You may listen to Mother Takacs's sermon here.
When was the last time you were up all night? Knowing this congregation, I would say that it was either an overnight international flight, an all-night study session for your medical boards or the bar, or a particularly long post-Christmas Eve Midnight Mass celebration. But here’s another question: when was the last time you were up all night because you were excited? When was the last time you couldn’t fall asleep because you simply couldn’t wait for what the next day would bring? Maybe it was the night before a long-awaited vacation. Or maybe the night before a commencement or the first day of an exciting new job. Maybe it was the night before your wedding, or for some of us, the night before William and Kate’s wedding. Or maybe, to think of the last time when you were up all night, giddy with excitement, you’ll have to go all the way back to Christmas Eves when you were a kid.
In my house, Christmas Eve always meant visiting family, which always meant that my brother and I had to share a room. With both of us trying to sleep in the same room, we would usually end up getting pretty wound up. We’d start out whispering to each other and trying to predict what presents each of us might get the next morning – an EZ Bake Oven, the new set of Hot Wheels, Atari!. But then inevitably one of us would get so excited we’d start laughing, and then we’d start shushing each other, which made the whole thing even more hilarious, and then more giggling and giggling and giggling. One year I think we even ended up singing Fleetwood Mac to each other, you know, “Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow. Don’t stop, it’ll soon be here.” The Clintons have nothing on the Takacses. And so with all of this singing and general silliness, we were often up for hours, seemingly up all night, because we knew that there would be joy in the morning, great gifts just waiting to be unwrapped.
Did you know that Pentecost is a stay up all night kind of festival? It’s true; it is. It comes from the ancient Jewish Festival of Weeks, also called Shavuot, when the People of God recalled the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai 50 days after they were freed from Egypt. And one of the traditions of Shavuot is to stay up, all night long, studying Torah. The story goes that on that first Pentecost, some of the Israelites overslept and missed the actual moment when Moses gave the Torah, the Law, to God’s people. So now, some faithful Jews will stay up all night, bubbling with excitement, digging deeply into the Torah, studying with zeal and maybe even with whispers and giggling. Because they know that there is joy in the morning, that great gift of God’s promise of faithfulness and his instructions about holy living, given to them, just waiting to be unwrapped.
And it’s hard to imagine that that disciples weren’t having some sleepless, giddy nights in the days between the Ascension and Pentecost. Jesus had just flickered up into the heavens, leaving behind his blessing and his promise that he would send the Holy Spirit down upon them to sanctify them, to prepare them to be sent out into the world as Holy Apostles. So they’ve been waiting, holed up together in a room in Jerusalem, whispering to each other about this great gift that is coming soon. What will it feel like when the Spirit comes, do you think? Will we see it? Will it happen all at once, or will Peter go first and Matthias last? And as they’ve been sitting there imagining, the anticipation has been building and building, more butterflies in the stomach, more foot-tapping and finger-drumming, more flashes of smiles, and maybe even a few smothered giggles. Because they feel in their very bones that joy will come in the morning, ushered in by a mighty wind and wrapped in fire and light.
The Church, also, recognizes the up-all-night nature of today’s feast. How do we know this? Because there is a liturgy for it. It’s called the Vigil of Pentecost, and yes, it is a real thing, a genuine liturgy with readings and rubrics and everything, right there in the prayer book. Buried a little bit, perhaps, but there. (The first person who can tell me after the service where the Vigil of Pentecost is found in the prayer book will get a cookie. Please don’t start looking for it right now.)*
So…how many of you were up last night, turning in your beds, tummies clenched with excitement, giggling and giddy because of the joy that comes this morning, the great gift of this day? Anyone? Anyone keep vigil last night? Anyone find themselves humming Fleetwood Mac and desperate for the dawn? True confession: I didn’t. I didn’t do any of those things. I fell into bed, got a good night sleep, and awoke with the alarm this morning. I wasn’t up all night, contemplating the wonders of the gift that I was going to receive today. I wasn’t up all night studying the scriptures for insights into the Holy Spirit. I wasn’t giddy. I wasn’t giggling. It was a completely ordinary, un-anticipatory evening. And looking out at your bright, well-rested faces, I’m guessing that the same is true for you.
Why is this, do you think? Why is it that we take this gift of the Holy Spirit so much for granted? Why is it that when Pentecost morning dawns, the most attention we might give it is to wonder what red shirt we should wear and if the organist will play the Duruflé Veni Creator? Here are two suggestions. The first trap is that we get tangled up in the definition of Pentecost as the day when the Holy Spirit was given to the Church. Now Pentecost is the Feast when we recall the moment when the Holy Spirit came down upon the disciples, when they found a power of language they had never had before, when Peter stood before the people of Jerusalem and proclaimed a glorious new day and when thousands heard his words and said yes. But Pentecost is not just about something that happened to those people, over there, all those many years ago. Because if Pentecost is about the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church, guess what? Who is the Church? The Church is you and me, the Church is us in this time and in this place. Today we remember that that Holy Spirit is this Holy Spirit. That Holy Spirit is the same one we call down upon the gifts of bread and wine today, the same one we pray in and with and through today, the same one we invoke in absolution and in blessing today. That Holy Spirit is the same one poured out upon us in our baptisms, rekindled in our confirmations, fortified every time we come to this altar. That Holy Spirit was not a one-time offering a thousand years ago lit a fire under the Church, but an on-going gift, a gift given every second of every day to every Christian that has ever lived, a gift given every second of every day to you and to me, a gift without which we would not be simply bereft, but would simply not be.
The other Pentecost trap is that we sometimes think of the Holy Spirit as a kind of lava lamp of a gift. It’s beautiful and interesting to look at, but mostly we just set up on a shelf and watch it do its thing. But the Holy Spirit is not a lava lamp; the Holy Spirit is more like an erector set. The Holy Spirit is more like a set of tinker toys, like Lincoln logs. The Holy Spirit is given to us so that we will go do something with it. This is a gift with batteries included and with some assembly required. The Holy Spirit, once unwrapped, is not something to be set upon a shelf. She cries out to be put to use. She, and I say She for the Holy Spirit is surely not an It, draws out words of truth-telling and Gospel-sharing from the depths of our souls. She compels us to dream dreams of a world without divisions, to see visions of a community where all are free, to paint pictures of that great and glorious day when everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. The Holy Spirit is a hands-on gift, a gift with purpose, with a plan.
Okay. So we’ve already missed our chance to be up-all-night this Pentecost Eve. But hey, guess what? Guess what I heard? There is a present here this morning with your name on it. That’s right. I heard that there’s a gift here for every single person in this room. Yup, here it is: To: You, From: The Holy Spirit. Go ahead – unwrap it and see what you got. Don’t forget, everyone’s gift is different, and you may need to look for the instructions to know what your gift is, to see if it’s the build-a-prophet kit, or the textbooks of a teacher, or the cooling balms of a healer. “All these are activated by one and the same Spirit,” Paul tells us. All of these are given just for us. Your gift is made just for you, wrapped just for you, given just for you. It is a gift worth getting excited about, a gift waiting up all night for. I hope that you like it, and I hope you’ll enjoy figuring out what to do with it. And I wish you a merry Pentecost.
Preached by Mother Erika Takacs
8 June 2014 - The Feast of Pentecost
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia
*The Vigil of Pentecost is described on page 175 or 227 in the Book of Common Prayer.