Sermon preached 4 June 2017 (Pentecost) by Sue Mosher at Universalist National Memorial Church
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to study briefly with the British spiritual author Esther De Waal during one of her sojourns at Washington National Cathedral, and I learned from her a marvelous way to engage with the Psalms. I read them looking for a particular theme and how that theme is expressed in many different metaphors. Each time I find a verse that illuminates that theme, I write it down and then add my own words, sometimes a question, sometimes a response, sometimes a prayer. In one of my notebooks, I copied out words from Psalm 33: “Rulers and nations are not rescued by mighty armies, nor are warriors saved by sheer force,” and under them wrote: “My understanding of power is flawed. Show me how it really works, that I may be a rescuer.”
Those words came back to me as I pondered our two scripture stories today, because I think they are all about power and its corollary, authority, and this is one of the key issues of our age – truly of any age. To whom or what do we look for authority, both the power to enforce obedience – in other words, the authority imposed through law – and the guidance that we acknowledge when we accept its influence? Today’s readings suggest other questions we might ask:
- How do we recognize those who wield spiritual authority?
- What does spiritual authority mean to the one to whom it is given?
- What spiritual authority do I myself acknowledge, and how do I respond to it?
So, let us take a few minutes to consider this matter of power and prophecy and even holy rebellion and wonder.
The second story, about the event that churches worldwide today are marking as Pentecost, is concerned with the powerful “something” that happened after Jesus, a carpenter and itinerant spiritual teacher from Nazareth, was crucified by Roman authorities in Jerusalem. People have been pondering, debating, and disagreeing about exactly what happened ever since, even killing each other over those disagreements.
But make no mistake: Something happened. Something big. Something meaningful.
I have long been intrigued with the view of retired Episcopalian Bishop John Shelby Spong, who considers the Resurrection, Ascension, and Pentecost to be a triad of overlapping ways of interpreting and describing this earthshaking event, “not an event in time but a transcendent and transforming truth”. As Spong describes it, “something happened after the crucifixion of Jesus that convinced the disciples that Jesus shared in the eternal life of God and was thus available to them as a living presence. This experience was so profound that the disciples, who at his arrest had fled in fear” – except for a few of the women, we might note – “were reconstituted and empowered even to die for the truth of their vision.”
Now I’ve heard the Pentecost story many times, but the story from Numbers was new to me and fascinating. During the Israelites’ wanderings in the desert, Moses appeals to God for help and is told to designate 70 elders who will assist him after being endowed with some of the spirit of God. Most of the elders gather at the Tent of Meeting, a place outside the encampment where Moses goes to speak to God, and there they are blessed with the spirit, and they utter words of prophesy – but only once. Meanwhile, back in the camp, two elders – and they are important enough that we know their names, Eldad and Medad – are struck with the spirit right there in the dusty camp, not at the sacred tent. When Joshua reports this to Moses, Moses chides him for being jealous and says he wishes everyone could experience such an outpouring of the spirit.
So, why weren’t Eldad and Medad at the Tent? Did they miss the memo? Were they too busy with family or other pressing matters? Were they too humble to accept the honor of being commissioned as assistants to Moses?
Rabbi David Frankel suggests that we might think of them as being defiant, of being in “holy rebellion”, of not wanting to become Moses’ yes-men. Yet, even in their rebellion, they are still given spiritual authority, which shows itself in their prophecy.
A short aside: I once viewed the word “prophecy” only as a synonym for prognostication or prediction, as in the famous “Prophecies of Nostradamus”. But I have grown into a deeper understanding of prophecy as the speaking of Truth as led by God – thus, speaking with spiritual authority. Such a moment of true speech can come to any of us, but a prophet recognizes as their default state that mode of being filled with spirit and attempts to speak as much as possible from that inner place where God’s spirit resides. For our purposes this morning, though, we can read from these stories that even a momentary flash of prophecy that shows itself in ecstatic speech can be taken as a sign that spiritual authority has been bestowed. We will have to leave the consideration of false prophets for another day.
So, thinking back to Eldad and Medad, Rabbi Frankel suggests that these outliers offer some important lessons:
They remind us that religious authority – that imposed by institutions – cannot hold all the answers, simply by the infinite nature of the divine Truth. There will always be those speaking truth outside the tent. In the Christian scripture, the primary holder of that role is Paul, who not only was not present at Pentecost, but doesn’t even mention it one time in any of his epistles to the fledgling Christian churches.
Prophets outside the tent also can offer a potential catalyst when the establishment drifts too far toward stability.
And they assure us that the divine spirit is unbounded by human institutions and will be poured out on both the obedient and the rebellious. In other words, it will surprise us!
The disciples waiting in Jerusalem had no idea what to expect. They only knew that the one whom they recognized as Jesus, risen, had told them to “wait in the city until you are clothed with power from on high” – from higher authority outside themselves, indeed from the highest authority, from God.
To be “clothed with power” calls to mind the gesture with which a Sufi master conveys some of his spiritual authority on his student – by giving his own cloak, which may be a tangible object or an invisible investiture. What an intimate gesture! It says, “What is mine is yours, and there is plenty for both of us,” which is so fitting because if we know anything about divine power, it is that it is inexhaustible.
To be “clothed with power” for me also translates as “wrapped with strength”. And here I want to explore the less considered of the two meanings of power, because I think in it lies the true meaning of these stories. Most of the time, when we hear the word “power”, we think of authority and control. In social justice circles, you might hear that referred to as “power over” — the control or authority that one person or group or institution has over another.
But there is another kind of power. Standing in contrast to “power over” is “power with”. You can think of that as “strength”, but if you delve into the Hebrew Bible, especially the Psalms, you will find a host of concepts that are usually translated into English as “power” but reflect a richer understanding of the spiritual authority and energy flowing from God, concepts like
strength and steadfastness
magnificence and fury
vigor and abundance
By contrast, in the New Testament, power is usually expressed in the Greek word “dynamis”, which is related to the capacity to get something done – in other words, energy. When we speak of a human dynamo, we mean someone with a lot of innate energy.
The Pentecost moment – with its rushing wind and descent of Spirit like tongues of flame – is an energetic, dynamic event. Energy and power settle into the midst of the disciples and call forth speech. But what can actually be said in such a moment? The account in Acts says that the Galilean Jews spoke in languages that could be understood by the Medes, Romans, Egyptians, Libyans, and other foreign visitors to Jerusalem. But maybe it wasn’t the so much the words that came with such clarity but the message about “God’s deeds of power”, conveyed by the timbre of their voices and the radiance of the disciples’ faces. For as the 11th century Sufi al-Karaz wrote, “The disciple does not argue or doubt before such pure energy. The only response is awe.”
And awe, I think, is transmitted not so much in specific words – except perhaps by the poets – but in heart-broken-open wonder.
But what happens when awe fades – or as with Moses’ 70 elders, when the one-time moment of prophetic ecstasy has passed? This is where “power with” or strength comes into play. I wonder whether the purpose of the descent of the Spirit like tongues of flames is to scorch an area within our hearts where the ego is pushed back, the ego with all its demands for recognition. Instead, a divinely sourced spiritual strength is kindled – and with that strength, we might be able to respond with our actions to those who continue to prophecy among us, to speak Truth that resonates irresistibly in hearts that are tuned to God. Then might we be truly dynamic, able to get something done, to do what Love wills, as the Psalm says. And on the subject of what Love wills, I’d like to give the last word this morning to a prophet of our own age, Howard Thurman. He wrote in 1961 (Mysticism and the Experience of Love, Pendle Hill pamphlet #115):
To love means dealing with persons in the concrete rather than in the abstract. In the presence of love, there are no types or stereotypes, no classes and no masses….To speak of love for humanity is meaningless. There is no such thing as humanity. What we call humanity has a name, was born, lives on a street, gets hungry, needs all the particular things that we need…. There can be no love apart from suffering. Love demands that we expose ourselves at our most vulnerable point by keeping the heart open.
It matters not whether we are inside the tent, obedient, or outside, in rebellion. God’s spirit can and will find us and open our hearts. But it is up to us to use that strength to keep the heart open and find ways to love in the particular, in the concrete.