A sermon preached by the Rev. Jennifer Baskerville Burrows at Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday, May 27, 2012
Good morning Saints!
It is so good to be in this place in this pulpit. I bring you greetings on behalf of Bishop Jeffrey Lee and the good people of the Diocese of Chicago where I am privileged to serve on Bishop Lee’s Executive Team. I want to thank my good friend Mike for inviting me into the life of this incredible cathedral congregation on this richly, spirit-filled day. The Holy Spirit is alive and well here at Christ Church and it is sweet indeed. On a personal note, I need to tell you that this sanctuary is especially sacred to me as a place that I have prayed and worshipped in at some crucial times in my early adulthood. In the ways that Cathedrals can, it provided a welcoming and beautiful space for me to reflect on my baptism at the age of 22, to discern my vocation to priesthood, and it has been the place I considered a spiritual home whenever I’ve visited St. Louis over the years. So 23 years after my visit here I finally get to say thank you for that gift of Cathedral hospitality.
So on this feast of Pentecost when we share some of the most important stories of the church I want to state the obvious. Stories matter. Recently, author and church historian/church chronicler, Diana Butler Bass reminded me that we become the stories we tell ourselves. Stories have incredible power to shape us. They form us, and help define us. They inform our identity. They connect us and help create an “us” out of individual narratives. And because the stories we omit have power to shape us in their absence, it is important that we know and tell the fullness of our individual and collective stories.
United Church of Christ Pastor Lillian Daniel tells the story of her parents who had a vast collection of vases. She was a military brat and her family lived in lots of places and her father served in locations all around the world. She kind of took the vases for granted till one day, once she had grown up, she summoned the courage to ask her mother about a vase that was in the back of their curio cabinet. This vase had clearly been broken and was quite poorly pieced and glued back together. It seemed to have taken a lot of effort and the results of those efforts were not at all pretty. She wondered for years what that marred and damaged thing was doing messing up the view of the other beautiful objects in the curio.
But when she asked her mother about it, she told her that she held on to it because it was the most precious vase in their entire collection. Supposing that it had immense value because of its materials, Lillian assumed that it could no longer be worth much in its current state. But her mother went on to tell the story of how it was when Lillian was just a toddler that her father had come home from Japan. He had found this beautiful vase during his travels and had carried it in his arms on the ocean liner across the Pacific, on a plane and then rail to their home.
When he arrived home and started to present the vase to her mother, little Lillian came running toward him shouting “Daddy!” and he was so glad to see her that without thinking, he dropped everything he was holding in order to pick her up. So the vase crashed to the floor and broken into dozens of pieces. As a toddler Lillian saw what happened and began to cry thinking she was the cause. But her father said to her—nothing is more important than you. And he was willing to drop what others would have seen as quite valuable and precious to pick up and hold his most valuable and precious daughter. So her mother glued the vase back together as best she could as a reminder of what’s really important.
Lillian never looked at that vase the same way again. And that story forever changed her understanding of her own belovedness. And for a good chunk of her life, that story went untold, tucked in the back of the curio cabinet.
All of us have stories like that too. Significant stories about who we are that for one reason or another we have not told or sufficiently heard. And you can see how it happens, life is busy and full and with all that comes at us on any given day—the news, the internet, family situations, friendships, work, looking for work, health issues, all the stories that we hear—we are constantly, quietly, making decisions about which stories we will really listen to and allow the privilege of taking up the precious real estate of our hearts.
So today we are given to hear the story about the gift of the Holy Spirit. I love that fantastical telling of the Pentecost event in the book of Acts. Where people had gathered together from an incredible display of nations to celebrate the giving of the Torah—the law of Moses—to the Jewish community. Jewish sages point out that they are constantly in the process of receiving the Torah, that they receive it every day, but it was first given at this time so it was quite a significant holy day and festival. Thus it is the giving, not the receiving, that makes this holiday significant. So folks had gathered from across the diaspora for this special day and what happened to them and the Jesus followers was unlike anything they had ever experienced before. They could listen and understand. Those who were gathered on that day when the Spirit blew through were given the ability to speak and understand in languages not previously known to them.
All those different languages—the sound of a rushing wind, early in the morning—something incredible happened. No one will truly understand the events of that day—just as no one will truly understand the mechanics of Jesus’ resurrection. But whether they understood it or not, what happened became an essential story for that community—so important that we tell it to this very day. And we need this story because it helps us believe that it is possible, despite diversity of experience, belief, and language, for a group of people to hear and understand each other. In our deeply polarized world, we need to be shaped by this story.
The gift of Pentecost—the gift of the Holy Spirit is not stuck in time and relegated to that unique event—the gift of Pentecost—the gift of the Holy Spirit has been given to each and every one of us. And this is the day that we remember, in case we have forgotten, to take it off the shelf in the back of the curio cabinet, unwrap this gift and use it for dwelling in God’s love and community.
We must know our stories—as fully as we are able because the stories we tell matter greatly. They will matter to Eden and Benjamin who you will baptize today. They won’t remember this amazing day on their own—they will need you all to tell the story of how you blessed water, prayed for them, showered them with living water, and proclaimed them as God’s beloved children forever and always. The story you tell them about this day, about this congregation, about this event, will help shape who they become. And Eden and Benjamin will forever be part of the story of this congregation.
And so on this day when we willingly call forth the Spirit to blow upon us and shape us and break down walls of misunderstanding—on this day I invite you to tell your story and to tell the full truth about it. The world desperately needs communities that can tell the full truth of who they are—to one another and to the world. And that means sometimes telling the more difficult stories too because they are part of who we are. Tell the story that yes, our church is dying in many places but it is waiting to rise up in others. Tell the story that yes, it isn’t always easy to disagree and stay in relationship, but we work at it because that is the way we build the community of friends that Christ calls us to be. Be the church that tells the truth that living in true diversity is hard and takes intentionality and is so very worth it. Tell the story that the Holy Spirit is not just tucked away and brought out on special occasions but running rampant through this place lighting fires of creativity and ministry and inspiring hope for a city where hope can be in short supply. The work of transformation and building a diverse, beloved community that God is doing here is a story that never gets old. Amen.