Ars Praedicandi: Pentecost, Ed Foley

by Fr. Edward Foley, Capuchin

Educators and scientists,
entrepreneurs and parents,
doctors and spiritual directors,
all recognize the importance
of asking questions,
but especially of asking the right questions.

The ancient Greeks understood this in spades
and we inherited from them the so-called Socratic method:
a style of education rooted in questions
that prod us into discovering the underlying assumptions
of our positions and beliefs.

This questioning approach is not meant to intimidate
but to provoke “productive discomfort”
coaxing one into increasingly beneficial levels
of honesty and insight.

Some insist that certain explorations
benefit from specific and sophisticated questions
that only the specialist can ask.
However, there is also general wisdom afoot
that prizes questions posed by non-experts
who are happily naïve about what can or cannot be asked.

Sometimes the naïve question
is a first step towards fresh wisdom
and experts can inadvertently get in the way of that wisdom.

When it comes to questions about God or Jesus or the Spirit,
when it comes to questions about Pentecost or other feasts,
sometimes the experts get in the way.

So in my preparation for this morning’s preaching
I was gifted with an unexpected yet eye-opening conversation
with an imaginative 9-year-old
about the meaning of Pentecost.

I was staying with her family and had brought my laptop along
trying to find a fresh angle on preaching this feast
that I have preached at least 3 dozen times.

For her birthday a few weeks before
Samantha had gotten a small robotics kit
and was in the process of constructing a mechanical spider.

When she asked me what I was doing
and I told her I was trying to write a sermon for Pentecost.
She wasn’t sure what that was.

When she asked about it
I told her that it was a special day of thanking God
for sharing the Spirit of Jesus with us.

When I asked her if she knew about the Holy Spirit,
like any self-respecting 4th grader in Catholic School,
she said, “of course.”
She then went on to explain that the Spirit was God’s breath;
it was like oxygen
and that when we prayed we could breathe in God
that helped us to be good.

Then, this budding theologian looked at the mechanical spider
she had named Twitchy in the process of its construction.
She turned it on and as it awkwardly crawled around
she said “Twitchy doesn’t have breath.
He can move but has no oxygen.
He will never be able to breathe in God.”
Too bad she couldn’t be here this morning to preach!

The advice to “just breathe” is ubiquitous.
It is on t-shirts and mugs, placards and greeting cards.
It is woven into the instruction of everyone from yoga instructors
to emergency room personnel.
“Just breathe” has been the inspiration for everything from
self-help books and videos
to music by Pearle Jam.

The wisdom here is rooted in great science
that demonstrates how deep breathing
not only helps us relax but can positively effect
the heart, the brain, our digestive and immune systems
and even help people manage pain.

A number of years ago I was preparing to preside at a wedding.
The couple had been together for a number of years
but wanted their marriage blessed in the church.

A few months before the wedding
they discovered they were pregnant
and scheduled a sonogram.

They gave me the results in a sealed envelope
and wanted me to include the gender reveal
as part of the ceremony.

As I have never seen a sonogram up close
and had no idea how to interpret one
my anxiety was even higher than usual.

In the sacristy before the wedding
I needed to open this envelope
and see if I could decipher the results
so that this reveal moment wouldn’t be revealing
how dumb the presider was.

With a rapidly increasing pulse
I unsealed the envelope which held a single sheet of paper
with a smiley face and a message that read
“Just Breathe, IT’S A GIRL!”

Pentecost is ordinarily described
as a feast commemorating the 50th day after the resurrection
when God’s spirit descended upon the apostles
and the church was born.

That description is alternately true and problematic.
On the second Sunday of Easter, the gospel we read from John
reported that on the day of the resurrection itself
Jesus appeared to his disciples,
showed them his hands and feet,
breathed on them and said, “receive the Holy Spirit.”

Furthermore, it is a well-documented early Christian belief
that the church was born not on Pentecost
but on Good Friday when blood and water
flowed from the pierced heart of Christ.
So what exactly are we celebrating today?

In its Jewish origins, Pentecost was a harvest feast –
the harvest of wheat.
Eventually, that harvest was given a historical significance
recalling Moses’ harvesting of the Torah on Mt. Sinai.

In its Christian reformulation,
Pentecost became a harvesting of the New Law in Christ
to love God and neighbor as one
and a regifting of Divine Breath, of Holy Oxygen
so that Jesus’ disciples could “breathe in God and do good”
could exhale with God’s Spirit and continue Pentecosting.

Recently I was on one of those long flights
that gave me a few hours to get some writing done
but then left enough time in the trip
to turn on the flight entertainment.

While the viewing options were extensive
feature films seldom intrigue me
and instead I am drawn to the documentaries.
There I stumbled upon a Pentecost movie.

It is called Girl Rising and narrates the journey
of 9 girls around the globe
struggling for self-empowerment through education.

The film and the “Girl Rising” movement
were inspired by the story of Malala Yousafzai,
the young Pakistani activist for women’s education
who at 15 was shot in the head for her advocacy,
surviving to become the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize
and a graduate of Oxford University where she is now a fellow.

In the spirit of Malala,
Girl Rising is the remarkable tale of parallel stories
of 9 extraordinary young girls
struggling for education, liberation, and self-determination.

Like that of Wadley from Haiti
an eager and smart 10-year-old
who excelled in her studies.
One day she had successfully recited from memory
the final speech of the Haitian Leader Toussaint Louverture
who tried to win independence for the country.

Wadley’s triumph, however, was short-lived
for that afternoon, after school, at 4:53 p.m.
a magnitude 7 earthquake struck Haiti
killing or injuring half a million people
and affecting the lives of 7 times that number
including Wadley
whose school was destroyed,
whose mother’s house and business were decimated,
and who now spent her days carrying water
to their corner of a tent city
instead of being in school.

Then one day, a miracle occurred.
For on the edge of the tent city
a makeshift school arose.
Wadley went racing for her books and returned
to sit on a bench eager to learn from her old teacher
but the teacher would not let her stay
because her mother had no money.

She left rejected but the next day
returned to the tent school
determined to stay.
When her teacher told her to leave
because she could not pay
Wadley said over and over again, “no, no, no”
and in the revolutionary spirit of Toussaint Louverture
declared “If you send me away
I will come back every day until I can stay.”

The teacher relented, a tent-school filled with oxygen
a Spirit of Wisdom descended
and Wadley could breathe again.

I never thought of the gift of education as a Pentecost.
I was probably privileged with it too much.
But for Wadley, and Malala, and other girls’ rising
it was a liberating spirit, a holy oxygen
an inspired buoyancy that allowed them to rise,
to ascend, and in turn to do good.

We don’t have to look very far to see deflated spirits,
folk with shattered dreams,
and children with punctured aspirations.

But as disciples of Jesus
gifted with God’s own spirit at baptism, and again in confirmation
renewed at every eucharist
and uniquely celebrated on this dynamic feast,
we are commissioned to inflate, to aerate
and to oxygenate those spirits and dreams and aspirations
so others can do good as well.

In other words, we are anointed to keep Pentecosting
to facilitator new and continuing gusts of God
no matter how modest or unseen,
so that the Holy Spirit can renew the face of the earth.

On my last day with the young theologian Samantha and her family
we visited a small but lively neighborhood festival.
There we saw a young girl, about Samantha’s age
holding in front of her a huge pink balloon
easily twice her size.

Suddenly, a kid whizzed by on his bike
and with some unseen instrument
jabbed at the balloon which dramatically exploded.

The girl was at first stunned and then began to cry.
Samantha gave me a “do something” look
then took the cash I pulled from my pocket
walked across the street to the balloon vendor
and bought a duplicate miniature dirigible
which she delivered to her new friend:
smile restored
spirit inflated
oxygen rendered
Pentecost reenacted.

If the church ever had a “do something” feast, it is this one
a feast prodding us to allow God’s energizing Spirit
to flow through us, together, as God remakes a world
filled with too many deflated lives and punctured dreams.

And so we invoke the poet’s blessing and pray:

This is the blessing
we cannot speak
by ourselves.

This is the blessing
we cannot summon
by our own devices,
cannot shape
to our purpose,
cannot bend
to our will.

This is the blessing
that comes
when we leave behind
our aloneness
when we gather
when we turn
toward one another.

This is the blessing
that blazes among us
when we speak
the words
strange to our ears

when we finally listen
into the chaos

when [at last] we breathe together …

Through Christ our Lord. Amen.








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