.  But can we doubt that he is great?  What is a cyclone to God but one of many eddies that he leaves in his majestic wake as he veers across the universe, his mantle of midnight velvet and stars with its white-capped ocean-fringe brushing up against we poor innocents – and few more innocent than the poor, common people of Burma.

Flip the dreaded switch of the Large Hadron Collider and risk the destruction of the world.   This we could understand: our un-doing brought about at our own hands, by our own proud science, in our own relentless need to be masters of everything.  But how can God bring such mayhem to his own creatures on the same winds that once promised hope, and that fanned the tongues of fire that crowned silly disciples?

Is it only at times of disaster that it occurs to us that God is powerful?  Are these incidents of destruction the only acts that we could possibly attribute to God anymore?  Have even we who believe ceased to allow for the possibility that God is, in fact, great?  Are we so impressed with our own human power, our own human creativity, our own human ingenuity that we believe we have left God behind, the divine vestigial relic of a darker age?

And is this our bright age – when still more will die in Burma because of the recklessness of a paranoid junta; when the gunfire in our own streets brings down children or cops without much distinction; when we cannot conceive of an end to a war we thought we were clever enough to control; when we have doused the good earth with poisons we have the gall to call “fertilizers”; when we keep going to the gas pumps to get our fix no matter how high the price of oil climbs – is this our bright age?

And suddenly today comes a sound from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind.

We – bright things - have locked our doors against the wind as though a cyclone were coming straight for us.  We have hunkered down in our self-sufficiency, and our certainty that the world and its fate really rests in our own hands.  We have milk and water and toilet paper in our bunkers.  We still have duct tape and rolls of plastic here too.  I, myself, have helped screw hurricane straps onto new houses in the Gulf Coast to keep them from blowing away.  We know how to protect ourselves when we want to.  We know how to keep the doors locked tight.

And if we know how to keep the wind out and our roofs from blowing off, we also know how to lock the doors to keep God out.  We know where to put weather stripping so not even a draft of him can blow in through the cracks.  And the world today hardly knows the difference between the insurance company’s description of an “act of God” and the real thing, mostly because the world today is not much interested in acts of God.

In my Bible only two pages separate the two different stories of Pentecost: the stories of God’s gift of the Holy Spirit in Acts and in John’s gospel.  But of course there is a sharp contrast.   In Acts, Luke tells us of the rushing, mighty wind, and the tongues of fire.  But in John the doors are locked, and the disciples are hunkered down; but Jesus finds them and comes to them anyway.  And there is no commotion, no wind, there are no tongues of fire.  There is only his greeting of peace, and then his gentle breath on them as he tells them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

John says it happened late on Easter Day, and Luke tells us that it happened fifty days later.  But scholars assure us that although the timing and the circumstances are described differently the stories are about the same thing: about God’s gift of his Holy Spirit to his people after the resurrection of his Son.

If it is true that God moves in a mysterious way – as it manifestly appears to be – then we may have to account for his movements that terrify us, and drive us behind locked doors.  But we also have to account for God’s quiet presence in our midst and the greeting of peace from the lips of his Son Jesus.  

And if it is true that the Holy Spirit of God can and does ride on the violet currents of wind and water that can and do wreak havoc in the world, it is also true that Jesus’ gentle breath bequeathed that same Spirit to us, to bring us peace.

The designers of that particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider, quite staunchly defend their work against criticisms that when it is turned on it could create a black hole that would swallow the earth.  Nevertheless, when the suggestion was made, they did agree to double-check, to run the numbers, and they did review Stephen Hawking’s theory that such micro black holes would evaporate if they did just happen to get formed.  They did allow for the possibility, however remote, of phenomena more powerful and dangerous than those built by their own hands and intended to replicate the forces of creation.

If we can imagine our own human capacity to wield such power, why is it so hard for us to conceive of a God who wields yet more power than us?  And why do we find it so hard to believe that the Son of God could harness that power with his own breath and share it with us for the singular purpose of bringing us peace?

And it may be that the great gift of Pentecost is the realization of God’s determination to share with us both his power and his peace.  It may be that the proximity of these two stories of the Holy Spirit – just two pages apart in my Bible – is intended to link them in our imaginations, and to temper the almost un-bridled power of that Spirit, on the one hand, with the un-compromised dictate of peace, on the other.

And it may be that our challenge as mere humans is not so much to hedge against the possibility that we have usurped God’s creative power to the extent that we might unwittingly form black holes – one of the most mysterious features of the universe.  Rather, it may be that our challenge is to accept that the phenomenal power God has given us, by the extraordinary gifts of his Spirit, is intended to bring us peace.

And maybe the reason we think of natural disasters like Cyclone Nargis as “acts of God” is because we can’t help but seeing in these tragedies a projection of ourselves, and our own tendency to mis-use the power God has given us by his Spirit.

We Christians have always believed that despite this reliable tendency of ours (to mis-use the gifts that God has given us), God determined to send us his Son as our neighbor, our brother, our friend.  And in living with us as closely as a neighbor, a brother, a friend, Jesus has always been close enough to breathe on us as he offers us Peace.  

And even now, in this place, he is near enough to breathe on us.  At this very moment, tiny eddies of air, perhaps stirred up by a cyclone on the other side of the globe, are swirling invisibly around us.  They will not ignite in tongues of flame to dance above our heads.  Theses currents of God’s breath are hardly detectable, easily missed or ignored.  Yet, they carry with them the un-matched power of peace, in the echo of Jesus’ resurrection greeting to his friends: a power more awesome than anything the scientists in Geneva or anywhere can replicate.  

And it may be that the flicker of candles is the only potential evidence of that gentle breath floating among us even now, deceptively slight, pregnant with power, promising peace, and waiting only for us to inhale.

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
11 May 2008
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on May 11, 2008 .