Pentecost 2020

Pentecost – May 31, 2020 – Acts 2:1-21; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13; John 20:19-23 – STEM-Wide Morning Prayer (via Zoom)

You can watch/listen to me preach this sermon here.

As most of you know, I’ve been out for the past couple of weeks recuperating from a tonsillectomy. It was not pleasant, but it was necessary. I’m happy now to be restored to health, and to join the land of the living, such as it is.

Thank you for your well-wishes, your prayers, cards, and text messages. While post-operative pain is most unwelcome, your caring words served as constant reminders of this generous and thoughtful community, of which I am lucky to be a part.

While I was recovering, I had occasion to do lots of things.

First, of course, I had occasion to do some heavy sleeping, some painful swallowing, and some pretty serious scowling every time I was awakened to take my medication.

I also had the occasion to watch several episodes of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, to play games on the iPad, to read an old mystery novel or two, and, yes, to say my prayers.

But, finally, I had the chance to do some thinking.

It wasn’t necessarily the kind of deep thinking intended to result in profound insights. It was rather the sort of meandering thought process that stems from a casual observation here, an unexpected noticing there.

This is the kind of train of thought that you don’t even know you’ve had until you arrive somewhere. It’s the mental equivalent to getting lost in a random internet rabbit hole.

Have you ever Googled something and ended up somewhere completely different? If you’re anything like me, after searching for, say, the song “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” you inevitably end up on Judy Garland’s Wikipedia page.

Before you know it, somehow, you’re reading about Mickey Rooney, Ethel Kennedy and the 1968 presidential election, having traversed some internet maze that could never be replicated. I digress.

As I said, circuitous though it may have been, I had the chance to do some thinking.

Most of it occurred as I sat at home on a loveseat by a large picture window. It was there that a pair of cardinals would visit me each day. They would land on the air-conditioning unit just outside.

The male would walk along the unit’s surface, chewing up small leaves and chirping at the ground below. Not long after he arrived, a female would join him, singing her own unique version of their song.

As I watched them, I remembered learning that cardinals mate for life, and so I couldn’t help but think of them as husband and wife, even though I know that no such categories exist in the animal kingdom.

Nevertheless, I began to wonder more about them. How do cardinals meet anyway? Where exactly is their nest? Perhaps their daily jaunts to my air conditioner are the equivalent of the daily walks that so many of us are taking as we shelter at home.

Needless to say, I grew accustomed to their stopping by. It was by no means like clockwork, but it did happen with stunning regularity.

These cardinals weren’t the only things I thought about. As it happens, when you sit for hours on end, sometimes anxieties creep into your mind, both personal and societal.

My lease, for instance, which the landlord has failed to renew—or terminate—is now three months past the deadline. I sure hope I have a place to live!

I also thought about the University of the South, at which I teach, in this season of transition and uncertainty. What will new leadership bring? Will my students be able to return in person? Will life as I know it be virtual until the end of the year?

I thought about my sister, Leslie, who has been mandated to return to work along with a host of other employees. Will she be able to stay safe?

I thought about my sister, Erika, who is not mandated to return to work, and remains at home all day long, with a full-time job, a toddler, and—perhaps scariest of all—a husband.

Once my renewal notice came, and after I’d had some conversations with friends and family, I began to worry about other things. Some might even call them more important things.

Has the racism so long accepted in this country finally reached a tipping point? How many more of God’s children must die in order to secure equality, not simply under the law, but in our hearts of minds?

It’s amazing how anxieties seem never to be in short supply, especially when the mind is left to wander.

But, what’s even more amazing, I would venture to say, even amidst life’s anxieties, is the calming effect of those visiting cardinals.

A funny thing happened as a sat by the window, hour after hour, greeting the cardinals when they came. I realized that their presence was not only their own, but it was, in fact, the very presence of God.

Here is God, I trained myself to think, as the cardinals came by each day. Here is God, checking in, showing himself, reminding me, as I soothe my throat and hug my stomach, that I am not alone.

I already knew that, of course. I have a loving spouse, several dear friends, and, as I mentioned before, all of you.

But there is something about the presence of God that charms our fears, our earthly anxieties, like nothing else can. And somedays there is nothing like a couple of brilliant red birds to give you a sense of just what that presence means.

You see, life is more than the thoughts in your head. Life is, in fact, more than you.

Life is the Word that was in the beginning, before the beginning. Life is the Father, who ordained the sun to rule the day. Life is the Holy Spirit, given to us on this day, on Pentecost, so that we might be agents of God’s grace in the world.

And Life is a cardinal, singing its sweet song on a dormant air conditioner.

There are many other things that might call to mind God’s Spirit among us. Perhaps you have seen it in the flames rising from Minneapolis or Nashville. Perhaps you have glimpsed it in the tear gas wafting over Kansas City and Philadelphia.

Perhaps you have heard it on the tongues of those who mourn the dead. Perhaps you have glimpsed it in the fiery tail of the rocket ship as it takes to flight.

But so long as we’re speaking of birds, it’s worth mentioning that the dove is the bird we ordinarily think of as a sign of the Spirit, and for good reason. It is a dove that descends on Jesus after his baptism in the Jordan river, and a dove brings an olive branch to Noah after the Flood.

But today, Pentecost 2020, perhaps a cardinal will do. After all, its wings are indeed like flames, tongues of fire all their own, alighting in the fullness of spring.

Yes, I think we would all do well to notice the cardinals. And when we do, to sit with them a little while. They just might bring us news that will change our lives forever.

God is here. His Spirit is with us. And it will never, ever go away.

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