Just a couple of months ago, when we installed our two beehives back behind the Lady Chapel, two important elements were in use. First, there was the smoke that beekeepers use to keep bees under control when they work in close proximity to them. I was vaguely aware that smoke is used in this way; in much the same way that Anglo-catholic clergy use smoke to keep the congregation under control when we are in close proximity to you. But I had not known what was the use for the spray bottle that was on hand when the bees were about to be moved from their wooden shipping container to their hive.
The spray bottle, it turned out, was full not of water, but of simple syrup: a 1:1 combination of sugar and water. And the bees were sprayed with this sugar-water to calm them and keep them occupied (they eat the syrup), and to keep them under control. As the bees were thusly transferred, we were warned by our beekeeper to use caution under foot, since some of the bees were so drenched with the simple syrup that they were now, for a short while, too heavy, and, I suppose, too sticky, to fly. After a few minutes of grooming and snacking, however, they would regain the proper balance. The sugar-water is a substitute for the nectar they have not yet had a chance to collect and for the bees’ own honey they have not yet had a chance to make since they had not yet established the hive. It is the nourishment they need to get on with their important work, and some of it was also supplied inside the new hive in the early weeks as the bees began to build up their own supply of honey.
Here is a rich thought: to be so drenched in good stuff that you are momentarily incapacitated, to be so overcome with something that’s good for you that you are unable to go on, to be so thoroughly supplied with what you need that you must pause and drink some of it in before you can go on. And how wonderful to think that what’s needed is so easily provided – sugar and water being easy to come by for those who are called to supply it to the bees.
And here we are on Pentecost, when we are supposed to be giving thanks to God for the gift of the Holy Spirit. There are churches in the world in which the reasons to do so are manifestly evident to one and all, and where no explanation of this feast is required; where the gifts God provides by his Holy Spirit are flagrantly and fulsomely on display, and always associated with the Spirit: prayers, and tongues, and healings, and prophecies, and teachings, and leadership, and proclamation, and more. But the Episcopal Church is not always a place where spiritual gifts are so readily identified. So it is worth stopping for a moment to examine how the Holy Spirit is in our midst here on Locust Street and beyond.
The first thing that needs to be said is that our un-readiness to identify the gifts of the Holy Spirit is in no way a true reflection of the gifts with which we as individuals, families, a community, and a church have been bestowed. Just because we don’t always see them, know them, claim them, or recognize them readily does not mean that God’s gifts are in short supply here.
The next thing we might say is that there is a possibility, especially on this day, that we could be so overcome, so drenched, so thoroughly supplied with the gifts of God’s Spirit in this place that we sometimes find ourselves in need of a pause to stop and groom ourselves, and snack – no, feast - and take account of the blessings of the Spirit that so abound among us. Today is such a day!
And for starters we have a baptism, as if to make sure we don’t miss the point! We will not be spraying young Miranda with sugar-water, but we will be getting her wet with something more than water. We will be asking God to drench her with his Holy Spirit. And if, at first, we see no difference in her, if she is no more animated by this gift than a normal child of her age at the hour of noon, then perhaps it is only because she is so drenched with that Spirit that she cannot do anything more than drink it in and prepare herself for what is to come.
Our mistake will be to see only that the locks of her fine hair are a little wet. But if that is all we see then we miss the point. The water (to which God’s blessing will have been added in a generous ratio) is the sign of the more complete drenching of the Holy Spirit that Miranda is the recipient of today. Don’t be fooled! God, we believe, is giving this child gifts of grace today! Indeed, God has already been doing this, no doubt, but today God is giving the public assurance of it to us, to her parents, and to her.
There is nothing extraordinary about this moment of sacramental assurance at all – since God is generous with his grace. And there is everything extraordinary about it, since it signifies the easy access that every human being has to the boundlessness of God’s goodness, God’s loving-kindness, God’s forgiveness, God’s providence, and God’s mercy.
Well, that’s easy for me to say. And who would argue with me, when it’s a gorgeous and innocent child of whom I speak. But what about you and me? Where are God’s gifts in our lives? Where is God’s Holy Spirit? If today is more or less like yesterday, where is the evidence of this great breath of God’s grace flowing through this place, our lives, this community?
It is tempting for me now to begin to prosecute an argument for your benefit: to hold up for you exhibits of the evidence of the work of the Holy Spirit and dare you to disbelieve me. It is tempting for me to draw you a picture, as it were, and show you how the Spirit blows through it, and to do so in such a convincing way that you will take my word for it. Oh, how I am tempted to do this, to take you on a tour of the Holy Spirit’s work here on Locust Street, or over on Clearfield Street, or in the home of some beloved parishioner or other. For I believe that I could do a fine job of it! And I have taken you on such tours before, and chances are I will do so again. Such a Dickensian approach can be very winning, indeed! But the Ghosts of Pentecosts past, present, and to come, are not what I want to ask you to consider today.
I would rather return to the beehive.
I would rather consider the possibility that as we speak God is showering us with the dew of his blessing. He is not waiting for me to sprinkle you with water from the font, which I will do anyway. I want us to consider the possibility that at this Mass we become so drenched with God’s grace – the gifts of the Holy Spirit - that we are nearly paralyzed, and that this is alright – so long as we realize what’s happening. I want us to consider that God keeps us here, momentarily suspended in the power of his Spirit, long enough for us to feel heavy with it, to ask ourselves if we can possibly bear this much of God’s grace, this much of God’s mercy, this much of God’s forgiveness, God’s love, God’s excellent greatness.
Because like everything freely given, God’s grace can be taken for granted, and if we don’t stop to recognize how wet we are with it, we may for a moment forget to consider it at all. We could be like bees who are so drenched and sticky with syrup that we cannot fly – aware of our predicament but unaware of its marvelous cause!
And the truth is that you do not often discover the fact of God’s grace because of some convincing argument, or miracle, or work, or wonder, though many have looked for evidence of God’s grace in this way. No, more likely by far, you discover the gifts of God’s grace, given by his Holy Spirit, because you realize that you are in need of them. Sometimes badly.
The perverse form of this view sees in you the indelible stain of original sin, and you and me as depraved beyond hope except by God’s grace. But this is a dark view of the nature of both God and man.
A more hopeful view sees life as a path that traverses falls and expulsions, floods and exoduses, wanderings and covenants, sicknesses and healings, deserts and mountains, silences and songs, serving and sitting, falling down and getting up, making messes and washing up, births and deaths, miracles and disappointments, hunger and plenty, storms and calm, loneliness and too much company, addictions and indulgences, beauty and ugliness, time that flies by and time that stands still, visions and doubts, dreams and nightmares, valor and murders, debts and inheritances, little children and the elderly, and all manner of wanderings, hopes, fears, troubles, triumphs, and who knows what else! And in the midst of all this, sees the possibility, the likelihood, that we will look to the stars, or out to the sea, and deep into ourselves, and ask for something: maybe patience, maybe an answer, maybe deliverance, maybe love. And in the asking we may feel the need for something beyond ourselves. And the only question really is: is it there? Are you there, Lord? Have you any gifts for me? Is your Spirit really anywhere to be found?
This moment of asking, wondering, reaching is important in discerning the gifts of the Holy Spirit. It may be that this is why prayers to the Spirit so often begin with an invocation: Come Holy Spirit, come! God, who is always at work in our lives long before we start asking, nevertheless desires to be sought out, called up, searched for, reached out to. Come, Holy Spirit, come!
And it may be that the only reason this parish still stands here, after more than 165 years of praying, is that we have never ceased to beseech the Holy Spirit to come into our lives. And we have not too often missed the chance, I pray, to stop and luxuriate in the heavy dampness of that Spirit, to account ourselves drenched in it and sticky from head to toe to wings – whether infant or octogenarian. And if we pause here in church beneath the weight of a certain dampness, then it is with the full expectation that we are about to fly!
Most Pentecost sermons, I think, are about wind and fire, since these are the signs so dramatically provided to the Apostles on that first Pentecost. But I want to leave you today with thoughts of smoke and water – two elements God uses when working in close proximity to us, his people. For we believe that God uses these elements in this latter day to make himself known where he would otherwise move unseen.
But of course it’s the water that will dampen us ever so slightly. And when you feel it, if you do today, will you stop and consider that although I may only sprinkle you a little, God is drenching you with the gifts of his Holy Spirit, the gifts of his grace. Stop and feel how heavy these gifts are, how sticky you become when you consider what it is that God has given to you, done for you, been for you.
And if it all seems a bit unlikely to you, then remember to beg the Holy Spirit come to you, remember how it has long been the practice of the church to call upon that Holy Spirit to come down to us with power and with blessing. Remember to ask God to swoop in to your life and shower you with his grace!
And if you don’t feel immediately animated by that Spirit, then take heart – it may be that God has given you so much that you are sticky with grace. So come, feast, rest a while. Ask again. Then take wing, and fly!
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia